The barn that I used to show out of was called Two Chances Farm. As in, you have two chances to win: slim and none. What I now recognize is that we also gave the horses two chances. As in, do it my way or else!
I know that this series of blogs looking back is grim, but how can we be compassionate equestrians who are working for something new if we do not take full responsibility for our past? If we aren’t willing to speak the truth or admit where we have caused suffering, we cannot forgive ourselves and move on.
I would love to keep my head in the sand, but I can’t do that any longer. I must call a spade a spade. I must speak the truth of what I created in my life.
And here is what I created – a dominance over paradigm. I learned how to manipulate the horse to do what I wanted through fear and pain. I learned how to control their power to bolster my own self-esteem. I learned how to use the life of another for my own pleasure and enjoyment.
What I discovered was that horses typically acted in one of two ways – to comply or to fight. What I didn’t realize then was that both of those behaviors were a form of dissociating to deal with the pressure that we exerted upon them.
Nel was my devil mare. I got her as a five-year-old off the track. When she came to us, her back was so sore that she would drop out from you when you laid her hands on her back. We gave her a few weeks to heal and then it was time to get to work.
She was the most unruly horse I had ever worked with. She would spook at everything. In her repertoire of behavior was a quick stop and pivot, running sideways, bucking, rearing, doing a 180-degree spin in mid-air, and (when all else failed) throwing herself to the ground. One day she even managed to spook at a jump while in mid-air over the jump.
I looked at her behavior through the lens of right and wrong. She was not complying with my demands and would, therefore, face the consequences. Unfortunately, those consequences involved discomfort, fear, and outright pain. Make the wrong thing hard I was told.
Here was a mare who was likely acting this way out of a pain response – her back was not well. When she got all nutty (which is how I saw it), I would rein her in or kick her on. I was also taught how to ride like a sack of potatoes so that I wouldn’t come off and get hurt. This meant I would be as heavy on her back as I could be so that she couldn’t budge me. I would probably rear and through myself to the ground too.
What I now see is that she was doing everything that a horse can do to tell me to stop. She was not giving me permission. She was not okay with what I was doing. She flat out said no, and I came up with more and more intricate ways to force her to say yes. This is not a loving relationship – its servitude – and it happens all the time.
Dancer let me do anything and everything to him. He was my jumper who safely carried me over anything and everything that I asked of him. He was the opposite of Nel – goofy, kind, and forgiving. Unlike my devil mare, I never once fell off Dancer in all of the years that I ride him.
It felt like Dancer and I had a special bond. He had his quirks – which I now see as quiet resistance. His violent head shaking while out on a trail ride was likely telling me something important – I just wore sunglasses to keep the spit out of my eyes.
He also had this uncanny ability to spring his shoes. He would literally take one front hoof and step on the edge of the other while in the cross-ties getting tacked up and pull part of his shoe off. Of course, then I couldn’t ride until the shoe was straightened and the nails replaced. I was told horses weren’t intelligent enough to do such a thing on purpose, but now I wonder.
Dancer and I had what I thought was a gentle relationship – I even rode him in a plastic “happy mouth” bit. Now I see that our relationship was just a facade. He had taken his chances and decided that complying with my requests was easier – he had given up. We call it learned helplessness. There isn’t really a choice – just a chance to get it right before I correct your behavior and make you do it my way.
I thought that my relationship was so much stronger with Dancer, but I now see that Nel was more my equal. She hadn’t given up yet. Her eyes were not dull and far away like Dancer’s. I loved Dancer dearly, but I wish I had the opportunity to do it differently – I wonder who he actually was.
There has to be another way. There has to be unlimited chances. The horses have to be able to say no without consequences. Who wants to work with a dissociated shell of a being?