Patience is an aid

A horse came into my care this fall that was defensive, angry, and in pain. The well meaning and caring owner had rescued him from an unfortunate situation, and then turned him out to pasture for several years for pressing personal reasons. Upon return we realized not only had some of both the mental and physical issues he had pre-turnout not resolved, but multiplied. Like the incredible majority of horses, he wasn't mean, malicious, or "bad," he had just learned to protect himself and came into every situation on the back foot. I explained to the owner that we had a long, uphill battle, but I was willing to try if she was. She agreed to whatever he needed, and we set about trying to earn his trust. 

Already in his mid-teens, he danced in the cross ties, would occassionally stand up and strike while being led, turn his rear to you when trying to enter the stall, and more. He wouldn't let the vet near him at first to try and treat him, and we resorted to a lip chain in order to tranquilize him. I soon learned however, that with enough patience you could get the horse to do almost anything. When he reacted to the vet, I would go in and stand with him and he would eventually relax and I could handle him. If he reared up while being led, I could stand with him spinning in circles for a few minutes and he would calm down. True, the adrenaline would run out of his system, but at the same time he learned that I wouldn't react against him--in fact, I wouldn't react at all. I was using my patience as an aid; an aid to diffuse his reaction and earn his trust. After two months, I could groom him in his stall and he would wuffle my back gently with his lips when I ducked under his neck. 

As we put him back to work, we found several soundness issues that needed dealing with, and the time off and multiple issues faced us with a lot of setbacks, which was frustrating and made it hard to see the possibility that after all of the time, effort, and cost, he would become truly rideable for the owner. Anytime he was in pain he would resent the work, and act out. He was never dramatically dangerous, but he made it clear he was not playing unless he felt fine; I had to respect how clear he was with us. The vet came back and took out the chain, and instead I said to just hold him and wait--low and behold, we could treat him without much fuss at all. He was starting to realize every time we did something, he felt better and better. When he acted out in any way, we backed off and gave him space to breathe, and when we came back he was more willing and more open. 

Yesterday, for the first time since arriving, that horse jumped around a small course of jumps with me, and he was an absolute gentleman.  I raised the jumps slightly and did it again, and he was eager, willing, kind, and responsive. He waited for my cues, and responded. On the ground, in the stall, and in the saddle I used patience, and he responded, with enough time, with trust and patience of his own. He now stands perfectly in the cross ties, he's excellent to lead, and he meets us at the stall door with ears up and a nicker. I could not be more proud of him, what he has overcome, and how much he has learned to trust. 

This post would be incomplete without mentioning the extreme patience of his owner, who was willing to wait, trust, and take a chance on him for months just to make him feel better even if she could never ride him. I know he's grateful, and I'm excited to see how he shows it going forward. 

Growing confidence and empathy with horses

Confidence is one of the greatest strengths in riding, both on the ground with horses and on their backs. Learning to ride and care for an animal that weighs over a thousand pounds can be daunting at first, but like anything, the more familiar one becomes with it, the easier it is. I think even as adults, the confidence to navigate a task in partnership with a flight animal can give us a boost of confidence that can be applied to all aspects of our life. This is most obvious however, in children. 

There is a five year old girl who comes for lessons, an only child whose parents love very much, and want her to be as happy as possible. They are very caring parents, but offer to help anytime she has trouble with anything. Each time she lessons, I ask she help as much as she can with grooming, tacking, and untacking her pony. This began with her insisting she couldn't do many of the things I asked of her, with her parents backing up this thinking by telling me she had trouble with this or that, or offering to jump in and help. She had particular trouble removing the safety snap cross ties from the halter. Each time, I would explain, demonstrate, and then wait as she struggled to remove the snap. Each time I would tell her, "you're strong enough to do this. Pull down on just the part with the arrow." Week after week, she would get it sooner and more easily than the last, until last week she came, and as her mother jumped in to help, she stopped her and said, "Mom, I'm strong enough. I can do it," and removed the safety snap on the first try, turning to me with a huge grin. 

There are many ways to raise strong, empowered, empathetic children, and to nurture and grow those qualities in adults. Horseback riding is certainly one of those ways. Horses require hard work. They require dedication. They teach us to be strong, and when we get too strong, they teach us to be humble. They teach us to communicate with others who may not speak the same language, or may not speak at all. They teach us to care and advocate for those who do not have a voice. To consider how our actions affect something else. They teach us that we are capable of incredible things if we put our minds and muscles to the task. They teach us that the more time and love you pour into something, the more you get back. A young girl learned this week that she could do more than she imagined, and thats pretty incredible for her. To be honest, it was pretty incredible for me.