Think Outside the Stall

The chestnut horse’s life changed so drastically, so wonderfully, that having the ability to pick up both leads easily is hardly worth mentioning. Except that the story starts with a problem at the canter. And an upcoming horse show.  A big one.


I was teaching a two-week Debono Moves Equine Workshop at a large, picturesque equestrian facility.  Green lawns studded with shady pepper trees surrounded the large barns, and riders had access to trainers of various riding disciplines. Horses enjoyed the ample turnout paddocks and many happily lived outside year-round. All in all, it seemed like a lovely place to be a horse.


Except if you happened to be a horse in Barn A, Section 2.


That part of the barn was leased by a trainer who kept his charges locked up in dark stalls, the windows clamped shut to keep out light and to prevent the horses from experiencing the outside world.  The equines were always outfitted with blankets and tail sets, and sometimes wore bitting rigs. These unfortunate Saddlebreds were taken out about a half-hour per day, in the bright, blinding sunshine, to be worked exuberantly under saddle.  My students and I were horrified by their plight.


The Saddlebreds’ trainer, Bill*, leased one half of Barn A.  My class was using the wide aisle of the other half of Barn A, allowing us to see the activity in Bill’s area. The class participants and I wondered how we could change the lives of the mistreated horses at the other end of the barn. The horses were fed and watered and he wasn’t breaking the law, so the animal welfare authorities couldn’t take action against him.  My class was leaning towards a confrontation with the Saddlebred trainer, but I asked them not to do this. I explained that it would likely result in Bill becoming defensive and even more set in his ways. “Let’s start with leading by example”, I said, not feeling at all sure how much good that would do.


A few days of the workshop passed. Throughout, neither Bill nor his clients would do more than quickly glance in our direction.  When our paths crossed, they resisted my attempts to engage in conversation.


Until the day Sarah*, one of Bill’s clients, approached me. She told me that her horse wasn’t picking up his right canter lead. The vet and farrier had been consulted and were unable to remedy the problem.  There was this really important show coming up, Sarah explained sheepishly, and so they were willing to try anything – even something like Debono Moves – to see if it could help improve her horse’s performance.  So, would we work with her horse?   “Of course!” I answered cheerfully.


Before Sarah led her horse, Saffron**, over to our area, I asked my students to exercise restraint. “If we want to improve these horses’ lives, we must approach the situation intelligently and not simply react out of anger”, I reminded them. Attacking Sarah would likely result in her hightailing it back to Bill’s side of the barn, Saffron in tow. And we would lose the chance of ever connecting with this wonderful animal.


As Sarah led Saffron towards us, the students and I observed the chestnut horse’s movement. The pair halted in the middle of the barn aisle and we all took in this sad horse.  The gelding’s body was present, but his mind seemed absent. To some onlookers, he would appear “well-behaved”.  After all, he stood perfectly still. Too perfectly still.  Looking in his eyes, I could see that he was shut down. And who could blame him?


I asked a student, Ann, to use her hands to gently support Saffron’s overworked muscles. Throughout, the gelding stood completely still, robotic. There was no discernable change in the horse. No chewing, licking lips, yawning, head lowering, sighing or deep, contented breathing.  Well, not at first anyway.


Up until then, most human contact had brought only additional misery into Saffron’s life, so the gelding likely tuned out humans whenever possible. He was trained to stand still, so that is what he did.  But even Saffron, with his emotional and muscular armoring, eventually realized that the Debono Moves felt different from his usual handling. As Ann supported his muscles, his eyes slowly began to register this newfound feeling of relief and pleasure.  Tightly-held muscles released their grip and Saffron’s breathing deepened.  Yes!


With Saffron visibly relaxed, Ann gently rocked him from side to side.  Sarah was struck by how such tiny, delicate movements could literally rock her horse.  Were horses that sensitive?  She had never realized that.


I pointed out how her horse rocked easier in one direction than the other. See how this fetlock took the weight more easily than the opposite one?  And how his back tightened a bit here?  Did she see that?  No, not until I showed it to her.  I explained how these seemingly small discrepancies affected the gelding’s entire body and could prevent him from picking up his right lead.


Like many people, observing the nuances of movement was a new concept to Sarah.  She had no idea how inter-connected the parts of the body were and how these little things affected the big picture. Small things become big things if we ignore them, I often say.     


I explained how Saffron’s painfully long toes, high heels and stacks of pads were harming his whole body.  Not to mention that he could never be turned out and enjoy himself in a paddock while wearing those dangerous appendages on his feet.  We discussed the harm caused by uncomfortable blankets, tail sets, and restrictive, painful riding equipment.  I pointed out how damaging it was to isolate horses, who are social creatures. After all, he was not a vehicle, but a living, sensitive being.     


Much to surprise of the class, Sarah seemed to really love her horse.  At first, that seems ridiculous. How does one love a horse, then lock him up for over 23 hours a day in a dark, lonely stall?  Not to mention the way he was ridden, shod and handled. But as we spoke, I began to understand Sarah a bit more.  She explained that she had grown up loving horses.  Her childhood was filled with showing Saddlebreds and she even married into a prominent Saddlebred family. This is how they always kept their horses. While she was certainly aware of other equine disciplines, this type of riding and horse management was all she had ever experienced.  It was all she knew. And until then, she did not realize how it was harming her horse.


Ah, but now she knew!  I often say that Debono Moves takes horses out of their usual state of physical and/or emotional distress and allows them to experience life differently. They realize that it’s possible to feel better than they usually feel. And, guided by hands-on Debono Moves, horses learn how to let go of their harmful habits and move more comfortably, more athletically, and more easily. They just need to know they have a choice, and Debono Moves gives them that knowledge.  And now it was, indirectly, doing the same thing for Sarah.  Seeing the change in Saffron during his Debono Moves session gave Sarah the knowledge to make better-informed choices about her horse’s care.


I wish I could say that she immediately took her horse to another barn.  But that’s not what happened.  After his session, Saffron was taken back to his lonely stall.  Sarah now knew she had choices, but wasn’t ready to give up her habitual way of doing things just yet. The students and I were, of course, disappointed for Saffron. But at least Sarah wanted her horse to have another Debono Moves session the next day. She was excited by the possibility of how he could improve his movement.  And I was relieved to have another chance.


When Sarah brought Saffron to our class the next day, she excitably told us that he picked up the right lead that morning!  The class was happy to hear how their session had helped the horse move more easily.  But while improved athletic performance is wonderful and useful, the benefits of Debono Moves go beyond that. I teach Debono Moves as a path to deepen one’s connection with an animal, and in doing so grow in self-awareness and joy, thus enhancing the quality of life of both horse and human. So I was hoping for more than improved canter work.  I was rooting for a transformation.


Saffron was easier to connect with on the second day, as he seemed to remember his previous experience.  As my students worked with Saffron and other horses, Sarah watched intently, amazed at how the subtle Debono Moves affected all the equines. I did some hands-on work with Sarah so that she could feel how these gentle movements could bring about relaxation, easier movement and vitality in her too. And I invited her to participate in the Feldenkrais® Awareness Through Movement® lesson with the class. Sarah noticed that her movements were lighter and freer.  But she still led Saffron back to the same dark stall that afternoon.  Darn!


On the third day, I invited Sarah to work with Saffron herself.  As I guided her through some basic Debono Moves, she enjoyed this subtle way of interacting with her horse. No gadgets, no force.  Just a gal and her horse engaged in pleasurable, tactile communication.  Pure bliss!  Putting her hands on other horses, she compared them to Saffron and realized how his shoeing and lifestyle were compromising his movement and health. Something had to change.


And change it did!  Sarah came to the barn the next day with a plan.  She predicted that Bill*** would be unhappy at her taking Saffron out of training, so she found another stable to move him to.  She consulted with a farrier to begin the process of restoring her horse’s hooves to a more natural shape. After Saffron moved, Sarah kept in touch with me for a while.  She related how Saffron was now turned out in a paddock to play. They were even trail riding, something Sarah discovered that they both loved! And that big horse show she was training for?  They never went to it.  The young woman and her horse had far more important things to do together.

*Names have been changed.

**Bill left the facility not long after Sarah took Saffron out of training. I can only hope that he changed his ways or quit the horse business entirely.

Mary Debono
Mary Debono, is a Certified Feldenkrais® Practitioner who teaches people how to increase mobility and confidence while minimizing the effects of aging and injury. She is the author of the award-winning, Amazon #1 bestseller, "Grow Young with Your Dog," and the creator of Debono Moves. Mary travels internationally to teach workshops with an equine, canine/feline or human focus. She also offers online consultations. Mary lives in sunny Southern California with her husband, horse, dog and cat. Visit her at www.DebonoMoves.com
Mary Debono
Mary Debono

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