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My Journey with ‘Boots’ – Creating a safe PLACE for change

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“When the student is ready the teacher will appear” Zen Proverb.

Driving to the stables for my first session with ‘Boots’ my head was in turmoil. After hearing the complex story of her past and now learning that she was stabled 24/7, with only short periods of turnout each day, I was feeling daunted. How could I make a difference? How could I build that special relationship I dreamed of and help ‘Boots’ overcome some of the problems she was experiencing, when my hands seemed tied in so many ways?
Due to the waterlogged paddocks, her basic behavioural needs were clearly not being met. My work and family commitments meant I could only see her a few times a week. Plus I was reliant on the generosity of her owner to keep and care for her and so I was unable to change the way she was handled, or managed, on a daily basis. Yet I felt drawn to face the challenge, to do something different, to move away from the methods and techniques that I was familiar with.

I wanted to strip away the usual ‘tools’ of horse training, to move away from coercive techniques and start afresh. To follow my heart and work at liberty, exploring the impact of emotional states and attachment on our horse-human relationships. As such I felt I needed to grab this unique opportunity. To do my best to find the root cause of her ‘loading problem’, to see what I could achieve, and learn from the situation…

For now though, I needed to let all this go, to clear my mind and tune in to my senses, so that I could be in the best place to listen… ‘TLC’ – Trust, Listen & Connect: The Understanding Equus relationship model pops into my head as I stride towards the barn. I stop, pausing to take a few deep, cleansing breaths.

“Attitude is a little thing that makes a BIG difference.” – Winston Churchill

At the barn entrance I observe for a moment, all the horses are calmly munching their haynets. ‘Boots’ puts her head over the stable door as I quietly approach. Reaching out my hand to offer my scent, ‘hello beautiful’ I say. Ears pricked she inhales. Then, raising her head she thrusts her nose towards my face and pins her ears back. I quietly step back out of her space and she returns to her hay, keeping an eye on my movements.

Ok I thought, that was interesting and unexpected. I remember her owner’s words: “I don’t understand why she won’t load… she’s fine with everything else…” My intention was to say hello and perhaps lead her out. To take her to some fresh grass enabling her to stretch her legs, and get to know her a little more…
My curiosity piqued, I pick up her halter and open the stable door. She instantly turns away stopping with her head in the far corner. I notice she is positioned guarding her left side, unmoving and braced. I wait to see what she does, and then, gently raise my arm asking her to take a step. Hesitant at first she moves forward, keeping me in her right eye. I ask again and we manoeuvre gently around the stable, until I am able to stand near her left shoulder. Dropping the halter as a silent thank you, for allowing me into this position, the mistrust and concern is palpable. My instinct is telling me my initial plan needs to be changed…

I stand for a moment, empathising and allowing her to relax, telling her I’m not going to do anything she doesn’t feel comfortable with. Quietly I step forward reaching out to stroke her neck. Instantly her head spins round, ears pinned back, nose thrusting towards my arm, nostrils’ wrinkled and eyes hard. I freeze, arm still extended, her head swings away, mouth tight and eyes wide with tension. Every part of her being is defensive, protecting herself, and I need to hear and accept what she is saying.

Slowly I bring my hand down enabling her to see her message has been heard. Standing quietly next to her I send out thoughts of love, kindness and gratitude and her head starts to droop.IMG_4772 Again I reach towards her, this time with no intention to touch, just to stroke the air by her side. As her head jerks up and her ears go back I wait patiently for the reaction to pass, lowering my hand as she relaxes.

We then spend the next few moments doing this on both sides of her. Each time, I move away when she is relaxed, not pushing her to accept my touch. Slowly she starts to lick and chew, softening her mouth and eyes. Accepting her wishes, listening to, and connecting with her emotional state, I can see the trust start to grow.

After a short while she remains calm and relaxed as I approach each side. She then breaks into a series of yawns and I feel hugely privileged as she accepts a brief touch on her nose, ears forward and relaxed. I crouch down and watch her as she starts to doze, then she offer’s her ear for a gentle scratch…

“Acceptance of emotions and state builds trust” Dan Hughes.

There is very little research into the concept of attachment and horses. Yet for me it makes total sense as a key factor and influence in the horse/human relationship, and our horse’s ability to learn, grow, and develop. Dr Andrew McLean has written on this topic focusing on the role of attachment and learning theories, and the influence of touch for building bonds and attachments.

As a parent and within my work with vulnerable young people, I have been exploring different areas of attachment, the science behind it, and ways we can apply this to our relationships. It is well researched into how secure attachments help to reduce stress, build resilience, increase trust, bonding, rapport and learning for humans. And so, with the same emotional systems and mammalian brain, why not horses?

With this in mind, I believe we need to focus on our emotions, state, and attitude whenever we are with our horses. Dan Hughes’ describes the 5 key attitudes for building secure attachments in his PLACE model: Playfulness, Love, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy.

On my journey with ‘Boots’ I will explore this approach further, sharing the impact on our relationship as I endeavour to identify the root of her concerns. In the meantime, here is a snippet of me working at liberty with ‘Boots’, later that week, as I start to create a safe PLACE for change:
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and please do share your thoughts, comments, and experiences below.

Till next time, enjoy the moment, with a little TLC

With best wishes


The concept of attachment
“In the 1950s, studies of human relationships resulted in the development of attachment theory, now well accepted, to explain the bond between mother and infant and how it influences development. Research soon identified four fundamental goals in infants; proximity seeking, safe haven, secure base and separation anxiety, all of which are familiar aspects of horse behaviour.

Dr McLean noted that the father of attachment theory, John Bowlby pointed out that the basis of attachment is not food but rather clear communication and soothing tactile contact.” Extract from: ‘Can good horse training get any better?’ by Lisa Ashton

  1. […] hearing what Sox had to say during our first session I knew my work was cut out for me. As an experienced horse trainer and behaviour consultant I was […]

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