Before I partnered with horses to help people heal their emotional wounds, I had not given much thought to the impact of using horses as tools. I grew up loving horses and having them as friends and yet I seldom thought about how what I was doing was impacting them. However, I always thought about how what they were doing was affecting me. If you would have asked me if my horses were tools I would have told you no. My actions would have told a different story.
I threw on saddles and cinched up girths without second thoughts. If my horse was cinchy, I put my knee in his belly. I tied down their heads when the way they carried it did not suit my purpose. I put bits in their mouths and often used too much pressure to accomplish my tasks.
When my mare, Junebug became arena sour my step-dad at the time told me to break a bottle over her head. The thought was the liquid in the container would cause Junebug to think her head was bleeding and she wouldn’t rare up again and try to fall over backward with me when I asked her to enter the arena. My stomach tightens at the memory. I never broke a bottle over Junebug's head. I couldn’t do it, but I did have very intense negative feelings about Junebug's behavior and how she made things so impossible for me.
Now, thirty-five years later, I feel ashamed. I wish I could apologize to Junebug. Junebug was telling me how she felt about what we were doing. She told me when I went to the pasture to get her, and she made me chase her or when she bit my arm when I threw on the saddle. Maybe she was in pain, perhaps she hated barrels, whatever it was, I didn’t hear her. Because then Junebug was a tool, a way for me to do what I wanted to do. She wasn’t allowed to have any feelings about it.
You’d think by that description that I did not love Junebug, but I did. I cherished her. When I made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I made one for her. When I bought a bag of Cheetos, I bought one for her. I shared my Dr. Pepper with her. I hugged her neck. I kissed her nose. I put my arms around her and shed countless tears. She was my girl.
I think looking back that the way I treated my horses was the way I moved in the world. When I was frustrated with someone (human or animal) who did not have power over me I used too much pressure. And when I needed something from people who had power over me I did not use enough. The way I treated my horses reinforced unhelpful ways of me solving problems.
I clearly loved my horses with all my heart. If an adult had known differently and taught me differently then I would have learned softness and how to calm my body at a much earlier age. I would not have had so many times where relationships failed because I had a limited repertoire for how to handle problems.
I understand now that to have a healthy relationship with Junebug I would need to ask her what she wanted and needed and I would have to listen for the response. I would need to pay close attention to her behaviors because that is how she would communicate with me. Also, when we disagreed about something I would need to pause and try to figure it out. In a healthy relationship, you do not force others to do things. If it was something that needed my attention like a wound that needed tending and she did not want me near it, I would need to stay regulated and keep the pressure the same to help her understand the importance of my looking at her wound.
It is painful looking back at my relationships with the horses in my youth. There was so much I did wrong. So much I did not know. All I can hope is they have forgiven me. Moving forward I need to apply all that I know, so I do not make those mistakes again with any of the relationships in my life, horse or human.
Rebecca J. Hubbard, LMFT is co-owner of Pecan Creek Ranch. She is a highly accomplished mental health professional and now uses her knowledge and experience to build healthy relationships with both horses and people.