Understanding Pain, Risk, and Empathy: Insights from an Injured Athlete

“Pain is the body’s assessment of risk.”

In other words; how big is my weakness?

One advantage to having an injured ankle is that I have a chance to explore the experience that my fellow athlete, the horse, might go through if he had a similarly threatening injury. While I can still do most of the things I need to with my ankle and I’m still very functional, I find myself much more protective and unwilling to take risks that might threaten my “weakness” and cause more pain and/or damage. For example, I can do effective and useful flatwork and bodywork, but I’d much rather not hack out a big spooking horse or jump big fences and have to absorb the landing concussion — and I don’t want to be bumped into anything either. In this case, pain is helping me protect myself from further damage.

My current experience with this injury brings with it a true empathy for how a horse with a soreness might also balk at being asked to do something it that it knows might cause harm to itself or increase pain. If a horse has difficulty doing something it used to be capable of, there may well be good reason for it. I can fully appreciate how one level of exercise intensity might be welcome and the next be alarming. I once worked alongside a strong young colt who would jog around just fine but balked strongly when asked to gallop. That horse advocated for itself for almost 3 months before his connections were able to find the broken coffin bone in his right hind that he’d been nursing.

Every horse, and every human, will process and evaluate pain and potential risk in their own way. Every horse and human will communicate their needs in their own way. The more experience we have listening to each individual voice, the better horsemen we can become. Drawing a connection to our own very individual experiences can help us do that.

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