Some horses are extremely stoic and will hide discomfort until it’s just too much for them to cope with. These are the horses that people tell you are oh so quiet – until they explode.
So, is the horse quiet or internalized?
Horses are prey animals; because of this, some of them are exceptionally good at hiding discomfort. They don’t want to be the ones that stand out of the herd as weak or compromised and become a target. Others have been ‘bomb-proofed’ or taught to shut down (sometimes called ‘learned helplessness’). They have been taught to disconnect from their natural reactions. Either of these types may not show the typical signs of discomfort that other, more expressive horses do. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t experiencing discomfort. Stoic horses do their very best to do their job and live their life without complaining. Tension and restrictions are often widespread before anyone notices they need help.
So how can you tell if the horse you’re working on might be one of them? Do they stay a little too still when you palpate? Do they hold their breath when you touch them? Stare into the distance like they aren’t there with you? Hold tension around the mouth, cheek, ears or eyes? The more stoic the horse, the more subtle their signals may be. They don’t wear their emotions on their sleeves.
These horses need a gentle, slow approach. Be sure that the tissues are letting you in, that you aren’t pushing to muscle your way in. As the horse relaxes and gains confidence in the work their heads will start to lower and their breathing deepen as their internal tension releases. Allow the horse to protect an area if they need to. It can take more than one session, but when they trust you enough, they will let you in. Sometimes a horse will process the experience on their own after you have left and realize that they are ok with the work and next time they be more open. Work with their brain as much as their body. Ideally, these horses will learn to feel safe enough with you begin expressing themselves a little more. And stay alert – there may be a “trigger” or primal response waiting to be unleashed.
Not everyone is observant enough to work well with these horses. The problem here is that the horse faces a double-edged sword: either he submits to insensitive manipulations, or he reacts by either defending himself or extracting himself from the situation. The horse gets labeled as ‘dangerous under the circumstances’ and doesn’t get the bodywork it needs, when it’s the bodyworker who put the horse into an unfair, no-win situation. Please don’t be one of them.