How to Work with a Horse Who Moves Away from Your Touch #70

#debono moves #equinemind #equinemovement #horsehumanconnection Apr 23, 2024

Maybe you’re learning a new form of bodywork and you can’t wait to use it to help your horse. But your horse says, “No thanks!”

In this episode, you'll hear about the strategies I use to help horses relax, enjoy and benefit from hands-on work.  

In this episode, I discuss:
- The importance of understanding your horse's past experiences
- The power of connected breathing and relaxation techniques
- How to work with a horse through their skeleton for a non-threatening touch
- Strategies to provide immediate relief and build trust
- The concept of shared awareness and its benefits in your relationship


Video of Rib Rocking:

Video of Back Muscle Lifts:

Free rider masterclass:

[email protected]

All information is for general educational purposes ONLY and doesn't constitute medical or veterinary advice.  


Does your horse ever say, no thank you, and move away. When you try to do some kind of body work that you're trying to learn, or maybe you've seen someone else do, maybe you're learning it online or at a workshop and you're, you, you go home all excited to practice and your horse is like, Hmm, I don't think so.

And just walks away. That's actually not that uncommon. And today I'd like to give you some ideas on how you can help your horse really settle in and enjoy your contact. And in case we're meeting for the first time, my name is Mary Debono and this is the Easier Movement, happier podcast. So I'll, I'll, I'll go back in time a little bit and tell you a story about a horse I worked with some years ago.

This horse, it was a warm blood, a young warm blood. He turns out he didn't want anyone touching him. Now he had had a difficult past. He was started young. He was a jumper. He was trained as a jumper in Europe. He was pushed really, really hard. They did all the, you know, things with him.

Then they decided he wasn't good as a jumper, so they wanted to sell him as a dressage horse. And, you know, they had pushed him and all these endeavors. And the poor guy, I mean, when his new person bought him, he was only four years old and had already been through the ringer. And what she discovered was, this is a horse that really doesn't like to be touched.

You know, all our previous horses enjoyed, you know, her scratching them and grooming them and you know, doing some hands-on work with them. But he did not. Most decidedly he did not. So when she asked me to work with him, it was kind of interesting because, and, and one thing she told me was he has like no awareness of his hind end.

And, you know, he just was very protective of his hind end. He was, but he was protective all over. He didn't want you to touch him anywhere. So what I ended up doing with him was I noticed right away that his breathing was quite shallow. It was quite shallow. And she said he had always been that way. She said,

you know, when you take respiration, you know, you take the respiratory rate, you know, you're watching the horse's breath go in and out. And she said, he is always like, it's always hard to, to actually even see that he's breathing. So I thought that, well, that's kind of interesting. So I started doing this process that I call connected breathing with him.

First, I just stood next to him and just took any kind of pressure off of him, off of myself, you know, and I was like, we'll see what happens. That kind of a thing. And this is really, really key because a lot of times we, you know, we put too much pressure on ourselves and our horses. Like,

you know, that, that mental pressure, like we just, we think we have to get this right and this has to be done right and we want to help them, right? We, we want to do our best. And sometimes that actually backfires. Quite often it backfires because it's too intense. So the horse feels our intensity and they, they step away from us,

or they threaten to bite. In his case, he was aggressive. He was a horse that bit and kicked other people. So I need, you know, I needed to be careful. And I also knew that like more I could take pressure off him, probably the less inclined he would be to have to warn me off. So I started, I just stood with him and started doing,

you know, just started making sure my breathing was relaxed and slow and I was in a good head space. 'cause I cannot emphasize how important that is. Okay? And then I just gradually found, could I put my hands on his barrel, on his rib cage really, really softly. And I might have started actually with the back of my hands.

Not a hundred percent sure if I did, but I might have. 'cause I know in with other horses I've done that. Because a lot of times horses will be less, less reactive if you put the back of your hand on them as opposed to the palm of your hand because maybe they instinctively know that you can't grab them, right? It doesn't feel like you're going to quote unquote do something to them.

So in any case, I had my hands on him and we were just breathing together. And then I did something kind of interesting. I, I started, you know, he, he was letting me then like, let my hands get heavy. I'm not talking about pushing, but they weren't, they weren't away from him, right? They, they were on his rib cage and I could feel now his breath,

right? And my hands were moving slightly in time with his breath, okay? As his ribs expanded and contracted. So then though what I did was I started very, very gradually, so really tiny increments of taking my hands a little bit away from his rib cage. Now at this point, he was more than fine with my hands on his rib cage.

And it felt nice, I guess because he seemed so soft. Like his person was saying to me, she couldn't believe how he was letting me do this because he normally would be trying to bite or kick somebody. But you could tell he was, he was enjoying this contact. 'cause it was non-threatening. I wasn't trying to do anything. I wasn't correcting him in any way.

We would just breathing together. And I started gradually lightening my contact. The reason being is that like, once I felt that he was, and I let him stay in that state for a while where he really was enjoying it, I knew he would want to maintain that contact with me. So I started very, very gradually lightening my contact. And again,

this has to be very gradual. And then he started breathing a little deeper because guess what happens? He was kept the connection when he took deeper breaths, okay? So his rib cage then would expand differently. So that was really, really cool because then now when he started taking these deeper breaths, that that actually changes the horse's physiology, right? Same thing with us.

When we change how we're breathing, it changes our overall state. So now he started getting more relaxed and more so now I could take one hand and casually put it on another part of his body, okay? And start doing other things. You know, maybe a little muscle lifts that I teach. I teach all this in my movie, your horse program,

by the way. Other things I could do that he would feel a sense of relief right away. Okay? So I wanna say though, it takes patience. It takes patience. You cannot rush this. So, and I'm gonna give you some more examples of different horses with different personalities and how I approach the situation. But it, it definitely takes patience,

right? You cannot, and you know, so I would encourage you not to put pressure on the horse, not to try to force it to happen prematurely. Okay? Be patient. So that's one example. So that worked with him really, really well. And then again, he allowed me to do the other things because I kept the pressure very low.

Like, in other words, I, I was very mindful, I was mindful of his responses and I adjusted what I was doing accordingly. And then I went in for what I call the quick win, like to give him an immediate sense of relief. And I did back muscle lifts at one point that really helped to relieve the pressure in his back.

As a matter of fact, I'll make sure I link to that. So if you go to the show notes, you can, or wherever you're watching or listening to this, it'll be in the description, but well make sure you get a little free video that teaches you how to do back lifts. But I did that. So I had one hand on the rib cage,

one hand on his back, and then gave him a quick win from the, the back muscle lifts felt so good that then I could go on to other things. So again, you have to win their trust. You know, you have to let them know that you're listening to them and you're giving them something in return. Like, in other words,

they, they, they get a return on their investment, so to speak, right? That it feels better. Your interaction with them helps them feel better. So that's what they need to feel. And the sooner they can feel that in the session, like in your practice, the, the sooner they'll connect with you and allow in, you know,

allow you to like get in, right? And to help them even more. And it's such a blissful feeling. 'cause then you enter into that state that I call shared awareness and connected breathing is a great way to get started with that. Great way to get started with that because shared awareness to me is when you're, you and your horse are both interested in the same thing at the same time.

And that state can often then transfer to your, your work on the ground with them, your work under saddle with them. It's like the more you practice that, it's like you build up the neurology for you both to be in that state more frequently. So it's a pretty cool thing that shared awareness. Okay, so next horse, another horse I worked with,

she was an Arab marere. She was very, she displayed also a lot of aggression that when you touched her, she'd wanna bite you and kick things like that. And I had a lovely, lovely person who owned her who said, I don't know what to do. She, she doesn't let me do anything with her. And she, she was actually a trainer and so she was very experienced,

but she's like, I never met a horse like this. Oh, oh, and I wanna say this before I go any further. It's really, really important that you have a qualified vet. Make sure there isn't a current medical condition that's causing this behavior in your, in your horse. Very, very important. So make sure your vet rules out any medical issue that should be treated.

Okay? But sometimes horses are just anticipating pain. Maybe they had pain in the past, bad treatment in the past, et cetera, and they're anticipating, okay, so these horses were all under the care of a veterinarian. I knew there was no, as far as we could tell, no current medical condition. But with that, this Arab mayor,

what I did was I worked with her through her skeleton, I call it. So, so in the work I teach, we talk about sensing through the layers. So the layers of this, I talk about air, which is the layer above your horse. So like hovering your hand over your horse, you'd be touching air, hair is obviously their hair.

And then skin is the next thing where you're just like moving the skin a little bit. And then muscle is when you go a little bit deeper, right? And you actually move some muscle and then there's bone or the skeleton. So depending on where you are on the horse's body, some parts of the skeleton are pretty easy to feel. Like the withers,

for example, right? You've all felt the withers, right? That's pretty bony. There isn't, you know, a lot over the withers. And so what I found is that when you work with the horse, when you contact them through the skeleton, it does a number of movement benefits by the way that we go into detail on the program, there's a lot of neurological reasons why it's effective to work with horses through the skeleton.

But even besides that, for some horses, for many horses, that could be a non-threatening way to touch them. Because if they're feeling sore or stiff or you know, tense in their muscles, touching their skeleton doesn't evoke that defensive reaction in them. And that was true with this marere. So I was able to just lightly touch her withers and start to,

to bring in a sense of rocking with her. And as a matter of fact, if you want, I could link you to, I could link to a little rocking video you can watch as well, or I show you how to do it. So just check the show notes or the description for those free resources. So with that, I mean it was really remarkable because then the rocking itself serves a purpose to help soften the muscles.

Because when you move the horse and we're talking super, super light and gentle, very, very minimal movement and very respectful movement. But when you move them through the skeleton, the muscles kind of get a a ride. They're passively moved, okay? That actually reverses the usual relationship of muscles to the skeleton. 'cause normally when a horse Moves muscles contract and pull on the skeleton and the horse Moves,

same is true with you. But in this case, it's like you're creating a sense of movement through the skeleton and the muscles are passively moved. So the nervous system tends to not have a defense against that. You're not trying to manipulate muscles, you're not pressing all muscles, you're not doing anything that could evoke a defense from the horse. So as a matter of fact,

one of my students put this so well, she said the muscles aren't used to the bones telling them what to do. So this is really good for the brain, by the way, this is, this is why we consider it like brain retraining. 'cause you're helping your horse have new neurological connections, new neural pathways around things, have new associations with things.

So with that horse, I just, I started doing a lot of rocking, very gentle. She was fine with that. And then the rocking itself served a purpose to help her soften and relax. And then I could start as I was rocking her with one hand, then I could start doing other work in other parts of her body so that she could feel the relief from that as well.

And we went on to do wonderful sessions. Matter of fact, I worked with that horse several times and taught her person then how to, how to work with her horse. And this person, she, she did such a great job with this horse. It was amazing. And she always says like how much it transformed her relationship with her horse and even her relationship with herself.

'cause she's like, I didn't realize like she got so much more aware of her body, you know, body awareness and how she was inadvertently putting pressure on her horse. And she got, she was so good. This woman, she, when the horse would get nervous sometimes under saddle, she would get off and do some of my hands on Debono Moves with her horse,

settle the horse down, and then get back on a ride. She would even do this on the trail, not only in the arena, but she would get off on trail and do it. And it really helped that horse so much because then the horse started associating, oh, when we go out on trail, it doesn't have to be so tense.

Right? You know, because this woman was able to bring her back to a state of ease and pleasure. We always wanna associate movement and things like that with ease and pleasure. So that's another example of how that horse really didn't wanna be touched. Another horse I'm thinking about was she was a mayor and she didn't want anyone touching her hindquarters. And what I ended up doing with her was she was,

I figured, well what part of her body, you know, what, what, what object or thing does she feel on her hind quarters that she's okay with? And I thought, well, her tail, when she swishes her tail, obviously that touches her hind legs and she's okay with that. So I very, very gently took her tail. I was careful not to skew it,

you know, was careful not to pull on the tailbone or anything, but I used a clump of her tail hair between my hand and the horse and started doing things I call muscle lifts on her, on the horse's hindquarters. And I knew that would give her a feeling of relief right away. And it did. And then gradually, again, you have to be patient,

you have to have to be creative and patient and curious. And I started little by little taking some of the hair away. So eventually it was just my hand against her. And she was fine with it because she had gotten that quick win, right? She had felt, okay, this woman isn't a threat, but it, but it did take a little time.

I mean, it was within one session, but it didn't happen in two minutes. You know, it took, I had to be patient. And this is really important for us to remember that, you know, it may have taken the horse a while to get to that state, to be in that state where they're protective or just unsure. And we need to give them the time and the space to choose a different way to be.

And this work is so much about helping the horse experience life differently, to feel differently in their body. And, and of course that co goes over into their mind as well, right? It crosses over because we can't separate the body and the mind and they get to experience life differently and have new options, new behaviors, then, then they can choose.

They don't have to be compulsively tied to one way of behaving. Like, oh, when everyone tries to touch me, I do this. No, we give them other choices now, right? So they have a, a more FA more fulfilling life. Like they can have those connections with us and, you know, find pleasure in our company and in our contact with them,

which is so important, then we can help them more. So it's a, it's a virtuous cycle as opposed to being a vicious cycle. So those are just some examples of how I've worked. And the other thing I would say is, you know, I encourage my students in the program if they have horses that, you know, a horse that is moving away from them,

you know, there's these different strategies they can try. And then sometimes what works is putting down some hay and encouraging the horse to stay that way, and then gradually kind of weaning them away from that. And what I've found, 'cause I've used that myself with horses I've worked with, where we've put down some food, we've put down some hay, is that then they start,

like maybe in the beginning they're just chomping on the hay and kind of tuning you out. That happens. And then what often happens is that then they start allowing themselves to feel how you're giving them a sense of relief. But you have to be skilled enough to be able to give them that sense of relief. Okay? And that's why I teach my program Move with your horse because then when they feel that slowly,

they maybe stop chewing and then they lift their head and they're like, Hmm, that feels good. And then, then after a while, usually what happens is you can just wean that food away and the horse is engaged, but you didn't, you didn't force them to stay there, okay? They, it was a choice that they made. And again,

you know, you, you look at all the situations like you, you choose the time of day that's gonna work best for your horse, where your horse isn't going to be distracted, right? You try to set up the environment as much as possible to make it easy for your horse. And then you follow these other things about not putting pressure on the horse as far as,

you know, doing things lightly, not so intensely being mindful of how you're positioning your body, where you're touching them, you know. And then you may have to do some exploration, some experimentation as far as, well, maybe they don't like touch here, but they do here. Maybe you wanna use a, like a, a prop if you will.

I have used a stiff dressage whip and used that to stroke the horse with. Now you gotta keep in mind if the horse is worried about whips or not, okay? But if the horse is not, doesn't have a bad history with whips, you can do that. You can actually also use it. I've used that in certain key places, not everywhere,

but actually to do little mini muscle lifts with the whip. And then I could gradually get my hand closer and closer to the end of that, you know, the, the button end of it, you know, the, the handle end of it, I should say. Until then it's my hand doing it. Okay? But again, you have to be patient.

So think of being creative and curious and hoping For that connection that you're making with your horse because then you get into that shared awareness where your horse is like, oh, that feels interesting and, and it's interesting to you as well. Okay? So those are just a few ideas. If you have any questions about this, maybe you have a particular issue with your horse,

shoot me an email, Mary at mary Debono dot com. Whether it's related to this topic or another one, maybe I'll be able to do a podcast episode for you. So thank you so much for listening, for subscribing and reviewing the podcast. I just love sharing this information with you and I look forward to talking to you again soon. Bye for now.