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  • Writer's pictureKristie Cotton

Empower – Give freedom to…

I love this word and especially when it comes to riding horses. I have read  opinions of horse people discouraging the use of this word as they feel it shows a dominance over horses.  Facebook – “People, mostly women, have been conditioned to believe that riding is “freeing” and “empowering.” It is, of course, a false sense of empowerment because it is based on dominance, which is not empowered. “ Really?! I strongly disagree… The definition of empowerment is this-authority or power given to someone to do something; the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.  Why would empowerment work or not work in the life of horses? The synonyms are even better, here are a few…emancipate, unyoke, unfetter, unshackle, unchain, set free. When a horse has faced harsh training methods, or an emotionally traumatic environment, to give them empowerment with freedom from pain, discomfort and a break from fighting for survival, is beyond rewarding.                                                                                   

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You and that horse will experience a bond of closeness that is life changing.

                                                     A human victim of trauma and abuse will be very shut down in their emotions, like a horse. It’s a defense mechanism that allows the mind and spirit to endure situations that seem impossible. For a victim of trauma or abuse, they live with self doubt and never actually feel completely free of their anguish, there is always that voice reminding them of their darkness. Then a horse comes into their life, or they ride one.

The empowerment that comes over that person awakens their emotions. They feel alive, but it can also be a very scary place to take down that wall and feel emotions again. The same for a horse, they need the time it takes for them to overcome their fears. Forcing a horse to accept something they are truly afraid of is a monster in the making   .

                                            Accommodating the horses fears is not a tactful approach either. By this I mean claiming the horse is afraid of people.. in hats, glasses, etc. It is certain sounds, smells, even weather changes that can prompt a memory. I do believe PTSD is triggered in ways we may never understand for horse or human. When faced with danger, your body gets ready to fight, flee, or freeze. Your heart beats faster. Your senses go on high alert. Your brain stops some of its normal functions to deal with the threat. This includes your short-term memory. Human and equine brains are very similar, but with a few key differences: Most of the horse’s brain is used to analyze information it gets from the environment while much of the human brain is used for fine-motor skills and language. ( excerpt from William Simpson brain study)  Once a horse learns a movement, which is usually more quickly than a human, it will not be forgotten. Humans, on the other hand, retain information for only a short amount of time unless the information is reviewed regularly. This is proven with young horses educated with a foundation of trust and comfort, they will always go back to that start ,if reminded. 

If you know me or follow my blog, you understand how passionate I am about helping horses. I had bought a draft cross mare that was rescued from a PMU facility.

                                                                                         PMU – is pregnant mares urine, used as a hormone replacement for Women. Pregnant mares are often kept in narrow tie stalls for approximately 6 months of the year with a urine collection harness in place. It’s an inhumane life for an animal designed to be in near constant motion. While in theory, they have room to lie down, they cannot turn around or take more than a few steps forwards or backwards. (Excerpt -The fund for animals ) There are some really nice foals that are sold at auctions or through rescues. https://www.equinevoices.org/

The story I am going to share is not a discouraging story but a story of awareness to trauma in horses…

I had previously trained and sold two Gorgeous PMU foals, no issues, no problems. The difference was, they were the offspring of PMU mares, so the only hardship they likely endured was weaning. The draft cross I purchased was not trained to ride, barely tame, perfect project for me. She had obviously come from the facility in Canada very recently as it had turned out she was pregnant and I did not know. As soon as I could get excited, the foal was stillborn. I bonded very closely with this mare

,                                          I trained her and rode her for 6 years, participated in different clinics, and lessons, she

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was my good Mare. I could never really use


   “desensitizing ” training with her as it would create more fear and loss of trust with me. Human’s can learn coping strategies, it’s a little different when dealing with horses.  It’s odd that although She never showed any signs of bucking, resistance, or fear when I trained her to ride, I always knew I could never succumb her to certain situations, like trail rides or horse shows. She loved to be ridden and would always come running when I called her. We would ride and train in my field, She never ever attempted to get rid of me. Although there were no signs of pain/behavior issues, my intuition always told me something was missing in this ” partnership. ” Turns out there was a memory she held onto. On one particular day, I had an awesome ride in beautiful weather. I dropped my reins as I always did to show her She was a good girl, I also took my left foot out of my stirrup, lifting slowly to alleviate what felt like a pulled muscle. At that same time, my neighbor’s air compressor let out a loud air noise, and my dog happened to be rustling in the dry weeds like she always did, but timing is everything. Before I knew it, I was catapulted high into the air. I could feel my right foot hung up in the stirrup and I remember thinking ” I might be drug at a high speed so I need to close my eyes.” When I awoke, my horse was standing over me, I jumped up to find that both my hands were backwards, thumbs not where they belong. I had severely broken both my wrists, in what must have been an ultimate handstand landing.  There were some people that had seen the accident and they thought I was dead. They said the horse was completely vertical and I was at least six feet above her. I was traumatized..how was I going to work, care for my youngest daughter, and all the animals I insist on owning. My hands are a miracle, after two surgeries on each wrist.

There was never any ” language” or behavior warnings, there was just something that triggered an over the top fearful reaction. No ego of mine or hers would ever overcome a situation if she was triggered again, it’s not giving up, it’s knowing when the memory runs deep. She lives in a beautiful pasture now.

Horses that have sustained a long period of chronic stress, leaves them emotionally unbalanced. I was fortunate to have received such a great partnership with her. Horses with PTSD cannot differentiate between what’s really happening and what has triggered a memory. When this occurs, the horse becomes hyper-vigilant, distrustful, unreachable. ( Study by Caroline Rider ) When I help a horse that has been traumatized by training methods, environment, etc. It is always helpful if the horse had a good start in training, handling. Foundation is everything, just like with a house. I am not suggesting giving up on traumatized horses, I am giving an example of what damage can occur in a horses mind, and how positive training methods, and good management can empower the horses mind. I have written a separate blog on   The Horses Mind

I would also like to point out a few things:

  1. If your horse is showing signs of unpredictability, changes in behavior, after a vet has cleared any medical conditions, have the horse evaluated by a trainer that specializes in Bio Mechanics. This way, any pain or muscle imbalance, saddle fitting, etc. can be addressed before it becomes a traumatic memory.

  2. “Desensitizing” and ” flooding ” methods do not work in situations of pain or PTSD. Confronting any living being of what they are fearful of until they accept it is just teaching and reassuring the brain to ” shut down “

  3. Placing the horse in a negative situation until they respond with a positive reaction is just plain abuse…chasing in small circles until the horse tires, tying head to saddle until they accept pressure is barbaric, re think your training approaches with empathy of the horse. Lungeing is a skill used for balance and focus purposes, not to mentally and physically wear the horse down. I am not giving the “horses are prey animals ” speech, just asking you to be empathetic with a large but so mentally fragile being.

  4. Watch for early signs of physical pain before it begins to effect emotional stability. Signs can include:                                                                                                                              A: can’t touch ears, pins ears when rider mounts, or is suddenly frightened of the mounting block                                                                                                                             B: not interested in Human interaction,  refuses to be caught, and finally..negative behavior magnifies with every ride.

Please do not take the word empowerment from horses, their stories and the lives they touch or have been touched by similar souls. Empowering Horses and Humans to be better, to feel comfort and to be loved.

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” You were put on this earth to achieve your greatest self, to live out your purpose, and to do it courageously. ”   

Quote by -Steve Maraboli

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