It’s raining today. Clouds mumble thunder, but it looks like they also have snow on their mind. It is, in other words, a perfect day for writing.
Writing, to my surprise, is rubbing elbows with fear this morning. The act of dissecting fear and regaining the confidence to ride ignites the same sensations of cold hands, shallow breathing, and a brick wall of procrastination that has lasted half the morning.
It used to be the same with riding. A sunny warm day would appear. As soon as the thought about going for a ride became conscious, my hands got cold, my breathing sped up and I would find reasons to not get out with my horse.
In this next series of blogs, we will be taking a comprehensive look at how to navigate your way through the maze of trauma and fear after a horse accident. We will thread together brain anatomy, breathing, movement, and different therapies you might find helpful.
I am not a therapist, but after being asked by many horse people about feeling good about riding after a horse accident, it became clear that outlining the process I’ve gone through may be helpful. While not all the answers are here, and some may not fit for you, my hope is that the information will provide the spark you need to start finding your own way back to riding with joy.
Moving toward confidence from fear with horses is about a lot of help. It’s also letting go of any notion that this is an A to B, straight-line, beginning-middle-end process. Most of life’s trips are like driving in the dark: we can only see as far as the high beams shine. And wouldn’t you know it? Sometimes the high beams don’t work. Perhaps we only have the fog lights to guide us.
Healing from a horse related trauma, and regaining confidence, is like a maze. With the fog lights on. In this maze, we can only see a short distance in front of us, and the map is created by the very act of finding our way out. We can get curious and keep following the threads, away from the terror and fear Minotaur, or we can stay where we are. The choice is ours.
Often in this journey, either the brain or the body is ignored. However, when they are woven together and given equal importance and focus, that is the alchemical transformation of leaden fear into the gold of confidence. Books and exercises, along with confidence building clinics are all extremely helpful. However, if they aren’t including the combination of body and brain, it’s been my experience that we are only going to progress so far in our way to riding with less fear.
I say less fear, and not fearless because it is clear to me that after an accident, there remains a bit of fear when we do decide to ride again. We will chat more about this later, and how fear and riding do not cancel each other out.
For now, let’s take a look at the first part of our map, which is the human brain.
One theory that has been helpful for me is the Triune Brain theory.
It’s largely not used by brain professionals, but I have found in it an elegant simplicity to explain why thinking your way out of trauma is often unsuccessful. Peter Levine, psychologist and founder of Somatic Experiencing work, refers to this theory, so I would like to share it here.
It’s based on the idea that the brain evolved in three different stages.
The first and oldest part of the brain is called the Reptilian brain, and is mostly concerned with basic functions such as regulation of heartbeat and breathing, as well as the fight or flight states.
The Paleomammalian (or Limbic) brain evolved next, and is also home to the limbic system. The functions of this system arose early in mammal’s evolution and are responsible not only for emotion, but the motivation to reproduce and raise offspring.
The last part of our brains to evolve, this theory suggests, is the Neomammalian (or Neocortex). This is where more advanced functions such as planning, impulse control, abstraction and perception reside.
Here’s the key: we cannot use one part of our brains (the Neocortex, the newly evolved brain) to talk, reason, plan or manipulate another part (the reptilian brain, the oldest in our evolution) out of fear and terror. It’s almost as though the brain is Europe. One continent, different languages.
I have a question for you: when you remember a horse accident, does your breathing stay long slow and deep, or does it get shallow? Stop? Does your heart rate increase? All of these things are your survival systems coming online. The brain cannot tell the difference between something actually happening, and something that you are remembering or visualizing happening. Once the brain goes on alert, the body is quick to follow.
This is what I mean about one part of the brain not convincing the other part. When there is a choice between survival and thinking, survival will win. And much like horses, if we are fearful we cannot be curious, and curiosity will help fear dissipate.
Our brains and bodies are intimately connected, woven together of gazillions of parts, big and small, to form this one unique expression of a human being.
And this amazing brain (and it’s partner the body) can be both the screwdriver, and the loose screw.
I raise my hand first when it comes to admitting there’s a lot I don’t know. But what I do know, is the most unhelpful thing you can do to try and resolve the fear you are feeling as a result of a horse accident, is sit on a horse, with your racing heart and your Lamaze panting breathing, and try to reason your way out of fear.
It’s the easiest way I know to feel like a failure, feel weak and cowardly and give credence to those internal voices that snicker “you’ll never ride again.”
It doesn’t work – I wish I could tell you it did. In Part Two, we will be chatting about what does work.
We will next take a look at the power of breathing coupled with movement. If you’d like to nose around on Peter Levine’s website (click on his name earlier in the article), you’ll find some pretty useful information there. And you’ll be ahead of the game, once we get into the next section of mapping our way out of the maze.
The first time I met our horse Rocky, he and Mark were working together. It was Rocky’s first clinic, and the first time traveling to one, as well as the first time he was so far away from where he was born seven years prior, and then raised. He wasn’t too sure about anything. For three days I watched as Mark worked with him, mostly at the halt and walk to help him feel better about things.
On the fourth day during the lunch break, Rocky, still tied to a hitch rail and saddled, very carefully laid down and took a nap.
Fast forward six months: Rocky and I were working together. I did my best to continue the work Mark had started, now at the walk and trot. We worked several clinics a month for two years. One day he felt so quiet that I asked him if we could canter. He did, and it was so easy and relaxed that I laughed with joy.
Through the years, dozens of trips back and forth across the country, with Rocky spending time with both Mark and I, we found him to be a confident, willing to work partner. He reached the place where he was softer than I had ever felt in a horse, and many times he was so attuned that I began to notice where I was not clear in my own riding. Rocky and I were now learning from each other, but I’m quite sure I got the better end of the deal!
I have noticed that in this work (where the principal focus is softness, and helping the horse feel good), there comes a point where they grow past us. We ask them to open, and when they do, they show the depth of themselves which holds more than we ever imagined. This is where horses have inspired us to poetry and books and songs. This is what almost every horse holds the key to, when we show them that they can trust us to unlock.
Not every horse does this, or can do this, nor are they required to. Rocky, however, made a choice years ago that what we were asking fit with what he could do. We extended friendship to him, and he has given it back to us in numerous ways, as in the story below.
Mark and I were at home one day, when I let him know I was ready to ride another horse. It had been over a year after my accident by then and I was grateful about my growing confidence. I saddled up Rocky, took a few deep breaths and had a good time that day with my old pal. I asked Rocky for all the things we have done together, except for canter.
That night, I asked Mark if he would keep an eye on me the next day when we cantered, to give me a verbal “all’s well” beforehand. I didn’t have any doubts about Rocky, but rather my own internal system that went a bit haywire before the thought of going faster. I knew that if I heard “you’re ok,” from someone I trust, then I could quiet that worry.
When we rode the next day, as we were trotting by Mark, I said “I’m ready. Can you let me know it’s ok to—“ and before the word “canter” came out of my mouth, Rocky had picked up the soft, slow and rocking gait. I laughed with joy.
After that, cantering with Rocky was what it always used to be: fun, funny (I like the way he flips his forelock in the air) and as easy as a breath and a thought. We cantered again and again, and each time Rocky put a little more energy into it. It felt like he was asking me questions, and each time my answer was “yes!”
In a way, he was returning what we had, through the years, sought to give him: the feeling of all is well, and you’re ok.
Photos of Rocky are in chronological order.
Photo 1: Loveland, Colorado 2007
Photo 2: Visalia, CA 2009
Photo 3: Ben Wheeler, TX 2014
Photo 4: Anthony, FL 2015
Friendship: a state of mutual trust and support.
Over the last several months while teaching, I’ve heard myself saying “Treat your horse as though he’s your friend.” This doesn’t come up with every horse and rider. And it doesn’t mean that people aren’t doing this to some degree; most of us have horses because we deeply care about and enjoy them. However, it is also the case that sometimes our human hardwiring takes over and we go from gentle and understanding to harsh and combative in almost the blink of an eye.
Photos 1, 4, 5: Crissi McDonald
Photo 2: Louise Thayer
Photo 3: Dustin Tedder
Photo 6: Lindsey Tedder
Our farrier, Scott, was here the other day, and like most times when we get together, chat about what was going on in our lives mixed with chat about hoof health. After our horses had their shoes removed and their hooves trimmed, some had shoes put back on and some were left barefoot in preparation for going to pasture this fall.
Scott mentioned that since people began domesticating horses, we have been looking for the best way to care for their feet. It began with ancient people wrapping horses’ hooves in animal hide. Next came the Roman “hipposandal,” then, around roughly 1000 AD, cast bronze horseshoes with nail holes started showing up.
Iron (as well as steel and bronze) horseshoes have been mass-produced and used since the early thirteenth century. Currently, the development of various types of boots, glue-on shoes, and trimming according to specific principles has expanded our hoof-protection choices.
However, my intent here isn’t to take a position on one side or the other in the barefoot vs. shoes debate.
My point is that my casual conversation with Scott made me aware of The Big Picture: the revelation that, how we take care of horse’s feet has a rich and varied history that spans thousands of years over many continents in the world. Were we able to travel that far back in time to revisit the many cultures that depended on the horse, we would see people just like us searching and experimenting and finding ways to do something that needed to be done.
This is also true of just about everything we take for granted in our daily lives, things that came into being because someone, somewhere saw a need for them. Sofas? We can thank the people of seventeenth-century France for them. Tablecloths? A poet named Martial (who died in 103 AD) mentioned them, and in the eighth century, Emperor Charlemagne reportedly used one made of asbestos, throwing it into the fire after a meal, and when it didn’t burn, would use this to convince his guests of his superiority as a leader.
Or, more currently, the development of our space program. In general, it was based on our understanding of airplanes, which themselves were developed through the study of birds, but also, of wind and water currents (not to mention a whole lot of going up and coming down in very short order.) It’s perhaps a gross oversimplification, but as I understand it, we got to space by watching nature, and by making a lot of mistakes, some of which cost people their lives.
When we study something, and follow it back to its source (or as far as we’re able), the enormity and evolution of that something, whatever it is, is awe-inspiring.
That all those eons ago, people were doing essentially the same things we are today with horses? That what they did led us to where we are now, and that what we are doing now will lead to what others will do in the distant future? The idea that millions of individuals have been born, lived, invented things, and then passed on so the next generation could do the same? I feel simultaneously as though I matter and that The Big Picture will go on whether I involve myself or not.
When we study anything—horses, geology, x-rays, vacuum cleaners, or furniture making—we touch people we will never meet, and somehow contribute to the life of that thing. Everything in our lives, every object, every being, everything in nature, has come to exist in this moment on the backs of millions of things before it. This includes you and me, our horses, dogs and cats, tablecloths, sofas, and space travel.
What does this have to do with horses, or horsemanship? Well, it struck me with great clarity that when we study The Big Picture, we might, in the process, find a bit of ourselves. It’s as though understanding something at a macro level gives us a way to comprehend it at the micro level as well. I’ve seen the way a dawning understanding of our own behavior and motivations has been extended to our horses; oftentimes, our horses are the ones who initiate that dawn.
I’ve also seen, more times than I can count, the way a fuller perception of ourselves at both macro and micro levels makes things better for our horses. We ask more and demand less, hold their comfort—both physical and mental—as much a priority as our own. We do things with more softness and good intent. And because we have a broader perspective, the things we do with our horses may be more understandable and approachable to them.
I can’t help but think that reminding ourselves of the big picture also releases us from the mindset of having to get something done with our horse this very minute. That having faith that our horse’s skills (and our own), and the relationship with our horse, will evolve and grow. This can be felt by the horse within seconds of us making that change, and I no longer underestimate the power of going slowly.
For those of us who seek the best and most compatible equine relationships, it’s very much about coaxing the inside of the horse to the outside, so that what we see in the horse is a reflection of who the horse truly is. After that, the stars are the limit.