Sunday, March 7, 2010


We do not err because truth is difficult to see. It is visible at a glance. We err because this is more comfortable. ~Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The horse stood in the center aisle of the barn, his ears alert and his eyes kind. He was a recent purchase from Germany, a three year old warm blood with “issues” as the owner delicately described him to the natural horsemanship trainer she had called for help.

“He’s extremely fearful of the whip or any other object held in a hand. He grows even more anxious when this object is brought closer him, especially over his back. Touching him with it is completely out of question. “

“Really,” the trainer said, “looks like we have a candidate for desensitizing. How is he under saddle?”

“Same thing, I can’t ride with a whip, and if I move around too much in the saddle, he bolts forward.”

The instructor, a calm and determined looking man with an air of competence about him, led the horse into the arena in a rope halter.

After smacking the horse a few times with the end of the long lead rope to establish “reaction and respect” as the trainer explained, he started what he called the desensitizing process.

He held the whip next to the horse, about a foot away from his flanks and started moving it up and down aggressively, making a swishing noise as if he was going to hit the horse. The horse spun around frantically trying to get away from the whip, but the man was quicker and stayed with the horse, constantly moving the whip in an aggressive fashion while pulling the horse’s head to the inside, forcing him on a small circle. The whip whistled through the air. Finally, after spinning around several times, the horse slowed down a fraction. The man slowed down the whip as well. Soon the horse stopped. He shook from head to toe, his skin vibrating all over like it was getting poked by a thousand needles. I could see how afraid he was, but he had already realized that he could not make the whip go away, but if he stopped, he could make it slow down. He had learned that he had a choice between a bad predicament and a worse predicament, and he’d chosen the lesser evil. My heart went out to the young horse as I sat silently in the sidelines of the arena. This kind of “training” is sort of like giving a person with a fear of heights the choice of staying on the ground with man-eating alligators or climbing to “safety” up a 100 foot tree. Everyone would undoubtedly choose to climb the tree, but it wouldn’t mean they would never be afraid of heights again.

“This is really a sensitive horse, but we must teach him to stand still when he’s afraid. Then he’ll stop being afraid,” the trainer said. “Look, he is already better!”

I cared to disagree. The gelding seemed as afraid as he had been twenty minutes earlier, he was just no longer expressing his fear as he knew what the consequences were. I felt sick to my stomach. I remembered witnessing something similar in my son’s swimming class just this fall. My son has never been a great swimmer, but he’s always loved water. One morning, before leaving to school, he broke down crying and told me he didn’t want to swim with his class anymore.

“Why is that?” I asked, surprised.

“I’m afraid of the teacher, she makes me do things.”

“What kind of things?”

My son cried and told me that the teacher was forcing him to go to the deep end of the pool and he was afraid. He had told his teacher that he was afraid, but she hadn’t listened. Just talking about the swimming had my son in tears. I decided to drive to the pool and watch the swimming lesson that day. My son went to school relieved that finally someone was listening to him.

I watched the swimming from a balcony meant for spectators. I had no access to the pools, but at least I could observe what was causing my sons anxiety. What I witnessed broke my heart. The teacher coaxed my crying son to the edge of the 15 feet deep diving pool and then pulled him in despite his obvious resistance. My son panicked and clawing at his teacher tried to climb out of the pool. I watched in rage as the teacher pushed my son down into the water and forced him on his back for the backstroke. Sobbing and with the teacher supporting him, my son managed to make it to the other end of the pool. He clung to the side and I could see he was terrified; he thought he was fighting for his life. Which of course he was; his intense fear had pushed aside any swimming skills he had ever acquired in the seven years of his life.

Helplessly I watched as the swim coach left my son hanging on the edge and went to work with the other kids, who had no problem swimming in the deep pool. Left alone, my son wailed in panic and gripped onto the side of the pool with dear life. He was left there, with his paralyzing fear, for a very long time until he stopped sobbing hysterically. By the time the teacher swam back to him, he was submissively waiting for her. He still was not able to swim across the pool on his own and when he finally was allowed out of the pool, I could see from his posture what kind of psychological damage had just been done before my eyes.

In the arena the man proceeded with the "desensitizing" now touching the horse with the whip over the back. The gelding was emotionally exhausted, but there seemed to be no end to the process. After the horse “accepted” the whip, the trainer attached a plastic bag to the end of the whip and started the practice all over.

The plastic bag prompted even stronger reactions from the horse: now he was terrified. The horse kicked at the man, reared and bucked, trying to free himself from the tight pressure of the halter. His eyes were rolling in his head as he fought to get away from the evil plastic but nothing helped; he was forever trapped on the small circle. Again, the more he moved, the stronger the pressure of the plastic and the whip became, but if he slowed down, the plastic slowed down as well. Finally the horse stood still, his hooves planted into the ground as if he had grown roots. He was breathing heavily and his whole body shook from tremors. I could see how much willpower it took from him not to move. He stood still while the plastic rested on his back, slowly moving over his skin, touching him everywhere. After 60 minutes of torment, he had climbed up the tree away from the alligators.  But now he was stuck up in the tree with his fears.

So, what is the logic behind all this? After my son’s swimming lesson I had a lengthy discussions with his school and heard that the swim teacher believed that if my son was exposed to the scary thing i.e the deep pool long enough, he would have to “get over it” and learn to swim. In psychology this is not called desensitizing; it’s called flooding and is used to break extreme phobias. It is not for everybody, and with human patients the most important factor that determines the positive outcome of such a technique, is voluntary participation. Obviously this is not a prerequisite that can be fulfilled with either children or animals. In so many cases when done against one’s will flooding breaks something permanently inside the animal or person. It breaks trust.

Unfortunately the elements that were present in my son’s swim lesson and this particular horsemanship lesson are often present in modern horse training. Ignoring the horse’s emotional state, applying significant amounts of pressure on the animal and using flooding and negative reinforcement as training tools are what horses face day after day. The trainer may not have physically abused the young gelding (apart from in the beginning when he smacked the horse with the lead rope), but in my opinion he did something even worse: abused the horse emotionally.

But the saddest and most disheartening fact is not what this trainer did, but that he did it without realizing the effect of his actions. Despite my feelings over this issue, I can’t even begin to judge this man or other people who train their horses in this manner. I have no doubt in my mind that both the trainer and the owner of this young gelding didn’t mean to harm him; they thought they were helping him. Just like my son’s swim teacher thought she was teaching him how to swim.

There is not a day in my life that I don’t think about this dilemma: Why can other people not see the suffering of these beautiful animals? Why can I? How can I, in an effective way, help people see what I see?

I feel both blessed and cursed with this knowledge. Ignorance is truly bliss, and truth hurts more than words can say, but – that all said, I would never want to turn back on this path I am on. I have yet to talk to the owner of the young horse in this story. I know that when I see her again, she might ask what I thought of her trainer. I hope I can find the right words to reach her at that moment. So often I remain silent, but perhaps it’s time to speak up. The horse owner may never talk to me again, but on the other hand, she may listen.


When I tell any truth, it is not for the sake of convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those that do. ~William Blake

Desensitizing: By repeatedly exposing a horse to low levels of its fears, and having nothing bad and preferably something good (like a treat) occur, the horse ultimately gets used to what he is afraid of.

Flooding: By forcing a horse to deal with something that scares it until he no longer seems fearful. Flooding teaches many scared animals that their only way out of a bad situation is to shut down. Some horses may get over their fear using this technique, but usually lose trust in the trainer during the process.

PS. My son is working with a private swim teacher as well as visiting the pool regularly with me. He still loves water, but it will take lots of patience and time to overcome his fear of swimming in deep water.


  1. I am horrified as you are by the cruel "de-sensitizing of the horse. I think it is very important that you are bringing stories like this to the public eye.
    I am the mother of two sons and I am equally horrified by you allowing your son to once again experience the terror of his swimming teacher as she forced him into the water while you sat watching this. Unfortunately this portrays you as similar to the trainer working with the horse that was a victim to his violence. In that situation you most likely couldn't have stopped it. But in your son's case you could. I am sorry to be criticizing the actions of another parent but I felt I had no choice but to speak out.
    I wish you all the joy and love a mother and child can share and hope that you will consider what I have said.

  2. I see that you have your blog set up to see who has made comments. Although I stand by my comment I believe a commenter should have the option of giving their identity.

  3. Hi Mary,

    Thank you for your comment. Let me explain what happened as I didn't do it so clearly in the blog (as it was more about the horse than my son). I live in Switzerland and this lesson took place druing my son's school hours in a local indoor pool. There is no access to the pool for spectators, there is a gate and you need a swim pass to get in. When things started going wrong in the end of the lesson, both my husband and I did everything we could do to get to the pool. We were both furious and the "gate keeper" wouldn't give us the pass, she was extremely rude. Mind you, I was crying at this point, begging. Nothing worked. All we could do is watch from behind a glass from the balcony. Believe me, I wanted nothing more than go and interrupt what was going on, I was beside myself watching this torture. Not to mention my husband who wanted to literally strangle someone.

    When my son came out, he was actually in a better state emotionally than either one of us. However, we both did everything to stay calm as not to alarm our son any more than necessary. He actually seemed like nothing had happened and when I asked him how it was (as neutrally as possible), he said it wasn't as bad as the lesson before (!!!!). I was horrified. Interestingly my son was not able to verbally explain what the teacher had done, I think he sort of "blocked it out". This is why I went there in the first place because he couldn't explain himself. I had to see for myself what he meant when he said the teacher made him "do things". Of course I had no idea it was something like this! I would have pulled him out of that class in a split second had he told me what was going on.

    In any case, this is the Swiss way of swim teaching believe it or not. I heard later from other parents that similar things had happened with their children (teacher pushing child off the diving board etc). My son is now working with me and one on one with a private teacher (different person altogether) to overcome his fears. He is actually swimming quite well, but still gets fairly nervous about the deep water. He is in control of his learning which means he never has to feel uncomfortable in the water, he sets the pace.

    If I would have had an incling that this was going on, I would have done everything in my power to stop it from happening. My son's school has two permanent swim teachers who are both great, he has been going to the pool with them for two years now, but sometimes they apparently use a local teacher.

    Afterwards I made complaints about this teacher, but it did basically nothing. This woman is still working at the pool as a teacher, in fact, they said she was the best one there and claimed that the kids love her.

    So, I hope you understand that I would never let anyone harm my son. You can probably imagine what I went through having to watch this and not be able to do a thing to stop it. Thankfully it was only about 10 minutes from the end of the lesson, the beginning was all good. And interestingly even directly after this experience once the sadistic teacher let my son go into the shallowe pool, he swam happily and was diving to the bottom to get some objects like nothing had happened. The resiliance of children is amazing. I myself am more protective now than ever of him and will never let him swim again without me next to the pool (well, maybe when he is 20?)

    So, I hope you don't think I'm a sadistic parent who enjoys watching her child being tortured like this, because I would like to think I'm not.


  4. Mary, I also wanted to thank you for being brave enough to bring this up. I certainly wouldn't want others to think I did nothing while my son was going through this. Of course I blame myself for not understanding the seriousness of the situation BEFORE I went to watch. I had no idea he was so afraid of deep water because when he swam with me in the summer, he was all right. When my son told me he was scared of the teacher because she was making him go to the deep pool when he didn't want to, I don't know what I was envisioning, perhaps that he was having to do exercises he didn't like. The minute I told him I'd be there to see for myself what was going on, he was happy and left to school without a worry. I obviously should have been more suspicious and reacted differently.
    Well anyways, what has happened has happened, and I could obviously write a whole year worth of blog about this incident alone.
    Thanks again for your comment.

  5. Oh, K - I was the same as your young that age we simply don't have the words to explain what we feel. You are right, children are resilient, and the MOST important thing is that your son KNEW you were in his corner ! I wish all children would have such a parent. I know many, many children suffer in silence their entire childhood - trusting no one - parenting is, like your work with horses, an intuitive thing; and different folk have different taps into their own intuitive natures. I've a quote that goes "there are no mistakes, only lessons...lessons will be repeated until their are learned...the universe will provide tests in different forms...the learning never stops...when we know better, hopefully, we do better." I feel, from reading you posts, that you are a thoughtful and insightful individual - one who sees the bigger picture and below the surface - keep mingling :)

  6. CharlieHorse, thank you for your post. This quote is absolutely brilliant (and SO TRUE!!!). I hope you don't mind if I write it down and perhaps use it later? Learning truly never stops. I suppose when I stop learning, I'll consider myself no longer alive :-)

  7. You are most welcome :) I collect quotes, have for years – seeking, in the words of others, comfort, guidance, solace, etc. - those words I quoted are actually a combination, a mix I did of two different quotes.

    Dr. Cherie Scott-Carter's entire quote goes:
    1. You will receive one body...the one you are meant to make peace with.
    2.You will be presented with Life Lessons.
    be a victim, or be a victorious survivor;
    be bitter, or be better;
    live with anger, or live with joy.
    3.There are no mistakes, only lessons.
    4. Lessons will be repeated until they are learned. To "get" at lesson means to embrace it and internalize it.
    5. The learning does not end.
    6. "There" is no better than "here."
    7. Other people are only mirrors of yourself.
    [my note: not sure I completely agree with this rule - but do acknowledge the concept of "mirroring"].
    8. What you make of your life is up to you.
    9. All the answers lay inside of you.
    10. You will forget all of this at birth.

    I plucked what I liked from the good doctor's quote and added what I liked from a quote I took from Iyanla Vanzant when interviewed on an Oprah show.

    "We do the best we can and, when people know better, they do better." - Iyanla Vanzant

    I also love Billie Joel's song "Second Wind" - have you heard it? Listen to how forgiving of mistakes the lyrics err is human, we're SUPPOSE to make mistakes!" :)

    It took me four years (2 each), to hand write out in leather journal books, my quote collection - I gave one to my son when he left home; the other to my daughter, when she left home...they'd grown up listening to my collection of quotes - adding to it themselves when they were older.

    Your story really touched my heart.
    Here is another quote especially for you. It is one of my most favorites.
    "Give people a fact or idea and you enlighten their minds; tell them a story and you touch their souls." - old Hasidic proberb

    forever in blue jeans,
    in Virginia

  8. All these things you write about, are things I also know to be true. But you really do have a gift in writing them down, and you do it so well!

    I am going through your archives and enjoying every moment!

  9. Hey Jenny,

    Thank you for the compliment! I hope you enjoy all my posts and keep commenting when you feel like it, I have been reading your comments with interest :-)


  10. 11/20/2016, you are still reaching people.