Ben: Trust is a Two Way Street

Ben:  Trust is a Two Way Street

Jen fell in love with Ben, a very handsome Oldenburg horse. Ben had a great personality and Jen bought him with the intent that he would be her “safe” dressage horse. Ben had been trained in dressage, so Jen didn’t think she’d be starting from scratch. Jen knew that retraining would be needed to develop his muscles correctly, but she was willing to put in the time.

Sometimes what you see is what you get and other times — not so much.

After Jen purchased Ben in July 2017, Ben had a long trailer ride from a southern state, where he had been living, to a state far to the north, where Jen lived. Jen reported that Ben was frantic when he got off the trailer — very stressed and upset. However, he settled in quickly at Jen’s trainer’s barn.

Jen and her trainer gave Ben a few days to relax and acclimatize, then she started riding him. He was fine — absolutely fine — for several days. But later that first week when Jen got on Ben to ride, he had a bucking fit and Jen was bucked off. As often happens with riders, her confidence in her “safe” horse was shaken to the core — which is completely understandable. In Jen’s words, “After coming off of him that first week, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to ride him again.”

But Jen couldn’t give up on Ben.

Jen and her trainer felt that Ben’s reaction the day he dumped Jen was probably related to emotional overload and possibly saddle fit issues. The change of ownership, the trailer ride, being in a new place, all seemed too much for him. After being sure the saddle fit well, Jen’s trainer rode Ben and Jen sat on the sidelines and observed.

Ben was doing OK under saddle for a few weeks, then began to slowly deteriorate. It was clear that Ben was becoming more and more uncomfortable under saddle — and more and more unwilling to be ridden. By October, Ben was almost unrideable, even by Jen’s trainer.

While Ben was dangerous under saddle, he was sweet, loving and adorable when Jen wasn’t riding him. She just couldn’t give up on him — she couldn’t stop hoping that the sweet horse Ben was on the ground could find a way to get past his uncooperative behavior under-saddle.

Jen called in her vet to examine Ben. X-rays showed nothing helpful. In December movement analysis was done and intensive e-stimulation treatments were done for Ben’s back, which they’d finally determined was the source of the problem. Jen and her trainer also did long lining and ground work with Ben for months to encourage him to bond with them and to help Ben heal physically and emotionally.

Finally in April, Jen’s trainer felt it was time to try Ben under saddle again. The trainer would ride and Jen would watch. In Jen’s words, “we had limited success.” Jen felt that they were missing something — something that would help Ben move forward. She didn’t know what else to do, so she contacted me about animal communication, hoping that would give her the answers that were needed. We had our first communication session with Ben in Mid-April.

Initially, Jen wanted to know how Ben was feeling, physically and emotionally. It was clear to Jen that something had gone terribly wrong on the trailer ride from Florida, but she didn’t know what. When I asked Ben about this, I was hit with an intense flood of feelings/images — panic, fear, confusion and confusing images that were terrifying to Ben. I couldn’t get a clear picture of what happened, but to Ben it was very, very bad. My impression was that whatever happened, tweaked something in Ben’s back that ended up causing him a great deal of pain. The pain was not an issue most of the time — only under saddle, which is why his behavior deteriorated under saddle. This made sense to Jen because the area in his back that Ben showed me was painful was the area where he’d been receiving e-stimulation treatments from the vet. Ben said/showed me that his back was better, but his muscles were still very tight and would spasm at times. The pressure of the saddle made everything worse. But it was improving, slowly, he felt.

For the first session, all we were able to do was allow Ben to express and release his feelings, but each session he was able to listen and let go more of the emotional energy. Ben had a lot to say and express. He felt no one had been listening to him for a very long time. This was nothing personal to Jen or her trainer — the “not listening” had started long before Ben came to Jen.

Jen was concerned that Ben wasn’t happy with her and didn’t actually like her. Ben was shocked that she would think this. He showed me that he was very affectionate with her when Jen was on the ground. Jen confirmed that this was true — “But why is he so different under saddle?” Ben showed me that when he was in pain or frustrated, he had to take care of himself “because no one else would.” He did not trust his riders to look out for his welfare because no one had done so in the past.

Jen asked about his previous riders. He showed me that previous riders “forced” him into the correct body/neck position — know as being “in frame” — but he showed me that they did not bother to fully develop his muscles so he could hold the correct position comfortably. Ben knew that his previous riders would not take no for an answer, so he complied to the best of his ability. But by the time he got to Jen, he had had enough — he was taking care of himself, since the humans weren’t going to take care of him.

Most horses do not want to behave badly or hurt their riders. But when no one listens, when the rider doesn’t allow the horse to express himself or doesn’t listen when the horse says there is a problem — some horses feel they have no choice but to escalate their level of complaint. Unfortunately, often if a horse feels no one listens, his first reaction isn’t saying, “Hey, there is a problem here”. Instead they go right to the loudest way to complain. Because no one listened when they complained quietly, they feel the only option is to “shout”. This can mean bucking or even rearing about the smallest problem — which to the human looks like it’s happening for no reason at all.

Ben was not a bad horse — he was a very good, kind horse who no one listened to. But that was all going to change!

When we talked to Ben the second time, he had opened up enough emotionally that he could listen and hear. I told Ben that we understood his frustration about not being heard. I assured him — with Jen agreement — that both Jen and her trainer would listen to him. I told Ben that it was very important for him to really know and believe that Jen and her trainer would listen to him. They would never ask him to do more than he was capable of doing. I assured Ben that they would work with him to build up his muscles so he would be strong and beautiful (which was something he wanted) and that Jen would continue to take care of his back issues to be sure he was comfortable.

I told Ben that his part of the partnership would be to think before he acted. I told him that when something was uncomfortable, he needed to let Jen’s trainer know. He thought about this and suggested that he could shake his head if something was too hard or he was uncomfortable. This was an acceptable signal and Jen said she would let the trainer know — she promised the trainer would listen. Ben said / showed me that if he shook his head it meant that he needed to stop what he was doing or that he was really having problems. He said he was willing to try communicating this way. I again promised him that Jen’s trainer would listen.

The following month, Jen told me that her trainer had been skeptical that Ben would actually give her the head shaking signal if there was a problem. When he actually did it during the trainer’s next ride, the trainer was pleasantly surprised and stopped as Ben had requested so he could regroup. Ben shook his head several times on each ride, but recovered more quickly each time — and as time went on, did less and less head shaking!

Jen reported that both she and her trainer are very intentional about everything they did with Ben on the ground and under saddle. This has helped Ben relax more and become more confident in himself, in Jen and her trainer. In communication sessions, we reminded Ben that the trainer would only ask Ben to do things she knew that he could do and remind him that he could shake his head if needed.

After a few months of communication sessions, it was evident that Ben had gained confidence and was being cooperative and willing when riden by Jen’s trainer. Now it was time for Jen to deal with her own challenge — her own confidence in riding Ben. Jen had been sitting on the sidelines watching her trainer ride Ben since Ben bucked her off the first week he was with her. Jen was able to see the improvement in Ben and the trainer felt it was time for Jen to ride Ben again. If you’ve never been bucked off a horse, it may be hard to understand the challenge in this. I know from personal experience how hard that is. But Ben was ready and wanted her to try.

Each lesson, Jen and the trainer would work Ben from the ground, then the trainer would ride him. Jen started sitting on Ben, walking him for a few minutes after the trainer finished. When I asked Ben about this, he said that Jen was very tentative and “blocked” — in other words, her fear was keeping her from connecting to Ben. He found this very irritating. I told him about Jen’s fear and that he needed to help her with it by showing her that he knew what he was doing. He said he needed her to help him too, but he would try. The great thing was that Ben really wanted this to work! Soon things were going better and Jen was able to walk and trot Ben. She was still nervous, but at least they were working together.

In August, we talked to Ben again and this time her trainer listened in on the session. Jen reported that Ben was really doing well with his dressage work. I asked him how he was feeling. He showed me that he felt fit, strong and beautiful — “like a real horse!” I asked about how things were going with Jen riding him. He showed me that she had been leaning forward, which unbalanced both him and her and made his job more difficult. Jen’s trainer confirmed that Jen was doing this. Ben said he was really being good and wasn’t doing anything wrong, even though Jen was leaning forward. The trainer confirmed this too.

Ben wanted Jen to trust him and position her body correctly so they could both be balanced. Ben wanted to show her how good he felt — he wanted to canter with her. Jen was still afraid. Ben promised he would be good for her — but Jen had to do her part and be balanced. I could hear Jen take a big breath and she said, “I’ll try.”

Later that day I got an email from Jen. She wrote, “After we talked to you, Ben and I cantered today for the first time in over a year! I put my big girl pants on and kept balanced without leaning forward. Ben met me half way and did his part. It was super exciting!” What a victory for both Ben and Jen!

We’ve continued to talk to Ben once a month or so. New issues have come up, but each time we talk our way through it. Jen believed in Ben and didn’t give up on him and Ben continues to try to be a good partner for her.

“After coming off Ben the first week. I shut down. I had to do a lot of work on myself to deal with that fear. Then it took having Sky open up the lines of communication with Ben to build trust under saddle for both me and Ben. We’ve still got a long road to go, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. With ongoing training, rehab treatments and communication with Sky, I’m hopeful that Ben and I will be reaching out potential as a team.” — Jen, USA.