By Cindy Hartzell
Edited By Bruce Hartzell
Listening to horses is a skill that involves more than just using one’s ears. It involves a willingness to explore and master four other senses: Sight, Smell, Touch, and Extrasensory Perception. The latter is defined as; the faculty of perceiving things by means other than the known senses, such as: by telepathy or clairvoyance. I realize others may find themselves uncomfortable with the idea of telepathy or clairvoyance, yet, consider the following; have you ever found yourself thinking about someone out of the blue and you can’t seem to be able to get them off your mind? Then they call, or you run into them somewhere. Perhaps you call them and discover they are struggling with life’s challenges. This is telepathy. It is a natural gift all of us possess. Animals, especially horses, are sentient beings. They have the ability to feel and to experience emotions, such as: joy, pleasure, pain and fear. This intuitive ability helps them know what humans are feeling.
A horse’s capacity to feel positive or negative states makes them powerful facilitators, especially in the fields of assisted learning and therapy. They feel what we feel. They mirror back to us in ways that helps us take shifts and changes in our own personal behavioral patterns. Those of us who have horses in our lives can also experience and benefit from our horse’s abilities and gifts. In my opinion, it is our responsibility as horse people to learn to think like a horse, this includes learning to master our senses. When we do so, we are listening to our horses in ways that empowers us to be the best we can be for them. Mastering the art of horsemanship is a lifelong journey and requires dedication, determination and discipline. It also requires we think out of the box, a box labeled by our limited beliefs. This includes a misunderstanding of how horses learn, and how they live, and interact with each other. A willingness to be open to changing one’s views on how horses interact with humans is essential in achieving horsemanship expertise. Often horses are labeled as bad because they demonstrate undesirable and dangerous traits.
Many horses find themselves being sold repeatedly. Others end up on a truck with a oneway ticket to slaughter. As my understanding of horses has grown, and the more horses I have encountered on my horsemanship journey, I have come to the following conclusion. A horse who behaves “badly”, or “dangerously” is not doing so because this is who they are, rather their behavior is a symptom or result of something much deeper. Sometimes it can be because the horse has not been given the Listening to Horses continued opportunity to learn things in such a way that promotes their understanding what is being asked of them, or how they will benefit. Instead, through fear, or the risk of pain, they are forced to perform. Over time, the results is a spooky horse, a horse lacking confidence, a horse that is completely shut down or an angry aggressive one. Often this is because the humans who are engaging with the horse lack the understanding of horse psychology, horse behavior and herd dynamics. What results is a horse that learns undesirable behaviors simply due to a lack of the proper guidance from their leader. The consequence is the horse’s owner will have a horse who does not respect their owner’s space, or takes off, or won’t stand still to be saddled or mounted. I even see horses that are completely unresponsive to their rider on the trail.
Another reason a horse demonstrates a change in their behavior is due to their underlying physical issues. These can often be medical problems. There are times, such as now, that I am willing to be uncomfortable and vulnerable and share my own personal experiencesand lessons so others may benefit in living with their horses. As many of you know, my main partner is RC, a beautiful 12-year-old palomino paint horse, whom I have had since he was 11 months old. He has been, and continues to be, one of my greatest teachers. In 2016, while we were in an intensive training program, he began kicking up at his cinch during our sessions. This seemed to come out of the blue, and it wasn’t consistent. My instructor urged me to push him through it because he was just being bad. Yet his behavior persisted.
I decided to change his cinch to one that was new and made of a different material. It seemed to make him more comfortable and his cinch kicking subsided for several months. In the spring of 2017, his behavior returned intermittently, and when it was windy, he would do an odd behavior, as if a bug had flown up his nose and he was trying to blow it out. Oddly, I would only see this behavior when it was windy. Later that spring, after a great riding session, while turning him out to pasture, he spooked and hit my head with his. He knocked me unconscious for fifteen minutes and I ended up in the hospital with a triple-brainbleed. I figured this was simply my being in the wrong place, as I removed his halter something must have spooked him. Later, I noticed other new behaviors. He had begun to lower his head and jet his lower jaw out to one side, then the other, while grinding his teeth. This would happen at feeding time or after a riding session in the arena. Meanwhile, he still intermittently kicked at his girth. In fall of 2018, we noticed he was favoring his front right leg and I began seeing muscle atrophy over the same shoulder. I called the chiropractor, and he came out and adjusted RC’s neck and a few other areas. Yet, he continued to favor his shoulder.
Next, we visited his veterinarian. They performed X-rays that revealed arthritis in his C5-C6 spinal vertebrae. His diagnosis was that his arthritis was creating a peripheral neuropathy that manifested as pain in his pectoral muscle where the cinch sat. Knowing this, I called in a saddle fitter, who also does sound wave healing, which made him feel much better. With regular healing treatments I could still ride him without his peripheral neuropathy acting up. As time moved on, I noticed RC began to “act up” while on the trail. He wouldn’t stay on the single-track trail. Instead, he would veer off to the left or the right, and he seemed as though he was becoming spookier than usual. Initially, I thought this was him just being naughty, and I just needed to be a better leader for him. I also observed there were times when I took off his halter to turn him out in his pasture, he would jerk his head back as if I had shocked him. While this certainly can happen when haltering horses and it will startle them, I knew that a lot of the times with RC, I had not shocked him. Why was he jerking back?
On May 30, 2019, I was preparing to take RC and a young colt to a friend’s ranch to work them. I was planning to pony the colt around the property behind RC, while the colt would carry a saddle. I walked RC up to the trailer. He was fine, although he did perk up upon hearing our young mustangs whinnying from the training area. As I went to tie him up to the trailer he spooked and pulled back. The rope sucked my hand into the metal cleat attached to the trailer. The result was I lost half a finger and the tip of another one. Again, I justified this as one of those unfortunate accidents that happen with horses and decided to use it as a way to help others learn about the dangers of tying and how to help reduce that risk by using blocker ties. Fast forward to the summer of 2020, RC still displayed all the previous mentioned behaviors from time to time. But now, he frequently stumbles and trips while riding on trails. He also had numerous episodes of bucking and rearing while on these trails, which is so unlike him. There have even been times that it seemed to me that he was wandering down the trail as if he is cognitively not all there. After extensive blood work, and many consultations with his veterinarian, the conclusion is: my trusty steed has some sort of neurological brain stem disorder. I am devastated. I kick myself in the butt for not having realized that those signs back in 2016 where not due to my horse “being bad”. I regret that I listened to a trainer, who said he was just being stubborn, instead of trusting my own intuition. realize that the two traumas I have endured were due to the changes going on in his brain and not because he was being a jerk.
It is with a heavy heart that I admitted to myself that RC’s recent outbursts on the trails could have been extremely dangerous for both of us. Going through a spontaneous bucking episode on a steep narrow path or next to some granite outcrop was asking for another trauma, whether it be me, or him, or both of us. RC is now retired, and I am embracing him as my teacher. The lessons he is currently teaching me are profound. These I will share later. As this chapter in RC’s and my life is still being written, I have started a new chapter. Recently I have taken back a mustang mare I previously placed with an owner in 2018. The reason for her being returned was because she had developed a bad habit of abruptly stopping during a lesson or riding session. No one could make her move.
Also, she would bite at the rider’s stirrups while being ridden. When I saddled her up with my western saddle she would not stand still, and she would become very worried. When she eventually did get saddled and I’d send out on a circle on the ground to warm up, she would tuck her butt and run as if she was trying to run out from under the saddle. I called in my saddle fitter and sound-wave healer, Donnis Thran. Through her assessment, she discovered how sore this mustang was along her back, neck and hindquarters. She fitted her with a saddle pad that can be shimmed and did sound wave work on the tension and sore spots. The results is her behavior has improved. I also called out my licensed equine chiropractor, Micky Doyle, to see if she needed adjusting. She was out in her atlas, ribs, carpal area on her left leg, along with her lumbar and pelvis areas.
I find it amazing that this mustang, with that much pain, would even tolerate a rider on her back at all. After her adjustments, she is now standing better for saddling, although she still understandably gets a little worried it might hurt. Now she moves out on a circle during groundwork with more confidence and balance. No longer does she bite at the stirrups and I sense she is beginning to relax and find the rhythm of us riding together. The more body work and balanced riding we do, the more I see this mustang relax, trust, and show me the depths of who she is. Remember, when a horse is misbehaving or has begun doing things that are unusual for them, they are trying to tell us something. Stop, take the time to listen, and use your senses.
Help them by finding their problem and seeking solutions, instead of just assuming it is a behavioral issue. These two amazing horses have taught me so much about the art of listening with more than just my ears. I have learned to take the time to check in with my intuition and ask, what is this horse trying to tell me, then to be willing to do what it takes to find the root cause for their behavioral change. Please consider that often behaviors are just an expression of deeper underlying issues. It is our job as horsewomen and horsemen to listen to our horses and figure out what is causing those undesirable behaviors.
Cindy Hartzell © 2020
Heart Soul Confidence-Based