From Setback to Reset

This is Part 5 in the Remarkable Series, a story chronicling the fulfillment of a dream and the rescue of Kodiak Jack, the horse I adopted from Omega Horse Rescue in July of 2022.

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 yet wonders if there is a still a possibility to see the 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 of taking “ten steps forward and nine steps back?”

Well, that feels like the story of my life!

From ninth grade through my junior year in college, I injured one of my knees every year. Only decades later did I find out that I have a mild form of Ehler-Danlos Syndrome, which manifests as loose ligaments in my body making me prone to injury from over-exertion and repetition. So there I would be, getting ready for a dance recital or playing hard in life, and injury would set me back to square one.

I finally figured out how to manage my knees, only for my hips to become the issue in my twenties (childbearing did a number). My thirties and forties have been all about my back. It’s a wearisome road to have chronic injury and pain, but it is a burden that has made me much more compassionate toward those who suffer without an external sign of an inward problem — whether that is a physical, emotional, or spiritual wound.

No doubt that my journey with chronic pain has also made me super sensitive to the needs of humans and horses alike.

My parents would say that I feel too much. My trainer would agree and add that I see too much, especially with the horses. I am sure she thinks I’m a bit like a hypochondriac when it comes to horse health. She is right, in that I do see more than most. My observation ability on the Highlands Ability Battery is 99%, which means I notice nuances and details, especially visually. And, yes, it is exhausting!

Whether caring for humans or horses, I can’t help but allow what I see and feel to compel me to explore further, and if necessary, find a solution to a problem.

So the more I got to know Kody, the more concerned I became at what I was seeing and feeling.

Then others started confirming what I was noticing.

For example, Kody had only been with me a month, when Patrick King, a clinician leading an in-hand clinic hosted by HorseClass, noticed that the area above Kody’s eyes was puffy. I had noticed that as well, and also the area right behind his ears on his neck. It was as hard as a rock. But he wasn’t head-shy, so I didn’t think much of it. I also noticed he dragged his back toes and often stood cocked on the right hind leg. I figured he was just out of shape from sitting for so long. These “signs” didn’t mean too much at the time, as we pressed on with the original plan of five days a week with my trainer and lots of connecting time with me. As much as I thought I was a well-informed horsewoman, when it came to horses’ anatomy and physicality, I was ignorant . . . but intuitive. So, I did what I do and took to learning, without wonderful opportunities at my fingertips.

We had the remarkable opportunity for Kody to be a case study and participant in a Jim Masterson clinic hosted by HorseClass. Now if you don’t know of Jim Masterson, you might not think much of this. I explained it to my family as Jim is to the horse world as the infamous Duke Basketball legend, Coach K, is to Division I Basketball.

Jim was able to give Kody a full-length session and discerned that he was very tight in his poll and TMJ, often signs of pulling back off cross-ties. Those were the areas I noticed were puffy and hard. And certainly, his behavior on the cross-ties supported this conclusion. Jim also could see stiffness in Kody’s body, with not much movement through his rib cage, as well as the hind toe drag.

Even with Jim’s assessment, we all thought Kody was progressing well, so we made the decision to take him on our barn’s annual trail riding trip.

There was really no way to tell that it would be too much too soon.

Kody was simply not fit enough to handle the length of time on the trails and the pace at which the herd wanted to move at. By day two, he did not want to be bridled. On day three, he was aggressive toward the other horses on the trail. The only time he was content was when we were at the front of the pack and he slowed us down to nearly a stand-still pace. Thankfully, for the fourth ride, we were able to opt-out with a few others and take a leisurely hand walk instead.

It was hard to not fall prey to the gripping shame spiral. You know, the “You should have” accusations that makes us feel downright awful.

Not to sound dramatic, but I was afraid I might have ruined our relationship, breaking the trust I was working so hard to build by being attuned to Kody’s needs.

The real problem, however, was that I was falling prey to anthropomorphism, which is when we put human qualities and attributes onto animals.

Instead of remembering that Kody was a horse, I was anticipating backlash — something I’ve experienced in too many human relationships.

The good thing however, is that horses are not human. They are not capable of holding grudges.

That’s because they lack a prefrontal cortex — that area of the human brain that is responsible for executive functioning. Horses can’t plan ahead about how they will treat you, as much as horse people would like to blame “bad” behavior on vengeance!

No, horses cannot hold a grudge! They function in the present way more than we do. Yes, they can remember positive and negative associations (hence the benefit of using positive reinforcement in training). But when it comes to future responses to the present moment, anything we perceive as retribution is most likely how they are reacting to the way we are showing up at that moment.

If I had the opportunity to redo history, I wouldn’t have taken Kody on the trail riding trip. However, I am not sure what would have transpired in the following weeks if we didn’t. Days after the trip, I had a Masterson Method bodyworker, Katie Barlett, come out to work on Kody and teach me how to use positive reinforcement to work on behavior issues. Katie was a God-send! She noticed how tight he was all over, confirming my thoughts on the trip being too much. And she did a great job showing me how to reinforce quiet behavior on the cross-ties and while grooming.

And yet, the following week, things got worse, not better.

Kody refused to be bridled, multiple times, so we opted for a reset on training around the same time the chiropractor came out to work on him for the first time. But instead of treatment, Kody came up lame on his hind end. Two days later, the vet came out and confirmed right hock lameness, although the x-rays did not show anything noteworthy.

We had a big decision to make. Option A, hock injection. Option B, a muscle relaxer and anti-inflammatory for two weeks, and rest. I opted for option B, not convinced the issue was the hock because there was also all this tension in his head and neck, that Jim had noticed and was getting worse. In horses, like humans, tight muscles and ligaments in one part of our body tend to compensate for pain in other areas.

At this point, I was watching our emergency fund for this horse dwindle down the expense drain, so I invested a whole lot time of in researching biomechanics, lameness issues, and behavior in order to make the most educated decision. Along with the meds, I invested time doing bodywork on Kody as well as positive reinforcement to work on the behaviors that were becoming bigger and bigger issues, specifically bridling, standing on the cross-ties, the pushy behavior, and grooming. Food is a powerful motivator in the pursuit of behavior change because of the endorphin release. Throughout all of this, I didn’t lose my passion for connection, which is what brought me into equine-assisted work in the first place. I sought consent from the minute I approached Kody in the field. What I noticed was that as more relaxation became apparent in his body, the quicker he was to connect with me in the field. Should we be surprised?

Who wants to move when they are in pain?

I know from my own pain journey, I am a cranky and resistant woman when I am hurting. How about you?

Two weeks later, we had the vet come back out and thought we’d be doing hock injections, but instead, we found Kody to be fully sound. Even better, his quiet and kind temperament was back!

However, we could still see some tension in his body and stiffness in his joints, so we opted for a month of a loading dose of Adaequan to care for his joints based on his age and race history. I also crafted a light work plan, which included warm-up longing followed by stretching, farm walks, and in-hand work. What a difference it made! I also continued the positive reinforcement for all the behaviors I was looking to install in his willing mind!

It took about two more weeks to see even more temperament improvement and four weeks to eliminate the pushy behavior. Three months later, his pushiness only shows up when he feels insecure, such as when my energy level goes way up or if another person is “up” around us. Yet bringing him down from that “up” place is so much easier than it was before I started this focused work with him.

I also brought out a bridle and a bit fitter, as I was convinced the used one I bought was creating some of the pressure on his poll and TMJ. Although by this time, there was no longer the puffiness above his eyes and his neck was much softer, all of the bridling resistance ended within a week of the new bridle. We also finally got in Kody’s saddle (a used one, measured and refit to both of us by Schleese) and could see a real difference in his movement with a rider. When it comes to behavior and horse pain, we can’t overlook tack and the rider position!!

This setback season truly provided the opportunity for a reset in building our relationship.

I’ve learned so much not only about horse health and behavior but also gained a fresh reminder of how humans respond to physical pain in emotional ways.

Attunement, humility, and compassion is critical in every relationship!

How many times do we chalk up bad behavior to character, when the underlying issue is pain — heart, head, or body! How often do we blow past the building blocks of trust, expecting too much of a new friend or partner? How quickly do we dismiss a cry for help, consumed by our own insecurities or worries?

All these experiences with Kody, and the way I have been able to respond, have indeed given me more confidence in trusting my ability to see and respond to the problems coming my way. Turns out that being sensitive and observant isn’t such a bad thing after all! When we take the time to attune to one another, letting go of our demands, we’ll uncover the gift of slow growth and the beauty of life-giving relationships.

Reflection Questions for Your Remarkable Journey

What lessons are taking place in your life today that can make you a more compassionate human too?

What are the warning signs that you are entering a shame spiral?

What beliefs have you adopted – in the human or horse world – that are not grounded in truth?

How can you see a setback as a reset for building on a better foundation?

Ready for part 6?

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