This website uses cookies to improve your user experience. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

“Do you know what my favorite thing about horses is?”

The boy paused and listened.  I went on-

“My favorite thing about horses is that they always forgive me – no matter what.”

The boy thought and his hands relaxed, his breathing changed and he began to stroke the horse.  He leaned into the horse and hugged him and the horse (as you can see) hugged him back.

Joells blog horse hugging

This horse, the son of Afleet Alex is not yet a therapy horse.  He is what you might call “a trainer’s horse.”  That means he’s tricky, hot, brilliant.  He’s also got one eye.  He’s not known to be calm or indulgent or even particularly trusting.

The child is similar. He’s brilliant, often violent and oh so tricky.  He’s got a medical and a psychiatric record that baffles the experts at Stanford University. 

The child arrived at the ranch in a frenzy of mixed emotions that manifested in a belief that there were bad people out there trying to hurt him or kidnap him and that he needed to fight and fight hard to be safe. One moment he was cussing and throwing things and the next, he was overcome with tears.  

Even for us – with 15 years experience in this field – it was going to be a rocky day at best. 

I’d taken the boy on a hike up the mountain.  We talked and we played with different surfaces to drum on.  The drumming always helps him.  Drumming has helped regulate humans since we discovered fire.  

Once back to the barn, the boy began to struggle again and he decided to take it out on my one eyed and brilliant horse.  

He’s done this before – he often approaches the horse on his blind side and slaps him on his cheek below the missing eye – not to hurt him but to surprise him .  He laughs cruelly when the horse jumps back in surprise.  Sometimes, as he was doing today, he jumps aggressively toward the horse yelling and watching for the horse’s fearful response.

Any first year psychology student will be able to tell that this is a child who feels threatened and disempowered and is just looking for a moment when it’s HIM that has the power to intimidate and HIM that has the power to create fear.  It’s heartbreaking if you think about it – but this child’s life – despite the most amazing parents who will go to the ends of the earth for their child – his neurology is such that he’s very often in a terrified and fearful headspace.  

I’ve consulted with the experts and sorted through my own skills to think of a way to get this particular behavior to ameliorate. 

As a behaviorist – one tactic is to ignore the behavior.  Clearly this is a behavior that always gets attention from everyone around. I’ve tried having a conversation with the child “What’s going on buddy?  Why would you be so mean to a horse that has never been mean to you?”  I’ve tried re-directing, modeling gentle behavior, rewarding him any time he’s kind to any animal. But here we were again and let’s face it – as a horseman, it’s torturous to watch your horse be punished and for no reason.

So I thought about the root of the problem – about not feeling in control, or heard, or seen. About needing to understand that others also feel fear.

I thought about all of our organizational precepts – about the human environment, about self advocacy – about what real compassion feels like and about the difference between tolerance and acceptance. 

And that’s when I said:

“Do you know what my favorite thing about horses is?”

The boy paused and listened.  I went on –

“My favorite thing about horses is that they always forgive me – no matter what.”

The boy thought and his hands relaxed, his breathing changed and he began to stroke the horse.  He leaned into the horse and hugged him and as you can see in the photo the horse hugged him back.

And then the greatest gift.  He turned and looked up at the horse and said –

“You know what Joell?  This horse reminds me of my mom.  She always forgives me too.”