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Horses in Captivity

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I haven’t been able to get those two horses off my mind the last 24 hrs. 

Our exchange was brief in all respects; a mere hour and a half. Yet it has indelibly re-cemented in my soul the growing need for this little personal mission of mine that has been germinating as far back as I can remember: a passion for deepening and enriching our connection with our horses. That’s why I started Equinnovations over four years ago, much of that having to do with offering solutions to the all-too-often pain and discomfort we humans can so often inflict on our horses (albeit, often naively so).

But what’s that saying? Ah, yes: “When you know better, you do better.” 

And I will add my own addendum to that: “And when you experience better, there’s no going back.”

As I write this, I am sitting in a plane flying somewhere over California enroute home to Saskatchewan with my husband Mark. This October being our 28th anniversary (and 8 great kids & 3 precious grand babies later), we decided to take a couple extra days after a conference we attended to celebrate and soak up some southern rays & coastal seafood before the deep plunge into our inevitable Canadian winter. 

That, and to enjoy what is now becoming a
little tradition when we do travel abroad together:
to find some horses to ride, tucking that into our
growing treasure-trove of equestrian adventures
together. Ah yes, I am very blessed to have a
hubby who has learned that my idea of quality
time spent together includes being aboard a horse
next to me when the opportunity presents itself!

The weather was actually hotter than usual for the 
California coast so we opted not to do the mountain
scenery ride (my first choice, still glowing from our introduction this summer to the glorious YaHa Tinda
in the Canadian Rockies), but rather, the slightly breezier and more temperate beach ride. After all, cantering along the damp sand at the ocean’s edge HAS been on my bucket list for forever.


The first thing I noticed when the horses were unloaded at our designated meeting point was how very quiet they were.

Ah, glorious beach gallop, here we come!

But as I drew closer to introduce myself to the two tall Quarter Horses chosen for us, my heart fell when I recognized the telltale deadened eyes and lifeless countenance of horses who, somewhere along the way, have completely lost their enjoyment of being with humans. Or even more sadly so, perhaps were never given the chance in the first place.

Contrary to being so delightfully “quiet” as originally thought, they were resigned... no, more than that—mentally checked out. And it was no wonder when I quickly took stock of the tack adorning each horse: long shanks attached to metal bits pulled so tightly against their mouths that they all sported forced “grimaces”... heavy and weathered roping saddles with thick, sweat-stained pads (in an effort to compensate for pinching bars no doubt, gauging by the ripe, vintage age of the saddles), and metal shoes on all four overgrown hooves.

Young Living Valor Blend

As I often try to do before I ride any new horse or even one of
my own trusty steeds, I offer the palm of my hand for them to smell.
It’s a friendly gesture of saying hello… but also to let them breathe
in the calming and soothing essential oil blend of choice I apply just
prior to introducing myself. Proven by science to have not only
powerful healing properties for the whole body, oils have the ability
to reach deep into the limbic part of the brain, the centre for emotions
& memories. Horses being the wonderful sentient creatures that they naturally are, are particularly receptive to the oils’ multi-faceted goodness.

The lanky Bay gelding assigned to me sparked to life for a brief moment
after inhaling the scent on my palm. Valor, a blend for inciting “courage and confidence,” is one of my favourites. 

But then, as quickly as it had appeared, the spark was gone. “Aw poor fella", I thought... "I really can’t blame you.”

On the hilly ride down to the beach, I noticed within minutes how sore my seat bones already were and how my knees and ankles were torqued and starting to rebel against the strain. Oh how spoiled I’ve become, riding all these years in my gloriously comfy Western treeless saddles where I can ride literally for hours and not feel any discomfort! My husband Mark said the same thing. 

I also couldn’t help but notice how my gelding was struggling to navigate the steep downgrades, his hind end essentially “giving out” with each step and his front end stiff and unyielding. Knowing both the mechanics (and limitations) of not only a rigid treed saddle, but an ill-fitting one at that, it was no surprise. This clearly explained the restricted shoulder movement which I’ve seen remedied time and again via my treeless saddles with the absence of the rigid bars. Now, the hitching & stumbling hind was another issue...

“Have you ever had him checked by an equine chiro?” I asked our guide leading the way in front of us.

“Huh? Uh... not likely. Nope.”

“…and have you ever considered switching your horses to barefoot?”

“Oh no, we have pavement we have to cross, they need shoes on their feet” (merely a few hundred feet of pavement at most, I was soon to discover… the rest sand and dirt).

Quite apparent that this wasn’t a conversation she was prepared to engage in, I didn’t push it.. It’s not my desire, nor my place, to lecture virtual strangers on their horse care. Especially when they are not open to thinking outside the box. The status quo, even in the horse world, is a stubborn thing.

That said, I also recognize that they “Don’t know what they don’t know.” Heck, I’ve been there! As an adult re-entering the realm of horse ownership just under 12 years ago (having grown up on a cattle and grain ranch in northern Alberta), I readily purchased snaffle bits and high back saddles (ie: torture devices for today’s wider-shouldered horses). But that all changed and they were relieved of them in short order when I discovered the world of quality treeless saddles and bitless bridles. 

Additionally, I quickly discovered the deep value of chiropractic care and how much relief it can provide horses that struggle with alignment of any kind. Just like people—go figure!

But I couldn’t help but wonder how one of this professional riding outfit’s “best” ranch horses could be struggling so much physically (never mind emotionally, as I was soon to find out on a whole new level), and it apparently flew completely under their radar.

We arrived at the beach and pointed the horses towards the water’s edge. To our guide’s credit, she had prepared me a little in advance by letting me know (to my chagrin) that my horse was not entirely fond of the water... that other riders had apparently “let him get away with avoiding it”, so he tended to be a bit evasive. 

beachride3.jpgUnderstatement!! He would have NOTHING to do with it!

No amount of calmly facing the water's edge, allowing him to acclimate to it and hopefully igniting his natural curiosity made any difference. Somewhere in his past he likely had a bad experience and it had never been properly remedied. That, or he just had never had the courtesy of a proper introduction to it.

“Oh wow, a beach horse who has an abject fear of water!!” I said to my husband who, by this point, could see I was just a little incredulous that my horse was irreconcilably water-phobic.

“We can switch horses if you like!” our guide cheerfully offered. Her lively little buttermilk Buckskin mare wasn’t stumbling or hitching, and at least would let the water touch her feet, so I immediately took her up on it.

I was barely seated in the saddle when the mare tried to skooch off, tossing her head in the air. Radically. The nose-to-the-sky kind, the flipping-her-reins-wildly-back-and-forth kind. First getting my feet secured in the stirrups, I quietly took one rein (after returning it to the right side of her head) and asked for her nose to come around to her shoulder in an effort to engage her mind, disengage her hindquarters, and most importantly, to tune in to me as her new leader.

“Oh, don’t do anything like that!” Informed our well-meaning guide, “She only likes to be neck-reined and goes a bit nutty if you try to do anything else.” Oh dear. A "seasoned" horse who doesn’t tolerate (never mind understand) simple lateral flexion..?! Oy. So employing a one-rein stop was just tossed out of my Toolbox of Emergency Measures should things go south.

And so off we rode, three abreast down the beach. My new horse continued nose-flipping and getting edgier and edgier as my former mount continued to balk and bolt (and right into us, I might add), our guide even less successful in getting him to accept being at the water’s edge. Finally, we got to the far end of the beach in relatively one piece… but by this point I was seriously starting to doubt if anything above the walk for the duration of the ride was the smartest thing.

“Okay, you can canter now if you like,” offered our guide as we turned our agitated horses around.

No sooner was this said than I found myself with an unhinged rocket engine beneath me in two seconds flat. This mare was heading home, with or without me—and frankly, could care less if I was coming along for the ride! I knew there was no stopping her even if I tried. I might have even contemplated settling in for the high-speed thrill, but not even a dozen or so strides in to her reckless and highly emotional flat-out gallop, she spooked sideways at a clump of washed-up seaweed in our path. And then again without warning ten strides later. 

Exhilarating beach gallop? Exit stage left. Pure survival-mode? Enter stage right. 

Preferring not to leave the beach on a stretcher, I hung onto the horn like a flipping lifeline.

Meanwhile, little did I know that hubby Mark was on a rocket engine behind me as well! He tried to pull his mare up to get a more reasonable pace. Instead, she defiantly grabbed the bit and ramped up into sixth gear. No way was his mount getting left behind! We both finally pulled our two horses up when the beach turned into a wall of impassable rocks ahead. Stone has a way of stopping things, you see.

Needless to say, the hilly ride back to the trailer was very, very quiet. At times it took all my focus to manage this mare, who only had one goal in mind: get back to home NOW, where the restrictive tack and oppression of humans would be relieved. There really were no words— that would have been very charitable, anyway.

When we finally dismounted and parted ways with our guide, my husband and I shared a knowing look... and on the ride back to the hotel I was finally able to process what I had just experienced with what I have come to learn…

The last time I was on a runaway horse was just over 11 years ago with a snaffle bit in my new mare’s mouth and my two week old baby boy Bradley sleeping peacefully back at home. I’ve never been more scared or felt more vulnerable in my life. This recent experience in California was a very close second. But both incidents have a common denominator of being aboard out-of-control horses with metal in their mouths.

That harrowing experience all those years ago was a personal pivotal point. The lights came on and I began to realize that increased pain does NOT equal increased control! And, despite common misconceptions, that infliction of pain or instilling fear & forced submission in an effort to make a horse more “manageable” has absolutely no place in the human/horse relationship.

It not only blocks TRUE partnership based on mutual trust and respect, but puts up mental barriers that sets the stage for dangerous behaviour that can lead to injury of horse or human. 

And while horses are designed to dump endorphins to cope as best they can with pain (thus the seeming “need” for harsher and harsher bits), it does not alleviate the mental trauma of having to repeatedly endure perpetual discomfort or all-out pain whenever in the presence of humans. 

Case-in-point with these mentally checked-out "beach" horses.

As Mark and I headed to the airport the next day, still a little incredulous at our runaway experience the day before (and missing our wonderful, happy-to-be-ridden horses back home--go figure!), we spotted the sign for a zoo just off the freeway.

“Hey, we could have gone to see animals in captivity—instead of riding those horses in captivity!” he joked, half serious.

Truth is, he was bang on. These horses, and so many others like them, are literally being held prisoner to a way of thinking that has robbed them of their freedom in both mind & body. It doesn’t need to be this way!!! If only their owners had the eyes to see and the ears to listen to what good horsemanship has to teach us, including what I’ve learned about the amazing freedom and comfort bitless and treeless gives our horses.

I’ve had the great privilege to be able to tap into beautiful alternatives, and it’s just too good not to share with the world.

And so, my little mission continues :-)


Until next time,