Minding my own business one Sunday evening when the phone rang. A pleasant-sounding young woman from Phoenix had found my name on the web and was calling for a reality check. She was concerned about a choice one of her friends was making to take her horse, a greenish Friesian, to work with a clinician whose claim to fame is laying horses down to “extinguish” their fear. The history was that about a year ago the Friesian had done something to unload her friend, and ever since she’s been searching for the right approach to fix the horse’s problem. My caller confided that she didn’t think the horse had a real problem – she herself was able to get on him bareback and ride without issues. But her friend was still experiencing fear of the horse.
This young woman on the phone had a very strong negative response to listening to what her friend had to say about the clinician, the latest in a line of training gurus about whom she had become excited. My caller was looking for confirmation that someone else shared her misgivings and for ideas about how to dissuade her friend from subjecting her lovely horse to this laying down treatment. She was also concerned about her own horse’s welfare in this situation. “Her horse is my horse’s best friend, and I don’t know how he’ll react if his friend comes back different,” she told me.
Well, I have to say the words “laying a horse down” elicit a pretty strong visceral response in me. I flash to the scene in the movie “The Horse Whisperer” when Robert Redford’s character lays down that poor horse who has been through the horrific accident that killed his barnmate. I could barely stay in my seat, and you couldn’t pay me to watch it again.
I also see in my mind’s eye a horse who was boarded with my horses in Colorado. The facility owner asked me one day to help her doctor a wound on this gelding, whom I had previously only seen at a distance in a far pasture. He had cut a leg on some wire and she was having to clean out the wound and medicate it, probably a painful process. This horse stood stock still, trembling, with the most vacant look in his eye I had ever seen. Was this just a pain and stress response from the horse, I asked. Oh no, that’s his normal expression, she said with sadness and regret. Nobody really knew his background and his mostly absentee owner was a novice who didn’t seem to see anything amiss. But there truly was nobody home. I’ll never, ever forget that glazed eye in that sweet face.
Well, back to my caller. She described photos she had seen on the clinician’s website of hobbled horses with ropes wrapped around them to unbalance them, and spoke of the violence and force those suggested to her. She asked whether I thought she was over-reacting, and I assured her that neither I nor anyone I could think of among my horsey friends or clients would ever consider treating a horse that way. Would ever risk threatening a horse at that primal level and creating a complete emotional/energetic shutdown in such a sensitive being. No way. No how.
I noted that it sounded to me as if the rider would benefit from working with someone who could help her overcome her fears. That could mean finding an instructor who would help her find emotional balance through educating her about physical stability on the horse. Or it could mean finding a therapist who specialized in working with post-traumatic stress issues. Lots of options to address what felt like the most obvious barrier in this horse/human partnership.
As we talked, I had to admit to her that I didn’t hold out much hope that she could convince her friend not set off for the clinic the next day. The best advice I could offer was to calmly remind her friend that just because she was at a clinic, she was not bound to do everything the clinician suggested. To plant in her friend’s head the notion that if she became uncomfortable with something the clinician wanted to do or wanted her to do with the horse, she had every right to say “no.” And that her primary responsibility was to guard the safety and welfare of her horse, not to please a clinician or an audience.
I hope that was enough. I asked my caller to email and tell me what happened, but I haven’t heard from her. I hope for the sake of that horse and his owner that no news is good news. sk