Horses have taught me sooo many things. And I keep learning, every day. More about myself, more about them and how to work with them, and more about life's principles and the things that work (or not) in relationships in general. The specifics are even more rare and exciting jewels when they are discovered. And you only find them in a partnership that has been given a lot of time and attention. Not for the casual observer, that is.
Let me start by telling you about my "newest", Big Bird, who is an OTTB (or "Off the Track Thoroughbred", meaning a Thoroughbred horse who has been raced) has been with me nearly a year, since January. He is a huge horse, standing at 17.3 hands (71 inches at the withers) and nearly 1,700lbs. I have worked with OTTB's and Thoroughbreds in general and it truly is a love/hate relationship, because they are temperamentally very hot and excitable, adding that to the sometimes traumatized state they come with after their life at the track. They are full of adrenaline, which sometimes leads to a lot of anxiety and panic, competitive but sometimes spastic, smart but often hyper-sensitive and hyperactive, and extremely athletic. They are the hot bloods of the horse world. I haven't always loved TB's. I've admired their qualities, sure, but I don't always love the amount of work and talent it takes to truly work with one effectively. Every horse, no matter what type, has it's difficulties as well as it's abilities, and it's just kinda your choice as to what you want to love and what you are willing to put up with. So, at a distance I've always kept these horses, because their "hotness" drove me nuts.
However, I think over the years as I've gained skills and abilities, (and yes, deepened perspectives and understanding) I've found them to be more of a challenge and less of a pain. And when I got Big Bird, not only was he hotter than snot and all the qualities that belong to the Thoroughbred department, he had also spent nearly 8 years on a race track and boy did he have a lot of baggage from that.
I saw him for the first time in person and I didn't think he was particularly impressive until I stood next to him. Out in the pasture his proportions don't strike you as huge until you stand next to him. I am 5'6" and I cannot see over the top of his back, barely if I stand on tip toes. He has the longest legs of any horse I've ever seen. His body is not particularly thick and massive, (another trait of TB's, they are usually sleeker and more refined) but those legs of his go on forever. I watched him move and even though I could see the blaring stiffness and obvious lack of condition he was in at the time, I saw deeper into the pure athleticism in his movement, so I said I'd take him.
I don't think my heart was really ready to open up to and truly love another horse after the passing of the former love of my life and soul mate almost three years ago. And it certainly wasn't like I "needed" another horse, I already owned three, he made four. But in the first few months of dealing constantly with all the ugly blackness, massive anxiety and traumatized state that he was in, having to pour sweat, blood and tears into this horse helped me slowly open my heart up. I will talk more in depth about this whole process later. It grieved me to no end because I wanted to help heal his heart, his emotions and his body. Yet he resisted and fought, and with everything that was in him, he clung to his safeguards and his skills at keeping anyone or anything from getting too close to that very soft, very vulnerable areas of his heart.
Imagine all that power and pure might that a racehorse puts out on the track... now imagine all that power and might being used to keep you far, far away from those precious, sensitive areas. It's intimidating. He was not a violent or aggressive horse, but since he trusted no one but himself, his anxiety would rise whenever he was worked with or ridden, and the anxiety would build and build until he was in a full blown spastic panic attack, and no matter what I tried to do, or "knew" to do, it didn't work and he would never just relax and calm. Riding a horse means having to develop a relationship, and he wanted nothing to do with it. Even when there were the smallest moments of relaxation, if I dared praise him or reach out to encourage him, he would drop a behavioral bomb as if to threaten me not to reach out to him again. He literally stiffened his body to my touches, I could not hug him or kiss his face, and when riding him, if I would pet him or stroke his neck, he would try to dump me or run off with me, his body as tense and taught as a tightrope and his mind and emotions frazzled, crazed and fried. It was exhausting. I was making no progress, none, whatsoever.
Over the course of the first few months, he had dumped me at one point where I had landed flat on my back from his towering height and at nearly a gallop so that I couldn't move for two days and couldn't ride for two weeks more. We went back to longing for a few more weeks while I waited on my back to heal. He had bitten me in the face when I had tried to kiss his nose one afternoon. He broke three brand new halters, and tore down an entire tie rail, so then I bought him a breakaway halter so that all I would have to replace were the leather straps instead of the whole dang thing, knowing that it would probably happen again during this transitional and emotional time. I had had my hands burned from the longeline many times in the beginning months before I started to ride him, and after I began riding him, I had soft tissue injuries in my neck from the whiplash effect of him bolting forwards every time he got spooked or panicked over something.
No matter how frenzied or anxious he was, I never raised my voice, used strong aids, never did anything other than just praise him for anything good I could find. I literally had stomach issues (er, diarrhea) the first few months of riding him because he scared the crap out of me, no pun intended, with how huge and unstable emotionally he was, the adrenaline constantly flooding my system made me feel nauseous after I would get off. I had to leave all emotions, minus praise, behind, and set my expectations at zero when I showed up for work with him. Easier said than done.
Being the largest horse in my barn, riding from that high off the ground simply made me aware of how faaaaarrrr a fall would be from him, so in order to try to keep myself as relaxed as possible (so as not to add to his nervousness) I had to visualize myself riding a pony, and stick that image in my head and keep it there until my senses became accustomed to seeing things from that high up. My skin would feel flashes of tingling and cold sweat whenever we were working and he would do something sort of well, I'd reach down to pet him and I knew he was going to tense up and lunge forwards to try to launch me. But I had to praise him, he needed it even though he didn't want it.
You can imagine how I was thanking God for every stinking, rotten horse that I'd ever worked with over the course of my career that taught me skills like a deep, secure seat, strong legs, and soft, consistent hands that I was employing the use of on every ride on Big Bird, and then some. I was barely, and I mean barely, the skilled-enough rider to work with this horse. I knew very keenly before every ride, that if I misjudged one move or I made one wrong call or had one unbalanced movement, that a fall from him would hurt, and hurt bad. He was quite willing to take advantage of any inconsistencies he found in my riding abilities. Yet, through all of this I knew he was just so damaged and my heart just ached for him, but he just did everything in his might and power to keep me out of his life, even though I knew behind all this was a very starving heart that wanted to be nourished. And quite literally, somedays, knowing that was the only thing I could cling to and hold on for.
The timing of getting him and working with him was interesting, though, because at the same time James and I were also going through a class, required by the state, to learn how to parent the unique needs of an adopted child. James and I, someday, wish to add to our family through adoption. As we sat in class for the next 10 weeks and learned about these children who have been through trauma and how it rears its ugly head with behaviors and symptoms and lack of ability to attach, (and on and on the list goes) I found myself applying these principles of parenting to this horse as we learned them. Trauma doesn't necessarily just mean physical abuse. It can be neglect or emotional abuse, too, or anything the victim perceives as traumatizing, which varies from one to another. Some horses love to race and love the racing atmosphere. I had a pretty good feeling that Big Bird did not. Although the application of these parenting skills while I rode didn't necessarily change the way he behaved immediately, if at all, it gave me a deepened and more empathetic understanding of how he was acting out because of the pain inside of him. I began to feel his pain and identify with it in areas in my own life. I found myself feeling strengthened in my resolve and commitment to him, and my prayer life was definitely deepened as while I rode, I prayed for my future adopted child and my ability to parent him or her, which practicing these principles on this horse. Even though to the outside viewer there was little progress to be seen, the seeds of hope were definitely planted, and even after days, weeks and months of getting beat the crap up by this horse, my soul was strong and I found myself more confident with him as each day I tried yet again.
Then one night while out on a date with James, we were at a bookstore and I picked up a human psychology book about panic disorders and anxiety attacks. And what I learned just by that hour of flipping through that book completely inspired the course of my work with him. I learned that when in the event of an actual anxiety attack (which is brought about by trauma, whether emotional of physical) the "chatter" in his mind is so loud and so frenzied, the mind is not able to sort out the real from the irrational. So, when in that state, he could not productively learn, anything. The principle was, "the neurons that fire together, wire together." In Big Bird's past, the very effect of a human on his back brought about nervousness and anxiety to a great extent. So regardless of my desires to help calm and soothe him, the very essence of my weight on his back launched a neurological response that he literally couldn't control, being so ingrained as it was. (Person on my back = anxiety.) I had to help re-wire his brain, so that the pleasure/calming/soothing sensors were the ones that fired when I put my foot in the stirrup. (Person on my back = enjoyment/relationship.) But how?
So still I was puzzled because there was just nothing the horse loved. Verbally praising him had negative effects. Touching his body even with the softest, most tender strokes made him rigid and tense. He didn't even love treats. The only time he was semi-calm was when he was in his stall with no one messing with him. To be completely fair, I had seen some minor progress, because when I first got him he would even start to sweat and get anxious when I groomed him, and at this point in the game I could groom him and have him stay relaxed. The first time I turned on a pair of clippers, he shot backwards, broke his halter and ran out of the barn. Now, I could clip him without much trouble. Sometimes, I could even get him tacked up without soliciting an anxious response and there were a few, very sporadic days when I could take him out on the longe line and have him stay at a walk, albeit a fast one, for several minutes. But still, when I was on his back, he was was tense and unhappy, rigid and very anxious. There had to be SOMETHING he loved.
So I stumbled across it, or maybe somehow just connected the dots. He loved carrots. Duh, doesn't every horse? Yes, I would guess most horses do, but out of an ever-growing list of things he completely rejected, it was the only thing he would eat from my hand and after I worked with him I usually gave him one or two, which he would happily eat. I knew it was a stretch and that I was groping for straws, but literally it was the only thing that caused him to connect to a happy feeling. So on my very next ride, I literally loaded my pockets and waistband with carrots, even stuffing a large one down each half chap. So I mounted him in the barn, and before he was able to move off, I immediately reached forward and showed him a carrot out of the corner of his eye, keeping the reins short in my other hand. He startled for a moment but with some surprise, instead of annoyance, he reached his neck around and took the carrot piece from my hand. And his feet did not move! You have to realize that for months of being in hand and under saddle, his feet were constantly moving, and when he was required to stay stationary for any period of time, some other part of his body was wringing with the adrenaline coursing through his veins. So he gladly munched the carrot, and when he walked forwards nicely out of the barn, I whoaed him and gave him another one, rotating sides so that he would have to bend his neck in both directions, also in an effort to help stretch and limber his stiff back. It was hanging by a thread and noticeable only under a microscope, but I had the more relaxed and productive ride I'd had on him in literally 6 months.
So I kept up with the carrot thing for weeks, and comparatively speaking, we grew in leaps and bounds. I associated the carrot with even me petting him or praising him. If he accepted my hands rubbing his neck or my verbal, "good boys!" without stiffening or bracing, he got another carrot piece. It literally worked. He bloomed. He would do something well, he'd hear the "snap" of me biting off a carrot piece with my teeth, and he'd practically stop himself and turn around to wait for me to get it to his mouth. I loved it. He was so cute because he was actually asking me for the affirmation that he knew he could receive. And the happy neurons began to wire with the association of me riding him, we really did have a lot of fun with this. After several weeks of the carrots, I stopped using them during the ride because he no longer needed them, he had begun to respond to my verbal praise or physical affection, and he had developed the ability to come "down" off an anxious "up" without me having to get off. To be sure, we still had a lot of anxious "ups" throughout the ride, but never before had he been able to work through them with any kind of logic or rationale, he always just escalated and escalated until he was out of control and was worked up into a white hot frenzy. The carrots had kept him from going over the edge, and now he could spook and get rattled, and then with a few simple leg yields and some verbal affirmation, he could work his way back down into the low-headed sigh of contentedness. That is, until the next episode, but even those began to become fewer and farther apart.
Once he could relax under me, he could also start to hear and listen to what I was saying and then his attention would be on me instead of on all the 'monsters'. And it compounded; the more he could listen, the more he could relax, the more he could relax, the more peace he would feel, and the more peace he would feel, the more he really liked that feeling and wanted to go there again!
So, now at almost 11 months, I am having the best time on him I've ever had. Not only does he enjoy going out for a ride, we are even able to connect "brain to brain" for several consecutive minutes, where we both can enjoy the sensation of tuning everything out around us and just having a two-way conversation about where we're going to go and how we're going to get there. The conversation is, granted, very simple, but he is extremely bright and oh my gosh so smart. He feels happy when we're out, he is very keen on finding the things that please me and he is very excited about life. Instead of nervous, frenzied movements, he is energetic and eager. We still can only really walk and trot, but last week we did get the canter twice, which was reasonably controlled and he quickly came down to a relaxed and cadenced trot. There are things that still spook him, but for the most part, only his skin jumps instead of his whole body. I can relax on his back, (for real!), give him the long rein to the buckle and he will walk calmly, with good energy instead of frantic energy. He has a monster overstride, one afternoon I measured 11 inches between prints, which none of my other horses are nearly capable of, the *best* I've gotten before was barely 7 or 8. Once, he even experimented with being lazy, which I nearly welcomed! Sometimes he'll sniff the ground or check out the surroundings, and I always affirm the relaxation I find, regardless of the form it presents itself in. We have plenty of time left for the fine tuning, nobody is in any hurry here!
I really enjoy him, my problem child as he is, because it's always been inside of me to love the unlovable and breathe life into the things that anyone else might leave for dead. Plus he's just huge and gorgeous. That's always a plus. ;)
Speaking of gorgeous, this past Sunday we had a SDCTA schooling show at Keystone Sporthorse Center in Odessa. The barn and facilities were simply fantastic. Magdalene showed Gallery in all three of the Intro tests and stayed consistent with her scoring, not only winning yet another Grand Championship in her class, but also winning high point rider of the entire day. As I watched the other kids and their horses, I should be clear that I was not in any way feeling critical or judgmental of their lack of skill or ability, but I did really embrace the realization with pride that I had the most highly skilled jyr rider there, as well as a young horse who exemplified very correct and thorough training. Gallery is a real gem who is a total girl but with a gigantic, contented heart, and she just loves to please. Also, a lady friend of the Valido's who had come for the day to watch the show, mentioned to Magdalene that with all of the other riders, she found herself either watching the rider or the horse, but with Magdalene, she found herself watching them together as an entire picture. What a fantastic compliment! So for just the day at least, I got to feel like a big fish in a little pond. And it was a good feeling. :)