I remember many years ago when I became the proud ‘owner’ of my first horse, Stanley (who’s still with me today), I wanted to have a go at a bit of dressage. There was a small competition happening quite locally to us although it still meant a lorry ride for Stan, who we had discovered wasn’t over keen on loading or travelling. We spent a bit of time working with him and eventually he seemed to accept that it was OK and he’d be OK.
So off we went and as far as the dressage, he was wonderful. He did everything I asked of him despite new surroundings, lots of new horses and hustle and bustle. We would never be ‘Dressage Divas’ but I didn’t care, we had had a nice time and it was a good experience…..well, until we got ready to go home.
Stan wouldn’t load back into the trailer…he literally planted his feet and said “No, thank you” I know now that what he was actually saying was more along the lines of “I’m really not comfortable getting back into the tiny box, that I can’t see out of. It’s too wobbly and I can’t get my balance and that really scares me and makes me get very anxious and fidgety……” but I was still very naive then (not that I thought I was) and as many horse owners did and still do, I just thought he was being ‘difficult’ and ‘naughty’ after all he’d got in on the way here and now we were going home so what on earth was the problem!!
Anyone who’s ever had a horse that wouldn’t load either at a show or at a big livery yard will be very familiar with what happened next….
Everyone who’s ever had any contact with a horse in their lifetime suddenly descended on us and our little trailer and before I knew what was happening there were perhaps 10 people pushing, pulling, shoving food in his mouth, trying to physically move each hoof and generally surrounding him in an effort to overpower his ‘naughty will’ and get him into the trailer!!!
I remember standing there about 10 feet from the trailer, still clutching my ‘Special’ rosette, mouth slightly open as If I was going to speak up for him and make this craziness stop….. but I didn’t….. I just stood and watched my best friend manhandled and frightened into submitting the will of the ‘mob’. Oh yes, they got him in but by the time we got home, he was shaking and drenched in sweat – not really conducive to creating a good model for the next time.
I would like to say that I learned from that experience but I didn’t and wouldn’t for a few years yet. There was would several other incidents of me allowing someone to do something to one of my ponies that frightened them, hurt them or confused them and perhaps as I look back, it was a reflection of what was also happening to me in my own life, but that a story for a different time. It is interesting though that as I have grown and found my voice for the horses in my life and given them back their own, I have also found a voice for myself too.
There was the time I caught the Farriers apprentice with Stan’s hind leg held at such an awkward and painful angle, Stanley was struggling to stand upright or the times I held Willow pinned against a wall in his stable so that the vet could inject into the area around his eye with a experimental drug to try to ‘cure’ his sarcoids in that area (to this day he panics on seeing the vets van and that was 12 years ago!!) or the time I let a young girl ride Casper and he came back from a hack with blood at the sides of his mouth where she had held so tightly to the bit (which was a rubber bit by the way).
Did I speak up and stop what was happening? Did I immediately reprimand those who had hurt my friends? Did I prove to them that I could be trusted to protect them?
In most of the cases, I genuinely believed at the time that the ‘experts’ knew best and it was part of ‘horse-ownership’ and in other situations I simply wasn’t confident enough to ‘rock the boat’.
I could say that these things happened many years ago and assign them to the past and the ‘old’ me. These are not memories I am proud of. However, they are memories that I can reflect on now with compassion and understanding for myself and those involved and in a non-judgmental way and that is as important in our growth as a horse guardian as the actual research and knowledge that we learn along the way.
These are not uncommon experiences for anyone in the world of horses. In fact, they are everyday occurrences and for those involved, like me, many struggle with the negative emotions it causes for us as well as the ‘fallout’ that inevitably follows eventually for our horses.
Ask yourself honestly, when was the last time you allowed someone to do something to your horse that either you felt uncomfortable with or you know that your horse found difficult and frightening? How did it make you feel? Sit with that feeling for a moment so you learn to recognise it in the future. How was your horse afterwards? Did it have implications further down the line?
It happens every day in every yard, sometimes in more subtle ways than others but it happens and it is our horses and our relationship with our horses that suffer.
Although, there have always been trainers, ‘experts’ and ‘gurus’ in the horse world, the advances in modern technology and our ability to access any and all information we might wish to in regards to horses and training, has led to a surge in techniques, methods and programmes being widely available (at a price) each with their own ‘expert’ or ‘guru’ who can cure all of our problems and provide us with the ‘perfect horse’. Often what is missing is an understanding of what it really means to be a horse in our world and what it means to be a human being from a horse’s point of view and how all of us are also individuals within all of that. Sadly it is almost always the horse that will suffer although we often do too emotionally and even sometimes physically, in the aftermath of such expert guidance.
The point here is, that if we want to build a relationship where we can trust our horses, and they can trust us in any and all situations, we have to protect them from those who, due to lack of knowledge, ego-centric motives, misunderstanding or any of the other reasons people do things that can have a negative impact on our horses, might do something (even with the best intentions) that will cause that relationship to falter and potentially cause trauma for both ourselves and our horses.
Remember I asked you to focus on that feeling that you get when someone is doing something that doesn’t feel right for you or your horse? Next time you feel that, recognise that that is a signal for you to be brave, if not for you, for your horse and speak up. Stop what’s happening. Ask why the person feels that’s Ok to do and whether they could approach it differently? Explain that you are uncomfortable with what’s happening and you can see that your horse is struggling. Step in and while explaining your concerns, comfort or reassure your horse. Be as assertive as you would if it was any other friend or family member and show your horse that you will protect them from harm always and in every situation.
The trust that will grow from this will overflow into all kinds of situations where your horse may be struggling or anxious or uncomfortable and instead of panicking or becoming unsettled and fidgety, they will look to you as a source of safety and support and someone who will protect them when they feel most vulnerable.
I promise you, when you see your horse look to you and say “I’m really struggling, I need your help” even though they are on high alert, perhaps scared or hurting and certainly would rather be heading rapidly in the opposite direction but they trust you to get them through the situation and protect them, then you’ll know what it means to be a ‘Horse Guardian’ and a true friend to your equine partner.