What’s Safer than Safety?

Last week I had the fine priviledge of visiting my friends on a ranch I used to work on in the beautiful Cariboo region of BC, and trimming the hooves of a couple lovely equids I’ve known for years. I also had a travel buddy with a camera, so I got to see some rare documentation of my own working style – I laughed out loud. Seeing the way I work from an outside perspective, I realized how unsafe my approach might look. Take a gander:

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Let’s see…Miss Daisy Donkey is haltered but not tied, her high-strung Thouroughbred boyfriend is moving around loose in their small paddock (not pictured here: the annual cattle round up and weaning going on a couple fields over, complete with a horse stuck halfway over a fence he tried to jump and the endless bawling of scared cows and calves), I am not only kneeling on the ground but actually under the donkey, and my face is directly in the line of fire of a hind hoof. It’s a safety nightmare!

Now – I totally get the point of safety rules and standards, especially around horses, especially in commercial or public outfits where liability is concerned. I love when people are organized and methodical, when they have systems in place, and when there are standards for behaviour, and so on and so forth.

I happen to be really, really poor at implementing safety procedures in my own interactions with horses (if you hadn’t noticed). When other people are involved, yes, it’s a different story. But when it’s just me, I get up to some pretty dodgy antics. And while I entirely do NOT recommend the way I do things to anyone else, I and my horses (and my clients’ horses!) are to date surprisingly unscathed. Is it blind luck? What gives?

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This is the best I’ve come up with: haphazard though my approach may look, there are core principles behind the way I do things – namely, awareness, communication, calmness, and trust. Much of this comes from my Aikido training, which has helped me to develop my sense of physical and energetic states in myself and others. It helps me to read situations and to react swiftly when they change – I train to sense danger as it comes and get out of the way, essentially, but also to remain relaxed and present the rest of the time.

As soon as I enter into the space of any horse, take Daisy for example, I know it’s my responsibility to remain aware. I am aware that there is a roundup going on and that the horses are a little wound up. I am aware that Daisy has trouble lifting her feet because of pain left over from a bad founder situation, and that in the past she has panicked when I ask for her feet and thrown her weight around. But I also know that my own physical safety is now in my own hands, so I only do what I am comfortable doing. I take my time. I talk to her, reconnect, love her up. I halter her to give us both a sense of solidity but only need to use it to ask her to stay once. After that, the awareness is on a micro, or energetic level; not conscious thought, but something underneath that.

By communication, I really mean listening. If Daisy is tense, distracted, nervous, scared, or outright angry, I try to listen to that and adjust accordingly. I also listen for when the horse is relaxed, ready, and willing. I actually do and say very little, it’s more “how about this?” or, “can we try this?” or, “where’s more comfortable? Show me.” Hence how I ended up on the ground – the little lady is not comfortable hiking her feet up to my knee or waist height, so I get down to accomodate her. As a result, she relaxes more and stands easily, so the job is quick and painless for both of us.

Remaining calm, or at least returning to calmness whenever I lose it, is not a matter of repressing emotions and responses, or “calmness at any cost”. If a horse scares me or moves to hurt me, I respond. I might shout, move away suddenly, or throw my hands up in defence – and then take whatever time or space I or the horse may need before we’re ready to interact closely again. Or, I might relax into the affront and let it dissipate. Either way, calmness is a process and not a static state. And calmness allows for the quiet required to be aware and for communication to flow.

Trust is sort of the result of the rest. When I am really in the zone (I’m usually only partway there), everything flows like clockwork. I’ve had all members of a herd loose in a paddock slip into meditation and lift their hooves one by one for me as I move around and trim each one. I know this is special because it’s more common that I’m coaxing, pleading, and arguing my way through my work…

Trust – and trusting my intuition – is what has led me on some of my greatest rides, or into the softest most loving interactions.

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In fact, I find that when I implement all this, there is almost never any opportunity to get hurt, because horses that are not restrained or forced to do things tend to be relaxed and, well, safe.

On the other hand, when I make mistakes I can always trace it back to a moment where I stopped paying attention, stopped listening, or let myself get worked up when something didn’t go my way.

When I look at good standard safety procedures imposed by others, I see within them structures that allow for these same things: following rules makes you pay attention, and therefore promotes awareness. Communication with other humans as well as horses comes with clear signals and rules, and having good gear and parameters will automatically induce calmness, which has a positive feedback effect (calmness begets calmness, therefore lowering accident rates). As for trust – that’s extremely personal and can only come from authentic experience and relationship.

I ask people that visit my herd not to rely on rules or regulations to remain safe, but rather to engage in the moment, listen to their own fears, and be their own champions – while respecting the horses and giving them space to be horses. But this takes constant vigilance and personal practice, and we’re all at different places with this kind of stuff – which is why, I think, we turn to rules to keep us relatively safe.

I’m curious about your thoughts on safety, especially those of you with practices and businesses where a certain standard is required. When do you feel most safe? What situations have felt unsafe? Do rules and regulations help or hinder your work?

A barefoot hoof trimmer, a singer/songwriter, an amateur farmer - these are some of the hats Kesia wears when she's not full to bursting with wondrous equine co-creation.
What’s Safer than Safety?

11 thoughts on “What’s Safer than Safety?

  • October 8, 2016 at 8:09 am
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    I am in agreement with you on safety! I share my life and small, but appreciated 12 acres of land with my 3 horses and almost never find a reason to tie them. They always have there hooves trimmed by my husband and are all always free. Like you said sometimes they need a halter just to settle in and realize that it’s hoof trimming time and it helps them to focus in and understand. But the other two are always right next to the one getting trimmed. My husband who has so graciously taken on the trimming for the last 4 years was not very happy being surrounded by all the massiveness so closely while trying to do this hard sometimes back wrenching job, but he has so trustingly excepted that they are all actually safer because they feel no confinement and have each other so he has come to see how much it helps them stay extremely calm. Even now( for the last year) using a cordless grinder (we live in a very dry climate in California and our hooves are so rock hard it cuts the trim time in half and the horses don’t mind it at all) to do there hooves and they still have no problems staying calm and there for in my opinion safe. I also feel like awareness to the mood and surroundings is so key. You have to know and feel what’s going on! I feel as my journey with horses evolves and freedom & choice has become a major part of our day to day lives, that the interactions and situations we are all in together actually become safer and safer & when I do make a mistake I can always trace it back to my lack of situational awareness and I then file it in my brain so that it teaches me to be ever present and never stop listening to my horse and my gut….cause only then do I feel unsafe.

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    • October 9, 2016 at 11:25 am
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      I love this Michelle! What stood out for me is how your husband’s trust in you (and in the trust you have with your herd) grew into his own confidence, which gets the job done with little to no fuss. I love the idea that we can pass on that way of being simply by holding to it…and then someone like your husband can experience all the goodness directly in his own bones.

      “…to be ever present and never stop listening to my horse and my gut…” – couldn’t have said it better myself. So great to hear from you, so glad you’re being who you are and sharing with us :):)

      Reply
  • October 8, 2016 at 4:27 pm
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    I’m totally with you nt his Kesia, and trim my own horses in much the same manner.
    You’ll see me kneeling down, sitting on a milk crate or on my hoofstand with a horse at liberty, and other herd members nearby munching on their hay!
    If I’m trimming horses I don’t know or in a situation that’s not ideal, then I do follow all the safety procedures, but once again it comes back to awareness and remaining in the moment.
    I think its good to learn both safety methods – each are equally as valuable.

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    • October 9, 2016 at 12:36 pm
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      Wow Cynthia, this is awesome – do you find it easier on your body to trim this way? I used to work up a huge sweat and get really tired through a trimming day…I recently realized how little energy I seem to exert as the chillness factor increases…

      Reply
  • October 8, 2016 at 6:37 pm
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    I enjoyed your thoughts and photos. Just love this donkey and needed to say that. thank you!

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    • October 9, 2016 at 12:37 pm
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      ISN’T SHE THE MOST BEAUTIFUL DONKEY?! Haha thanks for dropping in Kate:)

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  • October 8, 2016 at 7:11 pm
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    I had 2 people out with my herd this week who were pretty much opposites.

    One was not really fully in her body (kind of floated above it) – so not grounded, aware, etc. but has a rock-solid belief that the horses are lovely and would never hurt her on purpose and would do their best to avoid hurting her if they were scared etc.

    I did direct her though a grounding exercise before we entered the paddock, but I doubt she remained solidly grounded during the two hours we were there.There were a few stampedes (5 horses in a barn with her in the middle) and other incidents and even though they swept close by her at great speeds, she did not even flinch. She did not try to get out of their way, or try to shimmy to a safer place. She just appreciated their speed and strength with a smile on her face and went back to filling the slow feeder with hay (for example). She was not hurt or even brushed against.

    She has been out three times so far and has never been hurt. My working theory is that they see her like they would a child, or a baby bird.

    The other woman is an advanced bodyworker and athlete. Very in her body, full awareness, dialed in, etc. She would move calmly and fluidly to safety the split second they moved. She was aware of where each horse was – even with her eyes closed. She took responsibility for keeping herself safe – being a responsible herd member. She was not hurt either.

    I think they see her as one of them.

    I did all kinds of “crazy unsafe” things around my horses, ponies and foals as a child and was never injured – not that I recall anyway!

    But I’ve had a few incidences in the last year. I think my herd sees me as one of them and I don’t get a free pass to be dialed out on any level. I feel like they don’t cut me any slack for being a slow human – in fact, they scoff at me, “Are you kidding?? You can go through fences – you’re a freakin’ ninja!”

    So rather than insisting that they “respect my space” because I’m the human, I’ve chosen to become part of the herd and I’ve noticed that in doing so I’m developing a kind of ‘primal awareness’ that we probably all had before we intellectually separated ourselves from the animal world. It’s like more martial arts training! Bring on the Ki! Sensing movement the split second before it happens, so that when Montaro drives Aude, who then leaps at Zorra, who has to get by me– I am already in motion when Montaro’s neck starts to extend toward Aude, and long gone by the time Zorra needs to exit.

    When I find myself clumsy, it’s because I’ve arrived in a disconnected state, so I do the As Above, So Below technique until I’m no longer a danger to myself or the herd!

    Reply
  • October 8, 2016 at 7:17 pm
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    I don’t tie anymore and sometimes I don’t even halter. I’ve witnessed way too many pull backed and flipped over horses. (Not my own, someone else’s). The safest place around a horse is one that respects you and you respect them and you’re both in the present together. It’s easy to do when I am alone with them, but what’s hard is when I have a visitor, who through no fault of their own doesn’t have experience reading horses. What I have found is that I can handle a single visitor and teach them as we go. When it comes to multiple visitors I find it stressful because everyone is in a different place. I can see why people need to revert to rules that everyone can intellectually follow to keep themselves safe.

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    • October 9, 2016 at 12:41 pm
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      Yes! I feel the same way, Mary – the more people involved, the less I can stay present and aware. I hope eventually I can develop this but for now…I just try to manage the situations so that stress doesn’t ramp up.

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  • October 9, 2016 at 1:47 pm
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    What a beautiful piece, Kesia. Thank you. This is a key topic. I love that we humans are evolving our consciousness around horses. They’re apex facilitators, so it’s sorta tough not to.

    When we hang out with equids, we have to practice mindfulness if we want to be safe. This leads us to the virtue well, where we get redundant lessons in the power of our energy, for good and chaos generation. Eventually, usually after some tumbles, we begin to get in range of our wisdom. Horses will lead us through, if we’re spry enough to be present to their teachings.

    I agree that the greatest potential for accidents are in the presence of the uninitiated. They may not know how to get into synch with the moment. Heaven knows what expectations, hopes and fears they’re bringing. One thing is for sure, if they’re people, they’re at least a little off balance. The horses will react.

    Unlike a lot of psychotherapists who work with horses and humans, i’m way on purpose about training people how to be with horses. In fact, that’s the context within which I do my thing. This rarely looks like rule making or enforcement. I approach healing through facilitating people to pay attention without blame or judgment to how their energy works. There’s nothing like seeing its effect on a band of horses at liberty to bring that home. Then, through a series of successive approximations, thE human (s) get to find new ways to balance themselves with the feedback through growing a relaton ship with a band.

    Safety is the steady back beat that keeps us all on track.

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    • October 13, 2016 at 11:37 pm
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      Pat I would love to hear a couple examples of this:

      “I approach healing through facilitating people to pay attention without blame or judgment to how their energy works. There’s nothing like seeing its effect on a band of horses at liberty to bring that home. Then, through a series of successive approximations, thE human (s) get to find new ways to balance themselves with the feedback through growing a relaton ship with a band. ”

      Got any stories to share…?

      Reply

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