Violet’s Story, Part 3 “introducing feel”

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Monarch and Violet; (she is wearing the perfect shirt)

A reflective teacher, like a reflective student, can improve or deepen learning by adjusting to insights gained through introspective thought.  As I was thinking about the last two sessions with Violet, I realized that the horse shifting his weight at the halt was triggering Violet’s fear.  Most likely, this is what happened just before Violet’s horse took off bucking on the day of the accident.  During the first session, Monarch stood quietly for her to mount, and she was able to manage her fear.  When we halted to adjust her foot in the stirrup, her shift in weight caused Monarch to adjust his feet to better balance her.  This weight shift under her caused serious fear.  On the second session, Monarch stood quietly for her to mount, and she didn’t stay in the saddle long enough for Monarch to shift his weight.  On this day, I wouldn’t focus on desensitizing Violet with a horse that needed to shift his weight for balance.  Instead I would teach Violet to feel and identify what was happening underneath her.  Then I would teach her to influence the horse’s movement through her aid requests.

Again we began with bringing Monarch in from the pasture, leading, grooming, and tacking.  Then I explained to Violet what we would do today and why.  I wanted her to understand that a horse that shifts his weight is usually not getting ready to buck, but is striving to take care of his rider by getting into the best balance possible to carry her.  I also wanted her to know that she could tell what was happening underneath her and she could influence it, instead of being a helpless passenger.  Today we would practice mounting, identifying where each of Monarch’s feet were, and using a weight (seat) aid or leg aid to influence or change Monarch’s feet.

Before Violet mounted, I asked her to tell me her fear number.  She said it was probably a 7 or 8, so my goal was to bring that number down through concentration and understanding the horse’s movement.

We reviewed last session’s sequence for mounting.  Begin with deep breathing.  Wait for the horse to stand quietly, pet him, grab some mane with the rein, put your left foot in the stirrup, stand and wait.  If you feel confident, lightly swing your leg over the saddle and sit gently.  Then I asked Violet to close her eyes and feel Monarch.  “Which foot is ahead?”  Correctly she replied,  “the left hind.”

“Let’s see if you can get him to step forward with his right hind by gently tapping with the calf of your right leg.”  Tentatively Violet tapped, and Monarch stood immobile.  “Why do you think he didn’t go?”

“Because I didn’t tap hard enough?” Violet questioned back.

I explained that when you ask a horse for movement, you must ask with intention and clarity.  “You could have asked as lightly as you asked, and he would have stepped up if you had really intended for him to walk forward.  I don’t think you really wanted him to move.  This time, think forward with the right hind as you ask with your right leg.”  Her aid was clearly communicated, and he took 3 steps forward.

When Monarch returned to halt, I asked Violet to again identify which foot was ahead.  Again, she identified the correct foot; this time the right hind.  “So if you want him to move forward or just square up, which foot do you need to move?”

“The left hind,” was her correct reply.

“So how will you ask him?”

“With my left leg.”

“Good, Violet; now show me.”

This time their communication was much clearer, and they walked forward another 2 steps.  She identified the feet position, moved him off, and then I asked for her to dismount, just the way we had practiced.  Swing the right leg over the saddle, take your left foot out of the stirrup, lay on his back, and slide down.  We returned to the mounting block and played this game many times.

When I felt she was ready, I took Monarch’s rein as she moved him forward.  Instead of stopping after a few steps, I asked her to focus on when the hind feet hit the ground and call out the hind footfalls to me.  She focused on her horse’s movement and called out “right, left, right, left” in the correct sequence and rhythm of Monarch’s walk.  Before she had a chance to worry about what they were doing, actually riding a horse again, I brought them back to the mounting block.  She dismounted, remounted, and we played the new foot game several times. Before she knew it, she had ridden all the way around the arena!  I asked her what her fear number was, and she replied “2, well maybe 1.”

“Did you realize that you actually rode all the way around the arena?”  It was a good note to end the session.

As we were untacking, I repeated the lessons of the day:

  • usually a horse shifts his weight to put the two of you in better balance.
  • You can feel where the horse’s feet are and know what he is doing through focus and feel.
  • You can influence how a horse moves through the way you give aids and through your intention.  Your aids must be correct through timing and feel, and you must give them with intention.  You can visualize what you want him to do.  When you are clear in your mind, you can communicate better with him.

“Please remember to write what you are learning and feeling in your journal.”

Reader note:  Horses are almost intuitive in their response to their riders and handlers.  They achieve this uncanny ability to “read your mind” through their superior sensitivity.  (A horse can feel a fly land on his back before it bites.)  When we think something, we give ourselves away through a subtle weight shift in the saddle or body language on the ground.  Horses pick up on our subtleties, so they already know what we will ask before we’ve given the aid.  This, of course, is a double-edged sword.  If we give the aid poorly, roughly, in the wrong moment, in the wrong balance, with a stiff body, with tight reins, or with contradicting aids, the horse will learn the wrong response.  All but the sensitive rider will blame the horse for the wrong response, rather than looking to one’s self for the root cause.  On the other hand, ridden in lightness with sensitive aids, the horse and rider create a movement of such beauty, it becomes art.

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Violet’s Story, Part 2 “rebuilding from the pieces”

Violet came for her second lesson a week later.   On this day, we spent a good long time sitting together on my couch talking and working on some relaxation techniques.  We started with deep breathing.  I showed her how to breathe deep into her diaphragm by placing her hand on her tummy.  We practiced together until she could really get her hand moving from her belly.  Next, we talked about her fear of mounting.  I asked her to give her fear a rating from 0, (no fear), to 10, (paralysis).  Violet rated her fear as a 9 on this day.  Next we did an exercise I learned from Karen Zorn called quantum entrainment, (http://www.kinslowsystem.com/discover.html), which develops awareness and relaxation.  Violet acknowledged her fear, then put it away, putting all her awareness into first her right hand, then her left hand, and finally both hands.  At the end of the exercise, she rated her fear as a 5 or 6.  I affirmed her progress.   After this exercise, we talked about how we desensitize horses by introducing new objects in a slow, methodical, and calm way.  If the horse shows fear, we continue to reintroduce the stimulus, (example: a plastic bag) until the horse accepts it without reaction. We allow the horse to see it, smell it, and then we begin to rub it on different parts of the horse’s body, moving from the least sensitive areas to the most sensitive areas.  I told Violet that we were going to use this technique to desensitize her fear of mounting.

Violet was ready to start.  We went out to the pasture to find Monarch, and Violet led him into the arena for grooming, tacking, and mounting.  I wanted her to be as independent with Monarch as possible for this early groundwork, so I only assisted her in the saddling and bridling.  Violet picked his hooves, brushed, and fastened buckles.

As Monarch was readied, I reassured Violet that we would take mounting in baby steps; in fact she wouldn’t even mount at first.  All she needed to do was to be close to Monarch, then touch him, the rein, and the stirrup.  Violet stood on the mounting block, as I brought Monarch into position.  I could see that her fear had returned to an 8 or 9.  With Monarch standing close to her, Violet practiced her deep breathing with her hand on her belly. He remained quiet and reassuring as she petted him, then took a hold of his mane and the reins. Finally, she touched the stirrup with her left toe.  “That’s fine; now let go, stand, and breathe.”

“This time, you still won’t get on; you will only put your foot in the stirrup and stand.  First breathe deeply, now grab his mane and the rein.  Now let me guide your foot in the stirrup.  And now, just stand there with your foot in the stirrup.  Don’t swing your leg over.  Keep practicing your deep breathing.  Okay, now take your foot out of the stirrup and lay on his back.  Feel how relaxed he is.  Feel how much he likes you.  And now quietly slide down with your feet back on the ground.  And breathe……and slide…….and stand.  What number is your fear now?”

Violet responded with a 5.  “Ready to do it again?  Step on the mounting block,  breathe, pet him, grab mane, foot in the stirrup, and stand.  Breathe, lay on his back, and slide back down.”

We repeated this a few more times, and she was ready to mount.  “Practice your deep breathing, grab mane, foot in the stirrup, stand, and breathe.  Now slowly swing your leg over the saddle and lightly sit on his back.  Very good; keep practicing your deep breathing.  Can you feel him relaxing and breathing too?  Okay, swing your leg back over, take your feet out of the stirrups, and slide back to the ground.”

We practiced this many times, breathing, foot in the stirrup, swinging the leg, settling gently in the saddle, feeling the quiet, relaxed horse, and then dismounting.  I could see the tension relax from Violet’s eyes, her face, and the quality of her movements.  I asked her what number her fear was.  She replied a 3, a very positive time to stop for the day.  I reminded her to journal about her experiences this day.

Violet’s Story, Part 1 “picking up the pieces”

I’ve known Violet for six years; she was one of my students at Northside Elementary, where I was her art teacher before I retired, and she moved to a new school.  I watched her grow up from a darling kindergartener to a charming 5th grader.  Violet has been horse-crazy all the time I’ve known her.  This year she had a terrible accident which threatened to end her love affair with horses.

This summer, Violet and her mom found a beautiful Palomino/Paint horse; it was love at first sight.  The horse’s owner was in financial trouble and pressured Violet’s mother to buy the horse that weekend.  Through inexperience, this red flag was not recognized.  Unfortunately, the family also failed to get a pre-purchase vet exam.  The horse was unsound.  In a few short months, the unsoundness escalated from resistance to pain-induced violence.

On the day of the accident, Violet’s mom held the horse for Violet to mount.  As Violet settled into the saddle, the Paint struck out at her mother, then took off bucking with Violet trying to remain aboard. Immobilized with pain and shock, Violet’s mother lay on the ground. Unable to come to her mother’s rescue, Violet struggled to get control of the frenzied horse.  In a split second, with her foot caught in the stirrup, Violet  slipped under the horse.  Her mother watched helplessly as her daughter was trapped under a thrashing horse.  Aware of the dangers, neither could help the other.

Miraculously, Violet came free from her horse without any serious physical injuries.  Her mother wasn’t so lucky; she was hospitalized with bruised internal organs.  Violet’s trauma couldn’t be seen, but it was no less real. A paralysis of fear overcame Violet when she attempted to resume her riding passion. She could not longer enjoy her love of horses, except from afar.

Monarch and I began to work with Violet in September.  Monarch is my 12 year old Lipizzan/Andulusian gelding.  He is gentle, loves people, and very sensitive.  I wanted Violet to have a small, quiet space, so we loaded Monarch and drove to my friend’s covered, enclosed round pen.  As we drove, I questioned Violet about the accident, her feelings, her memories, and her return to riding.  She answered bravely, not expressing her fear.  As we groomed and tacked up, Violet gave Monarch many friendly pats.

We began with groundwork in the round pen.  Using a lead rope to establish rapport and to review principles of the aids, Violet easily walked, halted, and backed Monarch on both the left and the right.  Moving next to the lunge, Violet quickly learned to aid Monarch in walk, trot, and halt in both directions.  She worked him confidently, and he instantly bonded with her.

I gently suggested it was time for Violet to mount and ride Monarch.  I knew Violet was afraid, but felt that her feelings of success from the groundwork would help her over this hurdle.  She insisted that I stay close to her, so I put away the longe line and reattached the lead.  As I steadied Monarch close to the mounting block, I watched Violet’s skin break into deep red splotches.  She stopped breathing, and I felt her deep terror.   Coaching and encouraging her back into the saddle for the first time, I knew success relied on getting her to relax.  I asked her to sing a favorite song, but she remained frozen and mute.  I insisted that she sing “Row, Row Your Boat” with me, a silly, simple song to get her breathing again.

Off we went around the round pen, with me singing lustily, her mother chiming in, and Violet whispering the words.  How could I get her to sing loudly enough to let go of her breath and limbs, to get her to move in rhythm with the horse, and for her to feel the soothing movement beneath her?  I suggested that we sing in a round.  I would start, and she would chime in with “row, row your boat,” as I started the “merrily, merrily…”  Now she had something else to concentrate on, when to come in singing, the words, and the tune.  Finally she began to breathe and move with her horse.  We walked, changed directions, and walked some more.  It began to feel very good.

As I halted Monarch to adjust Violet’s foot in the stirrup, I learned more of how the accident had traumatized her.  With Monarch standing quietly, I took Violet’s foot, and replaced the ball across the stirrup iron.  This shifted Violet’s weight in the saddle, which Monarch followed by shifting his weight to better balance under her.  As she felt him shift his weight, she again froze, stopped breathing, and the angry red splotches returned.  In that weight shift, she was reliving the accident.  Pleadingly, she asked her mother if she could get off.  Instead I replied, “you can get off, but not just now.  Right now we have to walk and sing.”  Before she could protest, I set off singing and leading again.

It seemed to take quite a while to get Violet to settle into the rhythm of singing and breathing.  I knew she never relaxed as deeply as the first part of the session.  Still, we ended on a good note.  I praised her for all that she had accomplished: to attempt a riding lesson, to pet and groom a horse, to successfully lead and longe an obedient horse, to mount and ride a horse, and most importantly, to face her fear.  I asked her to journal about her experience, focusing on her successes.

Later, I reflected about how the lesson went, how Violet reacted, and what she needed.  Singing helped her to breathe, relax, and feel the horse’s movement.  I knew the next step would be working to overcome her fear of mounting.  I will tell this story in Part 2.

Welcome to Equitherapy

Equitherapy is all about healing with and through horses.

I became interested in working with horses for healing when my sister came to visit a few years back.  She was suffering from fibro myalgia, had lost 30 pounds, was in constant pain, and very weak.  I began giving her very gentle riding lessons every day, and over the course of 2 weeks she gained in strength, endurance, balance, & health.  Later, I suffered a crippling bout of sciatic spasms, which put me on a course of physical therapy and movement education.  Additionally, I realized that my 4 knee surgeries and 40 years of knee trauma, not only affected my position in the saddle and my effectiveness in communication with the horse, but was contributing to my growing stiffness and pain in my back and other body parts.  I began taking classes and putting together a therapeutic regimen to heal and balance myself.  Currently, I use somatic stretching, Feldenkrais techniques, Tai Chi, pilates, and balance exercises in my unmounted work.  I am a lifelong student of classical riding, focusing on balance, lightness, and correct biomechanics; it is not discipline-specific.  Riding in synchronicity with the horse teaches the body to move in balance without tension, thereby facilitating healing.  Riding in sympatico with the horse creates harmony and beauty, a lifelong, illusive, yet satisfying quest.
I found that I could help others by sharing my therapeutic, unmounted exercises, with equitation lessons.   I began accepting students in 2011.  With regular workouts and lessons, my students were getting stronger, more flexible, and more confident.  They were communicating better with their horses and becoming better riders.  I have worked with children and adults with back injuries, fibro myalgia, C-section trauma, and psychological trauma.   In this blog, I will share stories of our challenges and progress, techniques you may explore to improve your health, your riding, or both.