But if you tame me,
it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life.
I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others.
Other steps send me hurrying away.
Yours will call me, like music, out of my stall.
And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder?
I do not eat bread.
Wheat is of no use to me.
The wheat fields have nothing to say to me.
And that is sad.
But you have hair that is the color of gold.
Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me!
The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you.
And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat . . .”
The horse gazed at the little prince, for a long time.
The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupery
Although Domo’s bowed tendon was still warm and squishy to the touch when he arrived, an assortment of herbs and homeopathic remedies quickly got it cooled down and hardened up. He remained stiff and muscle sore all over weeks after his injury though, and I found that especially worrisome as I see lower leg injuries in horses as compensatory lameness. The mechanical structures of the lower legs blow out as the horse attempts to compensate for pain, weakness, injuries, and imbalances somewhere else in the body. Since this was the second time his tendon had bowed, it was paramount that I disrupt his old patterns of movement and make sure he established new ones if I wanted him to heal completely and stay sound.
Despite his innate athletic gifts and natural impulsion, his time at the track had left him with an awkward four beat racing gallop, a barely controlled ongoing forward fall. He was also footsore from poor hoof care, so self-carriage was irrelevant and all that varied once he took a gait was how fast his steps were. He was also anxious and insecure. Avoiding the trip to slaughter had taken everything he had, and while he seemed to know I was his last resort, he did not understand what I wanted from him and his history made him wary of abuse. My primary goal was to get him to relax and slow down just a bit.
Once I was sure the tendon was stabilized, I took Domo to my round pen and turned him loose in the deep sandy footing. Then I waited. Most horses will wander a bit, check out their surroundings, nibble on a weed or two, and roll, before we get to work. Domo stood stock still for a minute, gave me one of his penetrating looks as though to say:
“It’s a re-e-e-ally little race track, oh puny human, but I think I can do it…”
And then he started around the circle at a brisk canter. About halfway around he let out a big breath, leaned in, and really set to work. He ended up at about a 45o angle, practically running up on the walls of the pen and taking about five strides per circuit. I swear he was counting them off in his head as after what he considered a sufficient number of circuits, he suddenly swung into the center where I was standing, stopped dead with his chin directly over the top of my head, and gave a triumphant blast through his nostrils. After assuring me of his winning attitude and performance, he was done. Feeling quite small as I stood under his neck, I offered my admiration, congratulations, and a few pats, which he deigned to accept.
He was a little calmer the next few times I took him out, mostly because even though he was racing fit, his feet were in such awful shape he obviously hurt at every step. His anxiety would ease if I crooned admiringly to him while he circled, and once he realized I would work on his sore muscles, he was always glad to stop and get rubbed down. I was willing to give him all the time he needed, but Aspenite had other plans. He would bash his gate, shake his head, and stamp about while watching Domo and I work. Since bashing the gate was the signal we had agreed on when he wanted out of his pen, I finally decided to let him out and see what he wanted. He definitely had a goal in mind as he marched over to the round pen and demanded I open that gate too.
Two Thoroughbreds were an intimidating lot of horseflesh leaping about in a small space with me at first, but their interaction was fascinating to watch. I’d mostly stand in the middle and follow their show. Domo would try to speed up and settle into his racing gallop. Aspenite, however, would canter calmly along until Domo had lapped him and was coming up behind to try and pass him, then he would suddenly check his own gait and smack Domo a good one right on the point of his sternum, setting him back on his haunches. Aspenite made sure that his position was such that it was the comparatively padded cartilaginous point of his hock that made contact, not his hard hard hoof. So his intent really was correction not injury. I found his precision especially interesting because this point on the sternum is the sole boney attachment of the entire proprioreceptive array of hyoid muscles (click here). A sudden blow on that spot had to totally disrupt all of Domo’s habitual patterns of carrying himself.
Aspenite would then continue to maintain a steady pace while Domo got himself reorganized, but would vary his stride occasionally once they were synchronized. it wasn’t long before Domo was cautiously maintaining his distance, about a half a length behind. He had to be cautious and alert because he never knew what Aspenite was up to. It was not so bad when Aspenite lengthened his stride, as Domo felt he could just speed his own up a bit. But Aspenite was just as likely to suddenly settle back and shorten/and or slow his steps. If Domo didn’t adjust fast enough and ran up on Aspenite’s butt, he got another hock smack right on the sternum.
It took Aspenite only a handful of short workouts to completely change Domo’s way of going, a task that would have taken me months, and despite all my best efforts, achieved less. Once Domo figured out that we wanted him to play with his self-carriage and stride, he developed an astounding array of variations within each gait. Even though my one acre field did not give him room to really stretch out and run, his extravagant display of variations in his gait when doing his gallop laps finally gave me an glimpse of what jockeys mean when they say their racehorse shifts into another gear while running at a full gallop. He also translated the ordinary walk into strolls, saunters, swaggers, stomps, marches, meanders, tippy-toes, and dances, and his trot was at least as versatile (click here).
Aspenite knew what I wanted because we had spent hours together in the round-pen with my intent being working on his stiffness from old injuries. It was a challenge because not only had he been ‘round-penned’ to excess, he had also been so severely beaten with a police baton that he had neurological damage as well as the horse version of post traumatic stress. When we first started working, he would often panic and go into some combination of seizure and fugue state where he was locked into reliving the episodes of abuse. Any overt move on my part could send him careening about, bolting, spinning, and crashing into the fencing. I quickly found that the one thing I could do to calm him down at such times was simply walking in my own small circle in the center, paying absolute attention to maintaining my own slow even breathing.
Our sessions would end when Aspenite was able to come stand quietly by me and we could breathe together. This went on for months, as in order to lay down new neurological pathways as well as release old patterns and memories he had to do some major repair and rewiring. Days when I was feeling particularly frustrated I took to calling him ‘My Recidivist’, my repeat violent offender. Then one day a woman who had been bringing her daughter to the barn for riding lessons cornered me. I was a bit bemused by her enthusiasm for my ‘killer’ horse, but she was adamant that he was a jewel beyond price.
She informed me that she was struggling with high blood pressure and working long hours in the movies where deadlines and divas were a constant source of stress that made it difficult to control. Aspenite was one thing she had found that got it to drop. Apparently, he had whinnied to her one day when she was feeling particularly frazzled. When she came over to him, he hung his head over her shoulder and stood there breathing quietly with her until she felt calm. Not only did she feel emotionally settled, her blood pressure had dropped into the normal range. She said that not only did he manage to calm her down in the moment, his effect on her physiology lasted from one weekly lesson to the next.
Regardless of what I might have thought I was teaching, what Aspenite had learned was that in times of stress, one should stand close together and breathe quietly. Not only had he drawn his own conclusions from our sessions, he was able to extrapolate from our times together, and then offer guidance to others, both human and horse. I was and am impressed with the horse as most humans leave their lessons in the classroom, rarely applying them in their own lives, never mind figuring out how to share them with others successfully.
My breakthrough with Domo came one day when I was going over him with my hands, looking for tension, heat, coldness, and imbalances after a brief workout. He was standing there quite calmly when I came to the base of his neck on the right side and hit a cold spot. We stood for a bit with my hands over the spot and what felt like a cold damp wind blowing through them. Suddenly Domo’s head flew up, his eyes showed white, and he leapt into the air, twisting, and striking out. I figured that, like Aspenite, we had hit some kind of trigger that set off a muscular release and some traumatic memory, so I stood back and concentrated on maintaining my own breath and balance.
Domo relived the entire episode where he had experienced somebody try to give him a shot in his neck but end up breaking the needle off in the muscle and beating him so badly that it tore the connective tissue and damaged the nerves in his neck, eventually crippling him. His pantomime did not take long, but when he was done, he was sweating and shaking. He too came to stand beside me, but stepped close and leaned up against me with his head hanging practically to the ground. We stayed that way until his heart quit racing and his breathing settled down. When he was cooled off and dry, I put him away where he and Aspenite could eat and/or process what had just gone down, and sat down to do some processing myself.
It came clear to me just how important observing without reacting is. If I had reacted to Domo’s explosive remembrance and reenactment of trauma out of my own fear and violence, I would have anchored his fear and resentment of humans just that much more deeply. He was able to complete his release of trauma and make a connection with me because, while I did keep myself out of harm’s way, I did not take it as a personal attack. I accepted his behavior and acknowledged that he had his reasons for what he did.