Quinns Story. Learning To Heal Horses
Quinn came to me a few days after my mare Cajun passed away very suddenly from a suspected aneurysm. I was heartbroken, my plans had been to show Cajun that year at 2nd level after finally breaking through her tension in the show ring. We had had an amazing show season at 1st level the year before and I was excited to see what a new year would bring us. That was all gone now, and my only horse was Royal fresh off the track, so it was going to be a bit of a journey.
Enter Quinn. A well meaning friend surprised me, dropping him off at the barn I worked out of. He was a big, rangy, well built bay OTTB , 14 years old (I was told) with a beautiful old school head and a graceful way of going. I knew him from one of the farms I worked at, and he seemed very promising. I was grateful as it took my attention off of losing my mare and my grief over the loss of my dream.
Before I even started working with him I heard some stories that I took notice of, both from his owner and some of the boarders of the barn he came from. I was told he was a bit ‘sensitive’ and being a little too much for his owner to handle they had a local gal ride him. Apparently there were draw reins involved and a gag bit (this rider did a lot of polo) and it ended in disaster with Quinn launching her off and through a fence breaking her collar bone. Shortly after that Quinn was sent to a jumping barn, but lasted only a month or so before being sent home with not a lot of explanation- at least none I heard.
So Quinn was traumatized. And it showed from the first day I brought him into the barn. He was terrified to even go into the barn, and once in he had instant explosive diarrhea. When I clipped him into the cross ties he immediately pulled back, breaking his halter. I remember watching him stand there in the aftermath of this explosion shaking like a leaf, and thought ‘this is deep’. Our first ride was a mess. Even on the lunge he was bolting and anxious. Under saddle he panicked, he would invert and bolt, spooking and terrified. If I tried to connect with him in anyway he would flick his head in a spastic motion, as he tried to run. I got off and stood looking at his wild face and thought ‘Great. This is gonna take a while’ At the time I was taking occasional lessons from a local lady who I asked to come to evaluate him for me. She watched me ride and shouted instructions, wanting him to be long and low. Don’t touch the reins, forward forward FORWARD!! But Quinn knew how to run, and letting him stretch forward was a suicide mission. He would bolt and spook and I was just along for the ride. That was, I believe, the last lesson I took from her when I realized she didn’t know at all what to do. She was treating him like every other horse and it wasn’t really helping or getting to the heart of the issue.
So what did I do? I knew the stuff I was doing wasn't working. I was a good rider, a soft rider, but what I was doing wasn’t actually changing Quinns reactions, it wasn't getting rid of his anxiety. He had had a few little improvements, but basically everything was still triggering him. He was just staying with me a little longer before he panicked because I wasn’t quite as bad as the previous riders. But the anxiety, the triggers were still there, just a little more hidden. They were waiting for one thing to change, we were still white knuckling it. We hadn’t fixed the underlying problems.
Go Back To Go Forward
So I knew the damage, the trauma was still there. Quinn was surviving with me, yes it was a little better than previously, but it was NOT GONE. I decided I needed to use the tools I used with Cajun as well as some other ideas from classical trainers who had gone before me. I needed Quinns brain and body to connect. Quinn's reaction to stress, or really to daily life was to be in fight or flight all the time. He was constantly tight, worried or guarded. He was waiting for bad things to happen, braced in his whole body. I needed to teach him to release the tension, how to deal with things that triggered him before I ever even rode him. So I started on the ground.
We started simple, just standing together in relaxation. I still do this to this day with all the horses I work with, and I did it with my previous horses but this technique was especially crucial to Quinn. He was big and when triggered he would raise his head and bolt forward. So my technique is this; I would stand beside him and very gently put one hand on his pole (just behind his ears) and one hand on the nose part of the halter. I would apply VERY GENTLE pressure to these areas while I stand beside him with my eyes closed breathing deeply and slowly. I didn't increase the pressure if he resisted, I would actually release it slightly and then add it back slowly again. I waited for him to soften- to blink his eyes slowly, to chew or yawn, and/or to gently soften his neck and slightly lower his head and neck. I would immediately release and even reward this release with a treat.
I did this until he was searching for it. Tense and anxious horses WANT to relax, they want to be calm and soft. But they can’t find it because the trauma has blocked it. They are often locked in flight mode. This softening of their muscles, the release of the tension in their neck and pole, brings them such a sense of calm. It triggers their relaxation muscles, the ones they use when they are out grazing and snoozing in the sun. It's the top line muscles we want to activate, shutting off the under neck muscles that are defensive and bracing- the flight muscles. Horses will begin to search for this feeling, they will associate it with the calm and soft human beside them who's gently activating the sense of peace. All this must be done without any force, or impatience. You must be extremely calm and peaceful so the horse associates you with that feeling, so everything you do with them resonates calm and peace.
From there, once this reaction to the very gentle pressure was something he wanted and searched for, we would start walking. Anytime tension creeped in I would gently activate those muscles again, calmly, slowly, breathing deeply, talking quietly to encourage and steady them. If he stayed steady and calm and loose I would put my hand on his side and get him used to my hand being where my leg would be. If he tensed up at all I would simply ask him to relax his head and neck again and then try again. I was replacing one reaction with another one! Gradually my hand on his side (the girth area and farther back) would not only not trigger tension and panic, but now it would be part of the calming signal! I would do this at walk and trot, and I did it as long as it took to have a happy relaxed horse. Quinn did amazingly well. It took time, and repetition but he began to look to me as the one who helped bring this lovely calmness NOT the one who brought him tension. Everyone who handled him did this, even if they were leading him 10 feet! It began to change his reactions to the world.
From there I did it on the lunge. I could now focus on bend, and connection, his body was no longer blocked and he could use himself better. That created a spiral of positivity for Quinn, as his relaxed loose body allowed him to balance. He was no longer panicking because he felt unbalanced. The more balanced he felt the further he relaxed. He began to improve at a rapid rate. It was time to apply these things under saddle.
Stay Tuned For Part 2; The Ridden Work!
Pictured below Quinn
Comparison and Authenticity
It’s a cold (by Oregon standards) January morning, and I am once again sitting on my couch lost in thought. My horses are fed, stalls are cleaned and they are awaiting their turnout once the ground thaws. I have a couple sugar sensitive horses so turn out on frosty grass is a no-no. After playing with my dogs in the orchard and building a toasty fire in the fireplace I sat down and watched a few horse videos. I love seeing how different disciplines and different parts of the world do the horse thing. But while watching a video of a hunter rider showing in Florida and feeling like it was boring and the horses looked…. Well, dull, my mind started to drift.
First it went to yesterday, when a newer client stopped by to discuss her horse who is in training with me, and her plans for the future. She's fast becoming one of my favorite people to deal with, not only because she loves her horse and only wants what is best for him, but because whenever she comes we end up standing around petting horses and talking. But not just talking, we have these conversations that seem to go deep into who we are and what we believe, like we have known each other far longer than we in reality have. It made me wonder why I felt like it was so easy for us to talk so openly, especially considering I am generally an introvert and don’t open up to people very easily. Sure, we share many of the same ideals and beliefs, but even then, this openness went even beyond that. It hit me as I sat here going over the whole afternoon that it was because she was someone who felt very authentic to me. What you saw was what you got. She knew herself, she accepted it, and was very comfortable with it. And I feel like I have reached this point in my life where I am the same way. So our conversation felt very honest with no hidden agenda, which to me, at this time in our world, feels very rare. Especially in the horse world.
The thought hit me that this is one of the biggest issues in the horse community, maybe even the world at large. That we constantly compare, and this comparison makes us competitive and can lead to being unhappy with what we are doing. The horse world has always been competitive. We literally go to horse shows to compete against other riders, having a judge compare us to either each other or a standard for that discipline. But that seems to seep down to even how we ride and train and even choose our trainers/coaches. We compare show records, or successes and failures. We say ‘this trainer couldn’t get this horse to do this but now this new one can’ leaving out all the nuances that make every situation different. We compare our progress with someone else's, we compare our horses behavior to other horses. And because we do that, because we don't stand back and look at the whole situation, the huge big picture that needs to be weighed into our thought process, we become dissatisfied. That steals any joy we should be getting from our journey, and it makes us feel like what we are doing is not enough. Why am I inching forward rather than leaping forward like so and so? Over the years I have had clients who feel unsatisfied, despite my pointing out big progress, who hear my ‘give it time just wait’ but can’t accept it. Then maybe the horse gets sold, or they move on. And maybe they have success somewhere else or maybe not. That's not even the point. We forget that the journey with horses IS the destination!! It's not Grand Prix, it's not winning that ribbon! It's the journey with your horse, together, learning and growing and hopefully finding joy.
If we compare, and it causes us to feel dissatisfied we will struggle to be authentic. Because we aren't seeing reality, we aren’t seeing how far we have come and what we are learning. We are walking down a beautiful path angry because we ‘aren’t there yet!’ But really where is ‘there’? What if you eventually do get ‘there’ and it's not what you expected? What if you get to the level you want but your horse is miserable, full of ulcers or needing to be injected every 6 months? What if you are broke? What if you feel very triumphant while you receive your ribbon but then you look at Instagram and someone with a fancier horse scored higher than you? If you don't show, what if the other trainer you compare yourself to has more horses, a nicer barn, a bigger arena? What if you get it all, but are burnt out, tired and grumpy? What if you lose the joy? When we do all this comparing, we bury our authentic selves under a pile of ‘not good enoughs’ and then we can’t be our real selves, because it’s left feeling ‘not good enough’.
I have come to this place in the last couple years where I feel enough. NOT perfect!! I am still growing and learning. But enough as in, this is me. Much of this is written based on what I went through, the questions I asked myself before I came to this place. This is my training, my style of riding, my business and horse journey goals. If you like it, great, if not that's fine! We all have different paths to walk. But we need to walk it and enjoy the walk!! Because when we enjoy our journey I guarantee our horses will as well! They crave authenticity and peace, they want to enjoy their jobs! And if we are putting comparison aside and just enjoying our journey we will be more fair with our horses, not just ourselves.
I’m sitting on my couch wrapped up in a cozy blanket staring out the window at my very wet outdoor arena. It's another day of heavy gray skies and the winter rains Oregon is known for. My horses are inside, well mostly. They are in either their stalls/runs or their paddocks, my morning walk about in the dark finding my fields just too soaked for turnout. I hate leaving horses inside, I am a huge advocate of as much turnout and movement as possible, but this morning I had to admit defeat. The fields were just too wet, and who knows when they won’t be as the forecast for the next week is rain, rain, and more rain.
Oh I know. We NEED the rain. It's just rain, not snow, wind or a blizzard. It’s not -32 with windchill and feet of snow like I lived through every winter for many years in Canada. I get it. Trust me. But although I am only a small-time trainer, I am still a trainer who makes her living riding and teaching lessons, one who unfortunately does not have a covered arena. This wet weather has an impact not only on my riding schedule but on my income. So today I am feeling the winter blues, something I have been able to avoid up until now using some positive thinking and a little faith. Over Christmas it is easier to ignore the inability to ride, as we are busy preparing for the holiday and running around. My stepdaughter finally made it home despite multiple delays and canceled flights (and lost luggage) so I am taking this break as an opportunity to spend time with her and my husband.
I also see it as a much needed rest for my horses and myself. A time to heal and strengthen myself both physically and mentally, spending time reading some motivating horse books and watching tons of training videos. (this does sometimes backfire and leave me pacing the living room wishing I could go ride, but generally it helps keep me focused). My horses enjoy the break as well, although they seem a little confused. I still spend time with them although it entails more feeding treats, cuddling and grooming. That seems to satisfy most of them, although Greye, Ziggy and Kat (my most consistently worked) seem a little restless, wanting to do more. On days it's not pouring I play with them a little, but today was a complete rain out.
Knowing that they enjoy the contact with me and even miss working makes me feel good! Those three come running when called most days, and now seem to be waiting at the gates everytime I come out. Must be doing something right I guess!
This time off has also allowed me to think through my plans and goals for next year. I am still on the fence as to showing. This shift in my perception on showing has so freed me I hesitate to even consider it. I’ve come to a place where I so enjoy just training and playing with my horses, with no care in the world what level they are at. It’s not like previously I was showing every weekend or really driven to get ribbons. I have always been a reluctant show attender. But I felt the pressure as a coach and trainer that I was supposed to. How else would people know you were serious? Don’t you need ribbons/scores/awards to be considered a ‘real’ trainer? But after years of not loving what I was seeing in the show ring, years of getting ‘well trained/high level show horses’ that needed to be fixed (both mentally and physically) or re-trained because they lacked basics, I felt the desire to show at all basically die. I felt the need to turn away and find my own path. I wanted happy, light, soft, fluid moving horses. I didn’t care if they weren’t flashy or expressive enough. I wanted balance, cooperation and friendship. Can you do that and show? Possibly. Although I will say if you want to win I think you will have to compromise somewhere at least right now. Dressage seems much more focused on big flashy movements and less about the overall happiness of the horses participating in it. But that's just it. I don’t want to compromise. I have come to a place where I realized I didn’t want to play the game, I didn’t think the compromise was worth it. Push my horse into tension for what? A ribbon? A number on a paper? Hurt our friendship so I can feel like a winner? I wouldn’t do that to a person I loved, and I won’t do it with my horses who I also love deeply.
Maybe I am wrong, maybe it can be done. Maybe there are trainers out there far smarter than I am who can do it. Great! Maybe I will find my way there too eventually. For now this is my path and I have to say I am really enjoying it! Now, if it would just stop raining……