Save a Horse, Learn to Listen

Milo is a proud and handsome bay gelding. Part Peruvian Paso and part who knows what, he stands tall even though by horse standards he is quite short. One can barely see his arresting brown eyes hidden beneath a mass of wild forelock. They say the eyes tell all and Milo’s both beckon and caution one to approach with great care.  Once upon a time not too long ago there existed a barn-size chip on Milo’s shoulder, one of defiance born from distrust. A nearly impossible burden to bear, Milo retaliated as his attempts to communicate a growing discomfort with his human partners continued to fall on deaf ears and untrained eyes. It was as if no one was listening.

Once a school horse in a beginning riding program, Milo tried in earnest to go along and get along with his newly acquired human herd. The students were eager but lacking in their skills and understanding of the world of horses and horsemanship. They did as all those new to the equine field do. They approached Milo with reckless abandon, uneducated in the fine art of “horse whispering”. Alternating between body language that was either too aggressive or too passive, the student’s actions, or lack thereof both confused and alienated Milo. Once on his back, though they tried in vain to differentiate between go, stop, left, right; the constant kicking and pulling left the sensitive gelding senseless.

Balancing on his mouth, and out of balance on his back Milo soon grew to fear and resent anyone and anything a human partner stood to represent. His response, once a mild and occasional pinning of the ears and quickening of his pace as if to attempt to literally run out from underneath the uncomfortable burden he was forced to bear, soon transcended into violent outbursts resulting from fear, pain and rapidly growing resentment. It was only when all else failed did Milo resort to bucking, biting, rearing and bolting as if to say “I can’t take it anymore. Why is no one listening to me?”

But that was not the message heard by his human herd. Instead Milo was labeled a dangerous horse, uncontrollable and as such no longer suitable for a beginning riding program, or any other type of riding for that matter. Sadly, Milo did not choose this label nor did he deliberately go in search of it. His human partners had betrayed him, broke him and now left him broken, alone, fearful and with his future unknown. The owners of the ranch called the horse brokers and made arrangements to have Milo picked up. He could no longer stay at the riding academy that had been his home for years. Milo would be sent to auction the following week; a place where horses were sold to the highest bidder of the lowest breed of horse buyers. With Milo’s future and very life at stake I was called to his rescue.

I barely recognized the once proud equine spirit as he stood motionless in the corner of the dilapidated pen. His head hanging down, his brown eyes dull and listless, it was if he knew his future, his life was hanging by a precariously thin thread. I called Milo’s name and he turned to eye me, suspicious and closed off to the world around him. Tears welled in my eyes as I remembered the Milo I used to know. The once proud and handsome gelding bore no resemblance to the shattered spirit that stood before me.

As I wrote the get out of sale fee to the horse broker for a pittance of Milo’s original worth, I could feel my sadness turn to anger. Our horses rely on us, depend on us. We are their guardians. Yet time and again due to human not horse error, they become broken and not unlike the trash; we throw them away. As I loaded Milo into my horse trailer I stroked his neck and softly reassured him that his life would get better. He could trust me, but even as I said it I wondered if he could ever forgive, forget and learn to trust his human partners again.

Upon returning home I turned Milo out into the pasture with the rest of my herd. I watched him as he retreated to the back of the field, aloof and indifferent to the other horses. The greatest gift I could give him right now was time. How much time it would take to heal the physical, psychological, and emotional wounds that Milo had suffered would be difficult to determine. It had been a long time since anyone had listened to Milo, and consequently distrust had his survival instincts on red alert, alive and literally kicking. I knew if I wanted to change Milo’s belief system and encourage him to trust again, we would first have to become friends. From here on out we would be on Milo’s time schedule.

Days would turn into weeks and months as Milo slowly adjusted to his new surroundings. I would make frequent trips out into the field to offer up a carrot or a kind word, stroke his neck and quietly assure him time and again that life was good. As I watched him begin to interact with the other horses and become more playful in the field, I sensed Milo was ready to move on in his training. Feeling the time had come, I slowly approached him, halter and lead rope in hand. As Milo grew tense, I sensed his thoughts; nothing good could come of this. Using my voice, which he now trusted I reassured him. Keep it positive I said to myself. Take small steps and move slowly albeit in the right direction and we would eventually get where we wanted to go.

Grooming and saddling was a challenge for Milo. He had learned to expect both pain and painful pressure from his human exchange hence his body was braced for action.  But I took my time cinching him up slowly, untracking many times to allow him to relax, breathe, and adjust to each and every step we took. Even leading Milo was a challenge. He would charge in front of you and in the process push you out of his space, literally running over you with the whites of his eyes showing as his fight or flight instinct set in. Horses most often come into your space out of either fear or disrespect. In Milo’s case it was a little of both. He was going to hurt you, before you hurt him.

Moving away or giving to less, not more pressure would be the next lesson Milo would learn as we began our groundwork. I promised to listen and respect Milo, and in return, Milo would have to listen and respect both me and more importantly, my space. There would be no running over the top of me, or pushing me around on the ground. Milo would learn to wait quietly for me to ask him to move away from me at the walk, trot and canter. Using long reins in our groundwork exercises, Milo soon learned to give to the lightest pressure of the reins, the bit and my voice when asked to change directions, disengage his hindquarters, halt or rein back. Staying calm, consistent and keeping each and every lesson positive helped to reinforce in Milo that he could indeed trust his human partner. It was now time to get on his back.

As I threw my leg up and over and landed ever so softly in the saddle I could feel Milo again tense up. No good could come from this, his old mantra kicked in. But we just sat there and both of us took a deep breath and relaxed into the situation. I lifted my rein hand forward and with very little leg Milo set off at a walk. I gave him a stroke on the neck and lots of reinforcement with my voice. We began with simple transitions and changes of direction. Milo’s old patterns of behavior were still simmering all too close to the surface so it was important to go slow and keep it positive. Clear, consistent use of my communication aides encouraged Milo to make the right decisions, and in doing so go in search of positive reinforcement allowing him to experience successeach and every step of the way. Slowly, but surely this not so new training method paid off.

Soon Milo was trotting, ears forward, proudly displaying his magnificent Peruvian Paso gaits and actually finding himself a willing participant in our newly developed partnership. There was still the occasional buck or rear, but with a quick correction Milo was soon back to work and the task at hand. His old patterns of behavior were no longer acceptable and Milo knew it. 

Establishing trust, respect and boundaries, all the while utilizing clear consistent communication with much needed positive reinforcement in turn reinforced positive behavior. Milo no longer feared that his voice would not be heard and consequently grew to enjoy his new-found relationship with a human partner again. It became an opportunity to go on a trail ride or jump the small course in my arena. Yes, I said jump. Milo learned to and loved jumping. And he was quite good at it, Peruvian Paso and all.

My experience with Milo re-enforced the importance of a lesson I’ve learned many times over, though one I never tire of and that is that horses are the most exceptional teachers, friends and partners. They teach us how to trust and be trusted, respect and be respected.  Through them, we learn the fine art of communication as they encourage us to listen, not just with our ears as we are accustomed, but with our eyes. In learning how to become more effective communicators and tune into our horse’s body language, we in turn become more in tune with ourselves and others. 

Horses are such simple creatures and us humans, oh so complicated. As we can’t bring our horses into our world, we must learn to stay grounded in theirs. And in a world that has become increasingly more disconnected, remaining simple and grounded can be good, no great. Someone much wiser than myself once said, “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man… or a woman.” But first you must learn to listen. See what you hear. Hear what you say. Say what you mean. And in doing so, you might just save the horse you rode in on.