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.