Part One: Emotional rehabilitation

Contibuted by Amy Skinner

Amy runs a training program out of her barn in Rougemont, NC. She rides everything from mustangs to warmbloods and believes at the heart of every horse is the desire to get along. She is the current student of Theresa Doherty, longtime protege of Egon von Neindorff and Walter Zettl. With classical dressage basics and an emphasis on lightness and relaxation, She believes that any horse can improve given enough time and understanding. Working with the horse’s mind develops confidence, and an understanding of biomechanics develops correct and sound movement. 

Lindo was brought to me for training because he reared. I initially imagined I’d help him mentally, teach him to relax, and he’d be back on his way to his busy show schedule. But I soon became aware of how complex his issues were, and how deeply connected physical and emotional tension were for a horse. Lindo’s emotional and physical pain were so deeply embedded together that it was hard to see where one ended and another began. 

So for me, I had no idea how much about hoof care, nutrition, saddle fit, equine psychology, biomechanics and how pain affects the body; all so that Lindo could walk a straight line with ease. And so began, my life as a rehabber, as did Lindo’s four year journey toward soundness and mental well-being.

Getting to know Lindo

Lindo arrived to me as a ten year old from a life spent mainly in a stall, unaccustomed to turn out, especially with other horses. Once he arrived to the training facility, he was turned out in a half acre private pen with free choice hay. There were horses on either side of his pen, and their proximity made him visibly anxious. He paced the fence line, sometimes snaking his head or making stallion-like gestures of aggression. Sometimes he stood in the corner, frozen like a stone.  When other horses came near him while I worked with him, he either tried to rear, or he would turn and bolt. He had no idea how to be near other horses.

Emotional Issues

His mind was completely fried from schooling in the ring. He was completely shut down, unable to go forward willingly, and alternated between weighing as much as an elephant in the bridle, or going behind the vertical and hiding his nose in his chest. I can remember clearly the first time I rode him, I let the reins loose to the buckle and he stumbled and fell to his knees. He was simultaneously resentful of the bridle and utterly dependent on it for balance. 

While he resented the arena, he was petrified outside of it. On a trail ride, he was stock still, so afraid he could barely move. He stumbled over the uneven ground and bolted after stepping in a puddle. The sight of the cows on the ranch turned him into a ten foot tall dragon, snorting loudly. He was at the time the most unconfident horse I’d ever met.

Exposing him to new things did not make him more confident, in fact, it had the opposite effect. He would walk stiffly over a bridge or tarp, but never relax. This is where I began to really understand how deeply connected postural and mental balance are for a horse. As long as his back was tight, he seemed to stay perpetually afraid.

You’ve got a friend!

He was soon given to me, and I now had the not so simple task of trying to integrate him with my horses. He could be extremely aggressive with other horses- in my earlier attempts to turn him out with other horses, he ran one down and probably would have killed him if I hadn’t intervened. Other times he was being chased by other horses with the same degree of risk- he would run through fences or stand off alone in the corner, not eating or drinking.

I decided to try turning him out with just one confident but very quiet horse. At the time I had a two year old Arabian filly, then called Aerie, who was curious, silly, affectionate and very calm. I turned her and Lindo out alone in a two acre grass field, and thankfully, they became fast friends. Aerie taught him how to be a horse. She would lay down to nap, and he would lay down to nap. She would roll, and he rolled too. They would groom each other, run for the sake of running, and relax in the shade. It was probably the happiest he had ever been!

I left him turned out with Aerie for about six months, and watched him blossom into a new horse. She was soon started under saddle, and was a confident friend to pony him with. We traveled together through fields, across streams and creeks, and past cows. Lindo seemed like a new horse. He breathed nicely now and moved forward with ease. 

I decided to start riding him again. For a few weeks, he felt fantastic. I had this beautiful, athletic horse beneath me who had the type of movement I only dreamed of. I started to get a little excited about what we could do together.

Other complications

But soon, the movement became more stiff, and he suddenly needed urging to go forward. In the arena, he would stop and rear. He wasn’t seeming to be afraid this time, but simply stuck. Over the course of a few weeks, his movement worsened, until he moved as if he were walking on eggshells and trying not to break them. It became apparent he was incredibly uncomfortable.

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