On The Back Of A Horse

On The Back Of A Horse

by Claire Dorotik Ma


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Claire Dorotik grew up riding, training, and loving horses, and in many ways understood horses before she understood people. While at the time her equine companions provided her tremendous solace, it was not until she entered her graduate program for psychology, and suffered her own intense personal trauma that the amazing way in which horses heal people was actually realized.

ON THE BACK OF A HORSE: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human– Equine Bond is an entrance into the spiritual world of horses, the devastation of raw human trauma, and the equine facilitated psychotherapy that can help heal it. Using narrative interviews and case studies of equine experts and psychology researchers, the reader is given entrance into the world of equine facilitated psychotherapy, and in doing so, taken on an epic journey to discover how it is that these magical creatures understand so much more about human trauma than we ourselves do. Using dramatic scenes, ON THE BACK OF A HORSE, gives the reader an understanding of just how people experience trauma, and why. What also emerges is an understanding of what horses do that, in many ways, prevents them from experiencing trauma as people do. While human fallacies illuminate themselves, and the debilitating effects of trauma become evident, the reader is bolstered by examples of equine communication, bonding and emotional expression, providing a beautiful example of just how these amazing creatures can help people overcome trauma.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781450290081
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 02/16/2011
Pages: 112
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.23(d)

About the Author

Claire Dorotik's specialization is equine-facilitated psychotherapy. Her approach has been utilized by many recovery centers, including Creative Care Recovery and The Canyon Recovery Center. She has written many articles for Horsetrader, Ride, and Flying Changes magazines and is a contributor to Equine Therapy: Straight Talk From The Horse's Mouth currently offered by Zur Institute in San Diego. She lives in Colorado.

Read an Excerpt

On the Back of a Horse

Harnessing the Healing Power of the Human-Equine Bond
By Claire Dorotik

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Claire Dorotik
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4502-9008-1

Chapter One

The Question

I had just returned from what was one of the worst experiences of my life. My father had been violently murdered, and the media had aired and printed photos of his body lying the brush, all over the news, and in the newspaper. As I rushed home from the funeral that day, and slammed the front door behind me, I raced through the living room, desperate to get out to the horses. I couldn't wait to put my riding breeches on, and put the painful memory of the day — my trauma — behind me.

As I walked back through the kitchen, past the family photos that hung on the walls of the old ranch style house that had been our home, and pulled open the sliding glass door to look over toward the arena, the pasture where the mares and foals lived caught my eye. Never before had I paused to watch them, having always been too eager for riding to bother. Yet I stood there, on the porch, my eyes fixed on them, unsure myself even as to why. The three foals, Boomer, Backstreet, and Bien Vida stood together, as they always did, occasionally taking turns to romp through the pasture only to return to the shade of the pepper tree that reached out over the pasture fence.

A movement to my left interrupted my stupor, and my eyes wandered over to Nimo's pen, where he stood looking back my way. His gaze was fixed on me, as if he knew something was different today. Nimo was the three-year-old Oldenburg stallion that I had put off starting all summer. He was the apple of my eye. Born with a confidence and presence uncanny for such a young horse, he was not just breathtaking, but incredibly athletic. So athletic, in fact, that he scared me, at times. The first time I had put him through the jump chute to test his jumping ability, he jumped as high as the 5-foot standards. It wasn't so much that he could jump incredibly well it was that he knew he could. He would race down the jump chute, going way too fast, and then just at the right moment — back off, slow down, and explode into the air. After which he would puff himself up, with his typical bravado, as if to say, Tell me that wasn't the best jump you've ever seen. He'd hold his head up as high as he could, arching his neck, and snorting ostentatiously. Literally walking on his toes, tail flung up over his back, he looked like a cat trying to be larger than he really was. Nimo had a strut that telegraphed very clearly he had just accomplished something no other horse had.

Taking on everything put in front of him with that kind of confidence was just natural for Nimo. So while he had bravado, sure, it was hardly undeserved. He learned in one lesson, after all, what took the other young horses ten lessons to learn. Yet it was Nimo's interest in people that really separated him from the rest of the horses. Even for a stallion, he was always more interested in me than the others.

One of the 18 horses that were now mine to care for, he was born the year after my mother and I decided to breed our own show jumpers. Curious from the beginning, at only a few days old, he would run up to the fence, away from his mother, as I walked by. I had never had another young horse do that, but then again, when I met Nimo for the first time, at just six hours old, he tried to challenge me. I still remember that day like it was yesterday. As I knelt down in his stall, he came right up, looked at me, paused, and then jumped suddenly, toward me. I jumped back completely surprised, to which he gaily trotted off shaking his head as if to say, Think twice, ma'am this is my stall. Who was this little horse? I wondered. Six hours old, and he thinks he owns the world. I quickly shooed him away, to let him know that charging people was not acceptable. Surprised as much as I had been, he jumped away. Then, he turned around and came right up to me again. This time, though he seemed to be approaching me out of curiosity. If I was as tough as him, maybe I had something to offer.

Thus began the pattern of our relationship. From that moment on, he was always curious about me, watching as I worked the other horses. Every time I walked by his pen, he'd neigh. Pretty much the next two years of his life seemed to be spent trying to get me to notice him. Of course I loved him, but I had five other riding horses preparing for competitions at the time. Nimo was too young to ride, he just would have to wait. As the months rolled by, I felt as if I was anticipating that first ride as much as he was. But not just with eagerness and excitement — with some fear too.

The determination Nimo showed about everything unsettled me when I thought of starting him under saddle. Independence is a primary characteristic of a stallion, after all, and having me on his back would very likely jeopardize that need. He had always been the master of his world and being ridden would change all that. Moreover, while he wanted my attention, I also knew how much he loved to challenge me. This is what had kept me from starting him.

Standing there, on the front porch now, looking out across the arena, and the pastures stretching out beyond, it occurred to me that I had not spoken to a single person about what had just happened. Nor had I any intention of doing so.

And then it hit me, just as it must have hit Nimo. "You need to focus here-on me," his look seemed to say. Horses were the only thing that hadn't seemed to let me down. And there was an increasingly large part of me that would rather have been one. Nimo knew it, and brought my attention to it. You've always been here, with us. It seemed to me as wise a thing to believe as any other at this point, everything in my world having just collapsed.

Or maybe Nimo just knew I was going to ride him today.

I pulled him out of his pen, and brought him over to the grooming area. He was his characteristic macho self, taking his steps with confidence. He knew how magnificent he was. Running the brush down his neck, and over his back, I thought about how he never seemed to question himself, never worried. And it wasn't just because he was a stallion. He'd been this way from the day he was born. He loved life, and acted as if life loved him back. In a way, it did. Everybody loved Nimo. Often, when people came to look at the other sale horses, they asked to see Nimo instead. Neighbors and friends — even people who didn't know anything about horses would always ask about him. He just had this magnetic quality. It made me want what he had. And today, as I was grooming him, still shaken, I could have used some of that confidence. I too, wanted life to love me back, and lately it felt as if it had been doing just the opposite.

Due to the fallout of my family's trauma, I was utterly alone, with no idea what really caused it, much like I suppose many of us are when unexpected and tragic things happen. While I felt stunned and paralyzed in every other area of my life, the only thing I could seem to be able to focus on was whether or not Nimo would let me ride him. Would he want to share his confidence, or would he be angry with me for wanting him to? Would he become aggressive? Would he buck, or bolt? Any of these responses was possible, and I would be no match for him. I had grown up riding and training horses, had started several horses, and even galloped a number of racehorses, but I had simply never known a horse as athletic as Nimo. Not a big horse, he stood at only 16 hands, but he was incredibly balanced in everything he did. I had spent many hours just watching him play; it was captivating how he could move so fast, and change directions so rapidly, never once losing balance. Indeed, his gymnastic abilities made the other horses look like slow moving elephants. There was just no comparison, and he knew it. It's what made him such an incredible horse.

As I slid the saddle onto his back, he reached back to nip at me as he always did. He had worn the saddle many times before in preparation for being ridden, and his attitude was always a bit bothered, as if to say, Fine I'll wear that silly thing, but it had better be grateful for the ride. I put the bridle on, and pulled the reins over his head. Then, giving Nimo a pat on the neck, I walked him out of the grooming stall, and into arena.

My better judgment might have told me to lunge him first to get some of his energy out, but today, I didn't care. In a way, I wanted to spit in caution's face. Perhaps that's what I was doing riding a 3-year-old stallion for the first time with no helmet on, and no one around should I have gotten hurt. But I had to know right now, if I could trust him. I had to know if I was really as bad as I felt. If Nimo didn't accept me — if Nimo hurt me then that would be my answer.

His neck was arched upward, one eye rolling back in my direction. He was puffing himself up, making his small frame huge for me. I put my foot in the stirrup and placed a little weight in it. He immediately tensed a bit, raising his head up even higher — every muscle rigid, as if preparing to take off. He didn't move, though, so I put a little more weight in the stirrup, and lifted myself off the ground. Again, he tensed, keeping his eye fixed on me, but he didn't move. I was now off the ground, halfway on, but without having swung my leg over his back yet — always the telltale moment for a young horse: not only does he see your leg disconcertingly from the eye on the off side, but, there is also a moment where you are unbalanced, and thus, easily dislodged. This is where most riders come off, as the horse bolts upon seeing your leg come over his back, and you are not yet balanced enough to stay with him. There is just no easy way to do this. Try to go too fast, and you will scare the horse; go too slow, and you extend the amount of time during which you're unbalanced. But right now with Nimo, there was none of the usual debate in my mind.

Usually, having done this many times before, I will wait for the horse to tell me when he's ready. Horses have a way of letting you know that you can be on their back. Their eye will soften, the posture will relax, their head will lower. Looking at Nimo's eye, for the first time in my life, I had no idea what was going through a horse's head. Was it because I felt as though I could not be trusted, that I couldn't tell what he was thinking? Or was it he himself just too distant in this moment to be readable. Somehow in that moment — as I perched half on his back, about to give up any chance of jumping safely back to the ground — it didn't matter to me. Nor would I have reacted any differently had his eye clearly signaled anger or fear. Riding Nimo was the biggest challenge in a career of riding horses. I had waited long enough, reverent enough of my own fear. And fear, like caution, had done me no good. So I swung my leg over.

Nimo immediately tensed even more, and looked back at me, both eyes rolled. He could go in any direction — there really is no way to predict, when a horse is so tense. Normally I would have had to remind myself not to tense, too. But not this time. There simply was no energy left for that kind of worry. And I didn't care whether I ended up on his back or in the dirt.

Settling softly now into the saddle and dropping my leg entirely over his side, I slowly searched for the right stirrup. Nimo kept his eye on me, but his head was tilted to the left. Had he seen my right leg come over? I put the reins in my left hand and stroked his neck on the right side with my right. I thought about gently pulling the right rein so he would have to notice my right leg and give me some idea of how he was going to respond. And on any other day, I would have, instead, I gave him a nudge forward with my legs.

His sides were tight with bound energy, and I squeezed harder than I should have. Often, the first steps forward will spook a young horse, too, as they feel the weight of a rider for the first time. Sometimes as they feel this weight, and perceive the rider moving along with them, they'll bolt away in fear. I wanted to push past this; I didn't want to take the time to reassure Nimo. I didn't even have both hands on the reins. I just wanted to trust him. And, sure enough, those first steps forward were anything but hesitant. He marched forward with the authority of a horse many years older.

Then, all of the sudden, he swung his head around, arched his back, leapt into the air, and landed cantering off — not so much in fear, as what seemed awfully like glee. Nor was I afraid. I just pushed him forward, gripping the reins in one hand, the other still resting on his neck. Instinctively, I lifted myself up off of his back a bit, supporting my weight with my legs. We galloped around the ring with a big bounding stride better suited to a horse twice his size and he played — hopping and leaping, changing leads every three strides. I just let him go. I didn't have the strength to stop him, and somehow, I knew not to. His head wasn't down; he wasn't trying to get me off. I turned him left, and then right, and he changed leads perfectly, as if he'd been doing it his whole life. It really was as if Nimo had done this before, as if he already knew what was supposed to happen. I couldn't avoid trusting this animal. He wasn't trying to be independent. He was just trying to take me with him, to a better place. In his way, he was trying to tell me that I was still alive. You are still here, he seemed to be saying, You are alive. Can you feel it? His play was exhilarating, and jubilant. I didn't have to try hard to stay with him either. He may have been moving fast, but he was definitely trying to stay underneath me. He squealed with delight, like he was truly happy I was finally riding him.

I brought him back to a trot, after of few minutes of this joyful play, and we went all around the ring circling and bending. I wasn't surprised by Nimo's incredible balance, but what was surprising was how relaxed he was. The tension I had felt when I first got on by now, was completely gone, and his whole body seemed at ease. He bent both ways smoothly and easily, collecting and extending his stride without hesitation. It was pure satisfaction for both of us.

I pulled Nimo up and ran my hand along his neck, thanking him. I had no words to describe that moment, but he did. As I sat there praising him, he turned to me and nickered. This wasn't the kind of nicker you'd expect from a stallion either. He was nickering affectionately, the way a mare does with her foal, You're ok, friend. You're ok.

I burst into tears, unable to hold it in any longer. Everything just hit me in that moment. All the rage I had felt was gone, and there was only sadness. Just sadness. And yet sitting there, I knew for the first time in my life exactly where I was supposed to be. There was no question, no misunderstanding, no mistrust between this horse and me. No need to hide. Safety was right here.

I slid off his back and as I hit the ground, me knees buckled, sending me right down to the ground, beneath Nimo. I just sat there. I didn't want to move. And I couldn't, really. Sitting under a 3 year old stallion is hardly safe under any circumstances, but just then, I didn't care. I didn't feel any fear, and couldn't stop crying in any event. I must have been there for almost an hour, and Nimo just stood over me, nuzzling my hair. I had never seen this side of him. He was so concerned and caring, I'd had no idea he had that in him. He didn't seem to care about the other horses. It was like he knew he, like all the rest of the horses, depended on me, just like one of their own. And if I weren't ok, they wouldn't be either.

I don't think I had ever felt that cared for in my life. It was as if this was the first moment of clarity in a lifetime of confusion. I had trained and shown all sorts of horses, of course, and the years had taught me a lot about horses, and life; still I had never understood just how profoundly intuitive they were. All this time, I thought they didn't know what I was trying to hide from everybody else. Yet Nimo was trying to tell me he couldn't not know.

Chapter Two

Safety Interrupted

"Primarily dissociating", my professor shifted forward in his chair, and rested his elbows on his knees.

I had asked to meet with Dean of my graduate program because I wanted answers. I wanted to know what the greatest effect of trauma is on a person. I wanted to know just what it is about trauma that enables horses to help - where people can't. "So when you lose track of time, and memory, that is called dissociating?" I asked, looking at the degrees in frames neatly arranged on the wall behind him, and the piled stacks of paper strewn over his desk. Everything about his office seemed so organized except for his desk. The bookcase behind me held one scholarly text after another lined up in what appeared to be alphabetical order. On top of the coffee table between the chair I was sitting in and the wall, sat a lamp, a box of tissue, and a candle. On the wall to my left hung two large nature prints. One was of the Arizona desert, and the other was Everest: a perfect balance.

I hoped somewhere in the mess that collected on top of his desk he would have an answer, "And dissociation happens with trauma?"

"Dissociation is what happens when you are overwhelmed", he scooted his chair forward.

"Does it cause total lack of memory?" I asked, sure there was more to the story.

"It can, among other things," he glanced at the stack of papers on his desk.

"Like what?"

"Well, disorientation, feeling numb, disrupted attention and focus, and the feeling of loss of control, are all symptoms of trauma."

"I thought trauma was what we use to describe war veterans."

"It is," he said, sitting back in his chair.

"But what about people who didn't see anybody die? Or who aren't having nightmares or flashbacks, but are still dissociating, and having trouble with memory and orientation?"

"That is what we call complex trauma," he said, as he thumbed through one of the stacks of paper on his desk.

I watched him as he finally pulled the entire stack onto his lap. "What does that mean?" I asked.


Excerpted from On the Back of a Horse by Claire Dorotik Copyright © 2011 by Claire Dorotik. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter One: The Question....................1
Chapter Two: Safety Interrupted....................9
Chapter Three: Among The Herd....................17
Chapter Four: Disordered Attachment....................24
Chapter Five: How It Begins....................33
Chapter Six: Where Does The Rage Go?....................43
Chapter Seven: They Say Get It Out....................51
Chapter Eight: Mistrust....................61
Chapter Nine: They Know More Than Us....................71
Chapter Ten: Imprisoned....................80
Chapter Eleven: Mary, John, And Kate....................88
Recommended Reading....................95

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