Waving the Magic Wand

With thanks to Kate for a great post (go read!) at A Year With Horses.

How I came to hate Linda Tellington-Jones for no good reason:

I signed up to volunteer for a NARA certified physical therapist in a Hippo Therapy program.  She needed a catch rider to exercise her horses, so they were happy and quiet before she began working with clients.

I introduced myself to the barn manager, and waited for the therapist.  I didn’t see any hippo-therapy horses.  A rider was doing some nice reining work. A quiet, gigantic gelding with bad hooves was improperly tied to a rail, and people were trying to load a big, young, anxious mare into a small trailer.  The mare was genuinely frightened. This wasn’t “I don’t want to”, it was: “please don’t kill me.”

I scan the area for the NARA people. Don’t want to watch this.

The woman trying to load was waving a white whip in the mare’s face. When the mare jerked back or sideways, she accidentally hit her face on the whip. The woman yelled “sorry!” every time the mare got hit. What the heck is THAT about? Why wave it at her and hope it won’t hit her?

Whatever the white thing was meant to do, it wasn’t working. Call me crazy, but wave a whip in front of me and say go forward, and I will fight you tooth and nail.

The mare is soaked and steaming. Her sides are heaving.

The barn manager walks up, begins to speak, then guiltily clamps her lips shut.

“It’s okay”, I said. “I’m with you.”

She shakes her head, working not to speak.

“How long?” I ask, tilting my head toward the trailer.

She looks at her watch. “Three hours”, she says, teeth clenched. She crosses her arms.  No question. She’s been ready to pounce.


The mare rears, pulling back.  The man wallops her butt with a whip, heedless that the woman might be directly in front of the horse. She wasn’t, thank god.

“Can I?”, I ask the barn manager.

She shakes her head. “You need a release.”

I dig in my pocket, and hand her my pre-signed release form. Her eyebrows lift into her hairline. She looks at the therapists name on the form, then looks at me. Determines something.

“That’s her” she said, nodding her head at the woman with the white whip.

I’m stunned. Speechless. That’s the therapist? I look from the mare to the gelding with the bad hooves.

She follows my gaze, nods.  Crap.

“I’ve already stayed 2 hours over, hoping…” she says, then caves, “But there’s no legal recourse for stupidity…phone is there”. She gets in her truck.

If I need to call 911.

Cut and run? I’m out. I’m also paralyzed by the plight of the mare.

Leave, Jane. Leave now.

The mare rears again. The man hits her while she’s up, and she strikes out in fear, her hooves dangerously close to the woman’s head. Here is the legal cause for which the barn manager was waiting. But she’s gone.

I walk forward purposefully, calling out therapists name. They stop.  The mare stops too, standing perfectly still, heaving and quivering.

Noted.  She’s good-hearted.

I introduce myself.  The man stalks off. Therapist begins to tell me about the program that I no longer care about.  The horse needs to walk. Move the adrenaline out of her bloodstream.

I choke out, “Why don’t you sit and tell me, and I’ll cool her out?”

Therapist tries to hand me the whip. “Nah” I say, “I’m fine.”

She explains the whip relaxes the mare. I ask questions to avoid taking the whip. I don’t care about the people.  I need to help this horse.  I hear about Linda Tellington-Jones, and stroking the mare with the whip. Whatever.

She has no clue she was hitting her horse.

The mare is seriously freaked.  She yanks fearfully. I don’t resist. I quietly go with her (see? you’re not trapped) , but keep her on the circle. Finally, she sighs.  Her head drops. She begins to lead.

This horse wants to be good.

The therapist talks and talks.  Mare stops steaming. They don’t notice I’m standing on the trailer ramp. Mare is taking a cookie out of my hand.  She’s tense in the shoulders, but her head is down.

I look at the therapist to see if she gets what just happened. Her horse is standing quietly with her front hooves touching the ramp.

She looks at me like I’m God. “That’s the closest she’s ever come! Do you think you can get her in?” she says.

“Why does she need to go in?” I say, “Are you taking her somewhere?”

“We’re just practicing. We’ve never been able to get her loaded” she says, “but we can’t let her win”.

I deliberately move the mare away from the trailer.

“Oh, don’t! You were so close!” she cries.

As I circle the mare, I blather: baby steps add up, you build and win, yadda yadda.

I come back to the ramp, and deliberately sit on it so I’m lower than mare. No threat. She’s off to one side. I feed her cookies.  Her shoulders relax.  Soft eye. Loose lead. She peers curiously into the trailer all on her own. Where is the monster?

The therapist exclaims, “It’s like she’s a different horse! Horses must love you.   You’re an incredible horse person.  Do you train!?”

Oy. A trainer would never sit underneath a horse on a trailer ramp. It is risky and stupid. How did this woman get certified by NARA? Trainer? I’m still working on riding adequately.

“I’d stop here for the day” I say, avoiding her question. “She’s just had her first good association with the trailer. You want her to think of the trailer as a great place.”

I stand up. Therapist picks up white thing, which I now know is a ‘wand’. She begins to wave it, walking to her horse. Mare freaks. “Put that down!”, I snap.

So much for good association. It was all a trick to let the monster eat her.

I’ve since learned this:

  1. Linda Tellington-Jones would be horrified.  She’s all about calm and focus.
  2. The Nice to Horses Planet has people that are just as scary as the Make Horses Fear You Planet.
  3. Both Planets have people who watch videos on horse training, and, without supervision, attempt to apply methods that are far more complex than they could take in.

This story did not end well.  But that’s another story!

11 thoughts on “Waving the Magic Wand

  1. Some of the scariest things I’ve seen around horses involve loading them onto trailers. Usually they (the people) are in a hurry and that pressure immediately makes the horse tense.

    Then instead of making the experience less threatening, they escalate it by using whips, brooms, lunge lines and try to force a 1200 lb animal with hooves shod in steel shoes into a small metal box.

    Poor horse! Not surprised the story didn’t end well but glad you were able to step in and offer her some relief.

  2. Thanks for the input and helpful advice everyone! I have done a good deal of volunteering and observations at 2 different facilitities (one NARHA certified, one not). Each place does as you described, 2 volunteers/assistants handling the horse, with one therapist working with the child. I have also attended an AHA course. My point was that it seems that the PT you described had sort of jumped into this horse thing, perhaps taking on too much responsibility for the handling herself. I just wanted to make the point that my experience has been that the therapists I know have gone above and beyond to know everything they can about horses and try not to step beyond their bounds of expertise. I just wanted to make the point that I beleive the PT you described is the exception and not the rule 🙂

    1. Amen to that! Thank you for correcting my acronym: it’s NARHA not NARA. I later found out some background. She is apparently an incredibly good physical therapist, who happened to own horses, got certified, and then tried to put it all together. She meant well, just, like you said, not enough horse knowledge.

      Alas, years with horses does not necessarily translate into skill. (I can count myself in that group in many areas!)

  3. As you say that woman probably had good intentions – lack of experience, poor horse reading skills and just plain old stupidity get some folks (and also their horses) into a world of trouble. And they often think they’re being “nice” when it’s the last thing they’re being. That old “you can’t let the horse” win is pure Planet Z and really steams me every time I hear it – does this mean your horse has to lose so you can win?

  4. LTJ would have taken her off at the knees. It’s *hard* to make TTEAM into cr*p, but you have witnessed it. YOU were actually doing better TTEAM than she was …

    1. Now that I have seen TTeam used professionally and properly, it’s one more tool in the box that will be a “best fit” for certain horses.

      All that time wasted avoiding learning anything about TTeam, assuming it was another gimmick. Sad. Having seen clinic videos of Ms. Tellington-Jones, I agree, she would have knocked that woman on her rear, and taken care of that poor, good-hearted, willing mare.

  5. OMG, that poor mare. I’ve seen the same. So sad. I read Kate’s excellent post too. I think these planet z people are decreasing in number… at least I hope so.

  6. I love, LOVE, love this post. However, I don’t like how it portrays the “hippotherapist” community, mostly because I am trying to become a part of it 🙂 I have been a pediatric occupational therapist for 6 years, and began riding 2 years ago. About 3 weeks into taking lessons, I thought about how great it would be to get my patients on a horse too. Decided that was it, at some point I am going to do hippotherapy with my clients. Also decided, don’t really know jack about horses, must learn more. Bought a horse 10 months ago, take lessons twice a week, and have become that annoying boarder who asks about 27 questions a day. I love my kookoo tb mare, she is lovely and sweet and forgiving under saddle, but is kookoo at times and not child appropriate as described when sold. Did I mention I am a beginner? Also very trusting and an easy sale. There goes that. However, I have had 2 friends at the barn offer me to use their VERY quiet horses for therapy, and I have parents begging to get their children on them. But I still feel like I have so much more to learn about horses before I join the worlds of unpredictable children and unpredictable animals. My experience in the area I live has been positive regarding therapists using horses as therapeutic “modalities”. So I cringe to read that there are others out there treating them like I would a therapy ball or similar piece of equipment!
    P.S. It is also a little scary to think that she has to quiet her horses via an exercise rider before being used for therapy! What is that all about??? Thanks for your blog. I love it!

    1. I should say here that I did not find this woman to be a representative of the hippotherapy profession. I checked out two more in our area, and they were beyond wonderful. Solid horse people, who were licensed physical therapists. Both programs used “older statesman” horses, retired from their former professions. There were a few younger horses, and it’s normal that they would be ridden enough to be loose, calm, and focused. It’s also good for the older guys to get a slow warm up before kids or adults start doing balance exercises that the horse has to adjust for, so that part seems within the realm of professionally caring to me.

      One program is so good there’s a waiting list. They do not own any of their horses. A few times a week, the horses owners donate to the program by trailering in their horses to be used by the program. It’s a non-profit, so not owning the horses cuts out a huge amount of overhead and fundraising. They can and do focus on the needs of the horses and people. That one was my favorite, can you tell? I stood between two old cattle ranchers, who had trailered in a couple of their beloved older cow horses, and watched them beam high wattage at their horses being groomed and loved up, and knowing they were helping people break through some pretty big physical barriers.

      Oh, whoops. Left out a crucial piece. Both of the good places had a ratio of 3 people to attend each horse/rider. The physical therapist worked with each rider, but to free her up to focus on physical therapy, a volunteer walked at the horse’s head, and did nothing but make sure the horse was happy and safe. The second volunteer’s job was to walk next to the rider, occasionally with a hand on the rider’s leg or back, and their focus was to be the rider’s safety net. Training was extensive for both volunteer ground positions: 8 weeks. Three people and one horse became a team. Very nice work.

    2. Carisa, I hope you’ve looked into NARHA and possibly EAP (Equine Assisted Psychotherapy). The former has been around for quite awhile, so it’s easier to find accredited programs (including training programs); the later is fairly new, and there’s some real variation in quality (plus it’s more mental health than physical). Either way, you could do some volunteering, I’m sure they’d appreciate your expertise, then possibly become accredited yourself!

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