When written in Chinese the word "crisis" is composed of two characters - one represents danger and the other represents opportunity. ~John F. Kennedy, address, 12 April 1959
Long time ago I discovered, thru trial and error, that Little Love is not comfortable in the arena with certain horses and riders. And neither am I. So, to avoid uncomfortable situations, I try to go to the barn at times when I think other people won’t be there. A good time is lunch, since lunch is when normal people eat instead of riding their horses. Or at least the people we want to avoid.
But this is not an airtight plan. Sometimes we get unlucky.
On Wednesday when we entered the arena, Mister Y was longing his horse on one end and Madame X was riding her dressage horse at the other end, practicing shoulder in at the walk. My heart sank, I hadn’t been in the arena with either person for months and that was no coincidence, it was a conscious choice.
A little voice inside my head told me to turn around and leave, but I ignored it. In hindsight, I realize the voice I heard probably belonged to Little Love, she is definitely smarter than I am when it comes to this sort of stuff. And usually I try to hear her, listen to her, but this time I felt like we didn’t have a choice, she needed to have a chance to move before going out to walk on the slippery trails. And how bad could it be, 15 minutes in the arena?
The situation seemed calm for the first five minutes until Madam X decided to practice passage and piaffe with her mare. The only way for her to get her horse to perform anything resembling either movement was to smack the horse with her long dressage whip several times in quick and sharp successions. It sounded like a machine gun going off: tah-tah-tah-tah or rather whip-whip-whip-whip. At the same time she held the reins tightly, making sure her horse couldn’t escape from underneath her.
The noise of the whip made Little Love’s eyes widen and her body shake. She spun around me nervously, the whites of her eyes flashing towards the dressage horse who was doing her best to figure out what the rider wanted. The look on the dressage horse’s face was tense.
Madam X was now in full training mode. The whip was smacking continuously, making little whistling and clicking sounds. I counted the whip slashes per round. 16. 27. 41. Forty-one?!! Her horse bucked and bared its teeth, but Madam X kept at it, encouraged by the few uptight passage-like steps she felt in between. Mister Y’s horse started tearing around on the circle, trying in turn to free himself from the tightly adjusted Chambon that tied his head down between his knees.
Little Love, who at this point had lost most of her emotional control, suddenly stood all the way up above me. It was impressive; she’s a tall horse when she rears. She came down and looked at me. “It’s time to leave – now,” she told me. “Now.” Then she reared again and again, her movement very expressive, panicky. After the fourth rear she came down and whirled around me; her neck rock hard from fear, her eyes starting to glaze over. I remained quiet, calm, trying to assure her the whip was not for her. But it was too late, she was going to that place she sometimes goes to; the place where she is all alone with her demons.
Mister Y yelled at his freaked out horse, then he yelled at rearing Little Love and kicked sand at our direction. Was he trying to be helpful? Madam X whiped her horse so fast that I could no longer count the slashes, they all blended into one big one. Suddenly, in the midst of all the chaos, I could feel Little Love’s pain, her terror, her memory of something that once was.
We left the arena as fast as we could, we were both shaking, but Lilo was shaking more than I was. I went outside and hand-walked her in the frozen outdoor arena, talking to her about what had happened, the verbal and physical abuse we had witnessed, the feelings it had triggered in both of us, but especially Little Love.
Fifteen minutes later she was calm enough for us to manage a walk on the icy roads outside, but it took me hours, days to recover from what happened. Not only was I once again sickened by the abuse I had witnessed, but I was floored by the realization of what Little Love was up against. She truly had thought her life was threatened, that she was in danger, we were both in danger. Her reactions to the whip, not used on her, but another horse in her presence, were so acute, so raw, so REAL, that it brought to mind a war veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Did I say Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Wednesday night I sat down at my computer and did some research. Bingo.
This is what Wikipedia says about PTSD: "Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event which results in psychological trauma. This event may involve the threat of death to oneself or to someone else, or to one's own or someone else's physical, sexual, or psychological integrity, overwhelming the individual's psychological defenses."
Forty years of studies have concluded that all mammals can suffer from PTSD. “Lack of predictability and controllability are the central issues for the development and maintenance of PTSD.” (Bessel A. van der Kolk) Horses as we know have little or no control over their environment, which makes them prime candidates for developing stress disorders. Also their training may involve elements of unpredictability.
Of course not everyone who experiences trauma will get PTSD, but the earlier on the trauma occurs, the more likely you are to be affected by it. Interestingly studies done on for example Vietnam veterans also show that soldiers who had a traumatic childhood were more susceptible to developing PTSD than those soldiers who had stable childhoods. This can also be applied to horses since “many young horses experience severe emotional trauma, often at a very early age, as a result of early forced weaning and physical separation from their dam. Such early trauma has been shown to increase individual’s susceptibility to developing PTSD.” (as quoted on www.horse-behavior.com)
I was stunned by my findings, my thoughts. How many horses that were labeled crazy perhaps had PTSD? I thought of the horses I had known in my life, the ones who had been absolutely horrified of tractors, whips, the shoer, the vet, the saddle, the bridle… Apparently an individual could develop PTSD even when they had not been a victim of abuse, but merely witnessed abuse. Even the smallest trigger could bring back powerful emotions, sometimes even stronger than what the individual felt during the original incident. Now I could see why one crack of the whip could send a horse off the deep end, it wasn’t the sound itself, but the memories the sound produced.
There was once a time, years ago, when I thought that perhaps I could change Little Love. Perhaps if I showed her that humans, or at least one human, could be kind, understanding and patient, she would turn around and respond. She would feel safer, calmer, more trusting. And in many ways I have succeeded; I have had moments of amazing connection, moments of such intense love and togetherness. But at the end of the day, we have only taken baby steps; little, tiny steps towards sanity, equilibrium, peace.
When I learn more about PTSD, when I put two and two together, I realize that perhaps it’s time to let go of my dream of Little Love finding complete peace in this world. She is not my horse and I have almost as little control as she has over her environment, her life. This beautiful black friend of mine will possibly never recover from what people have done to her, no matter how much I love her, no matter how much I try. Her memories will always follow her and when triggered properly, haunt her into insanity.
There are moments when I wish Little Love could be a different horse, one that is not so sensitive, expressive and in lack of a better word - damaged. But then I realize that if she wasn’t all those things, I perhaps would not be writing this blog, for it is mostly because of her that I have discovered a whole new world within the world of horses.
Sometimes it is the most difficult and disturbing moments that have the potential to teach us the most. In her distress and pain, Little Love pushed me to look for answers. I have learned to not only embrace those difficult moments, but to treat them as opportunities. Little Love is what she is, and although our time together is sometimes heightened by stressful emotions, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The next time I went to the stables, Little Love and I connected again strongly, the way only she and I can connect. I had a powerful feeling that this connection was strengthened by our experience on Wednesday. I vowed to protect her from such situations in the future and she put her head in my lap and sighed. My greatest wish to help Little Love find absolute peace may never come true, but simply by being there for my horse friend, for doing my best to understand her, I may have made her wish come true. We may not be an airtight team, but we are a team and together we manifest for a better life for the horse that got whipped forty-one times in one round.
Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known. ~Garrison Keillor