By: Anna Twinney
“He has a tattoo on his lip.” This was the first detail she told me about Truman. Truman was a 17 hand Bay Thoroughbred. The tattoo indicated that he has been in the racing industry, although we had no way of knowing if he had ever actually raced. I had seen Truman at the rescue in which he lived. He would often play with his feed bucket, asking for his evening meal. He had quite a presence about him, even if his internal feeding clock was usually about an hour too early.
As my client continued, she mentioned that she had begun training him about six months ago, having only met him a few months prior to that. She also mentioned that he had been saddled and long-lined, and her intention was to eventually ride and show jump him bridle-less. He had been cleared by the vet and chiropractor, and he was ready for this new chapter in his life. She was hoping I could support her with her very first ride, and asked if I would have time to assess Truman for her.
As I was currently occupied by the 16-hour days of teaching our Holistic Horsemanship Program, my first reaction was to simply say, “No, I just don’t have the time.” Especially considering we were expecting rain and flash flooding which would surely shorten the day as well. But, I reconsidered and told her if she could make herself available in the next hour, I could evaluate Truman during the course, as his evaluation fit perfectly with our curriculum for the day.
I explained that I would be able to demonstrate the value of “Reaching Out” and the ultimate reading of a horse by reintroducing the saddle to him. This way she would get the professional assessment she was looking for and the course participants would gain the benefits of a real-life Reaching Out and evaluation.
We set up the portable round pen, ensuring we had great footing, and Truman arrived right on time. I watched as he approached the round pen gate and promptly stalled. My client walked him around the pen, introducing him to the area, giving him the time he needed to walk through the gate, which he eventually did. Once inside we removed his halter and gave him further time to get comfortable in his new surroundings.
Before attempting his new rider, I planned to place a dummy rider on his back. The dummy was by the side of the pen and I noticed that Truman kept his distance. I thought that was odd, considering he had previously had a dummy on his back.
Once I joined Truman in the round pen I invited him to come to me by gaining his attention and drawing my eyes to my feet. He was familiar with this gesture as it was part of a language he understood, his own. He stepped forward, shared a moment’s space and left.
I made a suggestion he be haltered and Truman left, making curves around me. Clearly he was skeptical about my presence and purpose. In my mind I reassured him that I was here to support both he and his person, not to harm him, but help through communication, connection and this assessment. He remained somewhat skeptical but accepted the halter. By retreating to get the long-line in the center of the pen I provided extra time and space for him to digest my presence before I began our formal introductions.
We began exploring the 4 directions, North, East, South and West to orient and introduce him to the space. He was quite willing to follow me while being attached to the lead. His desire to come off pressure was questionable and confirmed what I had already observed. I took this to mean that he wasn’t entirely sure about what was yet to come. Through gentle strokes and reassuring movements and energy, I showed him that the motions I made would stay consistent. Gradually I discovered some places he didn’t mind me touching, and made sure not to look him in the eye, but instead honored him by lowering my eyes.
I stood back, allowing him to leave so we could have a conversation. He chose one direction of the round pen and began to perform his familiar moves. With little effort and great compliance he moved at a trot, transitioning up to a canter for several laps. Without being asked, he turned the opposite way to explore the next direction. It appeared he had done this before, as it looked like a rhythm he had created. The turns were deliberate, and his stride was one to which he was accustomed.
I wasn’t looking for compliance, though. Instead I was seeking a conversation and began to change our dialogue. Asking for the next turn clearly confused him and he didn’t want to make a mistake. He quivered some before he followed through with his turn. His body language clearly showed just how worried he was as he looked like he made cutting horse motions for a while.
I just needed to see speed changes to know that we were connected. He was certainly capable of leading the way, but when I led the way he became a little unglued. Together we worked out how to ask each other questions, hear the answers, and find our team flow. Throughout his session he tried hard to do what he thought was right, while I did my best to interpret his actions. He was clearly strong and had been in a round pen before.
Once our liaison was in full swing, he began revealing his history, connecting and committing to our conversation, finally settling into a walk and giving signs of relaxation. I invited him to join me. Although he wanted to badly, he wasn’t quite able to, and stayed on the fence, showing his concern. Instead of sending him further and putting him out to work, I encouraged him to join me knowing that together we could make this work. With some rubs, and soothing motions I coaxed him to follow me closely and our connection began solidifying.
In view of his apprehension, I felt I needed to check in with him further about how he felt with the long-line behind his hocks and he accepted it without any concern.
It was an easy step to build in and yet essential for us to be able to move into ground driving without any additional stress.
I continued to build our relationship by massaging him, introducing myself to him through touch, and exploring any sensitive areas, as the tack was brought into the pen and placed in the center of the pen. I unhooked the line, asking Truman to follow me, but instead he made a wide berth around the saddle. It didn’t make sense and I commented on it. He also stomped his foot hard three times. It didn’t take a professional horsewoman to know that he was not happy with the saddle.
A little confused by his responses I walked him to the center of the pen where I lifted up the saddle pad and my 10lb saddle, designed specifically to start horses. When I attempted to set it on his back he bolted side-ways and the saddle fell to the ground. He moved so quickly there was no stopping him. Without any reprimands and only encouragement to come back, I knew I had to help him out a little further.
Understanding that he was clearly unsure about this whole process, instead of simply “making it happen”, I took my time to introduce the saddle pad time and time again. He began to relax, gradually removing any spooks and starts in his body, creating softer muscles and eyes. I watched for his legs to be safely on the ground and for his head to relax. The offside proved to be less impactful and he settled pretty much immediately which added more clues to uncovering our mystery. He was more comfortable with the saddle where humans spend less time.
Returning to his nearside, I was able to make some noise with the saddle before placing it on his back. He accepted it with greater ease, but with the first billet barely fastened Truman bucked hard. He took the line out to the end and began “screaming”. I prayed that I had managed to tighten the girth enough for the saddle to stay in place and not create further angst by rolling under his belly. I could not take my eyes off his. It was imperative I stayed calm, focused on him, and let him know I would be there for him.
With gentle and confident movements I followed him around the pen as he bucked with all his life, bellowing all the while. I watched his every move like a hawk, supporting him as best I could, and keeping myself safe from being run over. Finally he settled down enough for me to approach him and girth up the 2nd billet.
Unsure if he would attempt to get out of the pen by trying the round pen boundary, I kept him on the line, rewarding each calm motion he made. Gradually his ears moved forward and his eye softened. He would stop for reassurance and I would provide a space for him to do just that. Eventually he moved from fear and flight, to processing information.
I figured out that he had a sweet spot – East in our 4-directions of the round pen, and he would slow down just there. In time we expanded the area until he was able to transition through the gaits with ease. Gradually he did the very same without the line attached gaining his confidence. While he became more rhythmic the fear left his body. And yet it still existed…underneath. I felt the fear that remained. I asked him to turn unexpectedly and follow through with the turn away from me and he became unglued.
We were discovering more and more triggers, revealing clues to his past, and how he felt today. It looked like he was expecting to be reprimanded, to be hurt. I knew my client, a student of ROTH for sometime, wouldn’t hurt him, so it appeared this took place before her time. I was finding triggers and “holes” we needed to fill. My client must have felt the same intuitively as she had asked for my involvement in the first place.
The stars had aligned for this demonstration to occur. From the moment she asked, the day she asked for the support, and everything in between. The weather forecast had predicted monsoon rains, and yet the storms had not arrived. I felt that deep inner knowing that I was here to help them both and potentially prevent an accident from happening. Truman looked for support and through my intention, energy, and body language I gave him that solid support system he needed.
When the time was right I invited Truman to stand still and wait for me to bring him to the center of the pen. There I would move forward and attach the ground-driving lines. This he seemed to understand, and it was clear he had been trained in this area. My intention was to assess his knowledge in turning left, right, going forward with line influence, slow down, and even stop, and back up.
He understood each queue and I was quickly able to replace my body language conversation with a communication from my hands to his mouth. He excelled in this short session. I watched his respiration throughout, ensuring that we did not overdo anything. Horses in the round pen earlier in the day barely brought up a sweat and Truman was wet from nose to flank. It was not the physical exercise causing the perspiration but the mental excursion.
At this point I made the decision not to proceed with either the dummy rider or bellying over. Clearly he had experienced enough for one day and needed time to process this experience. Arguably it could be said that he would accept the dummy rider and the rider having experienced one prior. And yet this would mean entering a whole new conversation and taking an unnecessary risk beginning that conversation. He had had enough and there was no need to push it.
His ears went back to not only listen to the tack removal, but also out of concern. I took my time to remove the tack at his speed. With lots of praise we stood together and he was now “naked”, tack free to roll if he felt the need. I gave him space to be. While I shared my experiences, observations and interpretations with the students, Truman joined me and stood closer than he had done at the beginning of our time together. He chose to remain connected and sought my attention. I had made an impression on him, a good one. In my heart I knew it. This was an exceptional experience for everyone who witnessed it that day, leaving hoof prints on hearts.
When he left our circle, bucking frantically, I had felt for him. The only sentence going through my mind was “What have they done to you?” I had felt his fear in my body, and had needed to let it go to be able to be there for him. At no time did I push him beyond what I thought he was capable of doing and what I knew he had done in the past.
Clearly my saddle had sparked a memory and it was fortunate this memory came out with me and not another. Instead of reprimanding, I supported him. I didn’t force or hurt him, I heard him. No one was injured and both he and my client were safe.
It’s not often that I have experienced horses with such a great flight instinct that they need to buck as though their lives depend on it and “scream” in action. Instead of leaving him alone or hurting him for the action, I stood by him. Here was a large animal concerned about the saddle, ultimately living in fear, and walking on egg shells in certain situations. When faced with similar circumstances I always ask myself, “What happened to him and why is it happening in our world today?”
He had manifested a hard life lesson, but he also manifested, my client, an amazing human being to help him find his way through to the other side of the lesson. She has provided him with a home and given him respite. She will honor him, raise him up to be the horse he is meant to be, and take the time he needs to show him that the trust he has learned to gain back is an honest trust. We may need to prove it again
in times to come, but we shall do that, for he is worth it.