In this last chapter of Brio’s Journey, I want to first thank her person for being brave in many ways. Not only with her horses very difficult and scary behavior but also with what she was willing to share of her personal journey. What she writes next is by far the most important piece to healing her and her horses relationship and moving them forward in their training. I rarely use the word “Angry” with animals but I remember watching this pair on a particularly bad day and thinking “Why is this horse so angry” It was like she was screaming at her person at the top of her lungs. I knew there was something bigger here than just an overly moody, dominant mare with some physical issues. Difficult horses are often a layer peeling process. I slowly work towards the core issue intuitively and by observing closely each session and what it reveals to me. I asked Brio’s person to share her story because it was so much more about her person shifting and healing some deep places in herself. Brio was screaming at her to do it all along. It is a great privilege to me to be able to participate in helping pairs like this especially when the person is open enough and brave enough to dig deep within in themselves and go there. I learn so much about why animals come into our lives and what they come to teach us about our human condition. Yes sometimes it is scary and in your face but if you can face the challenge, you come back stronger and more authentic in yourself.
“Remember: don’t walk toward her. Keep your distance and move her away from you.” These were Farah’s parting words to me as she walked out the door after our last lesson before she left for “ Down Unda.” Her concern for my safety, coupled with the fact that she would be absent for weeks, made me feel like the little boy left alone to contain a flood by keeping his finger in the dike. The flood was Brio’s rearing and striking out, the finger was my strategy for preventing this behavior from injuring me.
Earlier, while I had been asking Brio to back up during a groundwork lesson under Farah’s watchful eye, she began to approach me with ears pinned and teeth bared. I used my whip to clear the air between us, and when that failed to back her up, I had to firmly drive her out of my space. My mistake was in allowing anger to propel me forward as I tried to send her backward. When she began to rear up and strike out, Farah instructed me to stay to one side. We worked through it, and although I was dismayed at this bad behavior, I was actually glad that Farah had had the opportunity to witness the worst of Brio. She was coming into heat, and typical of her aggressiveness, it was gone the next day and we returned to business as usual: the business of getting her in front of my leg so we could trot.
She always was “hot to trot” when I put her back into work in March/April, but as the spring progressed, she became increasingly resistant to moving beyond a walk. The correlation between her strong heats, back stiffness and refusal to go forward lead me to Dr. Carlos Gradil, a reproductive specialist at UMASS Amherst. I had previously used Regumate, but the standard 10 ml dosage had failed to tame her bad behavior; I had also worked hard to detox her system and did not want to regress. I had explored the option of spaying her, but there were no guarantees attached to this irreversible procedure. Dr. Gradil was experimenting with putting a magnetic marble in the uterus of some UMASS mares and was beginning to open the experiment to select client horses. Unlike the traditional marble used as an equine IUD, this one did not run the risk of rolling out, and could be easily retrieved via a magnet. After meeting with me, he agreed to take Brio on as part of the experiment. That afternoon, as my vet performed an exam to rule out any uterine infection prior to the procedure, I said “She must be coming into heat, right? She absolutely refuses to trot.” He replied that she was neither in heat nor about to come into heat, and that she simply had my number. He also said that if I couldn’t get her past this issue and have fun with her, I needed to sell her.
Although Farah had not mentioned finding Brio another home, she had also directed me to dig deep within for clarity, conviction and courage. More specifically, she couched it in terms of Brio asking me to look within: “She’s asking you to rise to the occasion if you want to be her person.” I promptly cancelled the marble procedure and turned to my strength of will to re-pattern Brio’s behavior. By the time Farah returned, we were trotting! When we resumed lessons, Farah introduced Brio to the touch of the dressage whip on her croup to ask for greater engagement. It was also a tool for unsticking her, but Farah instructed me to implement it only if I knew I could follow through with whatever demons it unleashed, like a buck. Although Brio was trotting, it was by no means consistently forward or obedient. Her behavior on the ground had also taken another turn for the worse: increased biting, kicking and refusing to leave the barn for training. Farah counseled me more than once that “it’s always darkest before dawn” and that “the most difficult horses often throw every resistance they can at you before they shift.” When Brio refused to walk out of the aisle, Farah instructed me to drive her strongly forward without regard for her kicking out, telling me Brio was “holding me captive through my fear of her injuring herself.” Likewise, I was instructed to claim territory to get her out of her stall when she refused to exit; I had to do this only once.
In addition to helping me see that Brio was smart enough to use my fear of her hurting herself against me, Farah also alerted me to Brio’s refusal to buy into any high pressure, high stakes agenda I proposed. I had spent the entirety of my time with Santana setting rigorous training and competition goals, and working to meet them. Likewise, I had goals and a time table for Brio’s training, but as I watched them derailed by her behavior, I remembered Farah’s words “it takes as long as it takes” and “she’ll let you know when she’s ready for the next step.” I knew Farah was right about Brio, and when I was honest with myself, I was sad to admit that I didn’t appreciate the journey as much as I should have with Santana because I was so fixated on the next destination. Brio was teaching me to live in the present and appreciate the moment.
One Friday afternoon in mid-August, Brio gave me the worst ride of our time together. I’m grateful Farah was present to coach me through her attempts to buck, leap and launch me off. It was the one time I was close to tears as I muttered in fear and frustration “What am I doing with this horse?!” After the lesson, Farah said she’d never seen a horse so angry and wanted to know if there was some anger within me that Brio was reflecting or reacting to. I took a deep breath and told her a truth I was ashamed to admit. I explained that I was very mad and frustrated because my purchase of Brio had created an enormous strain on my relationship with certain members of my family. They had tolerated the horse-obsessed behavior of my younger years, and thought my riding days were over when I retired Santana. In their opinion, my purchase of Brio constituted the height of financial irresponsibility and immaturity. I also revealed that my horse friends had stopped coming by to spend time with me and Brio because not only were they were afraid of her, but they could no longer hide their disappointment in my decision to keep “an albatross around my neck.” I told Farah I had lost family and friends for a horse who basically could do nothing…In that conversation, I let go of the painful past dealings with family and of the need for people’s approval. Farah was quick to point out that Brio was an excellent model of her person’s choice to make herself happy, make her own choices, independent of other’s opinions; Brio represented personal Freedom to her person. in fact, this was part of what made her such a difficult as well as fulfilling project.
Freed of anger and resentment, my progress with Brio was exponential, starting the very next day. My husband was away for the week, and I rode alone every day. I called my friend to say “I’m hopping on now; if you don’t hear from me in 45 minutes, just call 911.” I used my liberty work to help Brio into a place of focus, and trusted her enough to trot without reins or stirrups, riding blissfully into the dusk. The progress continued to cavalleti, cross rails, tiny verticals and moonlit autumn rides in the back field.
Brio and I returned to work this past month, and I am thrilled to say we picked up where we left off last December. She lost less fitness than I feared, and lost none of her memory of the benefits of liberty and line work. I now trust her enough to canter! We had an emotional experience yesterday. It was nearly two years ago that I decided to not even broach the topic of trailer loading after she was diagnosed with severe ulcers. Farah had said to not try to load her if there were any “big no’s,” and I was in complete agreement. There have been some, but I have used my ground work to turn them into “yes’s.” I have been working hard at moving her left shoulder over and having her “walk on.” After yesterday’s ride, as she was munching hay in the aisle, I slid the front door aside to reveal the open trailer. She stopped chewing, put her head up and stared with intent recognition and curiosity. I had a dish of oats in hand, and together we approached the ramp. I walked up and in and turned to face her, drawing her toward me and the food. She did the usual sniffing and walking on and off the ramp, then stood looking at me with an expression that made me leave the trailer. As I stood close in front of her, she maintained direct eye contact and I could feel her remembering the loading sessions that I now cringe to recollect. It was a strange confluence of being the same pair but so very altered, in a past circumstance that was also the present. The expression in her eyes was questioning whether that awful experience would happen again. Overcome with emotion, I told her I how sorry I was, that it would never be that way again, that we had learned a better way…I then put my right hand on her shoulder near her withers as I said “walk on,” and we stepped in unison into the trailer side by side.”
I continue currently to help Brio and her person as they are not out of the woods but they are near the clearing at the edge of the forest. Horses like this are often misunderstood and their behavior though admittedly dangerous at times is a way of strongly communicating to us humans what our energy is bringing to them. In our upcoming clinic in the UK Fiona Habershon will be doing groups in the morning before clinic to help people access patterns they want to shift for their horses. I will also be doing a Equine and Human yoga clinic with Kate Perna at Ohana Farm in July. Don’t miss our Introduction to Liberty 1 clinic May 17th. Upcoming Events