Sunday, Apr. 14, 2024

Learning To Trust

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He was a 10-year-old, 15-hand, flea-bitten gray Arabian named Lazur Hess, just off the track, where he had won more than $100,000. My trainer, Rebecca Roach, bought “Laz” with another client in our barn in mind. That client was looking for an endurance horse. I watched the goings on with interest, as I was sort of in the market for a quiet trail horse myself.

He had a spectacular pedigree and had been the 3-year-old winner of the Darley award, a big deal in Arabian racing circles. The word around our barn was that he had ponied horses on the track and around the fields in training, and was bomb-proof. The endurance rider decided she didn’t like the little Arabian, mostly because she couldn’t catch him in the field at the nearby quarantine barn where he went from the track. I thought he seemed like a candidate for my next trail horse.

Laz portrait

Retired psychiatrist Anne Sagalyn had to put her professional skills to use to unlock her once-distant and untrusting Arabian “Laz”—and in return, he taught her to trust as well. Photo Courtesy Of Rebecca Sagalyn

Rebecca gave me two weeks to ride him and make a decision. I wondered what was it about him that she liked enough to purchase him from a video. He’s an athlete, she said, completely sound and beautifully put together. She told me once that horses are like Army recruits: Most are draftees, some are draft-dodgers, and a few are volunteers. Laz, she said, was a volunteer.

We’d had this conversation before: She had tactfully told me I needed a volunteer, as I was no drill sergeant.

During his two-week quarantine, Laz had a field to himself and an open stall. He would stand in the field, lost in his head. He looked through people with his thousand-yard stare and would not allow himself to be caught.

Still, there was something about him. He had a calm dignity and presence, even if he showed little interest in his surroundings. He was beautiful: muscular and racing fit, with a delicately chiseled head. He did not look like a typical Arabian; his croup, instead of being flat, was powerful and sloping. He lacked the characteristic Arabian dished face. His mane was thick and unruly. He radiated athleticism.

Once his quarantine was over and he moved to our boarding barn, I kept staring at him, walking around him, taking his measure. He remained aloof and ignored me. After the endurance rider turned him down, I took Laz on a few trail rides. He was an interesting combination of bravery and reactivity. He nonchalantly walked by a turkey vulture on a fencepost but had an occasional whirling spook to some menace, invisible to me. I bought him.

There is a back story: A year prior to buying Laz, I was bucked off my German Riding Pony mare while trail riding. She was fancy with a bad attitude. She bit, she kicked out, she pinned her ears. That day, she bucked violently and aggressively. I went flying after the third buck and landed hard, inflating my airbag. With the airbag exploding into my chest, I sprained my ribs—but without the airbag, at the very least, I would have broken many of them. This was the closest I’d ever come to serious injury or death on a horse, and a sense of danger, which I had never felt before with horses, descended.

After that incident I lost my trail-riding courage. I found a new career for the pony and bought a wonderful third level Trakehner gelding who was as sweet as the pony was nasty. I hacked him out once a week, but he didn’t really take to trails.

Laz would be my trail horse. If I could catch him.

Keeping His Distance

His new barn had stalls that opened to pasture, where the horses come and go as they please. Laz, who had lived most of his life in a stall, now spent all his time outdoors, staring into the distance or dozing, motionless, for hours at a time.

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He avoided interacting with both humans and his herd, keeping his distance, always watchful. He was skittish, flinching and jerking away if I moved toward him too quickly. He resented being groomed, sometimes half pinning his ears in displeasure. When he let me scratch him in his stall, there were no signs of pleasure. Sometimes his lips quivered ever so slightly, as if he didn’t want me to know it felt good. I talked softly and moved slowly around him, no sudden movements.

Laz turnout

For months, Laz was incredibly difficult to catch in the field. Photo Courtesy of Anne Sagalyn

When I tried to catch him in the field, he would trot away. When I managed to get close, the minute I lifted the halter toward his head, he was gone. At first he refused treats. After a few tentative nibbles, he changed his mind. Every day, I came to him in the field with carrots, fed him, stroked his neck, and walked away. Several weeks and many carrots later, he allowed me to catch him. But he wasn’t happy.

Listening To Laz

As a retired psychiatrist, I recognized in Laz the animal equivalent of depression-learned helplessness. Locked in a stall at a racetrack, getting hauled all over the country for races, he had no agency. No matter what he did, he was still locked in a stall. His antidote for this constricted life was to shut down.

There is a famous quote, taught to all medical students, from Dr. William Osler: “Listen to your patient; he is telling you the diagnosis.” I listened to Laz, and I treated him like I would a traumatized patient. These patients have lost autonomy, and until they reclaim their narrative and a sense of autonomy, they are stuck in the past. Laz was no different; if he was a person, his diagnosis would be PTSD.

I’d never owned an off-the-track horse and admittedly didn’t realize what I was getting into. Anytime we were in the same area as a horse being longed, Laz thought he was at the starting gate, agitating to run. He went around with his head in the air, camel-like. He lacked steering, and in the early weeks, riding him in an arena was challenging. He careened around, head pointed straight up, as I yelled out to other riders, “no steering,” but he always stopped when I asked. He sometimes threw little temper tantrums when I asked him to do something he felt was too difficult. “Too difficult” might, for example, be a small bendy circle to the right, but still I listened to him. If he rigidly threw his head up under saddle, I recognized he had had enough and moved on to something else. I never forced him, never got into power struggles. I believed him when he said, “I can’t do this now.”

On the trail he was vigilant and sometimes edgy. But the worst he would do was shake his head and bounce around if something bothered him, though I never knew quite what set him off.

While my younger self wouldn’t have been scared, I became anxious on him. I was trying to teach him to trust me, but I could not trust him.

Wishing I Was On The Ground

Pilots have a saying that they would “rather be on the ground wishing they were in the air, then being in the air and wishing they were on the ground.” I wished I were on the ground a lot. One day during a lesson, Rebecca saw how his antics frightened me and said we’d just walk, and that was fine. She said that she understood. When I was ready to do more, we would. I felt like kissing her.

I thought, not infrequently, about selling Laz. He scared me sometimes, and I didn’t like it. I also recognized he scared me not because he was an inherently scary horse, but because my accident had changed me. I didn’t know how to trust him.

But still I worked to gain his trust and return his sense of autonomy. When he struggled in the ring, I listened. When he made it clear he didn’t like me currying or brushing his chest, I skipped over it. Eventually he recognized he could affect his world, and that was the beginning of trust.

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Gradually Laz became more peaceful—the turmoil of his racing days slowly dissipated. He began engaging with the herd, eventually making a best friend. He became playful, racing around the field with a friend, or nibbling on my collar, or throwing his neighbor’s halter down the aisle.

Learning To Trust

Two months into owning him, he started letting me catch him in the field reliably. By six months, when I would walk out to get him in the field, he would whinny and walk to me. In his stall, he began hanging his head over his door, happy to connect with whomever walked by.

He lost his haunted, unhappy look. His eyes became soft.

On the day that he let me scratch his withers without looking disgusted and edging away, I knew that we had a partnership.

He was a generous horse to ride; he liked to work and tried hard. After a year of me freezing every time he shook his head and got light on his front end, I realized with relief that it never progressed beyond that. His little temper tantrums became infrequent. The diminutive racehorse who had won enough races in his third year to become the Darley champion was now going around softly in a side pull. He wasn’t a horse that would try to buck me off.

Laz ride

Sagalyn and Laz now have a relationship built upon mutual trust.

He did, however, retain his occasional “spook first, ask questions later” approach to trail riding. While the spooks were only occasional, they were quick and twisty, throwing me off balance. Recognizing that I didn’t have the athleticism of my younger self, I decided to teach him dressage and have a younger friend take him out for gallops on the trail. He’s a clever, athletic horse, with beautiful floaty Arabian movement, and he’s learning dressage readily.

Watching him in the field now, I see a contented horse, hanging out with his friends. We’ve developed communication: After I ride him, I put him in his stall, and if he wants to go back out, he stands at his back door. If he wants to stay in, he stands over his feed trough, and I bring him hay. If his front feet are thick with mud, he holds them up until I pick them out.

When he decided he didn’t like the hoof boots I bought to protect his bare feet from the rocky Maryland soil, he dropped to his knees when I tried to put them on. OK, Laz, I get it.

Mounted, he knows to move away from leg pressure, listen to my seat, and bend around my inside leg. He developed a topline as he learned to relax his neck, drop his head and stay off his forehand. He knows I won’t hurt him. I know he won’t try to hurt me.

A few weeks ago, I was grooming Laz in his stall. He was untied and motionless as I moved around his body, currying and brushing. He remained motionless as I scrubbed the mud off his hind legs, my head next to his lower legs. And then it came to me, the thing I had heard many times over the years: “Trust your horse.” I trusted him.  And Laz had learned to trust me back.


Anne Sagalyn is a lifelong equestrian and retired psychiatrist. Her riding career began at 6, on the water tank in her backyard. She is a jack of all trades, having ridden and competed in hunters, reining, gaited horses, competitive trail riding and, in retirement, dressage. Anne has been published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Maryland Medicine and Gallop. 

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