Minnie has always been easy for me. When I first saw her something clicked, and it was as if I recognised her. I always knew instinctively what she needed from me and Minnie was so tuned in that she would move on a thought. I have often mentioned here that on the whole Minnie is not an affectionate horse. She comes across as aloof, she does not really like being touched and she is very protective of her own space. For other people Minnie can be a bit daunting, but she suits me, we complement each other.

Cassie is different. When I first went to see her I already knew that I wanted her and I love her to bits, but I struggle with her. Cassie has been with me for two years now and so far I haven’t done a lot with her. Initially I felt that what she needed most was time off. She was fairly traumatised when she came to me and had a worrying habit of rearing when things got too much for her. I decided that the most important thing was for her to learn to trust me, so I spent a lot of time with her doing nothing, just being around quietly, and it helped. That first summer I rode her only occasionally. Then we transitioned to barefoot followed by a very severe winter, so there was not much we could do and hardly any riding at all. Last summer I had just started to work with her when Cassie got injured and she had another 6 months off.

So Cassie is still almost as green as she was when I got her two years ago, and although I know her much better now and there is a deep bond of trust between us, I still found it difficult to work with her. One of the biggest problems is that there is a very fine line between impulsion and explosion. I couldn’t seem to get the balance right and find a way of teaching Cassie without her flying off the handle. I didn’t understand it. Cassie is very introverted and sensitive, so I wondered if I was putting too much pressure on her without realising it. The other thing was that I couldn’t figure out what Cassie actually enjoys doing and what motivates her. Except food maybe. That turned me to clicker training. Just as well, because I’ve been blind.

Cassie is very clever, so it didn’t surprise me that she understood the concept of clicker training immediately. But it was Minnie who seemed to be really getting it and soon she was miles ahead of Cassie. With Cassie, I ran into trouble and again I didn’t understand it. Sometimes she wouldn’t move, even if she knew what she had to do. Sometimes she would take the treat off my hand, but she wouldn’t actually eat it, she would just hold it in her mouth. There were other things as well until finally it dawned on me that Cassie actually wasn’t breathing.

I know only too well that what goes on on the inside doesn’t always show on the outside and introverts especially are experts in burying old trauma deep inside. I stop breathing myself when I get tense. I don’t know how I missed it in Cassie, but as soon as I became aware of it many things fell into place. I spent a couple of days doing different things with Cassie; I took her for a walk, did some liberty work in the picadero and paid close attention to her breathing the whole time and I found that if Cassie wasn’t a chestnut she’d be blue in the face from holding her breath.

Horses listen to each other’s breathing and I have used my own breathing successfully to calm Cassie down on several occasions, so this morning I went out to do some breathing exercises in the yard. I positioned myself in front of Cassie, close enough that she’d be able to hear my breathing, but not so close that I would stand in her space. I assumed the Horse Stance, unfocused my eyes, and started breathing slowly and rhythmically. It was lovely. The crisp morning air was stirred by a light breeze, there were birds singing in the trees and I felt incredibly peaceful. I stood and breathed. After a while I could hear the horses coming closer, but I ignored them and continued breathing, concentrating on Cassie. She was right behind me and bumped my shoulder with her muzzle. I slowly turned around. Cassie lowered her head towards me. We stayed like that for a while, breathing.  I began to massage Cassie’s muzzle, slowly working my fingers around her nostrils, lips and inside her mouth, until I could feel some of the tightness relaxing. Minnie yawned and yawned. Then Cassie yawned too.  It’s a start.


12 thoughts on “Breathe

  1. Great detective work with her breathing. I find it very interesting that she wasn’t breathing correctly because she was tense. I think we all tend to do that but I’ve never seen a horse do this, now I know better. Since you’re aware of this problem, I’ll bet things will get so much better with her. We’re always learning from them aren’t we.

    • Yes, it’s amazing what you can learn from horses when you pay attention to them. And you have to pay attention because they are so subtle! It’s easy to miss things. Knowing that she holds her breath means that we’re going right back to the start: working on relaxation.

    • Kate, I was doing Qigong breathing exercises anyway, and it is wonderful to do them outside in the morning in the company of my horses and hopefully the breathing work will help Cassie to let go of tension.

  2. When I first started lessons, I would hold my breath all the time without realizing it! I think it’s great that you noticed this with Cassie. I find it fascinating. Good work!!

  3. I have the same trouble (tensing up in shoulders and holding my breath). It’s funny…I trained myself to hold my breath when I was a news photographer so I could hold the camera more still. Keeping one’s wits while doing something nerve-wracking with horses is one thing–keeping your wits AND remembering to breathe–sheesh. I don’t know if I’ll ever be good enough at that level of multitasking! I’m glad you figured out what she was doing.

    • I can see that holding your breath would be useful for photography, but otherwise not a good habit to get into! I often think I should have married a physiotherapist, that would have been really good for my neck and shoulders (or maybe not, he would probably not be in the mood for more massage after a day at work and then I would be annoyed). Anyway, I’ve got Cassie for breathing exercises now and yes, I’m finding it really hard to keep my own breathing regular while she’s strutting her stuff..

  4. I’m so glad you commented on my Willem and Evie post. Hi, nice to meet you 🙂 I really enjoyed reading this post. Very interesting. The breathing exercises are a very good idea. Breathing is pretty important when going through life. When I’m riding and Naloma starts to tense up, I usually start singing. Both to calm my breathing down and to relax her. Now, I’m not suggesting that my singing is a relaxing sound, but the breathing involved with it… you know… it does work. I’ll keep posting about the Willem and Evie progress and will follow your progress with your horses with interest too. Fascinating animals they are 😉

    • Thank you for visiting Carolina! I think singing is a wonderful idea, but the only thing that came into my head today when I was working with Cassie was Bohemian Rhapsody – Thunderbolts and Lightning, very very frightening…….. You get the idea, not exactly relaxing. Obviously I need to sort out my song choice. I have found laughing helps too, it defuses the situation and it also involves breathing.

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