a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.
I must make it clear before I go any further, the home I bought Sanson from could not have been any better. I love that place so much I went there 7 times, basically every time I had a holiday during the last 5 years, I went to Caballo Blanco. I want to live in Spain one day. Sarah, Sanson’s previous owner, is one of the most remarkable horsewomen- nay- animal people I have ever met. I learned a lot from her and the people she trusted with her animals. Because of this place I know everything about what happened to Sanson between the ages of 3 and 8. Those first few years are very important times to a horse. Just like in a human, early life experiences are absolutely critical to the formation of the adult you will become.
Trauma is like an onion, it has many layers. The more you disturb it, cut it up, peel it back, manipulate it, the more it can make you cry.
Once I got Sanson back to Poland last August I decided that it was best to retrain him. After the turmoil of the move I thought it was best to give him a fresh start. Just like the fresh start I had when I moved from Australia to Switzerland almost 10 years ago. He deserved a chance to make amends and reconcile with himself, heal himself if need be.
I could have just continued going on in the way he was going. The same food, the same equipment, the same activities, the same ethos, ideas and goals. And in a couple of years he may have become dull enough to just plod around the forest, not having much to offer, unless something scared him enough to make him wake up for a moment, but then go back to a disconnected guy with untapped potential. Who am I talking about again? Me or the horse? Sometimes the lines blur so much its a bit scary.
But my gut told me it was time to retrain. By this I mean go right back to basics, and go through everything step by step, filling any holes I found along the way.
But today I realised that retraining -for us- is not about going back to square one. It is about starting where he was and peeling back each layer. He had accumulated a number of problems in his short life, hence why he came into my hands. Yet he seems to let me go to places with him that he would not, or could not, let others go. The trauma onion.
The retraining begun rather clinically. Change diet. Check. Change to correct stable for us. Check. We have been training too of course. Sometimes 6 days a week. Sometimes 2-3. Mostly in the school with small trips to the forest. The ultimate goal is to ride with expression, awareness and quality in the forest, for long periods of time… all day if we can.
Let me say that again:
The ultimate goal is to ride with;
Not just plonk along mindlessly, hollow backed, dead eyed, going somewhere somehow. To move with quality and expression in the forest so that he is equally as awake and full of care as I am. I don’t want a horse who can be ridden in the forest safely only because they have totally given up ever being listened to or heard, or never realised that was even an option to them. Such a horse moves because they mechanically feel obligated to do so, half the time following historical patterns and pathways rather than actually listening to the rider about where they go and how they get there. Take the last 3 sentences and insert the same logic into a dance context and you have exactly the same feelings I have about my work in the ballet industry! And people frequently wonder how I combine the two worlds together…..
I want an expressive, alive, happy, centered horse who is awake to the world around him. Its a fine line to tread. Too alive and it can tip over into anxiety. Not alive enough, and you lose all quality and eventually lose your horse along the way. I think the process will take years to attain. And after you attain a certain level with require more or less constant, and daily devotion to maintain it. Like prayer or meditation. But, it just so happens I really love horses and I really love to ride, and I REALLY love my horse Sanson so I am prepared to take years to get there, no matter what the obstacle.
Trauma. How does this relate to his retraining?
Last time I worked with Sanson he taught me something new about him. I always try and set some basic parameters which are consistent when I am at the stable but always change up the actual activities. Some people confuse consistency with droll repetition. That is not working with a horse, that is drilling them until they become dull to what you are doing, dull enough to easily control them. Not for me thanks.
He is a smart horse. No, he is a REALLY smart horse. Like, really, really smart. I think he has problem solving, memory and creative abilities that far outstrip half of my work supervisors, seriously. So for our last session I set up a kind of playground in the round pen. Something that looked like the finals at the BLM Mustang Makeover challenge. A tall stepladder with a huge tarp thrown over it, which blew in the gentle breeze. A small jump. A number of trot poles. Serpentine marks. And a Hula hoop. It was just lying around, random detritus from the children of other horse owners that play at the stable sometimes.
The tarp gives him not many qualms. Some horses go through their whole lives totally unable to step over or even near a tarp. I could throw Sanson under the tarp completely, wrap it around his neck like a scarf. After a bit of tension shown in his eyes, the moment I tell him:
‘You’re alright buddy. You’re ok!’
He just slow blinks and breathes. Looks at me wondering what is next on the menu today. Tarp on his neck like fabulous equine Oscar Wilde or something.
After a bit of creative lunging, I absent mindedly picked up the Hula Hoop. Tapped it against my leg, standing about 1.5 meters away from him.
‘That’s the devils work that. I am going to run and hide over here. SNORT. SNORT sticky thing in your hands. Kill it. Snort. Trot trot trot. Throws head. Death to sticky tappy thing!’
*Taps leg with hoop* ‘You’re ok buddy. None of that thanks. Just stand please’
‘Yes you can.’
He reluctantly stood. As if he said
‘Ok for you I will stand for a second…’
I am grateful we are at the level together where he will give me the benefit of doubt. After a few minutes I could put the hoop all over his body, over his head over his neck, I could just about put it anywhere and do anything with it. Except one thing. Its very specific. If I stood about striking distance, raise it in the air, brandish it, or tap it on my something, he very clearly rejects it. Shies away. Sometimes explodes away. 600kgs of fevently-wishing-it-would-stop is quite something to behold. Especially when it has long luscious hair and four rocks for feet. Especially when your hopes, dreams and heart is wrapped up intrinsically with it.
This confused me because I know where he came from. They are good people! They do NOT hit horses. They use a lunge whip to shape up a horse during groundwork, but never on Sanson, he never needed assistance to get going.
But then I remembered an anecdote. I wasn’t there. One of the former trail guides was assigned Sanson as guide horse a couple of Springs ago. It was one of her first times on him I think and after tacking he was a bit sticky to get out of the stable. She was probably used to the light PRE and Arabian horses who were much lighter to manoeuvre, but being a heavier type it requires a different touch, and she had mounted clients ready for the ride and a long list of things to do that day. Anyway, that day she decided she wasn’t going to take any of that thank you very much, grabs a bamboo stick from the tack room, and smacks Sanson roundly a couple of times to get him going. Now, anyone who knows Sanson at this point would be saying ‘Oh no…’ and shielding their eyes.
Anyway, he backed out of stable. Walked to round pen. Let her get in the saddle. Waited a second and promptly bucked her off, rather violently so I am told. She was 3 months pregnant at the time. She now runs a calm little riding school for children in the hippy village Orgiva in the next valley. Bless her.
It occurred to me today that he has a deeper trauma. It must go deeper than that incident with the unlucky, overworked and hapless guide. Because after everything he and I have been through, the type of relationship we have, if I pick up a hoop, not even visually akin to a stick, and hold it at striking distance, he still freaks out… then his problem must be a deeper, older hurt. He was trying to tell me something
No horse is born afraid of whips. They are taught to be afraid of them.
I asked his owner today what she knew of his previous owner. She said they had never met. She was looking for a draft type horse, and had seen Sanson advertised online. She found out he had been sold to a chap she knew in Granada who was intending to break him to carriages. One day she found out that Sanson was already loaded and on way to new home and she literally intercepted the trailer on the side of the road and bought him, exchanged, and bought home Sanson, then a 3 year old Stallion, to the mountains, with the intention to breed him with her Breton mares (which was a spectacular failure).
She said the likelyhood that he was whipped to get loaded into the trailer was high. It is basically the only method to load horses that the Spanish in the area had. This would account for his dislike of whips years later! Even whip adjacent items when appearing in a equi-similar image to his eyes could trigger an old trauma and response. I can tell you exactly the angle that he is most scared of me holding a whip-like object is exactly the same angle one would most likely take when loading a horse into a trailer. When I stand in a different place, his reaction is less. For example, under his belly, it gets no reaction from him there. But flanks, and rump…. big reaction.
The joy of owning your own horse, and not using them as a riding horse for other people, is that you can delve deep into the relationship with your horse. Just like you would with another human relationship, romantic or platonic. If the relationship is based on mutual respect, love, care and allowing the other to be 100% themselves at all times, then you slowly start to feel safe enough to entrust that other person with your secrets. The things you only tell some people. Deep diving.
Riding someone else’s horse you first have to wade through a shallow sea of problems created by others, before you can get to know the horse on a pure and simple level.
I believe this is part of the trust Sanson is still developing with me. He is a very sensitive horse. Things which don’t bother other horses can bother him greatly. He can be proud and dignified and can get ‘stuck’ emotionally and physically. Hard for him to let go when he feels he has been ‘stepped on; or wronged.
I think we just passed into a new phase in our journey together because he has sent me a message. He told me his secret. He laid all the clues for me to go do my homework and find out WHY he was in the state he is. In the past he may have just freaked out totally and not attempted to participate in any dialogue with his handler about it, or -when he was sick with ulcers or other Gastro-Intestinal issues- not make any response at all. Merely stare, dull eyes, not seeing the world around him, not caring. I don’t know which is sadder.
But he is healthy now. Healthy and loved and protected. Protected enough to share his traumas with me. I believe that was an offering he made me, showing me that which he wanted……. needed!….. to heal the most.
I am determined not to let him down. I will work with him through it. With kindness but also firm boundaries, until the day comes that he has said what he has to say and can let the monkey on his shoulder go. Just like me. I have my stuff too. It takes me ages to trust people enough to tell them my hardest secrets, my worst hurts. Things which didn’t have long term effects on others, but which still haunt me today.
And it also gave me a tearful new perspective on the fact that Sanson has loaded into a trailer for me. Dozens of times. All over Europe. Time and time again. Stood in 40+ heat in a sweltering metal box for me. Unloaded into a vermin infested stable, and loaded for me again for me the next morning. Tears now flow.
This horse is life changing. I knew him in a previous life and if heaven exists, and he is not there, I don’t want to go.