Letting animals choose lets them be their best

(Photo by Nancy Crowe)

The massive draft horse was one of the saddest, checked-out animals I have met. He’d spent years on at least one Amish farm, was isolated and probably abused, and had given up. After he was rescued, his new owner wanted to find out what he needed.

The first thing I did was ask if it was OK to communicate with him. Surprised but skeptical, he agreed. The notion that he could choose anything was foreign to him.

Within a week or so, he told me what he wished to be called: Duke.

When I offered to share Reiki with Duke, I made it clear that opting out was absolutely fine. As we worked together during those first months, sometimes it was a yes and sometimes a no. How long the session lasted was also up to him.

That is the core of the Let Animals Lead method I practice. It’s all meditation and no hands unless the animal initiates contact, or the practitioner knows the animal well enough to gauge whether that would be welcome.

One day Duke decided he’d had enough Reiki and walked back into the barn. I thanked him and moved on to a pig a few feet away.

A few minutes later, Duke stuck his big head out the barn door and looked straight at me. “Got any more of that?” I heard. I assured him I did, but he’d have to wait until the pig and I were done. When I returned, he was waiting at the fence. I met his eyes and saw hope.

His owner, veterinarians, equine bodyworkers, clients, and I all worked to help Duke heal from the effects of his past, giving him choices whenever possible. Two years later, he still struggles mightily with triggers. But he has friends in the herd. He connects with veterans who also live with PTSD. He even let kids dress him up for the Fourth of July. Being a therapy horse would have been an unthinkable job a couple of years ago.

While we can’t let our animals choose to play in traffic or opt out of a vet visit, there are many other options we can offer. We can give them a choice of toys, blankets, or litter boxes. We can hold out two different treats and see which gets gobbled up first. We can let cats come to us rather than picking them up. We can suggest a walk or a ride and pay attention to the dog’s body language for a “let’s go” or a “not today.”

Choice frees us all to engage honestly, be our best selves, and create our “better than before.”

Lola’s legacy in spots

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Any child Lola carried was her No. 1 priority. (Photo courtesy Summit Equestrian Center)

I watched Lola carry the young rider around the grounds at Summit Equestrian Center, accompanied by two side walkers and director Allison Wheaton. The 15-year-old Appaloosa mare moved with the ease of a practiced therapy horse.

What’s more, she’d attuned herself to the energy of this young girl, who lived with a condition affecting neuromuscular and other systems. The child had groomed and saddled Lola, with plenty of pets along the way, and now sat beaming on her back.

Writing a Fort Wayne Magazine story on therapy animals had brought me to the barn to meet Lola and watch her work. Lola adjusted her stride to each child who rode her, I would learn. Once, she abruptly stopped because she sensed a child’s oncoming seizure.

Even her coat was beautiful, fun, and functional; kids counted her spots or adorned them with nontoxic finger paint during summer day camp. She stood perfectly still as riders stretched to touch one spot or another.

Just a couple of years before, Lola had arrived at Summit Equestrian Center — a nonprofit which offers therapeutic riding lessons and equine-assisted counseling — worn down emotionally and physically. Months of good nutrition, training, and mindful care helped her recover and decide on her new role.

From then on, Allison said, it was forward all the way. Whatever happened in those first dozen or so years of Lola’s life could not be undone, but they would not define her. She made sure of that. She had better things to do.

Lola and I met again a few years later, this time in my capacity as an animal communicator and animal Reiki practitioner doing weekly rounds at Summit. She was always happy to see me — and to fill me in on anything she thought needed attention. Ever the matriarch, she kept watch over the herd, as well as the goats, pigs, chickens, cats, dogs, sheep, the volunteers, and especially Allison. The two of them built Summit’s mission one lesson at a time.

As time passed, Lola’s physical body began to weaken, but her spirit and sense of humor remained strong. A few months ago, I caught up with her as she was eating breakfast and asked her how she was. “I’m an old lady. I’m up. I’m eating. What more do you want?” she replied wryly.

This spring, I watched her follow newcomer Mojo, a handsome Tennessee Walker, around the pasture, at once shamelessly flirting and telling him things he’d need to know and take care of when she was no longer there to do so herself. Lola had plenty to tell me, too — thanking Allison for her loving care and the difference they made together, a caution not to take much sass from a certain mustang, a reminder about keeping gates closed, and more.

Under a summer solstice sky, Lola completed her work on this plane and went to join old friends Whinnie and Ritzy on her next adventure.

When I look at Lola’s life, I see each lesson, ride, encounter, and experience as a spot like the ones on her coat. No two are exactly alike. Some overlap and even seem multilayered. Together, those spots form a pattern like no other.

Thank you, Lola, for inspiring us to find the beauty in our own patterns.




Second wind: Retired racehorse adventures

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Pirate, formerly known as Dread the Pirate, enjoys his new gig at Summit Equestrian Center. (Photo courtesy Summit Equestrian Center)

Horses are a big deal in Kentucky. When I first toured the Louisville Seminary campus, I was delighted to see a beautiful fountain/trough at the historic Gardencourt Mansion that once held water for horses to drink. I never attended the Kentucky Derby, but if you are in Louisville in April and early May — even if you are a graduate student with your nose to the grindstone — you hear about horse racing.

Like the Indy 500 in my hometown, the Derby is a beloved tradition, full of flash, fun, and gobs of money invested and wagered. Yet I’ve always wondered and worried about the cost of racing to the horses themselves.

Those concerns escalated when Barbaro won the Derby in 2006, only to break his right hind leg at the Preakness shortly thereafter. His owners and an esteemed veterinarian tried mightily to save him, and for a time it looked like he’d make it. However, the injuries ultimately led to him being euthanized in January 2007. Then Eight Belles broke both front ankles during the 2008 Derby. She was euthanized on the track.

Horses are big and powerful, and some love to run … especially if they’re with a bunch of other horses all running in the same direction. Still, there is much about their physiology that makes them subject to career- and life-ending injury, especially if they are not treated well. Thankfully, there have been efforts in recent years to 1) improve the working conditions and well-being of racing horses and 2) ensure a humane and happier future once their racing days are done.

That’s about all I know of the ins and outs of horse racing. The horror stories and success stories are out there. What I can tell you now is how a couple of retired racehorses at Summit Equestrian Center, where I work as an animal Reiki practitioner and animal communicator, are reinventing their lives and helping humans do the same.

Pirate, formerly Dread the Pirate, was named 2012 Indiana Colt of the Year. He raced 23 times over four years. Between 2012 and 2015, he won nearly $200,000 before an injury cut his racing career short. This big red horse with the white star and kind eyes could have gone to a stud farm, but opted to come to Summit instead.

At 9, he’s got all kinds of aches and pains left over from his racing days, and his ability to carry riders faster than a walk is limited. Sometimes when I watch Pirate walk across the pasture, it looks like every step either hurts or requires extra effort. I can hear him saying, almost like a mantra: “I’m moving … I’m moving.” Last summer, when a couple aches and pains slowed me down, he looked at me and asked, “Are you moving, too?” (I made sure I was.)

Though he can be a downright stinker with the other horses, he’s made friends with one who was involved in a severe neglect case over a year ago. Her physical and emotional injuries continue to surface and heal, and Pirate told me he wants to “show her some hope.” She could not ask for a better buddy.

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Retired racehorse Beau, left, teaches retired farm horse Duke how to play at Summit Equestrian Center. (Photo by Nancy Crowe)

Beau raced as Jangle in Michigan, West Virginia, and Ohio. He raced 17 times over two years, earning $18,500, and was retired after a bowed tendon at the track. Now 11 and rehabbed, he is a go-to trail rider at Summit.

Beau has his own ideas about what should be happening at any given time, but he does know how to adjust his approach. When Duke, a retired farm horse with his own share of injuries, came to Summit, this big athletic guy was a little too eager to greet him. Their first meeting did not go well. On the day this photo was taken, the two were scampering around like colts. I watched each of them open and give just a little.

As an individual who’s been around the block/track a few times, he’s developed some insight, which serves him well as a therapy horse in our veterans’ program. Like most of us, he doesn’t always choose to use that insight, but when he does, he gets to the heart.

This winter, Summit’s director, Allison Wheaton, asked me to communicate with Beau to see if we could figure out what was behind some uncooperative behavior. I was having a rough week and processing some old grief, but I tried to put that aside long enough to connect with Beau. The first thing I heard from him was that he noticed I was sad, that I didn’t have to hide it, and he wished he could help.

Touched and honored, I thanked him. With all of that on the table — in the hay bag, if you will — Beau was able to tell me what was on his mind and I was able to listen with an open heart.

The tales of two racehorses may be a drop in a bucket of heartbreak and hope, but we don’t have a person, or a horse, to waste. If you want to learn more about helping retired racehorses, a good place to start is Friends of Ferdinand, Inc.