A 1980s education

Though the decade of the 1980s ushered in the birth of the ‘natural horsemanship philosophy and training method, these nascent nuggets linking horse behavior and psychology with a rider or trainer did not reach the South Dakota borders where I lived.

The dominance of 4-H may have supplanted how the concept of natural horsemanship is understood today. Still, the tenants of caring for a horse’s health, nutrition, and the importance of understanding owner responsibilities for the animal’s welfare were central to the beginnings of my equestrian upbringing. Indeed, my first hunter/jumper trainer instilled as much knowledge about owning a horse to ride my first horse to competitive success.

Learning barn safety, understanding the work of farriers and veterinarians, and handling a horse in a pasture, in a ring, in the stable, and a trailer were topics that played a central role in my basic horse education. Emphasis on basic horse care supplanted an understanding of a horse’s behavior. True, I was taught to recognize a horse’s potential colic symptoms but what I did not learn was why a certain aid used or not used provoked a particular response from the horse. Owner responsibility and animal husbandry were the dominant learning theories in my experience.

Yet, though I did not recognize it, I later learned the principles of habituation and desensitization. I learned to handle and ride my first horse, an Arabian with a tragic history of abuse and neglect.

In the beginning, I spent more time on the ground than in the saddle, yet each time I entered his stall my horse to gently groom him, he grew calmer over time.  Snorts and wild eyes gave way to licking and chewing. Moving my hands across his body, lifting and lowering his hooves, rubbing him on the withers were all techniques I used not out of any true knowledge of imprinting or desensitization but out of love for an animal that was now my responsibility and passion.

A Tsunami of Desensitization Efforts

After high school and college, I did not own a horse or even ride casually. A major move to New Mexico reignited my interest in owning a horse. In the beginning, I took dressage lessons at a local barn, both unlearning some hunter/jumper habits that did not translate across the disciplines and learning how the biomechanics of a horse’s body fundamentally relates to a rider’s position and aides.

Two years into reacquainting myself with a latent passion, I purchased a thirteen-year-old Westphalian horse sold to me by an owner who was terrified to ride him. I should have heeded my instincts, but because I had successfully turned a wide-eyed, terrified Arab into a horse suitable for a child’s lessons, I believed I could rise to the challenge.

Repeatedly prone to bolting and racing madly across the arena, I learned and executed the emergency stop more times than I can recall. Instead of taking a step back and a deep breath, upon the recommendation of my trainer at the time, I suited my horse up in restricting gear, used a harsher bit than I should have, and perhaps most alarmingly sent my horse to a ground trainer who instead of desensitizing him to stimuli repeatedly flooded him with threats. The ground trainer’s tactics never overshadowed the stimuli; rather, the tactics became the source of fear. When the trainer gave up and returned my broken horse to me, I had no choice but to retire him.

Redemption, Bonding, and Pushing the Reset Button

D’arcy arrived in late September eight years ago. During the first few weeks, D’arcy and I grew acquainted with each other both in and out of the saddle. His hard-working, earnest, and loving demeanor charmed me from the start, and I believed that we were a true team in the making. Originally trained to be an event horse, D’arcy adapted to the demands of dressage. From the start, I knew D’arcy was my forever horse.

Born in Ireland with a genetic acclimation to damp environments, D’arcy’s virulent desert allergies failed to present themselves immediately. Much later, I would learn that a horse’s allergies could stay dormant for weeks, months, and even years. Less than a month after coming to New Mexico, my new horse’s allergies exploded. Our partnership, which started brightly, soon disintegrated. As the fall allergy season flourished, we struggled in the saddle. D’arcy’s sneezing and scratching worsened with his manic attempts to dive and rub his nose on his legs, chest, arena walls, and the ground until his condition grew untenable. During the first three years together, we spent more time on the ground than in the saddle.

Concurrent to my struggle to find an effective treatment for my horse’s allergies, a pasture injury changed my way of thinking completely. The treatment plan for D’arcy’s month-long recovery required me to hand-walk my horse three times a day. Before work, over my lunch hour, and after work, he and I plod around the indoor arena, working our way up to thirty-minute increments.

As a result, my senses sharpened. I started noticing how changes in barometric pressure and pollen counts could dictate his mood, the softness of his eye, the aggressiveness of his nose rubbing, any actions of mine that might spawn a contented sigh or licking or chewing.

Our walks, what I came to call ‘family walks,’ opened my eyes to my horse’s language and taught me to look instead of simply acting.  I learned to pay attention to his reactions, the radar movement of his ears, the bracing or softening of his neck, and the differences in his behaviors both on the ground and in the saddle. Our ‘family walks’ taught me how a loving and respectful bond between a horse and a human is a savings plan for the future. The more he recovered and healed, our relationship blossomed. Days when D’arcy faithfully followed me without a halter, trotting, and whinnying beside me, both of us deep in our own brand of conversation, are examples of joyful moments that came when the sea of ambiguity threatened to pull me under.

I grew into more than a rider. I was becoming a horsewoman.