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  • Writer's pictureKristie Cotton

Silent Scars

There is a certain connection that we hope to have with our horses. This is a word we use to describe “ partnership, relationship, bond, etc.” There are many approaches to training a horse to create harmony in our everyday interactions, as well as under saddle. Horses are amazing, majestic and enduring. They are willing to endure our moods, personalities, training methods and ambitions.. 

Horses attract us for their unconditional love, beauty and the freedom to feel emotions that can only be found from a profound love for every horse we have the privilege of knowing.

What happens when these visions turn into an anxious, resentful, dangerous nightmare? 

As a trainer that specializes in problem behavior, I have met a lot of horses and owners that are desperate to find help with their situation. There are so many methods that claim to help the horse, you can search the internet and find online studies, making interactions between horse and human look simple. The first step in problem solving is to involve your Veterinarian to rule out any medical issues that are keeping your horse from thriving. From there it will be looking at feet, saddle fitting, diet and environment. This is an important story I wanted to tell about perseverance in both horse and rider.

When I met this cute little paint horse, I knew of the behaviors of resisting contact with the bit, anxieties about being ridden and the sullen look on his face if you tried to pet him. What I didn’t know is that he has an owner that would not give up on her intuition of the potential this  horse had somewhere in that mind and body. 

Step one is always an evaluation of the horse. This means I look at the physique (muscles are a blueprint for training strategies) I watch the movement on the lunge line, I do some in hand to check in with bracing and will ride unless the horse is too dysfunctional mentally and physically. This means that I need to address certain issues without the weight of a rider. There is a quote

 “ mirrors don’t lie” I like to say “ muscles don’t lie.”

As soon as I brought “Loki” into the indoor arena, his anxiety heightened and he would not stand still. When attempting to put any kind of tack on him, he tried to run me over in panic and resentment. It was as if he wasn’t aware of his surroundings. 

Do horses and humans have the same response in defense mechanisms?

 “We all have to try to be humble: Observe, investigate, and document how horses react in different scenarios to be able to offer evidence-based advice,” -Mette Uldahl, DVM

Dissociation can occur in response to traumatic events, and/or in response to prolonged exposure to trauma (for example, trauma that occurs in the context of people's relationships). Dissociation can affect memory, sense of identity, the way the world is perceived and the connection to the physical body

Measuring Dimensions of Body Connection: Body Awareness and Bodily Dissociation CYNTHIA J. PRICE, Ph.D. and ELAINE ADAMS THOMPSON, Ph.D.

" Chronic pain can produce avoidance and protective behaviors, poor performance, as well as weight loss." - Excerpt from Equine internal medicine

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) helps your brain manage body systems in times of stress 

Although most modern-day stressors that trigger the SNS may appear small, they may be interpreted by our nervous system as a potential life threat.

If the sympathetic nervous system is activated too frequently, this can have long-lasting effects on the body, resulting in chronic stress.-

It was important to choose if I was going to be re educating the mind or the body first. Generally, they work together but in this instance there was just panic. I began with some lunging to assess his movement. What this showed is dysfunctional gait movement, it was as though he didn't know where his legs were. At the canter, going to the right as seen in the first picture, the right hind should swing forward with the left front in a sequence. All four legs are touching the ground producing a "hopping" gait.

The trot (second picture) is showing that most of the weight is being carried on the right front. This is not only interrupting the diagonal movement of the legs but also " blocking " the necessary movement of the lumbar to swing the hind leg forward.

Trot-right front and left hind should move simultaneously. with similar swinging action.

Horses suffering from chronic pain whether it is visible or not, will begin to take on the same type characteristics as humans. Lethargy, weight loss, irritability and poor performance. These kinds of stresses can create long term health issues. Even when horses are medically cleared by a veterinarian, they can have other stresses like abnormal muscling which leads to compensations, poor saddle fitting, unbalanced feet or unpredictable riding training methods

( environment )

"An examination of the relationship between bodily dissociation and health outcomes in traumatized versus non `traumatized populations is another important research question given the links between trauma, dissociation and poor physical/mental health. "-CYNTHIA J. PRICE, Ph.D. and ELAINE ADAMS THOMPSON, Ph.

In hand work is an important skill to re educating the horses mind and body.

Using sophisticated movements of Dressage first at the walk, begin to re address muscle abnormalities, without the weight or interference of a rider.

Ttouch method

The aim is not to just train an animal to a specific cue for obedience, the aim is to help animals learn, and begin to have the self-control to act instead of simply re-acting to stimuli. Building this self-confidence and self-control means that an animal can adapt and adjust to a variety of situations and settings, even if they have not specifically been exposed to them prior. We do not use flooding, or encourage “learned helplessness” in animals. The role of the handler is not to be the alpha or dominant one, but rather enhance mutual trust and cooperation for a true partnership".- Linda Tellington Jones

I have studied the works of Ttouch for over twenty years and applied the method to every horse that is brought to me for re education. There is nothing that compares to this technique of awareness to the nervous system, allowing the horse to be relaxed and in the moment. It is the same with humans that have endured long lives of enduring pain, emotional or physical. It's going to take patience, trust and relaxation to allow our self preservation walls to come down.

Combining methods of gymnasticizing exercises in hand as well as under saddle, helps the horse to replace defensive muscle memory with seeking comfort in muscle memory.

The simplified walk pirouette helps to build symmetrical use of back muscles.

Half pass at the walk, although we are moving left, he attempts to keep my weight to the right. The weight should always be placed in the direction of the bend.

It took time, patience and have to understand that there is no recipe for quick results when a horse has already endured trauma.

So what does this title mean?

Horses that suffer in silence and then get passed on to someone else, hopefully that someone will be like this horses owner and persevere with knowledge and empathy for the emotional scars that horses endure.

Believing that forcing a horse into a frame with improper use or beliefs that draw reins have an effect on horses backs and toppline. These " gimmicks" Improperly used, the horse suffers in silence until they can no longer bear the pain. Forcing the head and neck into a downward position is barbaric.

This horse was started with a great foundation of training. I know this because I am able to bring him back to that. Somewhere along his journey, he was forced into a " round frame" He actually does have visible scars from draw reins but the emotional scars are tougher to get through and create trust. It is the same with people. This owner stepped back, allowed me,as well as her vet and farrier do what was necessary to bring comfort. Then she had the perseverance,tenacity and courage to build an amazing relationship with her horse. Rewarding doesn't even come close to the emotion felt by being part of their continued goal of the ideal partnership.

The sequence of pictures below show the changes in physique from start to finish. Pay close attention to the musculoskeletal changes with the wither, shoulder's, and hindquarter.

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