Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Horses and the jobs they do

Horses need jobs. There, I said it.

There are those out there who disagree, who think admiring a horse is enough and your equine friends will be happy to be free and loose in a field just being horses. "Look at wild horses," they say, "They are happy and free!" 

But wild horses do have jobs--they have to survive. They have to move constantly, find food, mate, defend territory and raise foals. It's hard work and they don't live nearly as long in the wild as our more pampered companion horses do.

OTTBs do NOT chase bags of socks. So there.
This makes a job even more important for domesticated ponies, horses who don't actually toil hard for a living running ranches or plowing fields. In my case, this is simply working and playing in the arena and on trails and teaching Calabar new things as they come up. Like how to ignore a mechanical cow, for instance. Our current challenge is breaking up the arena routine enough that--while we still get work--we don't get bored. Oh and getting me to be brave enough to step up his training some more.

Ex-racehorses are used to having a job and a routine and plenty of people around them to help them carry that out. They are used to being busy, watching the action unfold around them and figuring out how that action may or may not affect their daily business. They are very sensitive, these athletes. Horses in general have to be to be part of the herd and also to keep from being eaten. Racehorses spend so much time with people, they sometimes seem to go on overload trying to understand what we want, what we're doing. 

Forrest View showing an OTTB can slide stop, too.
So what are good jobs for ex-racehorses? Traditionally, OTTBs have gone onto careers in eventing and dressage, as well as hunter/jumper, polo and even barrel racing and other speed events. These are all events where their speed and athleticism come into play and that use the forward propulsion they already know. The rumor is that they have the hardest time with dressage simply because of the controlled nature of it, but there are plenty of examples that they can perform at high levels as well.

Silva Martin and Sea Lord - from
Oddly enough, that hum of energy under their skin can also be turned towards calmness and teaching in the right circumstances. The Square Peg uses several horses--including some ex-racehorses--to work with children and families dealing with autism. Yes, entire families because that's what it takes to make it all work out. In fact, they are doing a clinic on the HorseBoy Method (yes, that HorseBoy) this month and if I weren't already booked to go to Hawaii, I would be there.

Joell with Square Pegs lights up when she talks about the effectiveness of the method as a way to foster healing and communication. The workshops themselves are not designed for the kids, they are designed to give caretakers tools and exercises to "better serve the child at home." 

Why would I be there? Because I don't know enough to really understand why horses can do so well with autistic people, but I know enough to be intrigued. What is it about that energy that can make a horse know to be still and calm, as Zenyatta was when she met Jack. (Jack's dad even commented on this blog post I did way back when--quite a thrill for me.)

There are other programs out there that I'd love to learn more about, too--including OTTBs working with inmates at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and with war veterans at places like the Saratoga War Horse Project and BOK Ranch

Why do these sometimes high-strung horses work in these situations? I think it's precisely because of their sensitivity--it turns them into energy mirrors. They are also smart and curious and many of them love humans--particularly their own humans. In a world where so many people are in a zone where real communication--not Facebook, email or texting, real face-to-face communication--is sorely lacking, a horse can often remind us how to be human. For people cut off from feeling human--or cut off from feeling "normal"--a horse, any horse, can be a path back from that place. The horse doesn't judge, no. They don't do anything but respond to you, as you are, in that moment. 

Calabar being sure things are safe before coming out
Here's what I do know about my own horse. Calabar is extremely sensitive to people's energy, emotions, volume level and moods. He watches everything around him always and reads me like a wide open book. We have, however, made progress and he now believes me when I tell him everything will be okay and I'll take care of him. He may not be the perfect candidate for a therapy horse--indeed, children make him nervous for a reason I have not yet fathomed--but he is an excellent teacher and mood regulator. My energy is immediately telegraphed to him whether I like it or not, so he has helped me tap into my inner calm place. (I do have one, really.) He has shown me when I'm distracted, not paying attention, out of focus. And it is instantaneous feedback. From an ear-flick to a buck, there is always a response. 

He is never--not ever--checking his phone, his email, his text messages. And he bumps me with his nose when I do it to him, which is only fair.

Horses are incredible therapy for all of us, but for those who are looking at the world through any kind of barrier--mental, physical, psychological--they can lead the way back through the maze and reconnect us to ourselves, to our humanity, to each other.

That may be their most important job of all.


Dom said...

100% agreed about horses needing jobs, especially ex-racers

Suzanne said...

What a great post! I could not agree with you more... about having a job, being engaged with activity and the energy and therapeutic capabilities... Thanks!