A couple of horses, whilst I was working with them, literally started observing things in the  environment as if they had never seen them before. They looked at things in the distance that had always been there, but it was like they had never seen them before. When allowed to, they just stopped and looked with softness, there was no intensity, they were just taking things in, and processing things. It was extraordinary to see. I have never seen this happen quite like this before. Perhaps because these horses were moving more quickly out of shut down than others in the  past, but also perhaps because I noticed what was happening and gave them more time to look, ponder and process than I had ever done before. As their brains and nervous systems came out of shut down they were seeing the world like they had never seen it before. The special thing about it was that they were very peaceful – there was deep peace inside as they viewed the world. What a great gift to give them – deep peace.

Shut down horses are harbouring a lot of suppressed emotions. Mostly they are read as just being “quiet”. But to me suppressed emotion is always a problem because you don’t know what will trigger it, or when it will be triggered and then it is usually expressed in a pretty explosive way. It is usually with shut down horses that people say things like “All of sudden, out of the blue they bolted, or bucked, or reared or whatever.” People are usually oblivious to the fact that the emotion had been brewing in there for a long, long time.

Shut down horses often have a lot of repressed anger.  A  lot of people don’t often associate anger with horses. In fact most people don’t think horse’s have emotions beyond being scared or not scared, confident or unconfident. I believe that horses have pretty close to the full range of emotions that people have and a lot of horses are harbouring anger and sometimes very deep seated anger and resentment. I would say very justifiable anger too. I reckon if I was a horse and treated in the way many horses are treated I would be angry too.

We saw a few angry horses in the clinics, probably more than a few, but a few clearly come to mind as I am writing. I am surprised, and I think it is testament to the incredible nature of horses in general as a species, that more horses are not angry. Through Leadership with Love, empathy, understanding, and a “centered” quality of physical feel we slowly began to make some in-roads to dissolving some of their anger and replacing it with a desire for connection and wanting to interact with humans and follow their direction and guidance. It can be a slow process to turn that around and regain a horse’s trust again. To prove to them that things are different now and that we are offering them a different deal. The expectation is strong in them (just as it would be with us) that things will revert back to how they were when they experienced overwhelm, confusion, fear, discomfort or pain in association with doing something with a human.

The steps to work with shut down horses are:-
1) Acknowledge how they feel with empathy, compassion and no judgement. “I can see that you are really not interested in participating”.

2) Validate for them for how they feel –  the opposite of judging  them as being wrong for feeling and and acting as they are. “I can understand that you have had some not good experiences that are causing you to feel like this”. You don’t have to know the details of their bad experiences just assume they have had some.

This deep connection, understanding, acknowledgment and validation for how they feel  will be very important in turning things around. When the horse “knows that you know” what is going on and that you “care about how they feel” and there is no judgement, this is start of turning things around. These words need to be authentic – the horse has to feel the depth of your intention underneath the words.

3) Only ask something that they can very easily do – not mentally emotionally or physically overwhelming or uncomfortable.

4) Make the cue very subtle and use very minimal or zero escalation of pressure, when they don’t respond – just wait or ask the question a different way.

5) Reward the slightest try or smallest change. Make a big deal out of that little try. Either a big pause, a big rub or using positive reinforcement. Show great appreciation for their effort.

Of course we always need to be sure that they are not in pain or physical discomfort whether that be saddle fit, feet or any other physical issue when we are getting “no’s ” or no response. 

 Our consistency is the important thing. Being 100% consistent that we always show up in a calm, centered state, that we don’t push the horse into overwhelm by asking what they cannot yet easily give us,  or asking things that put them into physical discomfort.  Not using more pressure but asking the question in a different way is the way to illicit a response or a try and then rewarding the smallest change or slightest try.  This is how we can motivate or inspire the shut down horse. If following these steps doesn’t work I would be looking deeper into how I am asking (the quality of feel) or how I am riding (are we riding in way that is uncomfortable for the horse) both big topics that we can’t cover fully right here.

However we can remind you of the core concepts of good horsemanship. To transform horses and bring them out of shut down or fear or anger we have to have the right energetic and physical feel. Our feel is determined by our own internal state, which we are often unconscious of. The fundamental concepts of Centering, Grounding, Breathing and Body Scanning as taught in the Foundation course are the keystones to helping us have good quality feel.

The Foundation course truly is the most important of all the courses I teach. It is something that really needs to be done more than once. Something that needs to be revisited frequently. Every time I teach that course I get a refresher in it and keep the principles foremost in my mind. Coming along (even if just as a participant without a horse) will be most beneficial whenever there is a course near you.

Another way to stay reminded of all these things and much more is joining our Wednesday Wisdom night Q&A and Video group sessions – 8 PM Wed evenings (NSW Australia time). You can send in a video of up to 5 mins for feedback or just ask your questions. If you can’t make it live there are replays. At the moment it is a free service to anyone that has done a course with me.