“She won’t tell us anything” Anna shared, on the verge of tears, “the only way to know what’s going on is to see what she posts on Instagram, if she hasn’t blocked us again.”

Bill puts a comforting arm around his wife, “we just don’t understand what’s gone wrong, she used to be such a happy and respectful kid. Never gave us anything to worry about till these past few months.”

Their daughter Brianna, now 14, brought straight A’s home on every report card, helped her mom teach the younger kids in Sunday school, and made her Dad proud. Until she passed out drunk at a party with a group of older peers a couple of months back.

I ask what she was like as a younger child; was there much conflict? Fights over chores? Disagreements about friends or homework?

Bill sits up a little taller, “nothing like that, as I said she’s always been a good kid. Plus, we’ve never allowed back talk in our house. That’s just disrespect.”

After spending some time with Brianna, who struggled to tell me which horse she wanted to work with, and watched our barn cat sleep on her jacket for over an hour before telling me she was allergic, I recall an article I recently found in the journal Child Development: Researchers from the University of Virginia found that kids who experienced their parents listening to them, and learned that it was safe to express their differing viewpoints to their parents, were 40% more likely to say no to peers when offered drugs and alcohol than the kids who did not argue with their parents.

I wonder how much of the current problems arose because Brianna didn’t want to ‘back talk’ her peers either.

Before continuing I’ll share my biases; my underlying core beliefs which you the reader are by no means required to agree with, but are relevant to this discussion.

  • Firstly, I believe that to fulfill our potential as human beings and individuals, as well as to heal from trauma, loss and setback, we need to both feel and express our emotions, ideally within the context of a safe relationship.
  • Secondly, I believe that people learn more from what we do than from what we say. Thus, if we use coercion or leverage to catch a reluctant horse while talking to a teenage girl about establishing boundaries with a boyfriend, we may be creating confusion. And if we tell our children to take responsibility for their actions yet never apologise to them for our own mistakes, we are probably not teaching what we intend.
  • Finally, I believe that horses are sentient beings. By this I mean that horses experience and need to be allowed to express emotion; they also have opinions to share, and things to teach us. If this is true it greatly enhances the effectiveness and potential of therapies, especially those in the counselling and personal growth fields, which incorporate horses; it also increases our duty of care to our horses.

My opinions are certainly not shared by all. I recently came across an online discussion on a forum with a new horse owner asking for support with her horse, who she stated was challenging her authority. While the responses varied, all but one shared a theme:  “Grab a lunge whip and work the crap out of him … when you control his feet, you control the horse” was one recommendation. Another stated: “All you have to do is force him to do something… (what you do) depends on how much convincing he needs.” And then, ‘No begging, no pleading, just flat out ride-’em-till-they-lick … get your adrenaline up, scream, holler, and yell. Be the alpha!’

One response, ridiculed later in the discussion, was different:

I suggest and lead.
I teach and help.
I spend time with them and build trust.
I listen.

I wondered which line of advice she chose to follow; and whether any of her advisers were also parents.

“When a horse is scared or overwhelmed they often respond with one of the five F’s”, our equine professional, Sue Falkner March, shared with a recent training group at Healing Hooves, “Flight, fight, freeze, faint and fidget.” Most of my participants had heard of the first three, but faint and fidget they were less familiar with. Sue continued, “Fidget is often seen as disrespect, as a behavioural problem to fix, but it’s usually our horse telling us he is concerned.”

I think of Pickle, who came from a high stress show barn environment with a warning that he likes to chew things. Early days I’d occasionally leave bridles within reach and he would cower, anticipating reprimand, when he invariably took a nibble. Now we keep leather things out of his reach and give him his own ‘chew rope’ to chow down on when he needs to. Most importantly we pay attention when he fidgets and do all we can to help him feel safe. The message this gives our clients, especially those diagnosed with ADHD and anxiey, is often very needed. I wonder what message the kids at the show barn, who saw Pickle smacked over the nose for ‘disrespectful behaviour’, took home.

The learnings and parallels also come from the other direction. In an article about parenting sensitive children, Dr. Deborah McNamara writes:

“When they feel coerced and controlled, they can become full of counterwill – the instinct behind resistance and opposition. They can dig in with refusal and lash out in frustration when attempts are made to move them in a particular direction. The goal is to engage their attention and collect them before making commands and demands so that they will be more inclined to follow along.” http://macnamara.ca/portfolio/what-sensitive-kids-would-like-you-to-know-about-them/

Anyone who has ever tried to get a sensitive or fearful horse into a horse trailer without first spending some time connecting and building trust with that horse, is likely to relate to that statement!

At Healing Hooves, we believe there are many rich parallels from the horse world which can, if we let them, teach us about ourselves and help us be better humans. We strive to draw on and practice insightful and gentle horsemanship and horse wisdom to help people. Sometimes the lessons seem obvious, right in front of us, perhaps as in the examples above.

Other times we have blind spots, when we all need to take our time and listen more carefully.

A retired showjumper showed me one of my blind spots many years ago, with the help of another 14-year-old girl, Amanda. On the streets, sexually exploited, and addicted to multiple drugs by age 12, by the time she was referred to Healing Hooves Amanda was in recovery but experiencing overwhelming anxiety. At that time Skye was my ‘anxiety horse’. With his own trauma history, high sensitivity and gentleness with people, I just knew Skye could help Amanda.

But out in the pasture Skye uncharacteristically moved away and Amanda’s eyes lit up as she asked, “who is that gorgeous black horse?” While there was no denying Dubh’s beauty, his temperament was not what I thought Amanda needed, so I steered her back in Skye’s direction.

Three sessions later not much was happening with Skye, and Amanda was still gazing at Dubh. So, we brought him in.

I shared a little of Dubhs story; his short, initially successful, show jumping career followed by early retirement for ‘behavioural problems’. Dubh’s ears pinned back as I brushed his tummy and I explained that he still struggled with touch in a number of areas, perhaps due to old injuries, or perhaps due to how he was treated. We were still trying to figure that out.

Amanda looked into Dubh’s eyes and gently stroked his neck. “Did they ever ask if you even wanted to jump?” Dubh lowered his head and Amanda scratched him behind his ears, her next words for me. “They didn’t care about him, and they never listened when he tried to say no. All they cared about was how much money he could make for them.” The latter part of Amanda’s words are muffled by Dubh’s mane and her own tears but I was finally listening. I don’t know if Amanda had Dubh’s story completely right, but I was ready to hear hers, as was Dubh.

I think back to the comment on that equine forum:

I spend time with them and build trust. I listen.

I learned to listen a little better that day.

Does this mean that anything goes? Am I suggesting we let our kids and horses do what they want, when and how they want, without limit and restriction?
Absolutely not! My horses, and my children, have shown me repeatedly that they feel safer and more confident when I am clearly in the lead, which sometimes means saying no, setting limits and giving direction. But I try to do so quietly and gently, listening to and for their input, and often adjusting my requests and guidance accordingly.

Similarly, the kids who the University of Virginia researchers found to be thriving were not the ones who yelled and dominated passive parents; nor were they those who whined, threatened or used insults to try to get their own way. Rather, they were the ones who were invited and encouraged by parents to express themselves – including on points of disagreement with their parents – calmly and persuasively.

Brianna and I bring Pickle into the arena, unclipping his lead rope so he can wander around and check out his surroundings. “Why is his rope like that?” Bill asks. He hands Brianna a brush and together with Anna they wait for Pickle to come back to be groomed.

“That’s a great question,” I respond.

I’m hopeful for this family. I’m hopeful that, like Pickle, Brianna will gradually find the courage to tell her parents, and her peers, what she is thinking and feeling. I’m hopeful that her parents are ready and willing to listen, even if they don’t agree with or like all they will hear.

As L.R. Knost put it so beautifully in the words of a child in one of her gentle parenting memes:

Wait. So you want me to grow into an adult who thinks for myself, acts independently, and stand by my choices, but while I’m a child you want me to be submissive, compliant and pliable? I think we need to talk.” https://www.facebook.com/littleheartsbooks/

I think so too.

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