LESSONS LEARNED FROM RESCUE HORSES
-Barbara Breckenfeld of Movement in Balance
Many rescued horses have a quality of wariness that’s almost a kind of wildness. They’ve been neglected or abused or discarded, and they know it and feel it. Reese was adopted, then returned due to divorce. She carried so much emotion back with her that the kind and happy horse who had been adopted came back very grumpy. I dedicate this post to Reese, a lovely Arab mare, who was my first rescue horse teacher, and now is out of the pain that her life had become.
I donate my time as a bodyworker to a few rescues and non-profits in the greater Seattle area. It doesn’t solve the problem of discarded horses, but it is what I can do. Rescued horses are amazing teachers who have helped me become better at working with all horses. In trying to help them, I have gained so much.
Here are 12 things I’ve learned from working with these beautiful and honest beings.
Build trust – Before anything else can happen, there must be trust. Healing and learning happen in the place of rest and digest (parasympathetic nervous system). “I have been handled by lots of people, and not always kindly,” says the rescued horse.
Treat everything as communication – Body language is horse vocabulary: ear movements, tail swishing, tense mouth, soft/worried/tense eye, lifted leg, shifted weight, moving into pressure I’m offering – or moving away, head gestures all mean something. By paying attention to context, we can understand the message. Releases and processing look like licking and chewing, yawning, stretching, big sighs or exhales, an all over shake, or going very internal with fluttering eye lids and quivering lips.
There is no time, just presence now – “The present is where we meet, where we begin a relationship,” says a horse. My skills might be helpful, but my ability to be present, and the capacity of my heart to connect are what they want and need. My agenda for their healing is irrelevant and takes me out of being present with them.
Meet me where I am – “After stress and trauma, I may need time before I want to be touched, especially in a way that asks me to be vulnerable, to let you in, and for my body to change.” Time to unwind and just be a horse, free of human agendas, is healing by itself.
There is no “one size fits all” with bodywork – Each horse is individual, and differs from day to day. Just like people!
Tissues store more than physical issues – Fascia holds physical, mental and emotional trauma, and so assisting fascia to release can involve emotional release as well. One day the 3rd or 4th time I worked with Oscar, he reacted when I put my hand on his chest in front of his right leg. He didn’t want my hand there, but I lightened my touch and stayed, no pressure, just presence. Then it was there. Waves of sadness, tears streaming down my cheeks. All I could do was tell him how precious he is and that he never ever deserved whatever it was that happened. We can help them to let go of their past.
Sometimes presence is enough – It’s not about techniques. It’s about how you show up present and authentic each day. Profound healing can happen just standing together quietly. Reina’s owner had sent her to auction (kill pen) in another state, even though the rescue was always willing to take their horses back. She didn’t want to be touched, but would stand by the fence while I stood outside her space offering Reiki.
Don’t try to do too much – Aka flooding. Trying to help the horse, make a difference, etc. is having an agenda. I try to stop before they are done, and let the horse tell me when they’ve had enough.
You don’t have to know their stories to help them heal – Being present with them and connecting heart to heart supports them to heal at their own pace.
Patience – Go at the horse’s speed and comfort level. Some horses enjoy deep tissue work right away, but others really don’t. Forcing never creates a positive outcome. Simply putting my hands on a horse and standing with them offering Reiki (life force energy with no agenda for outcome) can be incredibly effective. Even that can also be too much.
Movement is beneficial – Moving their feet, taking time and space to process by pausing, standing quietly honors them as sentient beings. Sometimes taking them for a walk during a session allows them to continue. In my first session with Nala, she repeatedly walked out to her run to process, coming back to me when she was ready for more. It had to be on her terms and timing.
Believe in myself – Don’t take their behavior personally. We often don’t know their stories. I respect their right to act as they do, and also respect my own skills and intuition. One 5 year old mare had probably never had bodywork before. She was very clear about the areas she did not want touched, and we managed for some good releases even so. As I finished the first side, I had the thought that she was young, new to bodywork, and had probably had enough. But no! I wanted to help her, so I continued on her other side, until her kick sent me flying across the stall. I wish I’d trusted my inner voice, and she taught me an important lesson!
Horses have been our willing partners for millennia. Each one deserves to feel safe and loved, as well as our gratitude for their service.
Barbara Breckenfeld is a licensed Large Animal Massage Practitioner and Certified Practitioner of Equine Natural Movement, a form of structural integration bodywork. Check her out at Movement in Balance.
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