Not everyone who gets horses can keep them healthy and happy throughout their lives. Life changes. Children grow up and leave. Money problems happen. Natural disasters occur. Health issues arise and sometimes, don’t go away. In an ideal world, we would all find ways to overcome these upsets so we can keep our loved ones close. Our human-constructed world is not always ideal.
Let’s face it; not everyone keeps horses for love. That’s a subject for a different day. So, what do we do when we can no longer provide for our horse(s’) needs? At this point, the prospects are slim, unless the horse is in its prime, well trained in a performance or work specialty and sound in body, mind and spirit. That describes a small percentage of the horses out there.
There’s a huge population of great horses who have plenty to offer us humans. In California, many of them wind up jammed into tractor-trailers like sardines on their way to meet a kid with a hammer in Mexico. California outlawed horse slaughter in a misguided attempt to prevent cruelty. The unintended consequence is brutal deaths for countless horses. Loving people, some of whom thought that they were giving their old friend a second chance when they sent them to auction, once owned many of them.
It’s a bleak picture, but it doesn’t have to be. There are alternatives. It seems more are rising every month. A few years ago, I started working with rescue horses to prepare them for work in equine education and therapy settings. There’s also a new trend, which I support wholeheartedly: keeping horses as companions. I’d like to see that grow to include involving horses in our individual and collective spiritual journeys. Though some horse people believe that rescued horses are too damaged for this sort of work, I’ve seen otherwise. The horses re-educated me. It took them some time, as I entered the project overly confident in my horse training skills.
The horses taught me to leave the tack and training protocols in the barn. When I finally figured out that the most important part of the work was to be present with them in their world, I started to hang out in their pastures. There’s always plenty to do in a pasture. Picking up poop is an endless chore that gave me hours to watch, listen. At first, I figured that being of service to them in their pastures was important. They taught me otherwise. What each horse responded to best was my letting go of my agenda. Instead of ‘working them,’ as I had when I was a performance trainer, I joined them. I didn’t distract myself with books, art materials, my phone or endless chores. I just was there with them, paying attention to things like the color of the grass, the feel of the air, the facility of their muzzles to sort out the delicious from the chaff. When I did that, they started coming to me, not to demand treats or attention, but to explore me.
They started to incorporate me into their group. There are many steps involved in joining a band of horses, but we humans don’t need to direct the show. Once you master the art of presence, which is mindfulness, the horses are happy to take the lead. They trained me to stay mindful in their presence, by showing me the differences in their behavior when I was in the zone and when I slipped out.
Once I integrated this revelation, I began to recall the many times horses have done the impossible for me. Those occasions always happened when I was fully present with them in some kind of tough situation. I didn’t “train them” to do it. No one could. It just seemed to happen. Now, I think it was because, unbeknownst to me at the time, I had slipped into their wavelength.
The first rescue horse I worked with was a three-year-old filly who had been spirited away from her horrifically abusive owner when she was hours from death by starvation. Her halter had grown into her head and had to be surgically removed. She had spent a month in intensive care at a vet hospital. A friend with a huge heart was hired to socialize her in preparation for a forever home. The friend asked me for help.
When I got a look at her, my first thought was, why didn’t they put down this poor creature? She’s too far gone to bring back. Then I turned to my friend and realized that there was a reason for this. I didn’t know what it was yet, but I had confidence that it would emerge. Together, we might be able to figure out how to bring this mare peace. If we could do it for her, any horse could be saved.
For a few minutes, I tried to calm the mare as she struggled against cross ties in the barn. It was a dark and stormy night. It seemed cruel to throw her out in the pasture with a band of mares. She hadn’t met another horse, until she was hospitalized. But, there was no way she was going to safely settle into a pole stall. Everything seemed to terrify her. So, as the night wore on, it became clear that the pasture was our only viable option.
She didn’t know how to walk on a line and she didn’t have a scrap of trust in humans, except my friend, who had been called away to talk with the stable manager. The mare spun around me as we made our way through the dark, stormy night. She blew and struck out with all four as I struggled with the gate, then bolted inside when it swung open. As I struggled to keep up with her and get the gate closed, I slipped under her churning legs. As I went down, I was sure that I would die there. Then she levitated. I could see her feet flopping inches over my face, but instead of landing on me, she touched down a foot to my side. All the commotion brought the band thundering over a grade directly toward us. That little freaked out mare stood her ground, chasing six other mares away from me while I scrambled to my feet.
The line was still secured to her neck. I waited in the dark storm, unfamiliar with the terrain of the pasture. My flashlight had drowned. Where was she? The rain sliced sideways on a fierce wind. It felt like razor blades on my exposed face. I stood there for what felt like hours hoping for some kind of hint that would help me find her. Eventually, an old PMU mare nudged the back of my shoulder. The little mare quivered behind her. I crawled over to her because the storm was too strong for me to walk into. She snorted and struck, but came nowhere near me when she did. I croaked out the Itsy-Bitsy Spider song. It seemed to surprise the mare. She snorted, but stopped striking. I managed to free the line. As soon as I did, that old giant mare began to amble toward the shelter. The little mare trudged after her. Over the next few months, that old mare taught her how to be a horse.
From that muddy moment on, I’ve been committed to bringing rescue horses into equine therapy and educational settings. A horse doesn’t have to be physically sound or highly educated to be a great therapist or teacher. In fact, those who’ve made it through tough times or a long life can bring wonderful qualities to the work.
What appears to make the biggest differences between horses in this work is the extent to which the humans in their world can be present with them. Does their environment support their horsiness, or is it set up for people instead? Once their humans get their heads right, if their horsiness is honored with plenty of time at liberty with a stable group of equines, their forage and water is of high quality and their health needs tended, the horse will make a fine niche for itself in the work. When problems arise, look first at the energy the humans are bringing. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, an adjustment there will provide the fix.
There are a growing number of clinical and educational applications for horses to slip their mindfulness expertise into the human psyche. Beyond these settings, is another application that’s just beginning to rise among horse-loving people: keeping horses as companion animals. I would add yet another: keeping horses as spiritual guidance counselors.