Indiana Joan is approximately 18 years old. She looks like she is possibly a Morgan or Morgan/Quarter horse cross. She joined our herd in March of 2019 after being rescued from slaughter.
We call her Indie; she is very sweet and loves to be groomed and cuddled. When you put in the round pen to work with her, she goes from a calm and gentle horse to very worried, anxious and needs to move her feet.
I have worked with her many times trying to get her to settle into the session and begin to tune into me and what we are doing. She just struggles so badly and eventually will turn into you as if to say, please can I stop?
We have had this mare do equine assisted learning with us; she did a powerful workshop with Wounded Warriors just 4 months after joining us here at the ranch. She was so present and patience with everyone. She never exhibited the worry anxious flight behavior see does in the round pen.
She has participated with clients in clinics I have taught and was wonderful. One clinic was an obstacle clinic and she was amazing with all of the different challenges they were faced with.
Heart Soul Confidence-Based Horsemanship and Self Development is about nurturing a relationship built on trust connection and communication. Once you have proven to the horse you are a leader worthy of them following, then you can begin to build a partnership built on a solid foundation.
Yesterday was the first time I have played with this mare in quite some time and we were in the round pen. I started out by grooming her and getting a feel for where she was and how she was feeling about being in the round pen.
She was great until I took the center of the pen and asked her to back away from me. Immediately her head went up and she wanted to go left or right or forward, anywhere but back.
I showed her what I was asking for by applying light pressure to her chest while wiggling the rope. She settled a bit and gave me an apprehensive back up. She no longer had a soft look in her eyes and she was now in that reactive place in her mind.
I maintained my energy low and neutral and asked her to go out on the circle. She turned politely and headed out on the circle but within 4-6 strides she was off to her usual trot. The trot that says I am doing this so I don’t get in trouble, please don’t be mean to me!
I worked on lowering my energy even more through my breath and visualization. Since horses are such powerful energy beings, I focused on creating a calm and safe space for her.
As she has done before, she completely missed it all because she was in that reptilian part of her brain. Releasing adrenaline and nothing I was doing could distract her from that place.
I knew I had to find a better way to help this mare stop going straight to past experiences stored within her memory. I had to find a way to help interrupt the pattern long enough to show her a new way to respond.
Getting her connected with me enough to show her that it isn’t always get in here and work, but more of let’s connect and create together.
I suspected she came from a ranch life environment and I believed she was a working horse until her back became so swayed she just couldn’t do the work she was expected to do. So, she then, most likely, became the kid’s ranch horse because she is such a sweet and gentle mare.
When she came to us, she was skin and bones and very sad. We spent the first year just building her weight up and allowing her to do equine assisted learning sessions and playing with the grandkids.
I could tell she never really has had a voice or a choice and was mainly a part of the ranch stock line up to get the job done. She knew to mind her manners or else.
It is my desire to show her she does have a voice, a choice and can become a valuable partner.
In order to do this, I have to give her new experiences to override the well engrained ones she now draws on. It became very clear to me that when she had the halter and lead on and was put out on the circle was when I would lose her mind.
I could also tell that her past experiences in the round pen was like so many other horses I meet. The round pen is typically used to control the horse and make them move their feet. The problem with that is so many people who are doing this believe the purpose of the round pen is to “get rid of excess energy” so that they can control the horse better.
That is not at all what a round pen is for, a round pen is to help get your horse connected to you as their leader and for you to prove to them you are a trustworthy leader.
Horses are prey animals and humans are predators. So, when we put a horse in a confined round pen with no safe place for them to go. Then we begin to chase them around with a whip or a training stick. All we are doing is proving to them that we are indeed predators that they must be a little, and for some, very suspicious of.
If you understand that autonomic nervous system of the horse, when their head is above their withers and they are in the sympathetic nervous system they are releasing adrenaline and cortisol. They are in the flight/fight mode and are not thinking but reacting.
Now back to chasing your horse or “longeing” your horse around the round pen to get rid of excess energy. Well, that isn’t going to happen because they are releasing adrenaline all the while you are forcing them to run.
What is really happening is you are undermining what ever trust they may have in you as their leader. This is one of the reasons a round pen is one of the most abused tools in the horse world.
Let’s go back to Indie, I realized yesterday that I had to come up with a better way to teach her a new understanding of the round pen.
I decide to do what I do when I first start working with a wild mustang in the round pen. I don’t work with them with a halter and lead, I can’t get near them to put one on.
I work with them through body language and energy. We all have an energy field around us. Some call it a bubble and some refer to it as personal space.
HeartMath Institute in Berkeley, California has done studies on the energy field around humans and horses. They have found that there is a heart-to-heart communication that goes on between horses and humans.
I took Indie’s halter and lead rope off and took my place in the center of the round pen. She came and took her place right in front of me with her head against my chest.
As I asked her to step back, she pushed into me, so I took my hand and placed it upon her chest and applied pressure. When she stepped back, she found the release of pressure. I asked again for her to back and this time she took a few steps on her own.
As I asked her to go out on the circle with my body language and my training stick, she put her head up and got a worried look in her eyes. It was at this moment that she was now drawing on her past experiences in order to respond to the present moment request.
I kept my energy as low as I possibly could and she trotted off to the rail and began trotting with an anxious energy just like she always has. I stayed lined up shoulder to shoulder on her balance point and just kept taking deep grounding breaths.
I could see she would put an ear on me from time to time, but not look at me and there was no connection between the two of us.
Eventually I rocked my weight back and forth as we traveled to affect the energy field between the two of us. An analogy I like to use is if the round pen was a pool of water and Indie were a beach ball. How would I move about the in the water to influence that beach ball to move in the direction I desired it to go?
As I rocked back and forth while staying with her shoulder, she began to slow her pace and start to look in at me. Eventually she turned in and came to me. I stopped and allowed her to come to me, rest her head on my chest and together we stood.
I allowed her to rest, relax and reset, all the things needed for her to begin to process what we had just done. It took a while before she started to lick and chew, show rapid blinking and then came the yawning.
All of these are signs that she has dropped down into her parasympathetic nervous system, releasing endorphins, dopamine and dendrites.
Dendrites are the neuropathways for communication. The more dendrites we can help them to build the more roads of communication they have to understand us.
When she had processed fully, I again asked her to back up and put her back out on the circle. This time she still went straight into the learned pattern of trotting around in an anxious worried manner. But it took her less time to find her way back to me.
We repeated the above pattern several more times, each time she was becoming less reactive and more thoughtful and responsive.
I was beginning to interrupt the ingrained behavior and help her to find a new way. One in which she was being allowed to be my partner and to feel safe in the round pen and explore the options she had for responding to my request.
I was not interested in a trot; I know she can do that and it is actually very easy to make a horse go fast. It takes skill to have a horse go slow and stay connected with you at all time, especially at liberty
When I could get her to thoughtfully and calming back up and go out on the circle each direction at a walk. I started playing music on my phone and we began to move around the round pen together as dance partners.
Me as the leader, she as my partner, it was up to me to stay connected with her, while having a plan and a focus for her to follow. Horses are very rhythmic beings and I find that when I play music it helps me to relax and find the flow within for them to connect with.
I was so amazed to see this mare transform before my eyes in an hour. We started out with her revealing to me what the round pen has always meant to her. Then I explored how I could show her a better way of being in the round pen, a way that honored and respected her. Helping her to feel safe enough to want to try to figure out how to trust me and what I was doing.
We were dancing together in the round pen at liberty moving forwards, backwards, sideways to the left and the right. We were doing a figure 8, walk trot and back down to a walk without her getting scared and leaving me.
I was in ah at this amazing mare’s willingness to connect, trust and communicate with me in a way she has never been allowed to do before.
When we were done, we stood in the center with her forehead resting on my heart and we connected on a heart and soul level that allowed two individuals to share the love and energy of one.
A round pen is a diagnostic tool, it allows the horse to show you what they know, what they don’t and how much they trust humans. It provides us with a container to create a safe place for them to begin to understand how we communicate.
It is a perfect place for us to explore and learn about the universal language; body language. If given the chance horses are excellent teachers with immediate and honest feedback about how we are doing. We just need to be willing to be a student of the horse.
It is my goal to help teach as many people as I can and are willing to learn about the power of a round pen.
Today she did a session with a new client who is seeking to have that heart soul connection with a horse and to be able to experience what it feels like to have a deep relationship with a horse.
I believe that she and Indie will be perfect together and learn to trust each other enough to build a powerful partnership one day.
My passion and purpose are being able to show horses a better way. One where they realize they have a voice and a choice to connect with a human.
I specialize in teaching humans how to first nurture a relationship with a horse so that they can then build a solid partnership through trust connection and communication.
Horse can be such amazing teachers, healers and guides if we are willing to be present.