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Building brighter tomorrows
for the boys of today.

by Sonja Rhodes

Equine Department of Cherry Gulch Therapeutic Boarding School, Emmett, Idaho

Not long ago I was visiting with a boy's family as I was finishing up daily logs at Cherry Gulch therapeutic boarding school. The family had come to spend the weekend with their son and were resting in the office before having him take them to the barnyard to meet the horses and see what he has learned about horsemanship since being at the school.

The mother and I were talking about the process the boys go through, learning horsemanship skills and horse psychology before eventually going out on trail rides. Some boys pick up on this quickly while others may take longer before they are ready to go out into the hills to ride on a trail. This family's son has gone out on several trail rides.

The mother said that she would be surprised if her son had any fear with horses because he is an accomplished athlete and has done many extreme sports that would normally build courage. She said she would expect him to carry that brave spirit over into other areas.

We soon headed out to the horses. I asked the boy to explain things to his parents as we went along our way. He has pioneered some really great ideas for Cherry Gulch, from garden paths to skateboard ramps. His ideas are great, but his coping skills have not been as good as yet. He has made a habit of getting upset if things don't go exactly as he thinks they should.

Sometimes when he forgets about others and thinks its all about him, he gets removed from the project because he refuses to follow any one else's plan.

Because of this other boys finished the projects he'd started. So far with the horses he had been willing to go through the hard stuff and get along with peers.

Once out to the horses the boy gathered up a halter and went out to his favorite horse. He approached her with confidence and stood petting her gently before haltering, rubbing the faces of the other horses softly as they gathered around him. His family mentioned that this is what they were waiting to see--if he could show kindness and be gentle with the animals. They were really excited to see how considerate he was with not only the horse he was haltering but also with the others that came over to greet him as well.

After he had spent a few moments with each of the horses he looked to his favorite one and after getting eye contact with her, they headed off together with slack in the lead rope, walking side by side. He looped her rope at the hitching rail and began to thoroughly groom her.

During each step of the process his family would ask him what he was doing and he would explain. They would ask "but how do you know that about her?" and he would show them that he knew from her expression or body language. He lifted up her leg and held her hoof while he scraped the rocks and dirt that had packed into her sole, and then when he got to the hind foot he said to me "Can you help me with these I'm a little scared to do these by myself".

I showed him how to do this in a way that he and the horse could help each other. I've shown him this each time we've gone out but his confidence is still not strong in this area. He trusts the horse while picking up the front leg, but is not sure enough to do the hind.

At the last foot I saw him pushing the horse in the shoulder in attempt to get her foot up. I mentioned that he wouldn't be helping himself by pushing on her because he would teach her to lean into pressure since she would feel like he was trying to push her over.

I watched and he changed from pushing to grabbing, trying to make her lift that last foot. It was all very subtle, and to an untrained eye or someone not in the mind of horses it might not have looked like anything notable.

I've worked with a lot of horses, and though the horse could respond to this in a number of ways- it usually shows up as some sort of resistence. Though the boy didn't realize his behavior was influencing her that much, I knew that I could help him learn so the experience wouldn't leave her with a 'bad taste in her mouth'.

Its my job to help the boys understand these little things so that our horses continue to enjoy their job at Cherry Gulch and continue to work well for all the boys. I knew that with this being the last hoof to be cleaned, if I didn't help him find a positive solution for picking up the horses last foot, her memory would remain with the thought of resistance from what she views as a violation or threat.

I know for this boy has had situations here at Cherry Gulch where he started out with great intentions but then in wanting to hurry up he'd wind up frustrating others and it would end badly for them all. This was a good opportunity for me to allow a horse to teach him some life skills.

All of these thoughts went through my mind in about 10 seconds, then I said "Let me show you, if you prepare her and just...." she lifted her leg- that fast.

He saw this and tried again, but he grabbed and squeezed both the inside and outside of her knee, which I imagine to a horse might think was a lot like a dog bite. She resisted with her foot firmly planted on the ground like a concrete pillar.

The boy's mom asked him to let me show him again, so I rubbed lightly down her shoulder around to her leg and without doing anything more she lifted her foot up for me. He said "hmmmm!"

I told him "We can't really make her lift her foot up, its heavy with her weight on it--but if she lifts it for us it doesn't weigh anything at all." When the horse trusts us, she will balance on her other three legs and hold her hoof up on her own just resting it in our hand lightly. The horse is paying attention to everything we do. She is thinking about our behavior, our attitude and and our actions.

We're always teaching her something--and it all boils down to either "You can trust me horse" or "Don't trust me, horse because I'm not thinking about your basic internal needs".

I keep a watchful eye from start to finish on the interactions of horse and boy. I see what to many might look like barely anything at all. I watch because I know that good horsemanship comes from the strength that can't be seen in the arm, or the back. The person can be small or weak in body if they are strong in trust, respect and understanding of the horse.

I work with the boys through horses so they might find how trust, respect and understanding will look for them. We all have different boundaries and dispositions but anyone can bring these things into their relationships with desire, time, experience and practice. Guidance from someone who's had many years experience doesn't hurt either.

It is fun for me when the boys begin trusting themselves to make the right choices. This is often trial and error and any honest try will receive an honest response from the horse.

After all the details were in place the boy got ready to ride the mare, I'm sure he was excited to show his family all that he had learned. He had artfully saddled and showed them some ground skills he could do with the horse while leading. His family asked him lots of questions as he demonstrated these things.

Satisfied, he stepped up on the mounting block and maybe he had nervous excitement going on internally, but whatever it was, for some reason the horse avoided going near enough for him to put his foot in the stirrup.

I could imagine the mystery of his inner conversation as he held his breath, then slumped his shoulders as she'd side step to avoid going over there. Like the horse, I didn't know what was necessarily going on for him internally but I could see the effect of it written all over his body language. I know this is what horses are artfully aware of.

I watched as he attempted to work it out using all the skills he could think of, but remember--he was really anxious to show his family how well he rides this horse. He was anxious to show his family how he'd made a bond with this particular horse and now she was moving away from him! The more he worked to get her to come near and stay, the harder it seemed to get what he wanted. When she did edge near he would try to hurry up and grab hold causing her to move away from him again.

I could see not only the boy's body language but also that of the horse. I was taking mental notes and paid attention to the way her head was held high and her neck was tight, her hind legs were way out behind her and her front legs were spread wide as she avoided the place he needed her to be. I could not read her mind, but I could see clearly that she was not feeling ok about him riding yet.

I had to decide if I was willing to let him get on a horse that, for whatever reason didn't trust him at this moment. I knew if I did he would likely have a mediocre ride at best and his family would see him go through the motions of riding. But I knew it would be only the motions and everyone would know that something was missing. They might not understand what it was, but they would all leave feeling a bit dissatisfied.

I know from many years of working with horses and riders that if the horse is showing me she feels uneasy, then there is a 99% chance that the rider is trying NOT to show me- but none the less is feeling uneasy. Uneasy horses carrying uneasy riders usually results in mutual frustration and with these boys, a melt down can often follow. So, for me it seemed like my choice was to help him work through a problem that leaks into his whole approach to life---or I could let him do what he wanted, continue an unhealthy habit and then be miserable from the consequence of his actions.

I made my choice. The boy would have to work on the trust between him and the horse before he got up in the saddle. Everybody's goal was to see him ride, yet it might be better that his family would witness their son and the horse working through the process of building mutual trust. I had to trust that this would benefit the family more than accomplishing a basic tutored skill.

So each time the horse came near, the boy was instructed not to think about what he wanted, but only to think about the horse's need to feel safe next to him. That was a challenge for him. He was asked to think about (understand) how to cause the horse to believe that it was ok for her to be over there close to him. Once she was showing us she was comfortable there, and after a brief pause to relax together-he was instructed to ask her to leave his side by sending her out away from him on a circle at the end of the lead rope while he remained on the steps. That was a bigger challenge for him. I could see him questioning why he would get her comfortable being there, have her right where he wanted her and where he could get on (his goal) and then have to ask her to leave again! He looked at me and asked me why he couldn't just get on and ride.

When I was 9 years old I had a mare come into my life who had a lot of trouble believing that people were worth consistently trusting. When she arrived at my house, she greeted me with an angry face, bearing her teeth! She would run at me and try to bite, kick or push past me--and who knows why I continued to want to be with her. I guess I just thought it would be pretty awful to go through life that angry and upset all the time. Sometimes I feel just like that with the boys at Cherry Gulch and I'm thankful that I had that pony all those years ago that learned and taught me a better way to live. After all that work together, the years that followed were rewarding and unforgettable.

I can remember to this day the journey we took in gaining mutual trust that would carry through all the obstacles we met along the trails of our life together. I was a very adventurous soul and it took a lot of trust for a pony to take me all the places I asked her to go with me.

As an adult I made a career of working with the toughest horses, the ones that wouldn't come around to conventional theories and methods of schooling. No matter the type of horse or the reason for their trouble--I learned that the ingredients for the concrete foundation always came down to mutual trust, respect, and understanding.

Even before I understood the source of a horse's trouble---I had to find a way to establish trust they could understand. I had to learn that different horses needed different things to begin to trust. Some of them were so fearful while others were shut down, some seemed mean and others didn't seem to be able to focus long enough to grasp any form of communication. I felt like a horse psychologist!

Once I established consistent trust in a variety of situations the respect began to come automatically, and with that trust and respect suddenly the horse and I would understand each other. As time went on, they would begin to show me the troubled places and things would begin to make sense as we worked our way through those things to true confidence that ran clear to their core.

I can remember how frustrated people would bring me horses that seemed so out of control. They had often been told that their horse was hopeless. They would leave their horse there with me, wondering if they had just dropped them off on another dead end road. They would check on me often, not knowing if I really cared about their horse. I imagine they were afraid of how I might handle their prized horse when it tried any number of things with me that it had done with them. It was probably hard to believe that I, like them--wanted nothing more than to see that horse become a solid, sturdy success story with many sequels to follow long after I was only a distant memory.

I can remember when weary people would come back to see their horse. They would see all the things the horses had learned to do confidently, willingly with exuberance but yet all the while relaxed. They wouldn't understand how the horse made that change. And the journey to the change wasn't really anything I could explain because so much of it was internal and unseen. And the biggest accomplishment was when I'd get to watch as they learned that once the horse believed in their own abilities, they could much more easily carry that trust, respect and understanding over into all their relationships. There was no greater joy than watching as the horse and riders learned that they were as safe together as they were with me.

Remembering all this and sharing none of it with the boy, for it was HIS day! I simply smiled and told him that it was important for the horse that he could consider her safety (and his) above the goal. As he practiced moving her near and asking her to leave again I allowed him to express his own intuition on the subject. Whatever he saw, he could express it. I watched the horse and the boy and when we both were all in agreement that they were ready, he stepped up in the saddle.

At last he was riding. I gave some reminders here or there but mostly let he and the horse shine together enjoying the moment for a little while. Then when all was just right--after all the time it took to get there, I tested the boy--and asked him to get off the horse. I asked him to let the day end with him and the horse feeling like there was no better place than being together. He asked me "Can I just take her ONE more time around?" and I smiled and said "No." He grinned and did a beautiful demonstration of an emergency dismount--something we'd been practicing over the weeks to teach him that he can learn to make a classy 'exit' when things go awry.

It may have seemed a bit tough not allowing him one more round around the arena, but his family and I both know that when this boy finds what he's been waiting for then he tends to want more and more and more. He admits to pushing for one more time in everything until eventually that 'one more' causes a good thing to fall apart and turn ugly leaving him and everyone around him feeling frustrated.

I'd been coaching him on noticing that moment when all is well or at least better than they were before and then stopping with that. To leave things on a good note takes a bit of faith. It takes a bit of faith that the 'good times' won't be all used up by somebody else if he doesn't take them all for himself.

For him to do this might mean he would need to learn to trust that good things can come for him again and again. He might need to believe that he has the skills to get things right in himself before making demands on others on terms that they aren't able to start.

How fortunate that we have horses to help figure all this out.