Honor Thy Horse

By Lauren Giannini

I am the happy hostage of a Thoroughbred-Connemara named Roger (Crusader Rabbit) and a mixed terrier who answers to Isabel. Horses provide me with all the work and play I can ever desire. I am also a body-worker, trained in remedial equine massage and the Australian Bowen technique for horses and humans. I live in Virginia, in the heart of horse country. I eat, sleep and breathe horses. I consider myself incredibly lucky. I eat standing up most of the time, unless I manage to snatch a bite or two on the run. Specialists have informed me that I am human, not horse; however, this has not stopped me from thinking like one.

Now, each horse has a distinct body and mind. They aren't some form of biological robot gracing the earth. Not yet, anyway, and it irks me no end to run into so-called equine professionals who put horses into a tiny box. Each one is unique, like you and me, and each one expresses itself with a distinct personality. Moreover, each one has different likes and dislikes. One likes to eat anything we offer including funky smelling supplements that taste pretty weird, too. Another might be quite finicky. This one loves to trail ride even if it means navigating down the shoulder of a major highway now and then. That one much prefers to work in the ring and do the odd walking tour of nearby pastures. One loves to run and jump while another prefers ballroom dancing. Most horses prefer to be out. There are a few individuals just as happy being out for a few hours then returning to the safety of their stalls. Some horses love to compete and show off, others prefer to stay home, doing the same kind of stuff informally without tension and judges.

So what does all this mean? Think about you for a minute. Do you find yourself wishing you had a different job? Or that you lived in a different house or environment? Do you find you have to psyche yourself to get out of the house in the morning and go to work? Do you suffer from tension, anxiety, or panic attacks because you feel less than confident and content with your job, school, family, or mate? Do you feel misunderstood or that your feelings don't rate so much as a second thought?

Lucky for you, you are in a position to do something about it. Horses, however, depend on us for their livelihood. They are our noble servants. Moreover, most horses want to please their humans even if it means trying to be a round peg in a square hole. Say what you will; I know this to be true. The ones who don't want to please their persons usually have a screw loose. And guess who makes 99.9 percent of them that way? We do! Granted, like humans, some horses are born with some major maladjustment, but that's another subject entirely.

What the horse gods create, we must not take and break. Unfortunately, too many humans feel that might makes right and that we have to subdue these mighty beasts. Well, I've got news for them. Horses respond like big overgrown children to consistency in their training. They learn the meaning of the words 'no' and 'stop', and they do respond appropriately. They are creatures of habit, and when they are handled with this in mind, it is easy to communicate what we want and expect from them in hand, in harness and under saddle.

If we expect horses to be lumpy, dim-witted and stubborn as bullocks, they will deliver exactly that. If we approach them with kindness, strength and alpha brain waves, they will acknowledge us as the pro tem herd leader. For horses are herd animals and we ask them to perform all sorts of crazy stunts that are really not part of their nature.

Consider the fact that great draft horses provided backbone and mobility for the crusades. Those knights weighed a fair amount in that armor. Horses carried them across Europe and Asia. No mean feat. Moreover, these creatures also overcame their aversion to loud noises, blood and fire, and all components of battle. They showed the kind of bravery that merits government recognition. They helped win wars as recently as the early 20th century.

Modern classical horsemanship dates back to Xenophon. Dressage used to be just a word to denote training, and the airs above the ground were the war moves of a horse trained to bear a warrior armed with broad sword. In fact, half pass, pirouette, turn on the haunches, levade et alia were battle moves performed by the horse who learned to serve his warrior all too well. When you are slashing at the enemy who is bashing back with sharp steel blade, you don't have time to mess around with repetitious leg aids. The horse simply had to do - or die. Moreover, they had to wheel and retreat at speed. Submission to the aids in those days was key to survival. In those terms, dressage was far from a dandified recreational activity, but that's another story also.

So in these modern times, when we are often deprived for being so privileged, horses are asked to submit to our whims. We want to dance on horseback, or jump great horrifying fences, or race 100 miles over treacherous mountains. And do the horses have any say in their job descriptions?

Neigh, they do not.

Nor do they neigh when they are about to crash, over a hurdle or over a precipice. They do not cry out as they are falling. They are stoic, brave and courageous, even though left to their own devices they are content, for the most part, to graze, doze, and play with their peers. Horses do not go out on their own time and practice their school figures or navigate jumping grids. They are horses. They do not need to practice changing leads at a mad gallop as they learn balance over choppy terrain - the strong survive.

We climb on their backs or sit pulled behind them and we say, do this, do that. Sometimes we say the same things a zillion different ways and then we feel exasperated when the horse doesn't get it.

We can't exactly ask a prospective equine partner how they feel about a particular discipline, but we can ask educated questions of the seller. If we want to do anything cross country, we can ask to try the horse in a small group. If we want to do a considerable amount of ring work, is the horse a bit reluctant to go forward in the ring or indoor? If so, and if possible, we can try the horse out in the nearest field. If the horse acts completely differently, he may not be a candidate for all of that ring riding.

When we are buying a dressage prospect, we should try to get to know the horse. If schooling first level, is he reluctant to frame up? Are there any muscle restrictions? Or does the horse act as if soldered chest to chin which indicates resistance to being framed and that means a lot of time in remedial training?

We should take our time before dedicating a horse to a single discipline. Like all big, overgrown kids, they enjoy diversity. They are not happy when bored stiff. While some horses might enjoy the carnival atmosphere of the A-circuit, others might prefer a different lifestyle. The absolute coward on the cross country course of eventing may be brilliant in show jumping or even riding to hounds. Some horses are bred and born to race on the flat and over fences, while others of such royal blood might prefer to be cow ponies. You never know how a kid will turn out.

It may not be the most cost effective approach to the horse industry, but we should allow our love for our horses to recognize misery when it's standing in front of us. And show as much heart as this horse, who may hate whatever it is we love to do, but tries to do it just for us. Let's be like one of my clients who finally decided to find the right home for her 8-year-old Thoroughbred. It might have been a heart-wrenching thing for her to do, but she did the right thing for all of them.

Sometimes horses come into our lives for the long haul. And sometimes they come in for a brief stay, for us to learn and benefit from knowing and loving them. The greatest gift we can give to horses is to learn to understand them mentally and physically. That means humility in terms of being human. It means learning to listen with more than our ears, to use all our senses above and beyond our limited and finite capacity.

The love bestowed by equines is unconditional. We must all strive to earn such a precious gift. The more we learn about these magnificent creatures, the steeds of our dreams, the more each one of us can improve the world in which these horses live. It's up to us.

About the author:

Lauren Giannini is a freelance writer, Certified Equine Sports Massage Therapist, and Bowen Practitioner for horses and humans. Her lifelong favorite subject, horses, led her to be a riding instructor, a remedial trainer for horses off the track, out of the show ring, and in the field, and much more. Lauren has since turned her efforts to bodywork on horses. Her latest project is a short course, "Happy Horsekeeping Massage 101" in which she teaches people how to incorporate massage principles into their regular grooming routine. Happy Horsekeeping 102 will offer ways to spot and prevent potential red alerts from turning into major muscular and movement problems.

For more information on Bowen, Massage 101-102, or to book a barn call in your area, call Lauren at 540-349-8141 or email happyhorse@erols.com .