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  • Writer's pictureKyra Fraser

Horse Rehabilitation: Reflections on Training Theory and Practice

A horse on a lunge line. Horse rehabilitation should focus on creating safe spaces for both horse and trainer.
For horses entering our training program, we establish a routine to build trust and predictability, use groundwork exercises to enhance communication, and introduce new experiences in a controlled, positive manner.

Recently, Lee McLean at Keystone Equine shared a post on Facebook that reflected on the question “Do you prefer working with fresh-slate horses, or those who are somehow ‘spoiled’ and need restarts?” I often find myself deeply aligned with Lee’s perspectives on the nuances of horse training. In particular, her thoughts on the distinction between starting with horses as a blank slate versus embracing the challenge of retraining those with troubled pasts resonated with me. As someone who has specialized in working with horses that have not only traumatic backgrounds but also those who haven't found success in other programs and need a fresh start, her insights align strongly with my experiences.

The Journey of Rehabilitation

As she states, the delineation between trainers focused on competition and those who dedicate themselves to rehabilitation is an important one. While I appreciate the precision and aspirations of competitive training, since I was very young, I’ve been deeply drawn to horses that come with baggage, needing a second chance at a career, and sometimes, a second chance at life. Lee’s emphasis on the patience, understanding, and skill required to rehabilitate these animals speaks volumes. It's a journey that demands not just technical expertise but a deep empathy and a willingness to listen to what each horse is trying to tell us.

Finding a Balance

However, Lee also touches on a reality that I've come to recognize in my own practice: the risk of becoming a defensive rider. For a period when I was working exclusively with troubled horses, I noticed a tendency to anticipate problems, leading to a certain rigidity and defensiveness in my riding style. This insight was a turning point for me, underscoring the necessity of balancing my roster of horses. I recognize now that it's crucial to intersperse rides on less challenging horses to ensure that I don’t carry over muscle tension and a defensive mindset to horses that don’t exhibit problematic behaviors. This balance helps maintain my sensitivity and adaptability as a trainer, qualities that are indispensable when working towards rehabilitation.

The Importance of Self-Care

My own experiences have also underscored the necessity of self-care for trainers. The emotional and physical toll of rehabilitation work demands that we not neglect our own well-being. I often work 7 days a week, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve often worked when sick or injured. As trainers and riders, we need to remember to put on our own oxygen masks first. Personally, I’ve found techniques such as mindfulness and regular physical activity (outside of riding and cleaning stalls!) can help manage the stresses inherent in our line of work.

Learning from Others

I'm grateful to Keystone Equine and Lee McLean for sparking this discussion. It’s a reminder of the collective journey we're on as equestrians, regardless of our focus. Their post not only validates the complex path of working with horses with traumatic pasts but also highlights the importance of self-reflection in our training practices. It's a conversation that encourages us to continually evolve, seeking the best outcomes for our equine partners while also taking care of our own well-being.

I always appreciate the openness and thoughtfulness with which Lee shares her experiences (if you don’t follow her, you should!). This post, in particular, provided not just affirmation of the work many of us are deeply invested in but also important reminders of the care we must take in our approach. Balancing our training, staying mindful of our own physical and mental state, and always striving to understand the unique needs of each horse are principles I'll continue to practice in my training.


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