Once it was confirmed I was a horse-crazy young lady, my parents eventually realized there was no turning back insofar as their daughter’s intense desire to ride, train and show. Their encouragement for me to be independent and creative may have caused them more than a few moments of anxiety, but it also produced a sense of responsibility that made me aware of the need to work hard towards the goals I would set for myself. I would be given the tools, but had to find my own path to make the finished products of my desire.
My first horse was good enough for learning the basics. She was limited by her conformation and lack of formal training however, and I had had a taste of watching friends with show horses living an exciting life of competitions and equestrian skill. My idea was to sell the grade mare and purchase a young training project. I loved appaloosas and was determined to reach my goal of having a registered show horse. Fortunately or not, my parents did not know enough about horses to realize that it would be a potentially dangerous and difficult transition for a 14-year-old to go from a reliable old ranch horse to a barely-broke filly. The fortuitous part of the story is that I did not get hurt (embarrassed many times, yes), and learned an extremely valuable lesson that shaped the foundation for my career as a professional trainer.
In 1974 we essentially had two sources of information for riding education… actual teachers, and the library. We had no way to scan the world via thousands of videos, websites or blogs. My family was now living in a city where white Stetsons and cowboy boots were a common sight and almost everybody, including big business-people had something or other to do with horses. It was easy to track down a breeder of top-notch appaloosa show horses and go visit a herd of up and coming youngsters. It was like a smorgasbord of equine-delight! My beginner horse found her way back to a ranch life and I had a few hundred dollars to spend on the horse of my dreams. Mom and I visited several breeders and patiently listened while they proudly touted the pedigrees of each animal and the histories of their illustrious stallions. It was quite a learning experience and I soaked up every bit of information and advice that came my way.
My final choice was a 2-year-old filly bred at a ranch with a famous stallion and a long line of national and world championships. There were older horses for sale that were already being shown, but they were out of my price range. I didn’t want to ask my parents to pay any more as I thought they had already been quite generous. So the owners agreed to throw in the cost of starting the red roan filly under saddle as part of her purchase price. It sounded like a good idea at the time.
Susan and Missy
We finalized the paperwork and left her in the hands of the cowboy at the ranch. I found out upon delivery that the young man had done what so many cowboys of his era were taught to do…throw a saddle on and just ride out the bucking until the horse was too exhausted to buck any longer.
I don’t know all of the details as to what went on during those few weeks, but whatever happened during Missy’s “breaking” process, it left her frightened of men in cowboy hats, hard to catch, and forever hair-trigger with unexpected bucking fits that would be set off by such things as simply trying to mount. I did not understand at first, but the day she blew up as I was swinging a leg over the saddle, I knew something had gone terribly wrong somewhere in between the time we first saw her and the day she arrived at her new home.
Then she scared me too. I did not want to get back on. So I employed one of the other cowboys on staff at the Quarter Horse show barn we boarded her at and watched in shock as she leapt about and bucked like a champion rodeo horse with the fellow on board. Luckily he stayed in the tack and we had no further incidents of quite that amount of drama.
It was very hard for me to have to ask for help with Missy. We had a series of schooling shows at the barn, and a couple of decent trainers, primarily in Western disciplines such as reining, trail & stock horse work. I devoted myself to the correct training of this filly, studying everything I could get my hands on to learn how to make my horse as good as the other competition horses. Besides watching the seasoned show riders, I studied the popular Farnam book series on horse training and diligently read Horse and Rider Magazine. Eventually we were winning ribbons in events ranging from cattle penning to western pleasure, and later adding hunt seat to our repertoire after being influenced by the very fancy warmblood jumpers that were coming to our English schooling shows. I still had to be very vigilant and quick to respond to the remaining trauma-memory in Missy’s brain however, as the explosive reactions were always waiting just beneath the surface. I was determined my next horse would be started differently, and I would do it myself.
In 1976 that opportunity arose in the form of a gorgeous, bay, spotted appaloosa colt that was on display at an Appaloosa Horse Club Conference. From the moment I saw him, I knew he was “the one.” Once again, my parents helped me out and I put Missy up for sale to help with the yearling colt’s purchase. Juniors aren’t even allowed to show a stallion so I had to take the polite and delightful little guy in open competitions. “TC” had already earned a Grand Championship in halter classes and had been extremely well handled and socialized. He seemed to love attention and nothing frightened him.
TC at Spruce Meadows 1977
By this time, I was seriously considering becoming a professional horse trainer and the high school allowed me to develop my own course of study in that regard. I had also been studying classical horsemanship and read books like Col. Alois Podhajsky’s “My Horses My Teachers” and “The Complete Training of Horse and Rider” over and over again. Having been highly influenced by the stunning Hanoverian jumpers that came to our barn’s shows, I was extremely pleased when Spruce Meadows accepted the little appaloosa colt and myself as a boarder to their now-famous international tournament facility.
There had been issues at the other barn that made me decide to leave, including alcohol-abusing staff, and a serious hock injury Missy had sustained after being run from the pasture into the barn with the entire herd of horses as was the barn’s procedure at the end of each day. The environment was not the best in which to try to focus on a green horse’s training, and I was beginning to clue-in.
Once again, I learned a lot by watching. The master European trainers at Spruce Meadows worked with young horses there each day, and I applied their methods to my young stallion. We did ground work and showed in conformation classes for over a year, as he was too young to ride. His joy and enthusiasm for everything made every day a wonderful experience. There were no setbacks and no traumas at all in the quiet, clean, and peaceful setting. Yes, there were large shows at times and many visitors, but I learned that the environment in which a horse is started is the one that affects them throughout their lifetime. They can always be brought back to the mindset of that early training should traumatizing incidents occur later in their life. It doesn’t seem to work out so well the other way around, as I found out the hard way with Missy.
TC was very bright and learned voice commands, enabling free-longeing at the walk, trot and canter in both directions, as well as liberty play that we both had a lot of fun with. I started him with care, introducing a saddle and bridle with a rubber snaffle. Each phase progressed into the next and by the time I got on his back, he was so well schooled that all he had to do was learn to balance with my weight.
Even as a stallion I was able to take him into a crowded show arena and he was never out of the ribbons. In effect, TC was my “proof of thesis” that there was a huge difference in the behaviors of a “rough-broke” horse versus one that was conscientiously started under saddle following a careful protocol of ground work adhering to classical methods that include development of the gaits prior to the horse being mounted. We not only had a tremendous relationship, but we also had the benefit of correct athletic training that set this horse up for a long and useful career.
Generally you would think a stallion would be far more difficult than a mare to handle in stressful situations. In the case of my two young horses, whose histories I knew from the beginnings of their training, the opposite was true. It was entirely their environment and process of how they were started under saddle that seemed to be the most prominent differential. What happened to the mind of the filly versus the mind of the colt?
I believe the FACES acronym by Dr. Dan Siegel can be extrapolated to traumatized horses. It stands for:
Before we get to the details of how old a person (replace “person” with “horse” in our case) is or what kind of trauma it is or if the trauma is acute, one time only, or repeated or what adaptive mechanisms were in place before the traumatic event happened – and these are all absolutely crucial elements to answer your question, “What is happening in the brain?” – there’s a more global statement to make.
“Trauma impairs integrative functioning in the brain.”
And that global statement, as far as my reading of the research literature on trauma and the brain, is that trauma impairs integrative functioning in the brain.
Brain functioning will stop being flexible – it will become inflexible.
The brain will stop being adaptive – it will become maladaptive.
Instead of being coherent, it will be incoherent.
Instead of being energized, it could be depleted or excessively aroused – not functioning with an optimal amount of energy.
“Re-integration is what repairs the brain.”
In terms of stability, it can have a strange instability – either repeating patterns that are recurrently dysfunctional, which from the outside looks stable, but the “stability” is recurrent dysfunction. (We use the word stability to describe the healthy way in which this system has equilibrium.)
All of that is the most global thing we can say about trauma, but there’s also this: re-integration is what repairs the brain.
So, we really need to ask specific questions: what was the context in which the trauma happened, at what time did it happen – what was the developmental framework – and what was this person like before the event?
Trauma will affect the specifics of the brain depending on all of those factors.
This isn’t meant to anthropomorphize a horse, which can lead to definitive inaccuracies in determining the cause of a horse’s behaviors, but rather to compare the results of trauma in a human brain to that of trauma in the equine brain. In my experiences with many traumatized horses subsequent to the appaloosa filly, I am finding that this newer research into the effects of trauma on the human brain is producing more similarities than differences in regards to horses. If so, then the reintegration process of repair should also work for horses.
Part of the human issue in working with a traumatized horse is also what happens if we are in the presence of a person with trauma…we tend to dissociate and stop listening to their stories. We don’t want to feel their pain or experience it for ourselves. I have seen that response in humans who ignore their horse’s distress signals, which can sometimes be very subtle. The rider, by insisting that the horse engage in an enjoyable experience by the rider’s standards, but perhaps not at all enjoyable or comfortable in the horse’s mind, can lead to even more trauma and further distress or pain for that horse.
For both horses and humans, a separation from a strong social connection can often be found at the root of trauma issues. There is a sense of a loss of safety, which in a herd situation is especially critical to wellbeing.
How much of that dissociation from a traumatized horse is related to our own traumas and subconscious desires to shut them out? Can you see how having self-compassion and bringing ourselves into awareness would also be of benefit to the horse?
It doesn’t mean we turn around and completely spoil a horse or let it get away with behaviors that may result from trauma. It means we are compassionate, consistent, and stable enough in our approaches that we create a safe space for the horse, while respecting the fact that it is still an animal.
Let’s say we could return Missy to her 2-year-old self and start her all over again. She wasn’t a bad horse. She actually had a wonderful disposition. It wasn’t her fault that she was quickly turned into a traumatized horse. Had the training been reversed between her and TC, I am quite certain the outcomes would have been very different for each of them.
How did their lives pan out? Well, Missy eventually sold to some out of town people that sent an experienced rider to try her. The fellow rode her well and she behaved perfectly. Thinking we had gotten past the reactive issues, I thought she was on her way to a good home. Months later, I called the new owners to find out how things were going and was completely dismayed at their anger…she had begun to buck them off as something had triggered her old traumatized brain. They invited me to come and ride her, but I was only 16 and I was not going to drag my mom into that situation either! I suggested they get a professional trainer. I have no idea how Missy’s life went after that.
TC was eventually gelded and was winning in the dressage and hunter arenas against big, fancy warmbloods and thoroughbreds. I leased him to an amateur who had a great time showing him, then finally sold him to a lesson barn. He lived out his years playing with ponies, retaining a sense of humor, and teaching countless numbers of children to ride and show. I visited him every year and found him healthy and happy. I was told the students fought over who would get to ride him in the shows because they were pretty much guaranteed a top placing on him. He finally died of colic at the age of 26, on the day of his last show.
I knew these two horses taught me a lot, but have not realized the full scope of those lessons until writing The Compassionate Equestrian and bringing in more of the neuroscience. Dr. Schoen has been extremely influential in this regard with his studies and practices of contemplative neuroscience and exercises in mindfulness and awareness that are featured in the book.
It has become quite clear that while horses can help people a lot with issues in psychology via Equine Assisted Learning, we also need to be aware that it goes in both directions. We, as compassionate equestrians, accept that we are responsible for the conditioning and training of the equine mind so as to at least give each and every horse the opportunity to live out its life with good memories of its early handling and training. It can make all the difference in the world as to how the entire lifetime of that horse will play out.
So there you have it, the face of trauma, and the face of stability. Let’s be compassionate with ourselves, with others, and our horses, continuing to evolve our hearts and minds as we move forward on a path to making this a better world for everyone.