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July 02, 2019 5 Comments
What if I told you that you could have a deeper, more meaningful relationship with yourself, your partner, or your animals, just by attempting to do the very thing you've been avoiding?
Her name was Legacy, a blue roan quarter horse that stole my heart and changed my entire world.
I froze, in what Pat McManus, a famous comical outdoors writer, called the "modified stationary panic." The reason I was frozen was that Legacy was caught in a wire fence with her hind leg suspended above the ground and stretched out behind her. I stood only for a few moments, trying to figure out how to best approach the situation, knowing that if I ran in there too fast, Legacy might react to my speed, but if I was too slow... things could get worse for her in no time at all. When I finally gathered my wits, I approached as calmly as possible with my heart racing and my head flooded with all the possible consequences of this day. I had no idea that one particular consequence would change the way I see horses for the rest of my life.
In short, she survived, within three long minutes I was able to cut her free from the wire and she once again stood on all four feet. I wasn't sure how long she'd been stuck there but I know that what came after lasted a lifetime. What I'm talking about is a deep, meaningful bond that I never expected. She saw me differently that day and every day forward. She trusted me in ways I never expected. That entire summer was filled with amazing, challenging rides, and she never batted an eye when I asked her to forge ahead. She never showed that confidence before the wire fence event and always showed it after.
Years of contemplation and study of deep human and animal psychology have led me to understand that what we experienced was a version of "trauma bonding." That's what happens when two individuals experience something challenging and deeply emotional (those are keywords), even life-threatening, and come out of it together.
Every horse I've worked with since that day has not failed to bond with me in deep, trusting, and amazing ways. Even when I help a student with their horse, not my own horse, their horse bonds with me, and trusts me deeply. Students often asked me, "How is it that you can play with my horse for five minutes, get great results and my horse falls in love with you in spite of everything you just went through?"
As you might guess, my answer lies in the question. "What we just went through!'
Can you see it now? Every little challenge you present to your horse heightens their emotion. It elevates their heart rate and it opens the door to have a miniature version of what psychologists call a "trauma bond."
Am I really saying what you think I'm saying? Am I saying that you should purposefully put your horse in challenging situations just to create a deeper bond? Answer... YES!
Not life-threatening situations, that's irresponsible. I'm talking about emotional situations. And there is a whole slew of those kinds of situations at your fingertips. You don't have to get your horse out of a wire fence to trauma bond. Teaching your horse to stand still for the farrier, or for saddling, is a simple version of "trauma bonding," because it's emotional. When you prove to your horse that he or she can do that very thing he or she doesn't believe is possible, you bond with them. They look at you, not as the person who put them through hell, but as the person who went there with them and got them out of there.
The reason I bond with horses so quickly and earn their trust has everything to do with my passion for tackling the challenging situations and proving to the horse that it will be okay and I will be there through it all. My timing improves with each challenge I undertake. My feel improves with each failure and new attempt. My heart remains clearly intact with the promise of comradery, leadership, and emotional support. Sure I have to tell my horse "NO" for pushing against personal space boundaries or pulling on the rope, but in the end, I get to tell him or her "YES! We did it! I'm so proud of you. Proud of us. We make a great team."
Do you think my horse feels that intention? You bet he does. They all do.
The point is... if you truly want to bond with your horse beyond the basic brushing, grooming, and feeding routine, if you want a deep, bottomless, level of trust from your horse, if you want to truly earn the right to lead with rapport, compassion, and certainty, then you must expose yourself to "trauma bonding" on a small scale. You must go out that door and tackle those little details that bug you. Things like teaching your horse to stand still, getting in the trailer, riding on the trail, or even things like smooth canter departures while riding. When you dedicate twenty minutes to refining a simple canter departure with the intent to prove to the horse that he doesn't have to rush or get worried, you expose yourself to a miniature version of trauma bonding. If you persist to end well, without ever getting angry with your horse, you will win his or her heart every time.
The list of amazing things you could improve upon is endless and many of those things elevate your horse's heart rate, and yours too. Those are the things you should go tackle. Go prove to your horse that you don't give up, ever. Go prove to your horse that you can get through tough things together and truly win your horse's heart and mind. The only things you have to be mindful of is physical limitations (for instance: don't canter a circle for too long, you might injure your horse's joints). And watch your own emotions too. Don't get angry! If you do get upset, find a way to chill out immediately. Anger is the worst possible emotion you can express around your horse. You might have to be firm, but you don't have to be angry.
Remember this... Success may be just a few sessions away, so be patient and be persistent.
Recently I encouraged a student of mine to take her horse to the show grounds because that was a truly scary experience for the horse. She'd been there before and failed miserably. The excess noise of the environment elevated the emotions and she ended up coming home on the heels of failure. But failure isn't the problem. FAILURE ISN'T THE PROBLEM. Not trying again is the problem. Not using your imagination to break it down into smaller chunks is the problem. Not proving to your horse that ultimately, even if it takes ten sessions, we will succeed! That's the real problem.
With my encouragement, she tackled the challenge and two weeks later happily reported a successful day at the showgrounds. "My horse remained cool and calm all day today," she said. "It took multiple trips to the grounds and long days asking him to focus on me, but I did it. We did it."
I'm grateful for her story and I hope it inspires you too. I hope you get out your pen and paper and write down your "kryptonite." List the things that hold you back, that irritate you, that seem impossible. List some things that you dream of doing but don't know how, or fear you might fail. That list is your learning ground. You will develop more feel, timing, and balance tackling that list than any other activity and believe it or not, you will gain more trust and a deeper bond with your horse than you could possibly imagine if you just don't quit!
It's true there are techniques that will help and if you're looking for techniques and emotional support for yourself, join my Horse Mastery Program. Everything you need is here for you and all you have to do is embrace the opportunity.
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Thank you for reading, please comment below. I want to hear your stories.
July 03, 2019
Thanks Don. What a really helpful situation and it explains an experience I had with my cat. When I was a teenager my parents let me have a cat of my own. (We already had two). I got my kitten from the vet and he was one chilled out little dude. Lounging on the chairs in the waiting room while dogs were coming and going. At home I found him to be aloof. Then my dad accidentally ran him over while reversing out of the garage and it was the best thing to happen to the cat’s and my relationship. He broke his pelvis and lost a lot of the skin on his hind legs. When I got him back from the vet I lay with him all day on the lounge in front of the TV. When I was studying he came and lay on my desk in front of me to keep me company and play with a pencil, he began sleeping in my bed and would allow me to massage in between his paws. He became my best friend and was the best cat I have ever had.
July 03, 2019
I love, love, love this! When Zeva and I started to go to our local family, friendly horse shows – we had a lot to work on together. The first show I didn’t even ride her. I did everything on the ground. We went to every show, every pre show clinic where we could practice what challenges would be in the show. I was very frustrated in the beginning. Then we started to have fun! Everything started to get better. Zeva’s trailer loading was so easy! The idea of not trying again definitely entered my mind. I know I didn’t do everything perfectly – it didn’t matter, because we kept trying together. It really was great bonding for us. I am so looking forward to playing with my horses again! A few more weeks of rehab for me and I am hoping to be able to start doing some of the “small” things – which are the important things. Thank you Don! You truly are so encouraging and right on point!
July 03, 2019
Again Don, you nailed it. So well written and I can totally relate. Thank you for putting a name to it and explaining it.
July 03, 2019
I love this article, helps break down things I don’t know how to deal with because he does it sometimes. I guess colic surgery was not enough for skip or he has forgotten!!!! Thax
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July 04, 2019
Thanks Don. Just a few days ago I said to Mark “it seems like Partner sees me differently lately”. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. He’d follow me around, right behind me, head down very relaxed but there was more than that. He looked at me differently and in some way was different when we were together. We have been working on getting used to the gun for our Cowboy Mounted Shooting and it had been challenging for both of us. We did it though! We got through the challenge together. I think we “trauma bonded” and that’s what made the difference.