I stood beside him holding the 30 pound, roughout saddle. I kept checking in with myself, making sure I wasn’t holding my breath or holding any tension in my body as I patiently waited. He stood next to me, the saddle pad resting on his bay colored back, head slowly lowering, deep chocolate colored eyes getting sleepy looking, velvety muzzle twitching slightly. As I had lifted the saddle to place it gently on his back, I had observed the tension rise up through his neck, his lips tightened and the life behind his eyes dimmed a bit, as if he were bracing and disassociating from what he expected to experience in that moment. I immediately backed off, removing the pressure of the saddle moving towards his back and honored the threshold he’d shown. And I stood waiting, holding space for him as he sorted things out, processing the work we were doing. Slowly, I began to see life flicker behind his eyes again, as if he were checking back in, he turned his head my direction and began licking and chewing. I smiled, “Let it all go big guy. . . release all that pent up junk. You’re safe, you’re respected and you’re very much loved. You dictate this time line.” As if on cue, he let out a huge sigh.
Untethering horse hearts is something I’ve been doing since I was a young child. I worked with the horses no one else wanted to, you know, the ones that were labeled, in some way, negatively. I didn’t realize then that what I was doing was untethering their hearts and shifting their perspective, their expectations of how interacting with humans was supposed to go. What I was aware of was, the horse that once had a bad reputation, was soon the one people wanted to ride. I’d lose my mount and begin all over again with the next horse that needed a shift in their perspective. I don’t remember caring much which horse I was interacting with, I just wanted to be around horses no matter their breed, training or color! I suppose that’s still fairly true today 🙂
I stood in the middle of the round corral repeating the same motion, gently swinging the saddle and acutely observing if there was any tension in his body. He remained engaged with me and so I set the saddle on his back as if I were wrapping him in a big hug. And I waited . . . . . I joke about not knowing what it’s like to ride a finished, well broke horse and that’s half true. I’ve ridden them, shown and competed on them however they’ve been very few and very far between. The horses in my wheel house are the misfits, the outlaws and outcasts, you know, those horses that breathe fire, scorching people first and asking questions later. If they are pissed at the world, they find their way to me. If they are shut down, they find their way to me. If they are broken, they – find – their – way – to – me.
I watched the beautiful bay gelding as he began to relax, his head lowering again, eyes getting that dreamy look, leg cocked, rich ebony colored tail slowly twitching at the fly trying to land on his side and then he blew out a long, deep breath. I reached up and lifted the saddle and saddle pad from his back. He licked and chewed turning toward me as I watched a yawn begin to work it’s way from the tippy top of his cute little ears all the way down until he could no longer mask it and his mouth opened wide. “Huge releases there handsome. Thank you.” I said quietly as he continued in succession to yawn repeatedly. I smiled at him, “Thank you for working with me on this.”
Restarting isn’t for the faint of heart. I love starting young horses. I get the opportunity to be part of a long list of their firsts – first saddling, first rides, first adventures away from home, etc. I get to set the stage for them, committed to ensuring that all of those first time experiences are good ones, the kind that build the horse’s confidence, sense of safety and security. I am the one to lay a strong, solid foundation for them to use the rest of their days and that’s not something I take lightly. Restarting a horse, on the other hand, can be a very grueling, exhausting process. It involves taking a horse all the way back in their training to that place where they were first introduced to things like saddling, and resetting their expectations and responses to that stimuli. I am pretty slow to throw the, ‘That horse has been abused’, card. It’s not abuse. It’s a lack of awareness and therefore a lack of properly assessing where the horse is at throughout the training process, i.e. rushing them. No, it’s not abuse rather is rushed, hurried along and something people do to horses, not with them.
The process of restarting, can be, to the untrained eye, a lot like watching paint dry on a humid day! I’m watching the horse for the subtlest of feedback that tells me if there is tension, worry, concern or any other form of resistance in their past experience. When I pick up on that resistance, I retreat. That resistance is a threshold, a place where, for the horse, and for people, if we go blowing through it (usually because we’re unaware it’s present), we add to the friction and tension that exits. When we gain awareness that there is a threshold and honor it by backing off, taking the pressure that’s being applied and retreating a bit, we’re showing respect for where that horse or human is at.
I can’t help but think about how similar restarting horses is to coaching humans. Humans show up with defenses and strategies that, up to the point of our meeting, are in place for good reason. There are thresholds that come up along the way and as long as I am respectful of those thresholds, honoring that they are there, moving closer and staying longer, holding space as the client processes through the work, their perspective shifts toward more positive outcomes and interactions.
As I set the saddle down on the red, hard plastic mounting block, I felt his breath on the back of my neck, tangling my hair a bit. “Hi.” I softly said as I slowly turned toward him. He inspected the saddle and pad. I stroked his sleek, muscular neck. “You did well sweet boy. I promise this will continue to look very different for you.” I slipped the halter back on his head, snapped a line to it and we ambled across the round corral through the beachy sand toward the gate.
“You are powerful, beautiful, brilliant & brave” ❤