The human and horses lessons intertwined in our journey feel worthy of sharing . . . for those who simply need hope about second chances, for the want-to-be rescue horse owner who needs a primer on what to expect, for the frustrated equestrian who can’t figure out what is wrong with her horse, for the individual who has hit a relationship wall and desperately needs a new way of looking at life, and for the dreamer who is about to give up but wonders if there is a still a possibility to see their vision realized.
So here I tell our story — one that is still unfolding. It captures the extravagance of God’s grace, the fruit of perseverance, the beauty of slow growth, and the remarkable gift of hope that comes through second chances. May it encourage you to press on, expecting the remarkable to manifest in your life too.
Do you know that feeling when you take a leap of faith, hoping that you will not regret the decision on the other side of your YES?
Well, that is what it felt like adopting Kodiak Jack in July of 2022. With my husband’s incredible support (he’s not a horse guy, by the way), we said YES. Oh, and my trainer, gave her stamp of approval trusting my judgment about his personality, the vetting, and the short rides we were able to video and send her way. My daughter, a more skilled rider than me, rode him at the vetting and weighed in with “Mom, you’re getting a 12-year-old green bean!” which basically meant he would need lots of training. Yep, not the unicorn I was looking for, but we decided his temperament was worth gold!
Having witnessed the transition of horses into a new farm environment, I prepared for the worst. Kodiak Jack, however, gave us the best surprise. He trailered easily from the rescue, arrived early to the stables, and immediately snuggled in by my side like he had known me forever. We turned in him out in the pasture for the night near the geldings that would become his herd, and was so chill in the morning, they turned him out with the boys early the next day. Mr. Easy Peasy made friends quickly!
I was thoroughly relieved when my trainer finally worked with him on the lunge line for the first time and declared, “He’s not your typical hot-headed thoroughbred!” Even so, I recognized that he could be in a bit of a shutdown from the trauma of abandonment and did not want to get ahead of myself.
I continued to take things slow, building trust on the ground and giving Kody a chance to get his bearings at his new home.
So much to see, smell, and experience, including the rubbish fires that burned often at neighboring farms. I happened to be in the outdoor round pen with Kody one evening, hanging out in my favorite corner overlooking the valley at sunset. The smell of the fire blew our way and immediately caught his attention. I took him in the direction of the fire to let him know I was aware of what he smelled. He blocked me. Yes, Kody stood between me and the fire a mile off in the distance, refusing to let me stand on the side closest to it. I’ve never had another horse do this before — and I have a feeling it won’t be the only time Kody will try to protect me.
Truly, our first month together was dreamy, except for this one problem. The folks at the rescue and his former trainer mentioned he was pushy when he first arrived with them. I had a picture in mind of what that meant based on the horses I’d worked with, but that didn’t prepare me for what I encountered the first time Kody gave me a push I didn’t see coming. For the next month, I seriously considered the return policy I signed, questioning whether I got in over my head.
There is nothing like being intimidated by your own horse . . . or the humans you do life with.
I wasn’t ready to give up on Kody, so I hit the internet to find answers, only to discover I already knew what the problem was.
In both humans and horses, pushiness is a form of aggression.
Aggression is a survival response triggered by a fear of harm activating the fight-flight pattern.
So the secret to dealing with pushiness is to address the fear trigger while also building confidence through connection and trust.
For Kody, I began to see his fight pattern show up at key moments. He would become agitated and pushy any time I stepped out of a stall or away from the crossties while getting different grooming supplies. Plenty of folks would say, “Ah, that is just a thoroughbred for ya.” Meaning, don’t expect that to ever change.
Sorry, that doesn’t fly with me. Our brains and horse brains have neuroplasticity, which means learning is possible and change in behavior can be achievable when pursued from a calm state.
As a coach and mom of four humans, plus eighteen years of experience working with teens at a boarding school, I come from the perspective that the only limit in learning is either a medical limitation or the belief that it is not possible.
We can grow. We can learn. And so can horses. They may not have a brain as big as a human, but they can develop new neuropathways that lead to new behavior outcomes.
For Kody, I recognized that either he felt super insecure being away from me and/or had a negative association with a stall and crossties. I also recognized that when he got pushy, I got stressed out. My heart rate would spike, even in anticipation of entering the barn and grooming. Thus began the vicious cycle that resulted in what is called confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is that moment when you think to yourself, “See, of course, this is happening to me. this always happens to me!”
Because of a previous negative experience, you (and your horse and other humans) automatically anticipate the problem and then find fault in yourself, the other person/horse involved, or the setting in the present moment. Aka, the stall . . . the scary corner of the barn . . . the loud person in the barn . . . . etc.
Your sympathetic nervous system kicks into action as you relive the past threatening experience. It’s the worst case of groundhog day. The only way forward out of this crazy cycle is to find a way to function in a parasympathetic state — a calm state instead of a survival state.
I recognized that I needed to find a way for both Kody and me to not freak out!
We needed to start with being grounded together.
So I began utilizing every technique I give my clients to reduce anxiety, such as box breathing, aromatherapy, thought-catching, and music to make sure I showed up as calm and regulated as possible. As often as possible, I invited someone else to join me in interacting with Kody in the barn, to provide co-regulation to both of us. As a herd animal, being separated can be quite anxiety-producing, so I also looked for opportunities for Kody to have a herd mate nearby. Trusting relationships in which co-regulation is naturally a part of the connection is essential for changing behavior in horses and humans alike!
We humans are very much like herd animals. We need each other more than we care to admit.
Predictability is also another key factor in increasing trust. Unfortunately, that was not initially easy to come by because of a number of lovely opportunities that kept rocking our rhythms. Yet, looking back, those interruptions were a gift that revealed so much about what Kody had been through and what he needed from me as his person.
Yes, our behavior and our bodies tell the story of what we’ve been through, for horses and humans alike.
.Taking the time to listen, observe, and explore deeper connections is the secret to transformation and growing emotionally strong together.
Reflection Questions for Your Remarkable Journey
What situations do you find yourself in that tempt you to say “Of course, that is happening to me?”
How could you approach those situations differently?
What grounding and/or co-regulation strategies could you implore in difficult relationships or situations?
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