As the pandemic continues, we’ve been thinking about our community of horse owners and riders. How best to come together and share during this time? The Cayuse Corona Community is one way. Here we see folks making lemonade from lemons and we learn how some are coping with this year’s strains.
Emily Dent is a Best Horse Practices Summit volunteer who works at the Central Kentucky Riding for Hope facility, a therapeutic riding center in Lexington, Kentucky. In this daring and thoughtful essay, Emily confronts her past missteps and moves forward in a healthier way.
Anger has always sat in the hard to reach places inside me: the tips of my toes, the depths of my gut, and the knuckles of my clenched hands. It’s always felt foreign and obscure, so I never let it rise to my surface. There is anger in my family that constantly boils out of throats and from tightly grimaced mouths. There is rage that would fill our house and suffocate the part of my childhood that was supposed to teach me how to share what I was feeling. So my rage would simmer inside of me on low heat and was blown down before boiling over.
When I was 13, my grandpa gave me the money to buy a horse. Kip was at his athletic prime and a decent match for the wind that raced us at the top of the hill we lived on. But Kip was angry. Angry that he had to run, angry that his needs had never been put first, angry that I and every person to touch him before me gaslit him for our personal gain.
On his back I couldn’t subdue my own anger. The lack of control was gripping, so I dug my heels down and fought with my horse. I hardened my hands in a harsh bit. I kicked and I poked and I backed him. He was an explosive mess of an equine partner. I was the abusive parent, not allowing him to have a say in how our relationship would work. But he ran fast when I could get him collected enough to get out of a rodeo chute and when we were in sync, I felt like I was flying.
I should be my horse’s protector and greatest advocate, the person he trusts to smack the horse flies off his back and to load him into a clanking metal trailer. But I treated him unfairly and took away his autonomy. During my teenage years, he was the huge miraculous thing I could control when there was nothing else I could control.
So when my expectation of a perfect horse shattered the glass of my expectations, that suppressed rage would reveal itself. Kip and I fought. Rides ended in frustration with both of us sweaty from a battle neither of us wanted to fight.
But I was proud of this anger that I felt towards him in these moments. Why?
When your emotions are constantly invalidated, apathy protects you. But, on my horse I could feel this anger and it felt so good to be angry. My emotions were validated. My horse was talented and strong and he knew I was in control.
Of course, things were not okay.
Kip would wind suck when he didn’t want to be ridden. Wind sucking is a coping mechanism formed by horses to de-escalate their stress. In the wild, horses do not wind suck. Happy horses do not wind suck. My presence gave Kip anxiety.
I had taken my horse’s autonomy away. It was the style of horsemanship I’d been taught. But I loved him and wanted to show kindness. We stopped focusing on timed events and instead went on trail rides. I switched his gag bit to a snaffle. He ran when he wanted to. His attitude began to change, and we gradually returned to training and competing.
We were making progress and it broke my heart to leave him and go to college. But it was there that I began to gain some control over my life.
I missed my equine partner and after college I brought him to Kentucky. I expected our relationship to be the same. But, one day while tacking him, he sprinted away from me. He made it clear that I was not his safe space.
So we backed up. We spent a lot of time on the ground and I acquainted myself with equine body language and behaviors. I rewarded him when he relaxed or made the move I asked for.
Over several months, Kip learned to trust me again and I have learned to listen. My hands have grown softer. More often than not, we ride bareback with a rope halter. We are partners now and his expression of emotions or discomfort no longer make me angry, they make me proud to know that he feels safe enough to share them.