Several decades ago, long before I started working in the equine therapy field, I attended a horsemanship clinic where I first heard the advice to “take the time it takes so that it takes less time.” I figured I knew what that meant: instead of catching my horse any way I could, grooming and saddling up, I should first practice groundwork exercises aimed at building trust and respect, so things would go better when I then rode.
I am incredibly grateful that the horses and clients at Healing Hooves have taught me over the past twenty years that it means so much more.
I owe some of that learning to ‘Star’, a horse who was with us on lease a number of years ago and a young client, ‘Sam’.
Star was hard to catch her first few months at Healing Hooves. When approached she would either run away, or turn around to kick. Various approaches were suggested to address this ‘troubling behaviour’. We should keep her in a small pen so she could not get away from us; leave her halter on so she was easier to ‘grab’; take a bucket of feed out to entice her; or only feed her once she had been caught. The approach we used initially was a version of what is sometimes called a ‘join up’, where you drive the horse away until she chooses to come.
Through my work with Dr. Gordon Neufeld, I learned how a join up can, depending on how it is done, be similar in nature to a ‘time out’ with children; acting on the alarm system and fear of being separated from attachments to get the horse or child to come or comply ‘by choice’. Sadly the developmental and relational costs of these popular approaches, for horse and child, can be significant.
It was time for my learning to go deeper.
It seemed like a perfect afternoon to go for a ride. Sam grabbed Star’s halter and rope, I picked up a grooming kit, and we headed off in the direction of the field. On the way we talked about why we would not use a join up that day. Sure, it would probably ‘work’, but at what cost to their relationship? How much of our horse would come through the gate with us? How much might she close off to keep herself safe?
So instead, we ditched the halter and took out a couple of the brushes. We started brushing the other horses in the herd, as they came to us. For a long time Star kept her distance but eventually she seemed to sense the lack of threat, edged closer and eventually joined our group.
What followed was a very nurturing and quiet time. Star relaxed in a way which would not have seemed possible before. Her bottom lip drooped and at one stage she rested her chin on Sam’s shoulder, while Sam massaged her neck.
In time, Sam brought the halter over. But instead of putting it on Star right away, Sam started by gently rubbed her with it. When Sam put the halter quietly around Star’s neck, Star dropped her nose into the noseband herself.
After a moment Sam simply took the halter back off; likely the opposite of what Star expected.
From a traditional perspective how much success did we have? It took us an hour to get a halter on. We didn’t even put on a lead rope, never mind the saddle, and we certainly had no time to ride. But both of us agreed that this was Sam and Star’s best session ever. We didn’t achieve our initial ‘goal’, but Sam and Star went a long way towards building a much deeper relationship.
As often seems to happen in Equine Therapy sessions, the healing happened on more than one level. Eyes focused on Star, Sam shared examples of relationships and time where she feels pushed, misunderstood and coerced. Sam wondered out loud if her reactions of pushing back, running away, hurting herself and others, which have got her labeled with a whole host of disorders, are not so different to what Star does. I recall watching Sam gently running her fingers through Star’s flaxen mane. We took a small step that day towards Sam feeling less like there is something horribly ‘wrong’ with her, and at the same time finding hope that there are positive relationships out there for her too.
Over the past fifteen years this theme of ‘slowing down’ has impacted everything we do at Healing Hooves: sessions with our clients, training our horses, personal growth workshops, our therapeutic stories, and our EFW-Canada training workshops. We have found wonderful confirmation of this approach with our equine coach Sue Falkner March, an advanced instructor in Centred Riding, TEAM and Connected groundwork, who leads the equine portion of our programs.
The result looks much less dramatic and is not what everyone arrives asking for. However, just as Sam and I experienced that afternoon with Star, once we slow down and take the time it takes, opening our eyes and heart to seeing and experiencing things in a deeper gentler way, the healing, insight and growth we experience can be profound.
I think this approach to EFW is what makes it so appealing. To be able to enjoy the process of certification rather than rush trough to get the qualifications, takes the pressure off of it being a “race to the finish” and “more of a joy in journey scenario”. I can see how this will transfer to working in the field later on. If I am accustomed to working slowly all along, then it will be easier to continue the approach as a lifestyle later on.
This is probably the most important part to fully embrace: to slow down and take the time it needs, be it during the sessions or the certification process itself. Thank you for ‘role modeling’ it.
This article is a great reminder of the importance of slowing down the process as a way to provide growth, healing, and wellbeing for our clients and animal friends. Thank you for being such a good teacher Sue.
Thank you for the great reminder of the true value of slowing things down and taking the time it takes with our clients, our animal partners, and ourselves.
This article is always such a great reminder. Slowing down – something that seems so difficult in many ways and yet, can really change how we work with horses, ourselves and others. I am reminded to slow down almost every day I work with horses or even try to get things done with a little one under the age of 1. I am sure there is some alarm system in her, that each time I “think” about getting a lot done, and rushing, she absolutely has to sit with me. The second I “slow down” and truly live within each moment, somehow we complete so much more together. I find this is the same working with horses of all ages. When I slow down, my engagement and intention changes and so does their reaction to working with me.
I had to laugh re-reading this a year later when I now have another one under 1. It is amazing how it has changed for me. So often I have tried to rush through getting things done only to realize the more I slowed down, the more I was present, the more I actually accomplished throughout the day. And actually, when I completed a self-compassion day at your place Sue, lead by the amazing Megan, I was reminded of this and how it relates to self-compassion!
What a great story, I love seeing horses and humans grow with relationship building
Over these last months of learning (and experiencing) with you, Sue, I have seen what a huge impact slowing down and sharing an agenda with the horses makes. When I head to the corrals now, all our horses come rushing in from the pasture when I call or whistle. They are thrilled to just “hang out” and they and I are so much more relaxed and happier for that. Two days ago was the first time I asked any of them if they wanted to go for a ride (in ages) and all of them were happy to do so. So impactful – working TOGETHER on the agenda, not just having mine.
This sounds wonderful Elizabeth!
I really enjoyed reading this article! I think it provides an excellent example of how we can slow down in our relationships (with any species). It can go either way – with us pursuing, or being pursued. Past EFW and horsemanship work has taught me this too, and the art of just enjoying the time with a horse without the need to halter them or make them work.
This is a great example of your work in action. So much of the time there is reluctance to slow down for various reasons. It is striking how much more is achieved slowing down than pushing; it seems like there was a real breakthrough for Star and Sam.
Slow is powerful. Slow will last. When results are found by being slow and meaningful, they are everlasting. I very much enjoyed this reminder.
Even though it may seem slow from a conventional point of view, the gains made in the story of Star and Sam were quite significant and more meaningful than the original goal of going for a ride. Really enjoy these stories and examples of this work in practice.
I love this idea of slowing things down and have found great relief in both my work and my personal life to be able to do that.
yes – this is a huge theme in all of our trainings, and is often the most powerful shift I see happening
It seems that Sam had very strong intuition for how to navigate the relationship with Star. It’s amazing how much our intuition can guide us if we’re paying attention.
I like the ‘slow down’ approach. Reminds me what my parents used to say as I’d rush through schoolwork and it not be so great when marks would come back! ‘Slow and easy gets the job done’. In parts of society today its unfortunate that’s not always able to be accomplished due to deadlines and other factors but as illustrated so well in this story look at the huge benefit to doing so.
I read a horsemanship article this week that mentioned that we need to be careful when we are using “joining up” because if it is done in certain ways, it can be detrimental to the horse and/or our relationship with our horse. I wondered if I should be doing it at all, since I was not certain of the “right way” and it always bothered me that there was a look of fear in my horse’s eyes when we did it. I needed to read this article today. Thank you, Sue.
You are welcome Kellee – yes, I used to practice a version of the ‘join up’ but don’t now as I think there is such a fine line here and a risk of putting the horse into alarm. You may get the behaviour you want but, at what cost to the horse and the relationship. I have an article somewhere that I wrote years ago comparing the join up to a time out with kids, and explaining why I’m not a fan of either!
Big lesson for me in EFW training, slowing down … still learning. I’ve never heard of “join up”.
I need to slow down too, I have been trying!
I read this article at the perfect time! My horse Inky has always been easy to catch. But was injured last year and I had to give her medicine every day by mouth. She did not like this and I was often in a hurry to get her medicine in and did not take the time to make it a very pleasant experience for her. She is physically better now but emotionally it took a toll and now she is almost impossible to catch. So often, I think to send her away from me, knowing that I could catch her more quickly that way. But I stop myself as I know this will only make matters worse. So now I am spending the time to catch her by letting her smell the halter. It is interesting that she does almost put her own halter on when you take the time to catch her this way. THIS is a true join up as she chooses to be with me. Hmmmmm, I just realized that lately our ground work has gone smooth each session. I wonder… if that has something to do with the fact that she actually choose to spend the time with me! Aha moment!
thanks for sharing this Kim – you may find that over time this whole experience leads to a greater connection between you and Inky!
Sometimes slowing down has been exactly what is needed for relationship building. I have noticed in my work with clients that when I slow down and put my own agenda aside, that this can really help to create connection between myself and my clients. I work in an environment where I can see my clients often, so there really is no excuse not to slow down
I agree – it’s such a simple shift (not always easy though!) that we sometimes underestimate how powerful it can be!
100% in agreement. It is a mindset I diligently attempt to practice even when I fail. I truly believe this is where the most advancement, growth and connection occurs, increasing the overall intent, success and healing; for both horse and human.
I love your words here Sara: ” a mindset I diligently attempt to practice even when I fail” – because the reality is that we will fall short in this, repeatedly, and that is totally OK provided we keep, as you say, giving it our best try. I remember someone once saying to me ‘when you fall flat on your face you are still moving forward’ and that one stuck with me!
I’ve been practicing allowing myself to slow down and stop working at the pace of someone else’s expected agenda
that is great to hear Aprille! Yes – I often have discussions with clients about urgent versus important. So often we are driven by what is or seems urgent (and often it’s what someone else deems to be urgent) and we end up neglecting what is important
Great post Sue – go slow to go fast… I have been teaching this for decades, and yet I still learn it more and more deeply as I mature and witness, over and over, that this is the way. I have often been asked by clients “what will we be doing?, what’s the agenda?, what results can we expects?” etc…. I have learned to listen to what they mean, not what they are saying… they want to trust that this is the next best step and with whom they will take the step… they want to know that we’ve got them (horse or human!), etc…. and then there is the piece of letting go of my own ‘want’ to create a result…. LOL!
This is wonderful! We can achieve so much more in all areas if we just slow down.
I like the quote ” take the time it takes so it takes less time”. I have used this model many times working with my horses and training them. I have learned that by taking things slow and simplifying my expectations or goals for my time with my horses that next time I do the same activity with my horse they are better behaved and it does take less time. I too have spent lots of time out in the pasture catching a horse that doesn’t want to be caught and over time they realize that being caught and putting on a halter is ok now it takes 5 min or less to catch any of my horses because I spent time working on it. I also have a horse that doesn’t like to stand still for mounting so I have spent a lot of time with her getting her to stand, relaxing her and myself and overtime as I work on it I spend less time mounting and more time riding.
This article draws my attention towards client and counsellor goals. I wonder how many times I’ve worked too quickly or moved past a moment in order to reach a “goal”? I like your question “From a traditional perspective how much success did we have?” “Success” requires a new definition with AAT. Great article, highlighting slowing down and the new meaning of “success”. Years ago a supervisor told me not to be “results” focused, but “process” focused. I really like the process in this session you’ve shared.
Thank you for your comment Dana! I hope I can implement this philosophy to be process rather than results focused! Love that!
This is a lovely story and a fantastic example of being willing to humbly admit when maybe we’ve become sidetracked by a goal rather than focusing on the process and relationship. I wonder, how would you have handled the situation, Sue, if Star had taken much longer to come and join the group, for example, 3 or 4 sessions? How would you have processed this with Sam if she became disheartened by how long it was taking Star?
Thanks for asking this Andrea as it is a very realistic scenario.
In terms of what we ‘do’ in this situation we would almost always respect the horse’s right to say no and allow her lots of space – we would not (however tempted!) use ay sort of coercion or ‘tricks’ to achieve our goal, even if we desperately want this for the client’s sake!
How we interpret/ process/ discuss this will most likely be client led and will depend on how much context we have with the client, how safe and ready they feel to feel and express/ share the emotions that come up and what their history/ triggers are (recognising we may not know all of this). We explore this in various ways during training, with more context provided, so I’ll keep it brief here but some possible responses would be to (1) depersonalise what the horse is doing (it’s about their stuff, not about the client) – which may need a reframe if the client takes responsibility when it’s not actually about them, (2) explore the empowerment within this – for the horse to set a boundary and say ‘no’ without being punished, judged or rejected (as possibly the client has never been allowed to do this/ safe to do this),and or (3) allow the client space to (safely – including emotionally safe for the horse) feel and express the hurt/ frustration/ alarm … they experience in the moment – this may stay in the context of the horse and the moment or may move to what this triggers in the client from past experiences/ other relationships/ patterns. In some cases it IS something the client is doing or may be something we are doing – so more grounding, regulation work or trying a different way of approaching the horse (which can be a learning opportunity for how we show up in relationships and interactions) may be appropriate. In other cases where a client is not ready for any of the above we may just redirect to another horse. And of course all of this depends on our scope of practice. And then there is also the possibility that there are some other reasons why the horse is acting this way, especially if it’s unusual, that we may need to explore out of session but could possibly be curious about with the client during the session. So lots of things to consider here!
Thanks for this, Sue! It’s so interesting to consider all of the potential responses. I think for those of us who are new to this type of work, it can seem daunting to know how to choose the most appropriate response (for both the client and the horse), but I think the confidence will come in time with patience and practice.
absolutely! Plus it’s OK to make mistakes along the way too!
I so enjoyed the questions and comments to this insightful article!! I can’t help but see a rich parallel to all relationships where we rush for results or the task of the day and damage our connection and trust. As I mature as a therapist I go deeper into experiential relational and process oriented work and it always brings about more meaningful and lasting change. And it always takes more time gentleness and a slower pace. Thank you for articulating this so beautifully Sue!
You’re welcome Elicia! And I totally agree – slowing down and focusing on the relationship rather than the task would be so helpful in so many different contexts!
Many of our programs in therapeutic/ adaptive riding serve clients with significant mobility issues and as such the horses are cued up and ready to go in the arena making slowing down tricky. In fact even some of our in hand mental health and addiction programming serve clients whose bodies are ravished by their addictions, making the walk to pasture/ pen, the slow and interactive/ responsive approach again, tricky. The observable reality with our horses however, proves to us over and over how powerful slowing down is – I can see it in our horses – how much more relaxed they are about going to work. Even has a handler, those programs that allow for slowing down, a walk to pens, waiting for our horses curiosity to rise – this inspires joy – and grounding in the moment for everyone is so much deeper and steadying.
this can be a very challenging shift I agree Jasoon! I do find though that the clients where this seems to be the most challenging are often the ones who can benefit from it the most!
I agree with slowing down and have experienced the benefits. I think it is an important reminder, as the pressure can get to all us.
I love learning from your clients’ stories and their intuitive interactions with your horses. Thanks for sharing!
This story and many of the comments following provide such great reminders of the benefits to slowing down. I know I can still be goal or task oriented and have to catch myself and remind myself to take a breath, maybe take a step back and then re-engage. I have found that when I do this my perspective broadens as well . When I am task oriented, I get tunnel vision, but when I take my time, I notice and learn from so much more along the journey.
I had troubles catching my horse for quite some time. I had tried all sorts of methods, including joining up. Now we rarely have difficulty transitioning to the halter. The change…slowing down and ensuring release. Thanks for the post!
You’re welcome Mikayla! Yes slowing down is huge – I recently heard in a conference, “whenever you ask – do I need to slow down here? – the answer is yes!”
I remember as a child we borrowed a Shetland pony from my cousins and it was love at first sight for me. However my very first encounter was walking up to say hello and he spun round and kicked out as clearly did not wish to be caught. This was my first experience of looking after a pony and I spent many hours with various treats and enlisting my brothers help with varying degrees of success. No wonder that poor pony first reacted as he did when his first meeting was someone trying to catch him to ride right away.
Saddened by how many horses are often hurt by enthusiastic people who just don’t have enough knowledge to slow down and look after them properly. Relationship is key – for horses and people.
This raises such an important poinbt here Donna – rarely is anything done with an intention to cause harm or to be unsafe, especially when we’re talking about kids who love horses!
I think the approach is everything. You are not able to move forward without first building connections, trust and relationships. Being able to slow down and focus on the “basics” is what allows for connections to be strong. We have to remember that everything needs to happen in its own time, and even though we have a goal and sometimes when we are trying to heal or grow we want everything to happen now. It is important to let our stories and healing to happen when they are meant too. That is what I love about working with animals – they show you the pace that is needed – not wanted. Connections with self and others create healing, and when they are authentic and genuine that is when you will make the most progress.
I love how you express this Katherine: “That is what I love about working with animals – they show you the pace that is needed – not wanted” This is often something I’ll explore in parenting sessions – how we aim to see, understand and meet the need underlying behaviours and demands, even as we sometimes say no to the want. And this can definitely apply to the pace of the work. The added piece in here is to normalise that this will create some frustration (including in ourselves!) which we also would do well to acknowledge and make space for