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.