“He’s just like me,” Kerry whispers.
Bolt stares at us intently with unblinking eyes, just out of reach on the other side of the fence.
“He wants to be with us, but it terrifies him.”
Bolt takes a tentative step in our direction, reaches out to sniff Kerry’s outstretched hand, then jumps back again when Galileo, our friendly barn cat, appears from around the haystack.
“It’s ok,” Kerry’s voice is calm and soothing, something her group home staff say they rarely hear, “You take all the time you need.”
Bolt joined the Healing Hooves herd 18 months ago, after a successful career in dressage. With his beautiful movement and large frame, we hoped he would make a good vaulting horse, initially working with my daughter and, in time, moving into a therapeutic vaulting role.
But after a year of training we have sadly concluded that Bolt and vaulting are not a good fit. Initially he seemed to handle the movement on his back well, but over time we realised that his heightened awareness is fear based, and every so often that fear will build into a spook or other flight response.
These tendencies are certainly not conducive to a safe vaulting experience for us, or to an emotionally safe experience for Bolt.
That vigilance is present in the field too, especially when there are changes in his routine or environment. Some days this makes him hard to catch, while on others he follows me around like a rather large friendly dog. He is often the first to approach me in the field, but quickly shies away if I move too quickly, if he notices anything unusual around him, or sometimes for no apparent reason at all. This unpredictability makes him unsafe to work with clients, or even to allow clients to be in the same field as him.
Why is he like this?
“It’s definitely trauma,” Kerry concludes, watching him snort and run to the far side of the pasture as the wind kicks up a bit of hay, “bad things have happened to him, so we can’t expect him to trust anyone now.” I make much space for my young client’s interpretations of Bolt’s behaviour and invite her to tell me more. What ‘bad things’ might have happened to him? What is he feeling right now? What will help him start to trust us one day? She is, after all, telling me a part of her story, which is new and important territory for her.
But outside of client sessions Bolt remains an anomaly. I know the home he came from. He was well looked after and greatly loved. No obvious trauma there. This reminds me of the days I sit with parents whose child is showing trauma symptoms. Parents who are plagued with guilt and questions. Where did they go wrong? What happened to their child when they weren’t watching?
While trauma does certainly happen – in both human and equine lives – sometimes there was no specific traumatic event. Sometimes, especially if you are highly sensitive, simple everyday life events can feel overwhelming, even traumatic, and create a big reaction in your nervous system. Especially when there is change outside of your control.
Perhaps Bolt’s ‘trauma’ was simply changing homes?
So maybe I’m asking the wrong question. I may never get to know ‘why’ Bolt acts as he does, or about all sorts of other things. Maybe ‘what now?’ and, ‘how can I help?’ are better questions.
Vaulting is definitely not the immediate answer to either of those questions and working hands on with clients would not be safe right now either. Should I sell him? Sometimes that is the right answer for a horse where this work is not good for them, and it may end up being the right answer for Bolt; but I’m not ready to conclude this yet.
We need time.
I need to see better before deciding what to do.
So, for the past six months Bolt has not been asked to work. He’s spent the winter in a quiet paddock with one companion, and my time with him has all been about taking it slow, connecting, and building trust.
There have been lots of walks in the pasture when he wants them, hanging out with him while he eats, and gentle t-touch.
And it’s coming; most days he approaches and interacts with me calmly, is easy to put a halter on, and doesn’t usually spook when Galileo comes to join us.
“It won’t last you know,’ Kerry tells me. “Trauma’s not like that. He may feel safe today but scared again tomorrow.”
She’s right. The day we had to move him into another field for twenty minutes to refill the hay feeder he snorted and spooked when I first approached him to move him back. And when a herd of Elk ran across the back pasture, Bolt paced the fence, head high, long after the rest of my herd returned to their hay. But each time his recovery was quicker, and he was soon calm and ready to connect with me again.
I’m hoping that the same will hold true for Kerry.
On reflection, I realise that all of this could have been quite different – for Bolt, for Kerry and for myself – if we had not been operating from the perspective of Bolt being a sentient being. As we explore in our article: What is the role of the horse in equine therapy? at Healing Hooves, we believe that our animals have the ability, need and right to experience and express a wide range of emotions, opinions and needs. Without this perspective we may have understood and responded to Bolt’s behaviour, and the expression of his emotions, quite differently. At the same time Kerry – and several other clients at Healing Hooves – may have missed out on the opportunity to explore and share important pieces of their own emotional healing journey.
What comes next? For now, I’ll take the advice of the wise horse in Charlie Mackesy’s beautiful art work:
““I can’t see a way through,” said the boy.
“Can you see the next step?”
“Just take that,” said the horse.”
Wise words indeed.