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
Leave a Reply.
Wendy Fehr is a Classical Dressage trainer living in southern Oregon. She has been riding and training for over 25 years and loves learning and sharing her ideas on horses and riding!