Virginia-based trainer Justin Haefner is participating in the Appalachian Trainer Face-Off, a 100-day challenge in which horses taken in by Heart of Phoenix Equine Rescue are paired with trainers to learn new skills and, ultimately, make them better candidates for adoption. Over the next few months, Haefner has agreed to take us along on his training journey with his assigned horse, Scottie. Read his other blogs here.
Recently, I posted a 60-day update on Facebook in which I shared a video from my fifth ride with Scottie. I saddled him quietly in his stall, warmed up on the ground in the round pen, mounted for an easy walk, trot and canter around the pen. We then rode out into the fields and the large outdoor arena without a hitch. The caption I wrote for the video was essentially an adoption ad explaining who Scottie is—his size, his personality, his experience—and describing who I think would be the ideal adopter.
The power of reflection is incredible. I’ve been doing my best throughout the process to reflect on Scottie’s training through my Equestrian Journal, songwriting, blogs and conversation. In the grand scheme of things, very little time has passed from the day I picked Scottie to the time I’m writing this — 73 days, to be exact. It has felt like that time is passing in strange ways. Sometimes painfully slow, other times the days slip through my fingers so fast I can’t begin to keep up.
Last week, Scottie and I took a trip to Double C Farm in Clarksburg, Maryland, to try out the obstacles on its “Extreme Mountain Trail Course.” The farm itself was beautiful, and the trip allowed us to work quietly for a few hours on every type of obstacle imaginable. Scottie trailered away from his usual farm, experienced being ridden around a large group of horses for the first time, and worked over and through countless new obstacles both on the ground and under saddle. He’s got only eight rides under his belt and he handled it like a seasoned professional. Our progress has been astounding, and all I need to do is step back for a minute to see it.
During this whole process, I’ve been trying to capitalize on each experience Scottie and I share by giving them deep thought and working to understand my own experience. When I am successful, I feel like I’m able to gain an interesting perspective, and the ability to tell my own story from the outside.
Recently, I’ve been able to think about the end of the competition and everything that is to come after. This is the first time I’ve been able to do this, as I have been so consumed by the small steps involved in reaching the end of our journey in the Appalachian Trainer Face Off.
The reality is that, in about a month, I’ll be loading Scottie in my trailer and heading back to Winfield, West Virginia, to compete for three days, Aug. 19-21, in the Appalachian Trainer-Face Off. We’ll be showing ground and handling skills, riding patterns, obstacles, and, on the final day, a freestyle of my design. At the end of all of this, regardless of how we place, Scottie will be up for adoption along with the rest of the professional, amateur, and showcase horses participating in the face-off.
I’m anxious, excited, thrilled, worried about the pending competition. This horse, previously feral, scared and violent, is becoming more of a stand-up citizen every day. He loves to have his face rubbed, hang his head out of his stall door, be groomed, and ride out through the open fields and trails for hours at a time.
My heart is glowing to know that someone will get to know all of these wonderful things about him. And yet I worry, because this horse is still tricky at times and I know he can’t go home with just anyone. My mind has been churning over this, knowing how much Scottie has to offer and hoping the right person comes along by Aug. 21.
Scottie’s athleticism and work ethic are mind-blowing. The more we operate on the same page, the more he exceeds any expectations I may have. He makes me contemplate the strength that comes with extreme survival. I still don’t know everything about Scottie’s past, but given his behavior early on, I can say he existed in a state of extreme survival at the very least. In this state, horses like him show resilience beyond belief. Their perspective on life is different from any other domestic horse I’ve known.
And, as with people, existing in a state of survival can be accompanied by trauma. A horse that suffers from trauma needs to be healed and helped through the psychological and physical embodiments of that trauma, given purpose and assisted in changing its perspective of the world. If the healing process is approached correctly, with the best intentions of the horse in mind, the result is pure strength: A horse who knows how to protect itself yet is able to trust, lead and be led.
At the beginning of all of this, Scottie was a tightly wound spring of survival, fear and frantic self-protection. As time has passed, each interaction between him and his new world has allowed him to steadily let go of his fears from the past. He has been able to let go of his preconceived notions of the world and people.
Every day I offered my hand, and ultimately it needed to be his choice to let go of the clutches of the past in order to reach out and take a hold. Once this happened our progress took off, and we’ve been able to work together. I lead Scottie, and Scottie leads me. In order for all of this to happen, I have had to pour a lot more of myself into this process than just time and resources.
I’ve recently come to the understanding that, in order for this story to come to an end, it soon will be my turn to let go. To trust Scottie to go into unknown pastures and call them home. It’s my job to both hold him close and let him go. I’ve thought it over many times and it doesn’t feel right for him to stay with me. I’m not the right person for him to call home, just the catalyst for his transformation. So in that, I will be working to love him dearly for the main purpose of teaching him how to accept this love, then when it all lines up I will let go and trust him, just as he did me.
Justin Haefner is a born and raised Virginia horseman who dedicates his life to helping riders and horses reach their full potential. He specializes in the foundational development of young high-performance horses, and with a background in vaquero-style natural horsemanship, Justin has developed a passion for creating a style that incorporates the teachings of classical dressage and equine bodywork to best understand the psychology and physiology of every horse he trains. In his partnership with his father, Dr. Paul Haefner, Justin runs Riding Far, LLC, which brings together modern psychology and foundational horse development to help horses and riders work through their individual roadblocks to reach their full potential.