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To Spook or Not to Spook

Each horse has a texture or feel, just like people do. Some are smooth and warm like a river rock in the sun; a few are as prickly as spurweed. The newest horse to Freckles Farm where I live and work is Tia. She arrived two days before Thanksgiving on a misty morning after a twenty-hour ride from up north. A tall, bay Oldenburg, she seemed small with delicate features until I stood next to her. Tia felt like a coiled spring as she quickly backed off the trailer. I didn’t blame her. I dislike long road trips, and I remember moving to a new house as a child and thinking as soon as we arrived, Where’s my room? I knew Tia would need time to adjust. Her owner, Cheryl, and I work together in the equine assisted services (EAS) field, and Cheryl was hopeful that Tia would be a good fit for therapy that incorporates horses. In the coming weeks we’d get to know her better and assess her for horsemanship classes, coaching, and therapy sessions.

As Cheryl led Tia toward the back pasture, Tia raised her head giraffe-like, swinging it side to side in an attempt to see everything and assess the safety level. Being prey animals, horses are hyperalert, similar to those of us with post-traumatic stress. By now, all eight horses and one miniature donkey on the farm knew that she had arrived. The donkey, aptly named Wee Donkey (said in your best Shrek imitation), brayed at her. Unappreciative of his hello or simply inexperienced with donkeys, Tia tried to bolt free and swung her body through the gate, snorting and half-rearing. We’d decided to keep her in the arena within the pasture until the veterinarian cleared her and I could determine which pasture she fit in. That afternoon she ran around the arena along the fence line until there was a rut, and the miniature horses on the other side of the fence stood watching her. Even Wee Donkey was quiet and backed away.

She refused her grain and trampled her hay that night. I brought out a hay bag and attached it to the fence. I could hear her ripping strands of hay from the bag because the metal fencing rattled each time she did so. I usually don’t check on the herd in the middle of the night, but there are exceptions, such as illness, bad weather, or the dreaded holidays of Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve (because the fireworks scare the horses), or a new horse. As I walked toward the back pasture, I pointed the flashlight and saw that Tia was standing still. I quickly turned off the flashlight and backed away, relieved.The next morning it was raining when I woke up. Tia was like a fire-breathing dragon, snorting at the woods and then at me, but I noticed she had eaten more of her hay. I set her full feed pan in front of her, and she promptly flipped it upside down. Resuming a fast trot around the arena, she continued her anxious run to nowhere. The minis had given up trying to make friends with her and resumed their never-ending quest of finding grass.

I wanted to go inside for a cup of coffee and to get dry, but I knew I needed to help her calm down. I stood quietly in the center of the arena encouraging her to relax by breathing slowly and deeply. Intention is a large part of working with horses. Without stopping her pace, she side-eyed me and flicked the ear closest to me, meaning essentially What do you want? However, I was not asking for anything; rather, I was listening and focused on hearing what she had to say. Some horses like me right away, and others, not so much—just like people.

I stood in the rain, questioning my common sense while she reversed directions multiple times and ran around the arena, probably looking for an exit. I should confess: I am a high energy person. Working with horses has taught me to dial it down. I realized that being in the middle of the arena may have put too much pressure on Tia, so I came closer to the fence though not directly in her now well-rutted path. She headed toward me then suddenly changed directions and stopped behind me. I did not turn around but could hear that she stood about three feet away. I quietly called her name and rustled the peppermint wrapper that I had in my hand. The sound of treats is universally known by domesticated horses. I slowly turned around and offered her the now unwrapped peppermint. Her green blanket was wet and muddy from rolling and running. Extending her long neck, so she didn’t have to come too close, she mouthed the mint from my hand.

As she stood still for the first time, I sensed she needed a friend, much like my mom telling me to go meet the neighbor kids. She clearly didn’t like the minis. Fortunately, I have Louie, a twenty-six-year-old quarter horse gelding. He’s a been there/done that kind of guy, a retired therapeutic riding horse and former Special Olympics equine partner. When I brought him over, Tia greeted him by lifting her nose to meet his as he looked over the fence.

They stood there, nose to nose, quietly breathing each other in. Horses, like us, can make quick decisions about who is a friend, and Tia and Louie became fast friends. When he was beside her, she was calmer. After two weeks of quarantine, I moved Tia into another pasture with Louie, and his former pasture-mate Octavia went in with the minis. When you find the right fit, the farm goes quiet as a dinner table when the food arrives. It’s a beautiful hush when all is well!

Over the next two months, Tia settled in, and we continued learning her likes and dislikes, her strengths and weaknesses, and her overall fit with EAS. Tia was not fully in the program when a young woman, who I will call Anne in this story, started horsemanship lessons with me. With her permission, I’m writing this and can disclose she has an anxiety disorder. On the first day, I was going to introduce her to all of the farm’s equines because I wanted to know which horse(s) connect with her and to see who she chooses. I talked with her about how we practice horsemanship from a relational standpoint, meaning our equine partners have a right to say yes or no. It’s hardly a good relationship if one party can’t say no to the other party’s request. Though much of our work is done at liberty, meaning the horse does not have a halter on, we do teach traditional skills like haltering, grooming, and leading. However, all tasks are done with consent and cooperation from our equine partner and with the intent of connection.

On the way to the minis’ pasture, we stopped to say hello to Louie and Tia. Before Louie could greet Anne, Tia stepped in front and cut him off, blocking him from greeting us. This was unusual behavior for her. She’d allow Louie to eat her hay when she first got here and typically deferred to him. Tia took three steps closer to Anne, who was turned slightly sideways with her shoulders gently sloped forward, tucking into herself. Tia lowered her head, making her tall body a bit smaller, as if to say, I’m safe.

Anne extended her hand, palm down and fingers lightly closed, toward Tia’s nose, using the horseman’s handshake that we’d practiced. I noticed Tia’s eyes were soft, nearly closed, and her neck was relaxed as she smelled Anne’s hand with first her right and then her left nostril. This greeting’s a way for us to re-create the natural greeting of horses with each other, muzzle to muzzle.

I told Anne a bit about Tia and said, “Let’s meet Louie and then visit the minis.”

Again, as we tried to leave, Tia blocked Anne. This time she split me from Anne by walking between us, thereby omitting me from her herd of two. Tia lowered her head until it nearly rested on Anne’s shoulder. Tia’s eyes, ears, and body were soft and still, and she rested her back left leg as if to say, Stay awhile. I noticed even Tia’s jaw was slack. Loose lips may sink ships, but with horses, it’s a very good sign that they’re relaxed and happy. I’d never seen Tia this motivated to connect with anyone. Anne smiled as she combed her fingers through Tia’s forelock. “I want to work with her,” she said.

I responded, “I think you already are.” 

One technique we practice is mirroring, which many animals, including us, do unconsciously. The messages mirroring sends are that we are alike and trustworthy. I asked Anne to copy how Tia was standing and mimic her breathing. (A human breathes about twelve to sixteen breaths per minute and a horse at rest about eight to fourteen.) Anne rested her leg like Tia’s back leg and lowered her head, breathing slowly. A relationship with a horse is just like any other relationship. It involves listening in addition to making requests or talking. We’re learning a new language by paying close attention to the horse’s body language. We must know what the subtle changes mean.

When Anne copied Tia eating grass by grabbing a handful, Tia turned and looked at her hand then smelled it. Tia seemed surprised but pleased and resumed eating. She and Anne continued this for a few minutes. Looking at them, I thought, This is just how horses graze together. I didn’t hear a sound or sense anything, but suddenly Tia swung her head high and stared into the woods. I asked Anne to follow Tia’s example and look into the woods, then give a large exhale, and look away, as if to say I understand; something seemed scary, but it’s okay now. I asked her to pretend like she was chewing gum because horses often lick and chew when they’re moving from a more excited state to a calmer one.

Even among horses, Tia is more reactive. She’s the first to spook at a loud sound or disturbance and takes longer than the others to calm down. Yet when Anne exhaled, Tia touched her arm with her muzzle and returned to grazing. Anne and I talked about how it’s important to acknowledge Tia’s fear/worry and not ignore her or act like she is wrong to have concerns. We also want to help Tia settle or come back to zero, a place of calmness in the present moment. To do so means we too must be calm and present. We must be fully where our feet are.

Up until now, they’d only done what Tia wanted to do. I asked Anne if she’d like to ask Tia to walk with her. Just like making a request of a friend, we can ask a horse to connect. I taught Anne how to ask for connection at Tia’s hip or hind end, so as to allow Tia the freedom to say yes or no. The absence of a no isn’t a yes, and by taking the pressure off the horse’s face, we provide space for the horse to move away. Often a person will go straight to the horse’s head and insist that the horse listen. If a person did this to us (unless we had a good relationship with them), we might feel intruded upon.

When we ask for connection, we utilize the smallest amount of pressure necessary. Pressure is rhythmic and regulated, and we can softly call the horse’s name, clap our hands, or slowly swing a lead line. Tia’s so sensitive that Anne needed only to say “Tia” to get her attention. Tia sauntered up to her, and when Anne started walking, Tia followed beside her. The first time that a horse chooses to walk with you at liberty can be a transformative moment. I asked Anne how that felt and she said, “It’s unbelievable. It was amazing how Tia walked with me without a halter and lead line because she wanted to. I feel like it’s based solely on our strong connection!”

They continued to work together weekly. At the end of our third session, Tia was standing near Anne when someone on the farm crumpled a water bottle. Tia jumped with all four feet off the ground, away from Anne, and then galloped to the far right corner of the field, snorting. It’s startling and can be scary to be near a horse that panics, and I checked in with Anne. We talked about how all relationships experience rupture and repair. This was a chance for Anne and Tia to practice reconnection. As we headed  toward Tia, we kept our breathing slow and our energy low. One helpful method of approaching a horse without “hard intent” like a predator is to pretend you’ve lost your keys on the ground. This helps soften our gaze and to zigzag rather than march directly at a horse. Anne intuitively rivered her way closer to Tia and reached her hand out. Tia exhaled and then cleared her nose with two loud snorts before licking and chewing. She nuzzled Anne’s shoulder, and Anne stroked her forelock and then along her neck. Horses don’t know how to pretend they are okay, but with humans, I have to ask and trust they are being honest.

“How are you?” I asked. “Do you feel like you and Tia are reconnected?”

Anne replied, “Yes. Did you see how Tia jumped away from me? She kept me safe!”

I told Anne that we would work with desensitization next time to allow Tia to be curious about new sounds and new objects. Desensitization does not mean pushing past her window of tolerance into alarm or blowing her mind. Teaching a horse to be curious allows new objects and situations to be faced with less or no fear.

The next week I had a plastic box full of noisemakers, scarves and costumes, and even bubbles. Anne and Tia glanced at the box with the same expression of Oh no! I picked up the gourd shaker and held it quietly, knowing well that Tia is suspicious of unfamiliar noises.

“Think of how you’d show it to a friend. If we push a horse beyond their window of tolerance, they can’t learn. Just like people.” As I talked, I shook the gourd rhythmically while standing still.

Tia backed up a step and raised her head, so I knew I was at her edge. She was so close to spooking. I stepped back, and each time she backed up, so did I. It may seem odd for a prey animal to be curious, but most horses are curious by nature. Tia is less so, perhaps genetically or from previous bad experiences or lack of exposure. Tia watched me suspiciously, and clearly I was making little progress. This is where strong relationships matter, and I can prove it by writing what happened next.

I handed the gourd shaker to Anne, and she seemed reluctant to startle Tia. Anne’s comfort level matters a lot in creating a safe space for Tia, so I reminded her that our goal was teachable moments. I can’t ask you to trust something if I’m not trusting the experience myself. Then Anne noticed that Tia was already more interested in the gourd now that she held it.

Tia lowered her head and stepped closer. Anne softly shook the gourd a few times and then stopped. While it’s true that I feed Tia three times a day and have even handled a medical emergency with her, horse relationships aren’t built on food. Tia stretched her neck to sniff the gourd when Anne extended her hand a mere inch so as not to spook her. Tia was careful not to touch it even with the whiskers on her muzzle, but rather she sniffed loudly as if asking, What is that thing?

“Well, don’t make that look too easy, Anne,” I joked. “Back up and remove all pressure from Tia. Excellent work!”

As I took the gourd from her, Anne was smiling. “She did so well,” she said.

Putting the gourd back in the box, I replied, “Yes! Y’all both did great.”

Anne leaned into Tia’s shoulder and exhaled deeply as she patted Tia’s neck. Both of them stood still, leaning into each other and relaxing in the afternoon sun.

I joked, “What would have made this a bigger success would’ve been if Tia felt curious enough to touch the gourd. Hey, can you grab the box for me?”

Some things I can’t explain, and next Tia did the unthinkable. She walked straight over to the box that Anne was now holding, and she explored several toys, including the shaker, with her muzzle, playfully lipping it side to side until it rattled. I can’t say why she did, but I can say she answered the question to spook or not to spook with some licking and chewing. Curiosity may kill the cat, but it’s healthy for a horse.


*All photographs courtesy of the author