Life is nothing but ongoing education, in fact, it is critical for growth personally and professionally. Sometimes learning comes to us in the most unlikely times and places and can challenge preconceived notions you’ve had your entire life! Keep reading to understand how one riding session with my horse, Octavia, changed how I view horse partnership.

The horse isn't a mirror or tool. Horses are a sentient being with all of the same rights as anyone else on the therapeutic team.
Octavia inside a sand arena.

Covid-19 is not something I’d wish on anyone. But the mandated stay-at-home order provided me with something I hadn’t had since I was very young- downtime. I finished my first book and awaited the publisher’s release, and had my website professionally updated. Also, I didn’t have any presentations or classes coming up to prep for. My focus (beyond my kids and their school) was getting some new clinical training, and working on my relationship. Specifically with my horse…

I hadn’t had a horse to work with on my own in a decade. Once kids came into the picture, horse time was sporadic at best. Even with my equine co-therapists, I was never “their person”. 

Enter Octavia. At the time she was 12 years old and I had known of her and even met her a few times. One of my friends was working with her in Massachusetts. She was initially a very easy 4 year old to train for my friend. Until a few gaps passed in her history where she was in different training barns that something happened. During this time, Octavia lost her trust in humans. She was initially friendly and loved scratches. But, she had clear boundaries she made known where you could and couldn’t touch her. 

The first time I tried to do some bodywork on her, she threatened to kick me repeatedly when I even approached her hind end on the left side. She started to throw people under saddle and became a danger to ride. After much time and investment, no one was able to make much progress in her mindset under saddle. 

She would, for lack of a better term, dissociate from what was going on. Eventually, one little thing would bring her back to the present and she’d do this little flippy thing with her backside and stop short up front, and send even the best-seated rider flying. If she felt unsafe, having a rider on her made her feel even more under duress. She became almost lethargic under saddle, afraid of her own energy being activated. 

Regardless of how much time, money, and love my friend had put into Octavia, she needed to find her a new home. So we discussed trying her out in my groundwork therapy program and seeing how she liked the work. We shipped her down to North Carolina, where she arrived in July 2019 at 3 am from a very swanky box stall. At the time, I was working out of a farm with a herd of 11 minis, one 29-year-old average-sized horse, and a whole bunch of farm animals. 

Coming from a dressage and hunter-jumper training barn, Octavia was overwhelmed with all the new sounds, smells, and experiences. I did a little riding with her myself, and we got along great. Yet when it came to groundwork, she was not super invested. She would become very disconnected. Then, anytime I put a little pressure on her, she would run like a wild horse around the round pen. She would start bucking, snorting, digging up dirt, and make me very worried she’d hurt herself. 

I had been working on using Natural Lifemanship principles to connect with the minis who were my co-therapists there. Octavia was different from the minis though, she seemed to hate any sort of direct pressure I tried putting on her. Anything I tried with her felt like a failure. Eventually, a day came when I was trying to take a lesson on her. Halfway through, I wasn’t paying attention as I should have to her, and she threw me off too. I started to feel like she hated being here just as much as her job in MA, and she still hadn’t connected with any clients. 

The thought even occurred to me of sending her back home or maybe finding a new home for her. But I knew that with a well-bred beauty like her, no one would listen to her limitations and push her too hard. This would cause even more shut-down for Octavia. While figuring out what would be best for her, I moved her to her quiet, low-key farm for a while. This was the best decision I had made in a long time.

This was Feb 28, 2020. The next few weeks, the entire world shut down with covid 19. And I found myself with something I hadn’t had since I was very young- downtime. After 5 months of slow, connected groundwork, I wrote this on my blog about her progress. 

Octavia’s been with me a year (in a few days!) and finally, I’ve decided to ask for her to stay forever. I know I may never be able to ride her the way I envisioned. I might not be able to show her or do a lot of things we “expect” to be able to do. But I am committed to her and building the best relationship I can. Whatever this relationship includes, I think is up to how well this goes, and how much we enjoy it together.

This was so huge for me. I’m a goal-driven achiever. I need to have a clear vision of what I’m working for, or I lose motivation. But for once, I found a way to clear my mind of achievement-oriented goals and focus on the relationship before me. I had to let go of the former horse trainer in me and just be present and willing to listen. 

It’s strange how the two things I’ve put my energy into over Covid- Octavia and clinical training, have curtailed so smoothly. I was preparing for the Natural Lifemanship Intensive program that summer and was able to attend in person. It gave me the tools I needed to ask for consent to ride Octavia again. Though it was a slow process, the day I swung my leg over her bareback with no constraints in a round pen was an amazing day for our relationship. 

Though it had been a few years since I went through the Fundamentals course, it’s only been in the last year it’s really clicked in. The biggest barrier I think is my background in horse training. There is so much to LET GO of in that field, to truly focus on the relationship between horse and self. If training is your goal, then Natural Lifemanship isn’t for you. If relationship is your goal, then I highly suggest checking it out. The workshops are not just for mental health professionals but horse professionals as well. 

In practice, I believe relationship trumps principle. I believe in putting my energy into showing that I’m connected and love my kids, for example, rather than I’m right and I’m the mom. At least, I try- if it’s after 9 pm I make no promises! Yet I would step into the round pen with my horse, and it would be principle- principle- principle- this is what I need as an end result. And all she did was dissociate and comply.
Fast forward to now, and her resting her head on me as I think Let Go Let Go LET GO…….and I feel a sense of relief wash through her. 

I think, somehow, she knows I’m done with that. She has choices. I have boundaries, but I am not setting boundaries. If we can’t keep ourselves safe when we do things together, then we will find other things to do.
For all the horses I have spent time with in my life, those I’ve been fortunate to call my own, those I’ve trained, or taught with- I am sorry. 

I apologize for not listening. 

I’m sorry for any compliance you felt obligated to give. 

I vow to be a listener, and not a director, of the horses I interact with from now on, and I wish for you to find the same in a human partner. Instead of sitting in the “If I knew then what I know now” wagon, I’m going to get up and put energy into being a better partner for my horses from here on out.