It’s minus 25 and blowing a gale when I take hay out to my cold furry herd one February morning. Most of my horses accept a hug or a pat from me as they get down to the serious business of breakfast. But as I near Star she flattens her ears back against her head and turns away. Getting used to – and a little tired of – this morning routine I keep well out of kicking range, all the while fighting down the frustrated voice in my head which keeps telling me she needs to be given an ‘attitude adjustment’ and shown who’s the boss around here. Why won’t she appreciate that I’ve sacrificed my warm cosy bed to come out in this cold to feed her?
Instead, taking a deep breath and listening to my heart, I move around the edges, talking to Star quietly, telling her I am here for her, when she is ready to be with me. I know the words make no sense to her but hope she hears my love in the tone of my voice. By the end of feeding time I approach slowly and she lowers her head. I scratch her gently behind the ears. How could I have wanted to give this hurting soul an ‘attitude adjustment’ just a few short moments ago?
Star found her way to Healing Hooves late the previous year. She was introduced to us as an over reactive horse with a bad attitude and behavioural problems. We were warned repeatedly not to walk behind her. The trainer I consulted with told me she needed a ‘real firm hand’. He advised that Star be shown who was boss; if she threatened to kick when I was feeding her then I simply shouldn’t feed her that time. He recommended I keep her in a small pen so I could catch her, and to carry a whip with me whenever I went in the pen. He assured me that this approach had worked well with horses far worse than Star.
I heard all he said, but in my heart it just didn’t feel right.
A few months after Star arrived, I meet Annie, a 13 year old who had also been told that she had a bad attitude and behavioural problems. Annie refused to talk to the last three counselors her parents sent her to; she called the psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ‘Dr. Poopyhead’; and she hit the family’s in home support worker – who is focusing on behaviour modification – again last week. Annie AWOLs regularly and her parents no longer know any of the friends she hangs out with. They tell me they have tried every consequence out there, but now they have nothing left to take away. Whatever they do Annie just doesn’t seem to care anymore, and she used to be such a loving sensitive little girl. The only positive they can tell me about Annie now is her devotion to Domino, her 12 year old lab cross, who her Mom describes as “the only member of the family Annie has a civil word for nowadays”.
Annie is drawn to Star and asks why she moves away when we approach the fence. We talk a while about Star’s past including the many trainers at her last home who tried to ‘fix’ her behaviour. Annie asks what the trainers had done. I explain what the last one had recommended.
A look of horror crosses Annie’s face as she asks me if I’d done this, and relief as I said definitely not.
I watch Star turn and take one small step towards to us, “What do you think may have happened if I had done what the trainer said?”
Annie shudders. “She’d want to kick you even worse. Maybe in a tiny pen she might have done what you said, but only ‘cos she had no real choice. As soon as she got her freedom back she’d be long gone. And I wouldn’t blame her!”
“She can’t help what she does, and she doesn’t mean to keep pushing you away,” Annie later tells me as she tentatively reaches out across the fence rail to rub Star, who has now approached us, on the neck. “She’s just so scared.”
“So what needs to happen next?” I ask.
Annie, less tentative now, starts to massage Star’s shoulder and Star’s head lowers. “She needs to know she can really trust you, that you are going to stick by her even when she messes up. You need to go slow, because the more you push her, the more attitude you’re going to get; she just can’t help it.”
To Annie it is all so obvious; to her parents, watching from a distance, the parallels and implications are just starting to sink in. Star has taught them where my words alone had previously failed.
Over the next few months I help Annie show Star the love and acceptance she needs. In time Star’s ‘bad behaviour’ simply melts away and we discover a gentle intuitive horse who loves hugs – especially from Annie.
At the same time I watch Annie’s parents change their approach with their daughter and she too starts to melt, then flourish.
They simply see her in a different way and that has changed everything.
Copyright Sue McIntosh 2008 updated to 2018
Awesome article Sue!
I love how this story connects the personality of the horse to that of a client. It really shows the power of this work.
I’m so happy Annie (and her parents) have found Star and you. I look forward to sharing such understanding between a horse and a client one day!
Amazing connection between Star’s story and Annie! How neat that Annie found parallels between her and Star’s personality and needs.
This story reminds me of a horse I worked with – Genesis. When I was a working student at a barn, Gen was a big clyde x mare who belonged to a boarder that I was asked to exercise on occasion – she had been abused and was known to kick. I was told to carry a crop when brushing her, especially by her hind end, to keep her in line. I thought I had earned her trust and left the crop behind one day – and sure enough as I was currying her hindquarters as she stood in cross-ties, she must have felt threatened and moved so quickly before I could react; she pinned me against a stall and kicked me with full force on one thigh and then on the other thigh. I fell onto the ground and dragged myself away in tears of pain. I was never angry at her for hurting me – and leaving my legs black and blue with permanently damaged muscle tissue on one leg. Instead, she taught me that she had a trigger and to be more aware of her subtle cues and body movements so that I could keep myself safe before she reacted. I didn’t believe that she was a mean horse, but rather she was scared and something really bad had happened to her for her to explode in that manner.
I wonder what happened to Star, for her to feel so defensive and unsure with people entering her space? How is she now?
That is a scary story Jessica! But a good example and reminder that horses are large animals and that when triggered big things can happen fast.
This actually reminds me of the letter we have included in the distance ed. manual from exploration training from Leif Hallberg, “When a horse goes into a fight/flight/freeze response their primary concern is for their own safety. In such a state horses will trample people, knock into them, kick, bite, or whatever it takes to get away – to get safe. They are not thinking relationally.” I’m sorry you had to experience this in such a painful way. Sometimes those subtle cues are hard to see and it sounds like Genesis was very quick in her big reactions.
We ended up concluding that Star was just not safe enough for EFW work but she was very connected with this particular client and safe with her – fortunately this particular client ended up being in a position to have her own horse so we gave Star to her.
I’m glad that you were able to place Star where she could thrive. I’m very interested in learning more about assessing a horses aptitude for EFW work.
Hi Chloe – we explore this more in the horsemanship section in the training!
Article gives me chills…I think because we can tend to label horses and humans too quickly and again not take the time to try to figure out what’s going on underneath the iceberg…Thx Sue. Good article.
I have been thinking about this fight/flight or freeze reaction of horses especially in the context of feel through Ray Hunt. I am constantly have to remember how to slow down and be aware of how to read horses small cues.
Seeing the parallels and how Star and Annie both progress is really remarkable. I think it also comes down to the sentience of the horses and considering how they see things without being afraid to try approaches that are “not recommended” by select trainers. I see so many polarized opinions in the horse industry particularly around training. Training doesn’t have to include coercion to be effective; in fact, that tends to give the opposite response.
This article is one of the reasons why EFW is so important. And recognizing the horse as a sentient being.
Wonderful story of Annie and Star.
Great illustration of the benefit of looking past the overt behavior to what feeling is underneath for both Annie and Star.
This is such a great example of looking at the whole picture and not just the behavior.
I see many parallels in this article to the client I submitted the session evaluation for in our Group Mentoring session. There are many times it seems easier to try to “convince” or push using consequences and when it doesn’t work, parents are left with nothing else to do and feel very hopeless and out of control. Helping the parents see with new eyes, either because they are willing to learn it through psycho-ed from us or they can experience it through the horses can be extremely powerful.
Love when the client is the teacher!
A very moving story Sue. I love how it shows the power of this work.
I think its so important to understand WHY someone (or horses) act the way they do as opposed to trying to control or demand. When we can do this and listen, then healing can start to take place. It can be much harder to do this and takes much more patience, but ultimately it is much more therapeutic for our horses and clients. Changing approaches can be hard (I find this hard in parenting too) but I know how important it is to listen
Wise words Anne! Moving to a response founded in insight, rather than a reaction to behaviour, is such an important shift for all relationships, and especially in relationships where we are responsible for the other party. As you say, it takes patience and time, but the fruit of such a change can be quite amazing!
I’m reminded of the vulnerability Annie is exposed to here and how she unknowingly shares of her own experience with trust and safety and what needs to happen to ensure/repair this
yes – this shows the great responsibility we carry in this work
What a powerful experience… ah – counter will!!!! The more we are attached to a result, the more we push and control, the less likely we are to enjoy a good result that might have been even better than we could have anticipated! Easier said than done when we are in fear, especially about our children!!! You hold such a beautiful space for your clients and animals.
That’s just so amazing. That one step removed, how she told her story and everything happening for her through the horse.
Thank you for this story.
Awesome work. Beautiful. MY QH Leona was very distrustful and distressed . She was very hard to catch for about 1 year. She never kicked but would halter pull bad even when leading. when saddled, she would pin her ears when the cinch or girth was tightened and at sudden movements. I just slowed things down and found out and addressed her health issues and followed her lead always reassuring her (and myself). At first shee used to drag me around on the longe line. She wouldn’t longe really.
She cannot be by herself at any time or she panics. She needs a horse around expecially BIg Dave, the Clyde. THese are easily accomodated. People told me to tie her up and leave her. NOt on your life. She used to bite kids if they were not focused which was a problem obviously, but I just told her to please stop that. with no smacking.. I wouild lead her around for a bit and then hand her back to the child.
She is now amazing with children and nickers to them. She works with 2 austic and disabled kids and is so gentle and safe. When she sees me, her ears and eyes are soft and I hug her head and kiss her forehead. SHe sniffs me allover to check I am ok just like a mare does to a foal. She is herd boss. lol. SHe is brave and has a huge work ethic despite being a bit laminitic. love her to bits
I’m so glad you and Leona found each other!
This sounds like such a rewarding time with your client. That slow, patient, waiting. The desire for trust, and the triggering of counter-will – isn’t ODD such a natural response to the instinct to protect against control. She was just doing what her instincts told her to do “she couldn’t help it”. When parents ask us to “fix” their “broken” child, I try to share about how they are actually not broken but rather doing such a natural thing. I find I miss plenty of listening opportunities, but learning about counter-will has been so helpful in attuning my listening skills to hear a client’s desire to trust.
I love how you’ve expressed this Dana: “attuning my listening skills to hear a client’s desire to trust.” It’s such an important reframe (for all of us!) when we experience/ witness behaviours that seem dysfunctional and may trigger us – because every behaviour (even the most challenging ones!) has an underlying purpose (usually an attachment purpose as that’s what our brain prioritises) and that may be a question around whether it’s safe to trust. When we see this we will hopefully respond in a way which meets the underlying attachment need rather than reacts to the surface behaviour. Often easier said than done though!
Because I don’t counsel a lot of children, like Dana does, I don’t experience the counter-will as much in therapy sessions. However, I sure do as a mom! And I like the way Dana described this as a natural response, rather than the behaviour of a broken child.
I love how this clearly illustrated that there is always a need and a reason behind behaviors and if we don’t listen for that we implement interventions that maintain our worsen the problem. I often have asked trainers if my horse behaviors are related to their experiences and I am met with derisive comments that it doesn’t matter why they are doing something it needs to be corrected. Like being empathetic and understanding somehow means we cannot have boundaries or expectations or still be a leader.
That is sad that there are still so many horse trainers out there with this approach – hopefully we can all gently influence for some change!
I really like the attachment themes of belonging, acceptance, and sameness. It is interesting to see that Annie could connect with animals and show affection and kindness to them but not people I think this speaks to animals non judgmental nature. It also interesting to see that what was recommended for Annie was the consequence approach which clearly did not work and needed to shift to an attachment approach that created space and safety so she could not feel so afraid of the challenges of life. It is fascinating to see how the horse drew out the themes that Annie was struggling with and how that changed her perspective about herself. Often, underneath that Alpha complex is usually someone who is scared and needs love, acceptance, a place to belong, to feel significant. The answer is always more attachment, deeper roots and not harsh punishment or consequences that really don’t work well.
I love the posts about your work with clients, it exemplifies EFW in action, and really deepens my learning. Thank you!
Another beautiful story. My favorite was when Annie explained that Star needs to know she can trust you even when she messes up. Such a powerful message of the need for an unconditional relationship.
This story so parallels what we are experiencing with our new horse. We have only had her for about 6 weeks and her previous owners were selling her for meat because of her behaviour problems. I have felt moments of frustration with her for sure, and yet as she begins to lower her defenses, I can see the softness in her. Those tender moments when she lets you in are so rewarding. And I too have several clients similar to Annie that I believe could also relate to this new horse. From across the fence… 🙂
Love the indirectness giving Annie the space to share Star’s needs that may link to Annie’s needs.
This story is so powerful and love how Annie and Star found comfort in their shared experiences, and how powerful this was for her parents to witness. And I really appreciate the time you took with Star, finding her a suitable forever home when you knew EFW was not for her.
I love this! I feel like this is my everyday working with behaviour youth. We see everyday that this kids are being punished and constantly being talked at, that they have this desperate need to run for adults and anyone who feels the need to discipline. When we just let them be, and not form judgement for expectations they are more likely to come to us and open up. By showing them better ways of being and when we ourselves are vulnerable with them, we see them slowly wanting to just be and watch to eventually talking and mimicking our behaviours. This is why I think having animals as partners help create those pathways and connections. They remind us to hear what is happening and being said around us.