Sensitive Horses: Building Trust and Connection #79

#debono moves #horsehumanconnection #horsemind #horsemovement Jun 27, 2024

Have you ever wondered how to transform a sensitive, easily spooked, or defensive horse into a confident and relaxed partner?

You'll hear about specific cases where observing subtle cues and applying gentle, supportive touch made a significant difference in a horse's emotional and physical well-being.

We'll also explore the art of understanding and communicating with horses through their breathing. Learn the importance of recognizing early signs of agitation and how to respond with Connected Breathing, a mindfulness-based exercise that helps release tension, refine communication, and deepen your connection with your horse.

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Remember, you and your horse deserve to feel great. Together!


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


Hi. Do you have a sensitive horse? Or maybe, you know, a sensitive horse? Well, today I'd like to talk about the challenges and the rewards of working with sensitive horses. And in case we're meeting for the first time, my name is Mary Debono, and this is the Easier Movement, Happier Horses podcast. Yeah, let's talk about sensitive horses. Those are the horses that will sometimes move away when you try to do something with them.

Like maybe you want to help them out by doing some kind of bodywork, or maybe it's just simple grooming that they decide, not today. You know, there's any number of things. Maybe they're the type of horse that either just walks away, or they could be the type that will threaten you and sometimes carry through with those threats. So let me give you a few examples of horses I've worked with over the years that were really sensitive.

So this horse was just a very recent horse I worked with, and his person told me, she said, he is really sensitive, and he will just take off. Like, he will just. He doesn't hurt people. He just spins around and leaves. So we opted to work with him loose in a corral. Like a small corral. And. Yes, indeed. And he was on a. I said loose, but I had the halter and lead, so I had the lead rope in my hands, so he wasn't tied, but he did have a halter and lead on.

So I, you know, it was. It's the kind of thing where I love that challenge, actually, because I think, like, a horse like that really helps you develop your feel. They really help you develop your skills as a horse person. And especially with the kind of work I do. I do a hands on work called de Bono moves that helps horses feel better in body, in mind. So my first thought was, okay, how can I connect with this horse to help him feel, like, very quickly feel different, feel better than he was feeling before he met me.

And, you know, it takes a little doing. I'm not going to say it was like a magic wand that I just, you know, you know, or I sprinkled fairy dust over him or anything like that. No, they were once or twice where he thought about leaving. For sure he thought about leaving. And once he actually did leave a little bit, and I wasn't restraining him. I did have the lead rope, but I wasn't trying to keep him still.

I wanted to let him know he could get away. And by the way, the one time he did leave a little bit, it's because we had moved a little bit, and I, he got too close to another horse that was across the fence, and that horse, turns out, was threatening him. So anyway. But these are the kind of things you have to really be. Be aware of. So I started working with him in a way that I could use my hands to help him feel relief in tense muscles so I could see.

So at first, before I put my hands on him, I really just observed him how he was breathing, you know, what the. What the tension in his muscles looked like, you know, did he seem relaxed? Were there areas that I could guess that he was really tense? Now, you have to be careful because you don't want to go to an area that's sore that the horse might feel really protective about.

But you know how if you get, like, a tight muscle and someone comes along and, you know, just kind of holds it in a certain way, that just gives you that sense of relief? Well, that's what I wanted for this horse, and I was able to do that. And then, very delicately, we built on that. So I was able to do more. I was able to do more with his rib cage and with his neck and really give him a greater sense of himself so he could.

It sounds strange, but he could inhabit his body more confidently, and. And he had a real change. He had such a change, not only in his movement got freer, but you can see he just looked more settled. And his person noticed that before I said anything, she was noticing the change in his emotional state so much. And he was a horse that had quite a lot of tension in his hindquarters.

I think a lot of people don't realize. They, you know, you may not know what. What's the, like, healthy muscle development and what's too much tension in the muscles. And you could see that his back was a bit sore, so I helped him with all that, which felt really good to him. So I, you know, I was at that, at that stable another time, a few weeks later, and he saw me and he started calling to me, which I thought was like an amazing thing.

So I did give him a little love, just kind of on the house, because you, you know, it was so sweet that he did that, because he's not. Apparently, he wasn't the kind of horse that would do that easily. He was very guarded. So that's the kind of thing that just makes me feel so good. And being able to teach you how to do that is. It's my life's work, okay.

To help you and your horse feel better, no matter how sensitive you are. And again, the more sensitive the horse is. I find that they're just amazingly, like, once you get that connection, once you get that, you know, feeling of, oh, okay, this feels good. It's just, it's blissful. It could be bliss. It could be just such a lovely feeling for you as well as the, as the person helping the horse.

It's very satisfying. And now there was another horse I'd like to tell you about as well. He was a horse that would bite you. Like, he was not, you know, he was not reluctant to not only threaten, but, yeah, sometimes he'd carry through. So if you were grooming, sometimes tacking up whatever, he would turn around and sometimes grab the person and certainly pin his ears and threaten the person.

And these were great people that had him. They were doing their best. They, you know, his saddle fit, you know, he didn't have ulcers. You know, they checked him out from head to toe. They made sure everything was right. And then they asked me to help. And he was very interesting again, because he was this big bay warmblood. He, he was quite imposing, actually, especially when he turned around with, you know, that kind of an expression with his ears back and kind of his teeth bared.

And what I noticed, though, I was like, okay, this is really interesting. I observed him for a while. I observed him with his person. And what I noticed was this was really subtle, but there was a slight change in his breathing just before he turned around, you know, pinned his ears and turned around at the person. So I thought, ah, okay, that's something. Okay, that's something I can work with.

So I started working with him. And again, at first he wanted no part of me. Well, he wanted a chunk of me sometimes, but anyway. But then again, I noticed, oh, before he does that, there is this change in breath. Like, it seems like his threat came out of nowhere, but it didn't. It's what we call, like, the thing before the thing, right? What happens, what precedes the threat, like something comes before.

So what I found was, as I worked with him very gently, and I was helping relieve tension in his back, I was helping his ribs be freer. If I paid really close attention and I noticed that change in his breath, then I could change what I was doing, and he wouldn't follow through with the threat. He wouldn't pin his ears. It's like I took away the reason to pin for him to pin his ears.

So I listened at that deep level. And again, I'm not going to say that this is easy, that I always get this right or anything. Like that. I'm sure I miss a ton of stuff, right? But certainly with this horse and with others, I have been able to find those little tiny signs that precede the displeasure. The signs of displeasure. Okay. So whether it's a moving away displeasure, like, I'm just out of here.

Like, no, thank you, I don't want this. Or, I said, no. You know what I mean? Like that kind of more of a threat. Think about what happens just before that. And sometimes it's something so subtle, like a yemenite, slight change in the breath. You know, maybe it's something else. Maybe the horse shifts their weight on their feet. They change their stance, like a tiny bit. Maybe the tail moves in a certain way.

Obviously, you're looking at things like wrinkles around the eyes and the nose and the mouth, and, you know, really subtle changes. Maybe a slight change in the ears, the position of the ears, you know, so really hone in and start to look for the thing before it's obvious. Like, what is the sign? What's the thing before the thing? What is the horse trying to tell you before they have to shout, okay, so it was another horse.

Again, he was considered a very difficult horse. He not only bit, he kicked some professionals. He threatened his person, too, a lot. Again, he was a warmblood. Not that this is not always warmbulet. The first horse I talked about was a quarter horse. I mean, this is across the board. Okay? Any breed, any discipline, you know, these horses exist. These sensitive horses exist. So this horse, again, I had to be really, you know, mindful of him.

And what, because he was. He was quite a biter, this other horse, now, and. And a kicker. But what I found out, what worked for him is something that I call connected breathing, because that was one of the things I noticed with him, is that his breathing was really shallow. It was really shallow. And I was able to very gently just put my hands lightly on his rib cage, and he was okay with that.

And then, and I explain this in my, you know, we go through a whole thing in my move with your horse program, but just in a nutshell, connected breathing is a way that you're connecting with your horse through your breath. So you and your horse are breathing. You don't have to pair up the breathing. It's not that you have to breathe at the same rate as your horse, but you start getting into this feeling of really being in sync with your horse.

You're really listening. You're using your hands to get sensations from your horse, but also to recognize that your horse is getting sensations from you. And your horse is picking up information about your physical and emotional state. So you can feel your horse, but your horse is also sensing and feeling you. And then it's kind of like a meditation. We go through that. You really learn to, and you do this.

Actually, before you even touch your horse, you get into like a sense of centering yourself, being really grounded, noticing your own breathing, your own sense of yourself. You're releasing tension, any unnecessary tension that includes mental tension, you know, those unhelpful thoughts you might be having. And then you do this, then touching your horse. And sometimes in the beginning with a really sensitive horse, you don't touch them. You actually hold your hands at whatever distance away from your horse that your horse comfortable with this horse.

You know, I started like that, but I was able to gradually touch him and he was ok. He was more than okay because then he started to breathe more deeply. And one of the things I did now this has to be done really, really, really gradually, is I'm never pressing on the horse. I'm just like listening with my hands. I'm not trying to change the breath in any way, but I start to just once the horse is like super, super comfortable, I lighten my hands just a touch because when you do that really gradually, sometimes the horse will actually expand the ribcage to can to maintain the contact with you.

So, and that's what this horse did. So we started taking deeper breaths, and then that was my entry into doing other work with him. And it was really, really an incredible session. His person, who was standing a bit away so she could just observe and not interfere, she was totally blown away, totally blown away because she was like, he's never, he never lets anyone, even me touch him like that.

Like, he was very, very guarded. And he had, he had a history of, he was, you know, started very young. He was pushed very, very hard as a very young horse. You know, all these things were expected of him. The training was not kind and, you know, so he had good reason to be distrustful of people. So in any event, that was like, really an opening for him to start to trust people.

And then it was great. I started teaching his person how to work with him and it was, it was really wonderful. So again, you have to remember that, yes, these horses are challenging, and they're often challenging for me, too. I just, I just want to be clear about that. And I love working with them because it helps me be a better practitioner. It helps me be a better teacher.

I can start to really refine my feel, and I can be really creative. I have to really think about it like another horse. You might have heard this story, I think I mentioned her before on a podcast. Another situation where I was called out to work with this horse. The person didn't tell me too many details on the phone, but when I got there, I discovered, oh, by the way, no one can touch her hind quarters.

And the day before, she had kicked her farrier very badly. Oh, okay, nice. And now I don't have to touch a horse's hind quarters. There's so many things I can do to help the hind quarters without actually touching them, because so many, you know, obviously, all the parts are connected. And, for example, working with the rib cage can help the hindquarters a lot. It's not the only thing, but one of the things.

But with this horse, I thought, you know what? I want to help her get over that. I really want to help her with that. And I saw that her hindquarters, again, like that first horse I talked about, were very tight. Like, excessively tight, and that's not healthy, and it doesn't feel good to the horse, and it's not good for, for movement either, to have that chronic contraction. So I thought about, okay, what is something that the horse is used to touching her hindquarters?

Well, that would be her tail, right? She swishes her tail when there's flies, things like that. So I was able to touch her tail without her getting agitated. So I took her tail gently. I did not pull on it in any way, but I just took a big hank of her tail, so to speak, a big bunch of her tail, and then had my hand touching that part so that she had, her tail was in between her hindquarters and my hand.

So I wasn't touching her directly. I was touching her through the, through her own tail. And surprisingly or not, she had no bad reaction to that. And then what I did was, again, I wanted to find a way in that she would feel some relief right away. So I started doing what I call muscle lifts with the hand there. That was in between, you know, that had the tail in between.

And she had no bad response to that. As a matter of fact, she started feeling the relief that I was giving her by lifting the muscles, supporting them. In this way. It feels really good that you could see her just start to really relax. And then little by little, I took more of the tail hairs away. Like, I thinned it gradually until it was just my hand doing it.

And she was totally fine with that. And then I was able to do more with just my hands on her. And I've done this with a number of horses. She was the first one I did it with, and I just came to me because I'm always, like, looking. Okay, what kind of tool can I use that can help the horse? Anyone who knows about my rib rope knows that.

That also came from a place of necessity, if you will, because the horse didn't want me to touch his rib cage, and I knew it would help him. It would help him heal from, believe it or not, a chronic suspensory ligament injury, and he wouldn't let me touch him. I saw a lunge line lying on the ground. I checked with this person to see if this would be okay to use, and I put it around his barrel gently and started helping him get more awareness and mobility in his rib cage with that.

And then I refined that over time, and that became my famous rib rope. That's helped so many horses, humans, and other animals over the years. So, again, these sensitive horses are. They're the greatest teachers. They can help us so much, like, really refine what we're doing with horses. And when we stop and really listen to them, really listen to them, we could learn so much. We are better for it.

I have to say, some of my most rewarding sessions have been with horses that were sensitive. My own horse, breeze, who. Who passed away last year, he was incredibly sensitive, incredibly sensitive. And I learned so much from him, and I have this incredible connection with him. It's like you just get deeper and deeper into it. So if you have a really sensitive horse, I hope you're celebrating that, because they also listen to you on a very deep level, and they're picking up things about us that we may not even be conscious of.

They're noticing our little changes in physiology. And by the way, I think all horses do notice these things, but some seem to notice them more than others or certainly respond to them more than others. Maybe all of them notice, but some of them are like, yeah, whatever. That's her. That's humans. You know how they are. Right? But some of those sensitive horses, they respond. So it's like they're reading your mind because they notice those subtle changes in physiology that happen every time you change your thought.

Right? You could change your thought, and your physiology changes. It does. It does, right. If you think of something scary, right? You're something you don't like, your physiology will change. So there's so many reasons, by the way, why a horse will notice these things, that it really does feel like they're reading your mind. So. And that's why I'm always saying, right, how you move, how you breathe, how you direct your attention, right?

Meaning your thoughts are all keenly noticed by your horse, and they all shape your interactions with your horse. So that's why it's so important for us to really center ourselves before we interact with our horses, make sure we're in a good place so that we come to them with as clean of a slate as we can. Of course, we're not going to have a clean slate, but that we, we make sure we're in as best place as possible to best serve our horses.

And again, those, those sensitive horses are amazing. So what I want to leave you with this is that think about when you're interacting with your horse. And this is true for horses that don't even appear sensitive. Like, I think all horses are sensitive, right? Of course. But think about how can I help my horse feel differently, feel better than they were feeling before I walked over here? Like, what can I do now?

In my case, I teach people how to use their hands to help their horses feel better in body and mind. I also teach people how to use their own, you know, change their mindset to help their horses as well as themselves. And I also teach people how to, using the Feldenkrais method, feel better themselves in body and mind, which will help your horse and help your riding and everything else.

But think about that now. What could you do to help your horse to feel differently, to get the attention of your horse's nervous system in a positive way, in a way that provides a learning environment for your horse, a way for your horse to discover something really delightful, something delicious between the two of you, something that broadens your horizons, that brings out new possibilities. So let me know if you have a sensitive horse.

And again, I do believe all horses are sensitive, but some appear more sensitive than others and respond more directly to changes that you might be bringing to the table as well. So thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate you listening, subscribing, and reviewing the podcast. And again, feel free to reach out if you have a particular issue you're dealing with, I would love to maybe do a podcast episode about it.

So thank you, and I look forward to talking to you again soon. Bye for now.