What my horse taught me: Change happens

Stefanie and Paladin

We all know the saying “When the student is ready, the teacher shows up” (or something like that…). Since I am past the youthful state of ignorance where I saw life as a sheer endless road ahead and teachers wore 1960’s glasses, suspenders or pencil skirts, I came to the realization that teachers can show up at any time and in any given shape. If you’re lucky, you recognize them and actually learn something.

One of those teachers turned out to be my horse Paladin. I obtained Paladin, then Yankee, in February 2007 from a rescue organization specializing in off-the-track Standardbreds. Gorgeous, lanky, spirited and not really warm and fuzzy with people, Yankee had been through several adoptive homes and was now back in the program. Upon first meeting, he gave my brought-along apple a disgusted look (later I learned that carrots are more to his liking) and showed me his hiney, walking away from me with, what seemed, a clear attitude of disdain. “I’ll take him!” I exclaimed. Not really knowing why … – and that as one ‘ass’ recognizes another, I had spotted a fellow adrenalin addict and he was mine!

my horse Paladin

My horse Paladin, a typical "Wood Horse"

Fast forward through a journey of trial and error (What do you mean this horse doesn’t tie?), confusion and self-doubt (What the heck was I, as a rusty horse person, thinking to get this horse?) and ultimate reward after some hard earned successes (This horse is the best, we are attached at the hip!) and to a point in time, where I was stuck in a rut and didn’t know it.

[Side-note: Carrie Cameron, who travelled the country for a long time with Doris Halstead (mother of myofascial release for horses, in my view) and worked on horses with her, later co-authored a book with Doris (Release the Potential), when asked about the possible reasons for my history of recurring head-injury said something like: “The universe is going to knock you in the head until you get it!” “Get what?” “Whatever it is you are supposed to get.”]

On November 4th, 2010 Yankee – in a clear act of defiance – let his adrenalin take over and – instead of simply making a defiant gesture – kicked me in the face and knocked me out while we were working in the round pen, doing things we had done hundreds of times before. So I thought, until I saw the video (yes, it was on video…).

What I saw was a woman on an adrenalin high, who had an impatient hissy-fit because her horse did not ‘perform’ the way he usually does or was expected to do. His wrong-doing: He went for a tasty nibble of gras. He answered me with the same energy and attitude I approached him with at that moment: Impatience and unproportionate assertiveness.

What can you learn from a kick in the face?

Lesson 1: Know the horse in front of you.
Horses aren’t pets. They are sensitive, powerful and very reactive creatures with memories like elephants. The difference in their personalities astounds me every day. I knew my horse well. He is – according to the very worthwhile Horse Harmony Temperament Test by Madalyn Ward, DVM – a “Wood Horse”: athletic, competitive and plenty of resistance and attitude. Or like one trainer put it, after having spent two afternoons with my horse: “This horse will ask you every time you show up: Who’s the boss today?”  So if I could rewrite this moment, I’d take a deep breath, take a step back and start over.
Lesson learned: Take a good look at your horse and consider his nature in everything you do with him. Always work ‘with the horse that shows up’, not the horse your horse was yesterday or last week. He may feel off, too, and may have his reasons.

Lesson 2: Consider the horse first.
This is a principle I have held dear, especially in my bodywork with horses. At that moment in time, however, I was overwhelmed with my own agenda, with someone else’s (perceived) expectations (the person with the video camera) and a ticking clock (THROW THAT AWAY, when with horses!!).
Lesson learned: Always, always put yourself in the horse’s shoes first. If your horse is ok, you will be ok.

Lesson 3: There is always tomorrow. (God willing)
OK, so there is the “Agenda”, which is always the human’s agenda, and then there is the “Horse”. Horses don’t have agendas. If you cannot let go of your agenda, go and play backgammon, don’t spend an afternoon with horses. Rather come back tomorrow with a clear mind, without a clock and without an agenda. You may be surprised what you will accomplish, effortlessly and in harmony.
Lesson learned: Whatever can be accomplished at any given day, needs to be accomplished within the parameters determined by the horse’s ability. If you can’t let go of expectations, come back another day. It’s safer.

Lesson 4: Change happens.
After this accident, which left me injured but feeling fortunate in view of what could have happened, I went through phases of sadness, fear, anger and despondence. What hurt me most was that my horse was more traumatized than I was by this incident. When all I was left with was a lingering feeling of shame, my horse still did not let me near him 2 months later. Came February, he would not let the vet near him for spring shots. I was convinced that I had to let him go. Only when I gave him and myself a chance to make a change (starting with myself), I could regain his trust and we are now – once again – “attached at the hip”.
Lesson learned: Look at yourself and at your horse and know that your and your horses “Best Self” is somewhere in there. Give yourself the chance to bring it out and start with YOU! Change happens!

Lesson 5: And last not least: Do-Be-Do-Be-Do!
At the time right before the accident, I had just come back from Germany, where we had taken photographs for Jim Masterson’s book “Beyond Horse Massage“, which I co-authored, was writing, working on horses, doing translations, setting up a web-store, etc. etc. etc., all feeding into my 16-hour/day adrenalin-driven lifestyle. As someone rightly put it: We are human be-ings, not human do-ings! Abandon that 20th century mode (we are in the 21st now…) of Do-Do-Do-Do-Do and let your motto be: Do-Be-Do-Be-Do!
Lesson learned: Take Five (or even ten!)!

Stefanie and Paladin

My Paladin and I

And about my Paladin: I gave him a new name to better reflect his personality: Paladin. He is always ready for battle and quickly puts on his armor and pulls his sword. This is a horse you don’t battle with, but rather enthuse him for your ideas. But when the day is done and he got nothing but respect, fairness and clear messages, he’s the sweet sensitive guy, who is in a state of bliss when you brush him nicely.

Well, you may say: “Oh, I knew all that. Where has she been? Surely don’t need to get kicked to figure this out.” And I say: “Daahhlink, had you asked me on November 3, 2010, whether I knew all this, I would have said ‘sure I do!’. The point is to internalize and remember it when it counts…”.

It doesn’t always take a ‘kick’ to learn your lesson. With a little bit more openness and a humble, relaxed attitude, you can spot the lessons and the teachers without the big wake-up call. Hope you are getting a little something out of me sharing my experience.

Enjoy your horse!

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8 Responses

  1. Mary Hetzel says:

    Brilliant as always, Stef. I am so grateful you are ok AND I love the name Paladin!

  2. Kathy says:

    What a wonderful story! Teaching my grandson that lesson just this week! His horse Jules was having a frustrating day as well as Xavier. Round pen work. She wasn’t responding like he wanted, he started getting very upset. I told him to take her to the hitching post n groom her for a bit. Give her a hug n tell her you love her and everything will be ok. Buy the time her grooming was finished he applied pressure to her halter and she dropped her head into his arms! He was amazed n a little tearful because SHE still loved HIM! He is only 9 and is turning into an amazing horseman!

  3. Andrea says:

    Thank you for these very wise and timely words, Stephanie! The horse/human bond is amazing, and I am often too quick to forget that my Mecina is not an overgrown canine but a being who is large enough and strong enough to kill me….. a being who chooses to, time after time, ignore my silly human ways and work with me anyway. The times that I get it right, put myself in her shoes and work with her where she is at that moment, are the absolute best times. When I have a preconceived idea about what we are going to work on that night, and become rigid in that expectation and don’t consider her first, become the very worst training times. I’m always grateful for your insight, Stephanie. Blessings on your new journey with Paladin!

  4. poweredbyred says:

    Its nice to be once again reminded, well reinforced, that horses are sensitive, powerful and very reactive creatures with memories. The difference in their personalities amazes me too every day. Have fun and pay attention to your animal they are paying attention to you….

  5. Anke Johnson says:

    I have only one thing to say Stefanie…Beautiful!

  6. Nicki Butler says:

    Stephanie, what a great story, and one I recognize as well, and hope to internalize again and again until maybe it will be permanent? I just got back from Iowa Masterson seminar this weekend(This one replaced the one in Hobarty Indiana which had to be cancelled. I’m hoping you are much better now!) It was great, and I really want to go on with the program and get certified. I hope at some point I will have the chance to work with you.

  7. Tamara Parr says:

    You have healed beautifully…and wisely. Thank you so much for articulating such a deeply personal journey.

  8. Daniela LeBlanc says:

    Having a wood horse myself (and being a wood personality to boot)- boy did this story resonate with me. Thanks for sharing your “lessons” – may they be of value to others.

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