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#98 Through The Eyes of a Therapy Horse




My eyes were shut, I'm dozing away. 

BANG!

Suddenly, the door opens.

I hear, "Hey, Remmy." 

Someone pushes something over my face.  

Now I feel a tug, startled … I have no choice but to follow the person down the building.

Moments later, my face is tied to the wall. 

Left side, right side. 

Then, a group approaches. 

I sense their energies, a mix of anxious, in charge … and kind. 

They touch my nose and then use a brush to stroke my coat a few times. 

I start to exhale, but here comes that thing!   

Plop!

It lands on my back.

A squeeze on my left side makes me want to move my right shoulder away from the pressure, but it doesn't work. I hold my breath as they walk me to the area where one of them will get on my back. Someone has my face, and another person helps the anxious one. 

I am asked to walk. 

I'm trying to read the energy of the person on my back … tense. 

The one on my left … calm. 

On my right … not easy to read … not present.  

The person by my head … focused. 

As we enter another space, there's one more person in the middle. 

And three other horses.

It's a lot of energy to take in.

Suddenly, I feel some pressure on my face, on the right.

I turn my head … now my shoulder hurts a little more. 

Pressure to the left, I turn my head.

Now my shoulder hurts a little less.

Pressure on both sides. 

I stop.

FINALLY!

I take a deep breath.  

...

I wish the people around me would take a breath.



I was Remmy.

Thirty years ago, when I moved to the US from Germany, I knew just about as many words of English as Remmy does. I had to decipher the rest through body language, vocal tones, gestures, and reading people's energies.  

For example, a month into my internship at an advertising agency in NYC, the conference room door flew open, and a secretary called out, "OJ is heading down the highway with a white Bronco."

And I wondered why Orange Juice was rushing down a highway on a white horse…? 

But watching the people's reactions to the news and reading their energies, I sensed that the information had to be disturbing. 

Because I've experienced how challenging it is when no one understands you and you don't understand anybody, I've dedicated much of the last 30 years to learning from animals how we can connect more deeply and authentically, whether we have words or are wordless. 

As the former director of a therapeutic riding center and an Equine Communication Coach, I discovered that mindfully connecting with others deepens our relationships. 


Through my observations, analysis, and experiments, I developed a mindful communication and decision–making tool called the Mindful Connections Wheel. 

VISUAL

5 Mindful Principles can help you connect deeply and quickly with your horse. Additionally, a 5-step decision-making process can assist you in communicating with your horse, so you never again find yourself stuck in the "I don't know what to do" phase.

Today, I am sharing with you how I discovered that when we employ just two of the powerful Mindful Connections Principles, "Seeing the world through others' eyes" and "Asking for what we need," we will shift our relationships with students, clients, partners, family, friends, colleagues … and our therapy horse Remmy to new heights.



  • We deeply care about our clients' needs in therapeutic riding and EAP.

  • In my experience, we usually limit our assessment of our therapy horses to determining confirmation, temperament, and health.

  • We rarely teach instructors, volunteers, or students how horses feel or what they experience. We often only pay attention once the horse is sick or misbehaves.


That didn't make sense to me.

If we aim to achieve safe and effective results, considering the individual personality, the nature of the horse, and its well-being is of utmost importance.

But instead of considering and supporting the horse from the inside out, we manage things on the outside to stay safe. 

Right?  

We ensure everyone wears helmets, the proper footwear, safety belts, sidewalkers….and that's all good and important.

But, could we have fewer safety mishaps, more effective lessons, and happier horses if we support the therapy hose more mindfully? 

That's when I realized that one way to truly support Remmy is to see the world through his eyes—not by projecting but by paying attention to his experience in the moment. 

To see the world through Remmy's eyes, I had to meet Remmy where he lives … in the NOW.  

Unlike humans, our horses don't worry about the past or future; they live in the here and now.

And if I wanted to learn from Remmy, I had to meet him in the NOW. 

Only then can I start to gather information objectively.

If I believe our horses are sensitive, and of course I do, remember Remmy … taking it all in like a sponge, then I must believe that Remmy's fast-moving, and often emotionally charged work environment is affecting him and the other therapy horses.


Right?

Depending on their work, horses don't turn their sensors on or off. 

Horses are sensing sentient beings. 

Always.

Horses are energy sponges.


They take in and reflect back.

They take in and reflect back.

And they, just like us, tense up when they get startled. BANG.

They tense up when an anxious or overly excited person enters their space. WOW.

They tense up when they can't get away from something that feels painful. OUCH.

And, more than us, they feel the moods, the anger, the excitement, the overwhelm. 

And that causes stress.

When we experience stress and our nervous system goes into overdrive, we all handle it differently. 

Back in my early months in NYC – when I couldn't communicate - I dealt with my stress and sense of overwhelm by … eating. Within four months, I had gained enough weight that my parents, who visited me in NYC, walked past me at the airport terminal. They didn't recognize me! ☹

Stress and overwhelm can lead to over-reaction, depression, heart disease, and ongoing anxiety.  

Now, let's apply this to our horses. 

If Remmy doesn't have an opportunity to release some of the stress-energy he has absorbed from his environment, then—sooner or later—his nervous system will blow a circuit.

Blowing a circuit can look many ways:

 One day, when something spooks Remmy ... he will instinctively use that trigger to release that pent-up energy. Not on purpose, not to hurt anybody; he does it because he is a horse, a prey animal. 

Watch horses in the wild, and even those that get to graze in large pastures. While horses graze, they're still on guard, taking a lot of energy from their environments. They pay attention to noise and movement, building up tension, and then – seemingly out of the blue - one horse spooks. Following the herd instinct, now all horses run off, bucking and farting, letting the penned-up energy out. And if you stick around long enough to watch them, they usually go down and roll right after, giving the last bit of stress energy back to the earth.

Releasing penned-up energy through running, farting, rolling, and snorting is the horses' way of regulating their nervous system.

****

Now, therapy horses, who are selected for their calm demeanor, show additional signs:

According to research by Robin Foster, a Horse Behaviorist Consultant, nearly 50% of therapeutic riding horses show low-intensity behaviors such as tail swishing and ear pinning. 

Over a quarter of the horses showed "Avoidant-resistant" behaviors such as being sluggish, rushed, or improperly responding to changes in speed or direction. Walking off, barging, head tossing, and biting occurred regularly during mounting.


These behaviors not only posed safety risks but also delayed classes. In this research, rider behavior was the primary source of stress; one-third of all horse stress behaviors were triggered by rein tension, leg pressure, or weight imbalance. 

 

So, looking at it through Remmy's eyes, I had to gather more information and examine his nervous system more closely.

CHART

The Equine Nervous System is the most complex system in the body. It controls all of the other equine body systems, including the brain, spinal cord, and sensory and motor nerves. It is also the system that feels pain and other sensations.

CHART

The equine nervous system functions through three main groups:

  • Central Nervous System

  • Peripheral Nervous System 

  • Autonomic Nervous System. 

Today, I'm focusing on the Autonomic Nervous System

It has two major sub-systems: 

- Sympathetic 

- Parasympathetic.

CHART

Sympathetic Nervous System:

- Governs the "Fight" or "Flight" reaction in a horse

- Alerts the horse to danger, stress, or other unpleasant circumstances

- Sends messages to the brain to increase the heart rate and blood pressure to prepare the horse for flight.

Parasympathetic Nervous System:

- Governs pleasant times like resting, sleeping, digesting,

- When a horse is really relaxed, it is in its parasympathetic state.  

- Being relaxed helps to increase blood flow, which helps the horse to be healthier and calmer. (Source: Equine Education Connection)

So, in Remmy's case, when the stall door BANG suddenly opens while he is napping, his sympathetic nervous system goes on alert. 

When we then walk him down the aisle, snap the ties to his halter, and approach him with a group of people, some nervous or excited, his sympathetic nervous system keeps on firing. 

It might not look like it, but it is. 

So, remembering my question: how is Remmy affected by the lessons, ridden or on the ground …?

That question is actually answered on the PATH website. Let me read this to you:

… horses (as domesticated prey animals) are extremely sensitive to changes in the human being (as predatory creature). Due to their sensitivity, horses react and respond to people differently based on the person's emotional state.


Pretty obvious. Right?


The work will affect a therapy horse, whether ridden or interacted with on the ground.

That being a fact, my next concern was how we could influence Remmy from the inside out to keep our students, horses, staff, and volunteers safe and Remmy healthy. 

Which, by the way, will also keep the vet bills down. ☺

Over the last three decades, I have worked and played with many horses and breeds in many states across the US, and no matter where I've been or whom I worked with, I've made some fundamental observations. 


  • Horses want to connect. 

  • Horses want to be seen and treated as individuals and respected as partners. 


What does it mean to connect with a horse? What does it mean to invite the horse to connect with us?

It was surprising to me to discover the most straightforward way we can connect with Remmy and influence his well-being is through breath.

Connecting with Remmy through breath calms his nervous system. 

Let me explain: not only will a conscious breath put us right into the present moment, the NOW, which is where the horse resides, but research has also found that proper breathing supports the Nervous System and improves our: 


Immune System Function

Respiratory System

Circulatory System

Digestive System

Mental and Emotional well-being, and a host of other functions.

The bottom line is that when we consciously and mindfully focus on breathing, we will probably live a longer and healthier life.  

Now you might wonder… why does my breathing matter to Remmy?

If YOU are stifling yoru breath, it is tough for Remmy to take a breath. 

If Remmy is tense, your breath can help him breathe more deeply and reduce his stress.

:::

When I visit therapeutic riding programs, the riders are rarely asked to take a breath before or after mounting the horse. 

The tension held by the leader. sidewalker and rider are felt by Remmy. 

Let's talk for a moment about Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy sessions. Remmy has a unique ability to reflect on the tension the client is holding by not breathing. This observation can lead to significant breakthroughs for the client. However, it is essential to integrate the horse into the release work, as often, the horse becomes the conduit for the client's breakthroughs but is not allowed to release the energy he absorbed.


Breath is our primary connector.

Let's take a look at the breath:

There is Stress breathing, a breath that comes from high up in the shoulders and collarbones or from the centers of the chest.

And then there is Abdominal breathing 

A breath that comes from the abdomen

The breathing we want to do for us and Remmy is ABDOMINAL BREATHING".

When you take a deep belly breath, you automatically relax, instantly turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, and reduce your cortisol levels.  

Take a breath into your belly (i.e., expand your diaphragm) to the count of five, pause for a second, and then breathe out slowly through a small hole in your mouth. Exhaling through your mouth instead of your nose makes breathing a conscious process, not a subconscious one.

Let's do that one more time so you get the benefit.

Research on breath shows that abdominal breathing enhances parasympathetic (inhibit neural responses) tone, decreases sympathetic (excitatory) nervous activity, improves respiratory and cardiovascular function, reduces the effects of stress, and improves physical and mental health. 

(Pal, Velkumary, and Madanmohan, 2004).

Abdominal breathing also changes brain wave activity from the more stressful beta wavelengths to more relaxing and healthier alpha waves.

But more importantly, breathing consciously supports Remmy as he works with a client.

And that sums up … horses want to connect, and the easiest way to connect with our horses is to meet them in the NOW and breathe with them.

Now, here is the second thing I concluded:

  • Horses want to be seen and treated as individuals and respected as partners. 

That means we must employ the Mindful Principle of "Ask for what you need" and ask Remmy for participation!

 What could that look like?

Let's revisit the situation and see if we can make Remmy's experience more pleasant from the start. 

Again, it starts with a breath. 


As a horse handler, I make it a point to take a deep breath as I walk down the aisle towards the stall or paddock where Remmy is located. I take a deep belly breath and, in my mind, tune in to Remmy. With that, I announce to him that I'm heading his way. As any experienced rider knows, you can think trot, and the horse starts to move into the trot. By ending Remmy a 'hello' in yoru mind, you are creating the first connection.


When I get to the stall or paddock gate, I stop, take another breath, and say, "Hi, Remmy, time for your lesson. Lexi is waiting for you. This gives Remmy a chance to wake up or stop eating. It gives him time to transition and get ready.

Next, I step next to Remmy, and instead of forcing the halter over his ears, I take another breath and ask him to participate. I ask him to please put his nose into the halter. 

I stay open + curious while I ask. So many horses are never given the chance to respond to a verbal request. Remmy might initially be surprised to be asked, but he will gladly cooperate after a few more invitations. 


Next, before heading toward the grooming stall, I take another belly breath before inviting Remmy to follow me. This small but significant connection effort with Remmy pays off in all subsequent interactions. Remmy will be more tuned in because I am. 

If Remmy is already groomed, let Lexi touch Remmy with her hands instead of a brush. 

Can she detect if Remmy is sensitive in particular areas?

Does he love being scratched in certain spots?

This is an opportunity to bond, breathe, and build a connection. 

You might think right now, we don't have time for that. The parents will complain if the student is not on horseback within the first five minutes. I get it. 

Twenty-five years ago, I ran a program the traditional way.

Quickly get the rider on the horse to maximize the time on horseback.

But I changed when I realized that the horse was often no more than a vehicle for getting the job done. 

We integrated more bonding time and more opportunities for the riders to get to know the horse by seeing the world through the horse's eyes. 

As we added more mindful interactions to our students' lessons, they became inevitably more compassionate and understanding. 


And our horses were happier. 


And our board of directors was pleased. The vet bills went down, and safety records went up. 

This is an opportunity to teach the client to engage more cognitively and physically through horses and teach mindfulness.

Ok, back to Remmy…

If the horse is already brushed because it is the third lesson and there is no mud on him, why brush? Instead, let the client feel the horse. Let them be tactile, then put on the saddle and let the rider watch what Remmy tells you about the saddle. Is he comfortable? If not, can we fix it? Can we come up with ideas to make this saddle more comfortable?

When we walk up to the ramp, we collectively take a breath before the rider gets on the horse.

Let's see if Remmy can be brought more at ease before the person mounts. The breath will also help your students curb their excitement or anxiety.

Let the instructor remind the rider, leader, and sidewalker to take a deep belly breath when they enter the arena. So many students sit awkwardly because they do not breathe!!!!!

Everyone, Remmy included, will have such a different experience if we pay attention to these details. 

When the lesson ends, we remove the saddle and run our hands over the body again. We'll give it some attention if there's a flinch or twitch. Put your hand on it, and let the client put their hand on it. Breathe into that spot. 

After the lesson, once Lexi is dropped off by her caretaker, let's bring our connection with Remmy home.


As the horse handler, I connect with Remmy through a belly breath before I walk down the aisle with him. 

Preferably, I'll offer Remmy and his buddies a turn-out where he can move, relax, roll, and eat a little before returning to work. That way, he comes grounded out of his break. 

And, of course, the next lesson will be started with the same ease through breath.

CONCLUSION:

Let's think back to Remmy's original experience. He was 'BANG' wakened from sleep and suddenly met with a lot of energy. He was sensing some pain in his shoulder; he was led immediately into the arena, absorbing more energy from the other horses and riders. He received mixed messages from seat, legs, and hand aids, and he was asked not to respond to 80% of them.

Isn't that miraculous?

That's what amazing therapy horses do. They respond and don't react. 

So now imagine Remmy holding in all this information while he is brought back to a stall. 

What will happen to that energy? Most of it will stay in his body because he doesn't have the opportunity to release it.

That energy will build up, and he will either absorb it, which is not healthy or mindful in the long run, or Remmy will have to release it when more pressure is added, which is not safe for the client. 

Breathing with Remmy, asking for his participation, and giving him the space to roll, move, and chew some hay to release that energy will ground him. And a grounded horse is a well horse! 

By breathing, paying attention, and partnering with Remmy, you are creating a mindful connection that offers your riders, clients, staff, and volunteers a safe experience that is equally satisfying for all involved. 

And what more can we ask for?

CALL TO ACTION

So, let's do it together one more time…

Inhale. Exhale.

I'm feeling better already!

This podcast provides guidance on how to structure your lessons and sessions with the well-being of your equine co-facilitator in mind.

In the show notes, I will a video of Jesse, a beautiful 33-year-old Percheron I got to care for. In the video, he and I demonstrate how to connect with a horse without brushes. Watch it. Then, feel free to share it with your friends and your students. 

If you are ready to bring a mindful approach to your center or barn, reach out. I am here to support you and your horses.

Have a beautiful day!


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