The voice on the phone sounded desperate. “I really want to bond with my horse” the caller said, “but I don’t think she likes me – let alone loves me. When I try to groom her, she threatens me with her teeth or hooves. I know I have to be the alpha, so I hit her when she tries to bite or kick. But that strategy seems to have backfired. Zara* is now even more anxious about grooming and saddling up.
“Zara is tense and difficult to ride as well. I’m working with a trainer who has a lot of experience with Arabians, but I don’t think she’s helping. She gave me a stronger bit to use, but that has only made Zara even more nervous when I ride her.
“What really breaks my heart is that Zara now walks away when she sees me coming. I want a close relationship with my horse but I don’t think it’s possible for Zara to connect with people. I’ve thought many times about selling her, but I’m afraid that she may end up with the wrong person or even at the killers. I don’t know what to do. Can you help?”
I sympathized with this horsewoman, whose name is Joan*. While I didn’t agree with her approach, I could sense that she was doing what she thought was best. So, after confirming that a veterinarian had recently performed a thorough examination to rule out a medical or dental condition that might be causing the mare’s behavior, I scheduled a visit to her ranch.
Upon my arrival, Joan led Zara to the grooming area in the barn aisle. The mare appeared grouchy, her ears back and her eyes hard. Joan shortened the blue crossties before she attached them to each side of Zara’s leather halter. I noticed that both Joan and Zara had shallow breathing. At times they even appeared to be holding their breath.
With a body brush tightly held in one hand and a dressage whip in the other, Joan approached her mare. Zara made several futile attempts to bite Joan, but the short ties didn’t allow her to reach her target. As Joan persevered with her brushing, the mare swung her hindquarters from side to side. “Other horses love to be groomed”, Joan said, “But not Zara. She hates it even though I’m using a super-soft brush”.
As Joan swept the brush across Zara’s back, the Arabian raised a threatening hind leg. Joan, having experienced this many times before, stayed safely out of reach. “I usually pop her with the whip when she does that, although it just makes her angrier”, Joan commented. “So I often only brush her front end and middle. That’s why her hindquarters are usually dirty”, she continued. “Let’s leave her a bit dirty”, I quickly interjected. After all I really wasn’t concerned with the mare’s cleanliness; I had just wanted to see Joan and Zara interact. And I had seen enough.
I asked Joan to bring her mare to an area on the ranch where they normally don’t spend time. This would make it easier for Zara to change her behavior, since she wouldn’t have negative associations with this new place.
As Joan led her beautiful bay Arabian into the shade of a large pepper tree, the mare’s muscles appeared excessively taut. Moving with shortened strides, Zara lacked the effortless elegance that is the hallmark of a comfortable, coordinated horse. My guess was that Zara’s muscles were sore as well as tight, which would at least partly explain why she disliked being handled and ridden – she probably anticipated more discomfort!
Because Zara lacked an obvious lameness, Joan hadn’t realized that her horse could be hurting. But I wasn’t surprised, since an excited mental state goes hand-in-hand with a tense physical state.
Joan noticed that I didn’t poke and prod Zara to assess her level of soreness. I explained that not only are such actions unnecessary, they would cause Zara more discomfort, increasing her defensiveness and mistrust of people. That’s not a good foundation for creating rapport! Quite the contrary, I wanted my relationship with Zara to be built on calmness and encouragement.
I asked Joan to hold Zara on a long lead line, rather than tie her, since I wanted the mare to feel that she was free to turn her head. I have found that many nervous or irritated horses settle down when they have some freedom. If they are confined by being tied short, they simply get more upset. One can’t blame them. On the other hand, the handlers must stay safe too, so I made sure that Joan and I could stay out of harm’s way if Zara attempted to bite or kick.
Since Joan, like most equestrians, habitually haltered, saddled and led Zara from the horse’s left side, I approached Zara from her right side. I was again using the power of novelty to help Zara experience human handling in a new way.
I put my hand lightly on Zara’s withers and she immediately pinned her ears. But then the Arabian softened, letting her guard down when she realized that I was just softly holding her withers. I have found that many horses with sore, tight muscles will allow contact with bony areas such as the withers, since skeletal contact is not as potentially painful to them as muscular contact.
Shifting my own weight back and forth while keeping my hand soft, I began to lightly rock Zara from side to side. Like a mother rocking a baby to sleep, the rhythmic oscillations worked their magic, interrupting Zara’s usual muscular tightening. Releasing the muscles could help Zara change both her emotional and physical states. And such a change would allow her to feel that she could experience life differently.
While the rocking movements were so small that they were hardly noticeable to the eye, the mare’s demeanor showed that they were having an effect. Zara’s eyes softened and the tension around her mouth and nose dissipated. While my left hand continued to rock Zara, I placed my right hand gently on the horse’s right shoulder.
Since Zara continued to be at ease with my touch, I gradually stopped the rocking movements and placed both hands on her shoulder muscles. At first my hands simply felt, or “listened” to her shoulder muscles. I gradually increased my pressure so that I gently supported the muscles, lifting them slightly upward. My intent was to relieve the stress and strain from Zara’s sore, overworked muscles as well as to enhance her body awareness. With my hands providing feedback, Zara could be reminded that she didn’t have to continually contract those muscles.
When I felt a change in Zara, such as softer muscle tone or a deep breath, I gradually released my hand pressure, careful not to abruptly abandon my support. I then moved my hands a few inches over and repeated the process. All the while, I observed Zara’s reactions. As long as she stayed calmly attentive, I would continue. But as soon as I recognized an increase in anxiety, be it shallow breathing, a tightening of her mouth, flattening of her ears or a swish of her tail, I would return to an area that I knew she was comfortable with.
I worked very slowly and began to alternate rocking her with lifting various muscles. Sometimes I did both together, using one hand to rock her, while the other hand gently lifted a muscle. This takes a bit of coordination! I also lifted and then gently rolled Zara’s forearm muscles, always feeling for the path of least resistance. After working with Zara’s front end on both the right and left sides, I worked my way backward. When I lifted her back muscles up toward her spine, she showed her pleasure with long, deep breaths. I was happy to feel Zara’s muscular tension give way under my hands.=
=Touching her hind end, however, was another matter entirely. Even with my most careful and discreet touching, Zara swished her tail and threatened to kick. Her ears flattened and some of her muscular tension returned. She was serious about not wanting me to touch her hind end. Joan took this time to mention that the farrier got kicked when he put his hand on Zara’s rump.=
I have no desire to get hurt. With this in mind, there were several options I could have chosen. And all of them would have been good options, as long as they allowed us all to stay safe.
One option was to return to working with Zara’s front end, until she relaxed again and I could end the session on that note. Another was to use a stiff dressage whip to gently stroke Zara’s hind end, reassuring her that being touched was okay, while staying out of harm’s way myself. I have used this approach many times with good results. But since Zara had bad experiences with whips, I chose not to use one, even in a friendly way.
Instead, I utilized something that I knew Zara was okay with, the feel of her own tail against her hind legs. I picked up her tail and gently swished it back and forth against her hind legs. The bay mare had no apparent reaction. If she would have threatened me again, I would have chosen another option. But since Zara seemed unconcerned by the feel of her tail, I continued slowly whisking it across her legs.
I started bringing my hand closer to her hindquarters, until my hand was pressing against her hind leg. Zara didn’t object. The difference was that this time I had a thick swatch of horse tail between my hand and Zara’s leg.
I have found that the secret to helping animals, especially very sensitive ones, is to work slowly and introduce things gradually. Little by little, I let go of some tail hairs. After many minutes, my hands were touching Zara’s hindquarters while her tail hung quietly.
As my hands lifted Zara’s tight hamstrings, the mare leaned into me, welcoming the support of her tired muscles. Zara obviously enjoyed this relief from her sore, tense state. The Arabian was content and Joan was ecstatic. She could hardly believe that I was touching her mare’s hindquarters!
I discreetly lightened my pressure and moved my left hand to the back of Zara’s pelvis on the right side, to a spot referred to as the “point of buttock”. I made a soft fist and placed it against this bony protuberance. My left forearm was parallel with the ground and my left elbow was bent. I stood slightly to the side, out of backward kicking range.
Leaning a bit with my entire body and keeping my arm free of tension, I lightly pushed, with a wave of movement going from Zara’s pelvis to her head and softly back again.
As I rocked Zara from tail to head, her muscles continued to release their habitual grip, and her head began to nod slightly. Joan said that she had never seen Zara so relaxed. Her nervous system had quieted considerably. As Zara and I rocked together, I kept reducing my effort, until I was doing practically nothing and Zara was virtually rocking herself. We had found our rhythm.
The mare, now accepting of my handling, showed no resistance when I moved to her left side and repeated the gentle oscillations from pelvis to head.
After giving the Arabian a moment to enjoy standing still in this relaxed state, I took the lead rope from Joan and began walking the mare. I wanted to be the one to walk Zara because I knew that I could stay soft and present, encouraging Zara to do the same. There would be no habitual tension in my hand holding the lead rope, as there probably would be with Joan, who was used to deflecting bites from her horse.
I also wanted Joan to observe how elegantly her mare walked when she was relaxed. Zara’s strides were noticeably freer, with her hind feet overreaching the tracks of her front feet. Her back swung easily. And most importantly, her eyes were soft. Zara was no longer trying to avoid human involvement, but was truly “with” me. The impossible had become possible.
But of course it didn’t end there. Since horses and riders are inter-connected, both horse and human need to make changes for lasting progress to be achieved.
So while Zara had a dramatic and encouraging reaction to her SENSE Method session with me, I also needed to help Joan examine how she could be contributing to her mare’s tension, both on the ground and under saddle. Please read Joan’s story to discover how I taught Joan a quick, easy way to “reboot” her system. She learned to reduce her stress and tension and achieved a balanced, symmetrical seat with a Feldenkrais® Awareness Through Movement® lesson.
*Names and identifying characteristics have been changed.