When rehabilitating horses, I often find the story the humans tell is vastly different than the story the horse tells. In the equine world, these stories influence the reputation of a horse and can mean life or death for that horse. I have re-schooled many horses and have seen many fantastic creatures first labeled as, crazy, dangerous, or my favorite, he just hates humans. Horses get blamed for the instability that is often created by humans which leads to infamous, bad reputations and often a misjudged horse. We do this to our animals but we also do this to each other.
One horse in particular who taught me the power of non-judgement and fairness was Jethro, a jet black off-the-track racehorse who was donated to the riding school I attended. He was attempted in the jumping program, but was found to be too nervous and uncontrollable. When I came to know him, he was being used in the dressage program, but was known to be unrideable many times. He was nervous, would jump out at the slightest shadow, jarring his rider, usually out of the saddle. One day, I was assigned to ride Jethro.
As I entered the barn, people accosted me with horror stories about him — describing his blow-ups, rear-rear ups, trailering nightmares, run-aways. People love to talk drama. The more they described, the more elaborate the stories became. “He reared up like Black Beauty!” One loud-mouth declared. When horses become known for bad behavior, they can easily be sold around and land in hands that lead them down dark roads.
This was the case with Jethro and with a reputation like that, his days were numbered. I was nervous to ride him, but I also understood the power of believing in a horse no one thought was special. I looked at Jethro and saw a kind gentleman. He moved like he was surfing the wind and his cole-black coat and bright white star gave him dramatic presence. His big eyes were like looking into the dark vastness of a night sky. He had lived through a lot and I immediately saw how hard it was for him to be around people who were oblivious to the attitudes they were emitting.
I ignored the negativity erupting around me and decided to enter into a non-judgment relationship with Jethro. From this point on, the stories around me did not matter — I wanted to hear his story. As we tacked up in his stall, away from the buzz of other riders, I brushed his body, firmly petting his neck to assure him I was a friend. As I began to work with Jethro, I maintained a state of ignoring the distractions, tuning into him.
As I climbed in to the saddle, he felt calm. He was very receptive to encouragement and was eager to please. When it came time to ask for the canter depart, I gave a cue and he bolted, kicking his hind leg up and out. “You’re OK.” I gently reminded him (and myself) realizing the pressure of my leg was too much. I began to assess just how sensitive he actually was. I asked for the canter depart again — only this time I used the smallest flexion of my leg and he responded with an unbalanced canter, but did not bolt.
I kept exploring this sensitivity until I found that the only thing I had to do was practically think the cues! Jethro was not a dangerous horse — he was so perceptive that he could feel everything, he was almost ticklish. Truth be told, riding sensitive horses is actually very easy, but you as a rider have to be on point, you have to sit carefully, balanced, and behave yourself. Sensitive horses react very well, so they will reflect any imbalance you are carrying, they will give away your flaws for all to see. This is actually a blessing when learning how to become a strong rider.
All I needed to do was to be still and ride inside my head. As we started perfecting our connection, I became his rider. Only I wanted to take him to regional shows and to do that we would need to load in a big scary truck. One of the most dramatic stories people loved to tell was how Jethro acted while loading in a trailer — which involved rearing, striking, and tons of panic.
Our transport vehicle was a horse van that hauled six horses at a time. The loading ramp was steep and horses had to back into a narrow stall. I thought, “He is never going to do this.” I walked beside him and together we faced the ramp. I stepped up the incline and to my surprise stayed with me! I lead him up the ramp into the dark truck and as I secured him in his stall, he calmly looked at me and in my heart I felt something beautiful — this horse trusted me.
We finished out the show season and Jethro went from being “crazy” to taking reserve in our school’s dressage classic. That summer, Jethro was going to stay at a private barn, only I would never see him again. The owner of the barn fell in love with him and offered to buy him and give him a great home.
I was heart-broken that I did not get to say good-bye. But one day, as fate would have it, the barn phone rang, I happened to answer and said hello to the woman who purchased Jethro! As we chatted, I knew she was a kind soul and when I told her of Jethro’s reputation and she was in absolute disbelief! She informed me that Jethro immediately became a schoolmaster for her middle-school aged riders. That summer he was the barn favorite, going to shows, winning all the ribbons!
At that point I knew he was in the best place possible. Years later, I would learn that he passed away. But, I am certain he was surrounded by people who loved him and created peace for him. Jethro taught me that the power of believing in someone is far greater than the act of dramatizing a reputation. I always remember this and know it to be one of the great truths of our world.