My soulmate horse, Zorra, arrived from New Jersey two months ago. I have yet to sit on her back.
Well, first I’ve been getting her chiropractic treatments, then we’ve been healing emotional traumas from past experiences using acupressure (EFT) tapping and spiritual/energy healing, and thirdly, we’ve been developing our relationship. Feeling the love and trust growing slowly between us.
Many trainers will tell you that whatever happens on the ground translates to the saddle. I find this happens to me often: People watching may think I’m doing nothing, and may wonder why the heck I spend so much time doing so little. But I am building the foundation – the most important part of our relationship.
Because I’m not interested in a ‘partnership’ – which is horsemanship-speak for “I’m the boss, but I’m a fair, kind boss – in my humble opinion.” And then there’s the nebulous word, ‘leader’. Hmmm… which I can only use if it comes with a whole lot of defining and qualifying – holding simultaneously the awareness that all of that defining is being done by the human, from the human bias and self-serving position. A more complicated subject and a topic for another blog post… (or book!) for sure.
So getting back to ‘doing nothing’ and building the foundation for a life-long relationship… What I AM interested in, is a LOVE relationship. One based on mutual respect, honoring each other’s boundaries, trust, emotional safety, caring, messiness, screwing up and apologizing, mirroring, healing, learning, hurting and forgiving, compassion, and knowing that we’ve got each other’s back.
The interesting thing about an intimate relationship is the murky areas.
Today I went to clean Zorra’s hooves and she didn’t want to lift them up. Then she lifted her front right hoof, but within seconds she wanted to put it back down – REALLY wanted to put it back down. Puzzled, I stood and looked at her (she looked uncomfortable) and I decided to lead her over to the slow feeder in the shelter. I dropped her lead rope into the slow feeder box (not tied, just loose) and tried again.
I asked for her front right foot and she picked it up and I cleaned it. Same with the back right. Then I moved over to the left front and she refused to pick it up. Same with the left back hoof. I went back to the front right and she refused to lift that again too. What was going on? I was getting a little sweaty, felt frustration building in my chest, but I caught myself, and stopped.
Here I am, asking her for this relationship of equality, trust and REAL intimacy and she is now saying, “So…. does that mean I get a choice?”
And all of my platitudes against dominance and ‘I’m not interested in being the boss’ are thrown up in my face. Does she? Does she get to say NO?
If you have a horse, you know all the arguments that rose up next:
- Feet are non-negotiable!
- No hoof, no horse
- I have to check for thrush, and I have to apply preventative treatment – we live in a rain forest!
- What happens then if you develop thrush, because you didn’t let me clean and check your hooves?
- What happens if you go lame because there’s a rock stuck in there that you didn’t let me remove?
And I hear her say, “Really? They’re my feet. And I say they’re fine. And even if they’re not fine, isn’t it my choice? Do I have control over my own body, or not?”
I’m reminded of a story I read many years ago. You see, I write books about using natural treatments to heal yourself; about tuning into your own body wisdom and following what your body tells you – because your body knows better than any doctor. So I read this letter sent into a magazine by parents of a two-year-old who was gravely, puzzlingly ill, with multiple serious symptoms including seizures. The doctors, of course, wanted to put the child on anti-seizure medication immediately, along with various other strong drugs.
The parents gathered all the medical and naturopathic advice together and asked the child which medications, supplements, herbs, etc. he wanted to take. They held space for the wisdom of his body, and they set their intention to support his true, intuitive wisdom – not the surface 2-yr-old self who would of course choose candy at every opportunity!
And they followed exactly what he told them. The child completely refused the anti-seizure meds and they gave him only the medications and supplements he agreed to take, and only in the frequency and amount he said he would have. Not only did the child heal completely, of every single symptom, but a few years later, the doctor told them (due to new research/info) that if the child had taken the seizure medication, he would almost certainly have been brain damaged.
Now that’s what I call putting your money where your mouth is!
So often, our justification for not giving animals or children choice is that they are less knowledgeable, less wise, less aware and less educated than we are. The old, ‘I’m doing this for your own good. Someday you’ll thank me.’ is always ready to spring into action. And the fear that we would be negligent (bad mommy!) if we allowed them to choose.
But in the world I live, breathe, and move in, intention is everything.
If I say to my horse, ‘Oh, you don’t feel like having your hooves cleaned today, okay, whatever, don’t blame me when you get a thrush infection.’ OR the flip side: ‘Oh, no, you’re not getting one over on me! This is for your own good.’ Then I am choosing to dwell in that shallow, surface space of a relationship. And I am meeting her in the land of dominance, dysfunction, flippancy, and setting the stage for an ongoing issue.
Because the behaviour is not the point, the action is on the surface, the WHY is what’s underneath.
If the 2-yr-old refuses to take the seizure medication, well, how could he possibly understand the situation or ramifications; and as good, responsible parents we’re going to get that drug down him no matter what it takes. Except…. we now know how that would have ended.
So instead, I choose to come from a place of connection and intimacy. While holding space and intention for deep connection and sharing, I said to Zorra, “You don’t want me to lift or clean that hoof huh? Okay, let’s stand here and breathe together, let’s connect in love and give me a few moments to drop my bossy caregiver energy… (few minutes pass). Okay, I’m listening… are you able to tell me why you don’t want me to touch your hoof?”
She said, “I just don’t.”
“Okay, well, here’s what I’m worried about: I’m worried that if I don’t clean the wet stuff out of that hoof, and apply some wild oregano oil, that you’re going to get a thrush infection. Because that’s what happens to horses here. I’ve seen it again and again. And if I’m being totally honest, I’m also scared that if I give you the opportunity to refuse to pick up your hoof, then I’m going to have an ongoing problem with that hoof – or all of your hooves, and then where will we be? In non-stop hassle and anxiety over your hooves, that’s where!”
“So, if you don’t clean my hooves today, I may learn from that experience that I never have to lift my hooves again. And I’ll end up lame and infected?”
“Okay…. but you do know that if I decided not to lift my hooves, or not let you hold onto my hooves to clean them, I could absolutely do that? Even if you beat me and whipped me, I could resist. Even if you tied ropes to my leg to force my foot off the ground, I could resist every single time, and I could turn every hoof cleaning into a nightmare.”
“Sure, you could do that. But you’d still end up lame from infection. Is that what you want?”
“I don’t want any of that to happen. I’m simply asking you, today, and in our relationship, do I get to choose? Do I get to say, No?”
I take another breath. We stand there together and I ponder… “And if you say no today, what about tomorrow?”
“Do I get to choose tomorrow too? In this deep, intimate relationship, that you say you want… where is my choice?”
And then another story comes to my mind. When my youngest son, Hugo, was three years old, he had a terrible ear infection. In fact, it was the 3rd or 4th in a sequence of ear infections. With the last infection I had run out of ideas and resources and given him antibiotics – which he loved (damn Pharma and their sugar!) – whilst I hid his probiotics (to counter the antibiotic damage) in his yoghurt and raw chocolate milk. But a month later he had another infection.
At that point, I gave in to my own body wisdom, which had been screaming at me: Give him diluted wild oregano oil in his ears! But I had ignored my intuition, because every single herbalist and naturopathic doctor insisted that you should never put wild oregano into the ear canal. So I made up a formula and tested it in my own ears for a few days. Then I administered it to my son – who by now had both blood and pus coming out his ears.
Now here’s the thing – Hugo had never, in his life to date, allowed me to administer a treatment for anything with his body, without a struggle. It’s like he just innately had a strong drive from deep inside that said, “Don’t let anybody muck with you!” Even with the sugar antibiotics, I had to use trickery to get him to take the first dose.
And the same thing happened with the ear drops – he refused to let me administer them to him. So three times a day, I got him to snuggle on the red chair with me and his sippy cup and lie down with his head on the armrest. And I would stroke his head and clean the pus and blood out of his ear with Q-tips (which he allowed) then stealthily squeeze the eardrops into his ear. He would startle with shock and anger, I would say, “They’ll kill the bad bugs in there.” And then he’d settle right back down. After 5 minutes, I’d flip him over to the other side, rinse, repeat. 3 times a day. So WHY the refusal each and every time? WHY the shock and anger, swiftly followed by acceptance, every single time?
Maybe his strong driver to ‘not let anybody touch me’ was because he died in surgery, or from medical treatment in a past life! Maybe he felt invincible. Who knows? The important distinction occurs when we look at what happened on the energetic level.
Energetically, he knew that I was helping him, or trying to help him. His emotional body was fully aware that I was not trying to dominate him as a power play, or statement of our relationship. Which is why he happily joined me on that red chair three times a day. Obviously, after the first treatment, he knew what was coming. And when I flipped him over to the other side, he likewise knew what would follow.
It was as if his ‘protest against treatment’ was a knee-jerk reaction that he couldn’t control. But all the parts that he could control – getting on the chair, lying down, letting me clean his ears, lying still, turning over – told me a different story about how he really felt about receiving treatment.
And by the way, my wild oregano ear drops formula healed Hugo’s ear infection in 1 week and did not cause any damage whatsoever (confirmed by an ENT specialist!). He never suffered another ear infection again. We suspect the ear infection was actually fungal – not bacterial – which is why even drug antibiotics hadn’t worked. The second I saw him tugging at an ear, or if he said his ear didn’t feel right, I would administer the drops (with his full consent). One application was all it took.
So what does that memory have to do with Zorra and her hooves?
It just serves to illustrate that sometimes things are far more complex than they initially appear. And part of being truly intimate with Zorra is taking the time, and giving each other the space needed to puzzle things out. It means being willing to try and fail, to feel our way along carefully and tentatively, to allow things to get messy and frustrating. All the while staying consistent in my position and my message to my horse that, “I am on your side, I’ve got your back, and together we will figure this out.”
So I take a deep breath and I remove her halter and lead rope. She is now completely free to stay, lift her hoof, or go.
I ask for the hoof. She refuses.
She wheels around and walks a few steps out of the shelter. Then turns around and comes back in. I ask for the hoof. She refuses. Rinse, repeat.
And you know what?
I’m done for the day. I need to go home and think about things, feel into the whole situation a bit more. My 11-year-old daughter – who has spent the summer apprenticing with an energy healer – sticks her head round the corner and says, “She spent the night being bothered by the coyotes, they were nipping at her heels, so she doesn’t feel safe giving up her feet today.”
I ponder this. I ponder the incredible intimacy of asking a flight animal to give you their only source of protection – their ability to run away. Maybe that’s part of it, but I don’t feel it’s the full story – especially since this is not the first time she’s refused to pick up her hooves.
I phoned her past owner: ‘No, Zorra has never had any issue at all with picking up her hooves for anyone, she’s always been really good with that.’
Hmmm… If I look at things on the surface level, I would be tempted to say she’s monkeying around with me. Or seeing what she can get away with, testing me.
But when I go deeper I wonder about other things:
1. If she really needs to put her foot down (fear, discomfort, pain, etc.) how can she signal that to me? I would like there to be a signal between us, so that I can choose to release her foot, rather than feeling like she’s pulled or stomped it down. Or maybe I’m the one that needs to communicate better, or shift here? Maybe I need to make a commitment to her, that at the first twitch or pull, I release the hoof…?
2. What is being offered up for healing here? Usually when there is resistance or struggle, it’s because the horse (or child) is actually bringing something deep, or subconscious up to the surface for healing. But they don’t know how to talk about it, or communicate their need. They just default to “difficult behaviour” and then it is up to me to stop, take a breath and say, okay, what is really going on here? What is the real message lying underneath this shitty behaviour? Because, yup, you have my attention now!
3. Is this actually about me? Am I carrying a past trauma, or expectation, or unhealed wound and when I realize what that is and heal it, poof! Zorra’s hoof resistance will disappear. Because she is just being a mirror for me. Because that’s what beings in intimate relationships do for each other.
4. Is this part of Zorra’s shift and transformation into her magnificence? Is this just a step along that journey? That for the first time, I have created the space for her to even ask the question, “Do I have a choice? Do I get to say no?”
I have much to ponder upon.
Six Weeks Later…
After pondering all the elements above, I decided that ‘Yes, you DO have a choice and you do get to say No.’ I vowed that I would put aside all my agitation and thrush-fears and just trust Zorra and see where that took us.
She did not let me clean her hooves for 3 weeks. I would ask every 2 or 3 days, and the answer was always ‘No.’ However, when we were out walking the roads on two different occasions, I asked if I could check just one of her hooves as I was concerned about the way she was walking and just wanted to check and make sure it was okay. She told me she didn’t feel safe and so I threw a bubble around her and then an ‘energetic boundary’ beyond that, waited about 10 seconds and she lifted that hoof. In both instances, there was nothing wrong. I stayed in my integrity by not asking to see the other hooves!
Lo and behold, 3 weeks later she was eating at the slow feeder in the open paddock (unhaltered) and I put up an energetic boundary around us and asked for the first hoof (by tapping on her shoulder, as she’d told me earlier she preferred) and she tipped it forward, while keeping the tip of the hoof on the ground. That’s good enough for me! And I cleaned it thoroughly. The other 3 hooves, she lifted completely off the ground and I held them and cleaned them the normal way. All were in good condition and nothing wrong with the frogs (no thrush!) It was easy and relaxed and a wholly positive experience for both of us. Well.
The Gift of Trust
The next week, my farrier trimmed all her hooves, unhaltered, in an open paddock/field. But Zorra asked me to stand guard with the flag between her and the other two horses to make sure they did not come within 15 feet of her. My farrier said her hooves and frogs were in excellent condition. Well.
Since then, I just don’t really care about cleaning her hooves! I ask her if I should clean/look at them when it occurs to me. And sometimes when I watch her walk I want to examine one or two of them and she has no issue with that.
Her next hoof trim was also done unhaltered in the paddock with the opening to a large field – so she was not only unrestrained both times, she could have run a couple of acres away from us if she wanted to. But as long as I take care of her safety issues, she will allow us to trim her hooves.
The cool thing about building true intimacy and trust is that it’s a state of being, rather than being situation-specific. So when the horse chiropractor arrived, she too did her entire session with Zorra off-leash, in the open paddock/field.
Of course, I only choose practitioners who are fluent at listening to horses and similarly coming from a place of respect and trust – so this further reinforces the trust Zorra has in me. Equine communicator, Margrit Coates, talks about the importance of protecting your horse from even well-meaning humans in her book Connecting With Horses when she tells the story of a woman whose farrier would give her pony a jab in the ribs to make him stand still:
“When I pointed out to the owner that she would not feel too good about a best friend smilingly standing by while someone thumped her, she was mortified. The relationship had soured not because of what the carer had done, but because of what she had allowed to be done…. It’s essential to adopt a stance of standing up to others on behalf of the horse.”
I bought a few books by Margrit Coates, by the way, and this one, Connecting With Horses, is head and shoulders above the rest – it’s like she finally gave herself permission to say what she really thinks/feels, and her writing is more fluent in this one.
If you’re interested in how I communicate with horses (and other animals) and have these back-and-forth conversations with Zorra, I’ve outlined my basic technique here.
But let’s just say, when I checked Zorra’s hooves after that 3 week ‘No’ period, that there was a nasty thrush infection going on.
What would I have done then?
I would have pointed out the result to Zorra and told her all the reasons why fungal infections are not good things to have. And I would have pointed out that it is obvious that she does not know when her feet are okay, and when she needs my help. So now I am going to have to step in and treat her hooves daily until the infection is gone. And then we can start by skipping a day. If things are going well, then we can skip two days, then three, and so on.
So I would still honor and respect her desire to have her hooves cleaned as little as possible, or only when she agrees, but I would insist that she stay within the boundaries of critical safety. Note my use of the word, critical. So many times, the decisions we make for our horses are based on our fears, or our needs, and then we use “safety” to justify our dominance. But if we always try to break our notions down into critical, or emergency parameters, it helps to guard against our self-serving tendencies.
I also think the intention and the spirit of the negotiation with another being is paramount. In fact, I treat my horses the same way I treat my kids: I respect them as an individual person/being and I try not to say ‘No’. I try to always look for the way to say ‘Yes’ to their desires, ideas and visions. I look for how I can facilitate their expression of themselves in this world – not who I think they should be, or what would make life easier for me.
I hold space for the concept that each of us can dwell in harmony and intimate relationship AND be the most magnificent expression of our true selves on this earth.
As Imke Spilker writes in her super fabulous book, Empowered Horses:
“The person who understands that he, as a human being, has all the power and that there is none left over for the horse, has reached a turning point in his relationship to the animal. He suddenly feels very different needs and desires with respect to these creatures. He begins to pull himself back a bit and gives the horses more space. He begins to adapt himself to them and learn about them. And he starts to become open to their completely different point of view and in doing so, he gives their world a new reality.”
One Year Later…
So here’s my update a full year after first writing this post: Zorra continued to have her hooves trimmed, unhaltered, with no issues and her hooves continued to be healthy and strong. My farrier, Kesia (who is the other half of this blog), watched Maureen Tierney’s DVD and began to listen even more closely to what the hoof/horse wanted trimmed, rather than trying to match some ‘mustang hoof’ ideal.
As Zorra’s front hooves took on a somewhat odd shape (as a result of listening to her hooves), we realized she was using the odd hoof shape to self-correct an imbalance that actually originated in her shoulders. By the end of six months, she no longer stood pigeon-toed and her hooves were now asking to be trimmed evenly.
About 4 months after that, both Kesia and I were surprised when Zorra became resistant to having her hooves trimmed. She would lean her weight onto Kesia until she released the hoof, or she would see-saw it back and forth until she released. And then she didn’t want to pick it up again.
After my initial reaction of: Oh god, not this again! I realized that here we were, a full year on, with yet another layer being offered up for healing. I immediately felt led to begin acupressure Tapping for Zorra. As we moved into the wounding she was bringing to the surface to be healed, both Kesia and I started crying.
Zorra brought these images, words, thought packages, to us:
“I have always been the ‘good girl’ and ‘so sweet’. And so people take my good nature for granted. They don’t even ask me first, but just assume whatever is done to me (bit, dental work, hoof trimming, saddle, etc.) is fine because I’m such a good girl. So I’ve locked my true self away. The self that was never consulted, never allowed to say no, because it was not even considered that I would do anything other than what was expected.
And I was trapped, caged, as all these things were done to me. No matter how invasive, or painful, or violating, I was never allowed to speak, or run away, or defend myself.”
As Zorra brought these layers of lock-down up for healing, both Kesia and I realized how even the most “Natural” of Horsemanship training is still coercion and manipulation. The only choice involved is in choosing which of the options presented is the least uncomfortable and offensive. Which is not really ‘choice’ at all.
And in the true spirit of ‘horse as mirror’, I was taken into my fear of being trapped and tortured. I think part of this comes from other lives and part from my own childhood; where I was beaten and not allowed to run away, or defend myself, or speak. Of course, I have done lots of healing around these issues, but as the tears flowed, they revealed that I too had another layer to resolve and release.
As I was tapping through the acupressure points and verbalizing all of these elements, Grandfather Fir caught my eye. 150 years old, standing tall and straight at least 100 feet up in the air, I realized that so too could this magnificent all-loving tree be cut down by a chain saw in the blink of an eye. That not a single one of us is ever ‘safe’.
Or are we?
Because the next image that came to me was of Grandfather Fir Tree taking all that gorgeousness and magnificence and packing it into the tiniest pine cone (acorn!) to blossom once more. Because no matter what happens to us, no matter how we are tortured, abused or even mowed down, nothing is lost!
All of who we are, what we have learned, the healing and unfolding that we have achieved, goes with us – no matter what happens – it is never lost!
And as I tapped in that re-frame, that shift, the three of us released a collective sigh.
We both felt that Zorra did not want any more hoof trimming done that day and the healing needed time to process. So we left her with completely mis-matched front hooves – with the left at least a half inch longer than the right!
Treat-training vs. Play
Kesia came back a few days later and Zorra came into the gravel paddock area by herself, leaving her other 3 herdmates in the field. She was ready to get to work. We felt into what Zorra needed and without even discussing it, Kesia went and got her halter and lead rope. I held the rope and stood in front of Zorra, stroking her and doing a bit more tapping on any residual resentment or blockages that might still be present.
She allowed Kesia to trim the front right hoof fairly quickly. When it came to the front left, I felt her asking to play the ‘carrot game’. So I went and got a few carrots, sliced into rounds about a half-inch thick. If she shifted her weight off that leg and bent the knee a little, she got a piece of carrot. When she lifted the hoof, even a little, she got a piece of carrot. When she allowed Kesia to put her hoof on the hoof stand, another carrot chunk. And so on.
A few times she began to pull back and I put light pressure on the halter as I asked her to ‘lean into the discomfort’ and work her way through it, encouraging her that she could do it, that I was here to support her. If she had pulled back strongly, or determinedly, I would not have used force to control her and I would have released her immediately. I mean, who knows, maybe there was yet another big piece of healing that needed to be worked through? The light pressure was what I felt she needed to feel supported. Not to control her.
She never did pull back firmly or strongly. And as soon as she released the pressure of pulling back, she got another piece of carrot and lots of praise. And so all 4 of her hooves were trimmed this way and she did so well! I felt that she needed some extra support to press through the ‘old story’ – support, not coercion – and allow herself to transition to this more positive experience. By the end, her energy was light and happy.
Meanwhile, my semi-feral Belgian mare had been standing at the gate 15 feet away – pressing against it – as she observed this marvelous, delicious game Zorra was playing with us and she wanted to be next!
Audelina has never had her hooves trimmed in her life and had never even held them up long enough to be picked out. The most she’d managed with me was picking them up for one or two seconds. So I let Zorra out to eat grass in the yard, filled my pockets with new carrot chunks and brought Audelina into the paddock for her turn.
I knew she wanted to experience ‘just like Zorra’, but I wanted her head free, so I looped a rope around her neck, just behind her ears and stood in front of her. When she shifted her weight off a hoof, she got a piece of carrot and lots of praise. If she shifted it more, another carrot. If she picked it up for even a second – another carrot chunk. And so on.
Within 10 minutes, she had lifted and held both front hooves for long enough that Kesia could clean them out with the hoof pick. Oh my goodness, we praised her magnificent, giant Belgian self for lifting and holding up those big, heavy hooves!
And that was it for that day. Both Kesia and I felt that was enough for the first time. Audelina was well pleased with herself and would be looking forward to the next time she got to play the hoof/carrot game with Kesia and me.
The difference between the carrot-game we played with Zorra and then Aude, and treat-training (where I have an agenda and I’m just trying to manipulate her) is that both horses asked to play the game. The carrot-game was their idea. Now we could have offered the idea and if Zo said yes, then it’s still also her idea. Again, we come back to INTENTION.
The way to check the integrity of your intention, in this case, would be if Zo refused to do anything, would I still give her the carrots? If I would just laugh and give her all the carrots anyway, then I am clean and clear – I am not seeking to manipulate her for my gain. I offered a carrot-game, she said No, and I gave her the carrots. No punishment, coercion, manipulation involved – she gets the carrots either way.
If I withheld the carrots, or gave them grudgingly, that would signal I was punishing her for not agreeing with my idea. Because my energy and intention speaks far louder than my actions – and indeed, is the defining parameter of my actions. I have never used food or treats to manipulate (reward) my horses – I’ve only used them in play, and they get the carrots regardless of what happens. Sometimes they’ve asked if we can use carrots and I’ve refused because I don’t like the intensity or pushiness it adds to their energy. I’ve suggested we play the game without it and then I’ll give them the carrots afterwards, in peace. Or, I can give them the carrots first. Whatever feels good to both of us.
Sometimes when the horses have worked with the Apprenticeship group, or in private sessions, they’ve asked for a little bit of alfalfa, or feed dishes, before we start. Other times, they ask for alfalfa as soon as the session finishes. They don’t ask for it during a session, because they want to show up with their full self and not be distracted by food, or herd dynamics (competition for the limited resource). And they also know the second the session is over – sometimes Aude will walk over to the tackroom door and bang on it with her hoof: “Ok, we’re done – let’s get the feed dishes happening!”
Intimacy Requires Trust
It seems to me, if we want to have a truly intimate, open-hearted, loving relationship with our horses, then we simply must learn to replace dominance, manipulation, coercion, frustration, doggedness and goal-driven agendas with TRUST.
We must remember that if our horse is saying no, or resistant, or fearful, that we must stop trying to DO and first feel into WHY? And that most likely what the horse is really doing is offering up a wound the needs to be healed. Or a belief or experience that needs be transformed. Maybe for them, and/or maybe for you. Either way, if you lean in and heal it, it’s a win-win for both of you.
And how do we heal and transform our equines’ pain or resistance into magnificence? We first listen. Then we use methods like acupressure or Lazer Tapping (can be done surrogately for all animals), or Trust Technique, or Reiki, or Energy Healing.