Debbie & Finn: Meeting my ‘heart horse’ at Red Wing Farm

I first met Finn in the summer of 2015. I had just started what was becoming a successful attempt to fully recover from my eating disorder. For once in my 7+ years of trying to rid myself of it once and for all, I realized there was much more I needed to tackle than just eating normally. My eating disorder was masking something going on inside of me – something that was lacking in my life.

So I was reading a recovery book on the train one day. The author started talking about a certain mental state that could be called the “essence of passion.” According to the book, when you’re in this state, you’re so fully engaged and focused in an activity that you love – one that’s well matched to your personal skills and gives you a sense of control – that you to lose awareness of time and yourself and it feels like a reward, regardless of the end result of your efforts. Horses. This was the first thing that came to my mind when I read this. I grew up around horses – riding at my Aunt’s and taking lessons. Spending time at the barn was one of my favorite things to do. But like many, as I got older I was riding less. And then when I moved to Seattle it became pretty much non-existent. When I got sick and went back home to Pittsburgh for treatment, I spent a few days riding at my aunt’s before I went into inpatient. I remember thinking at the time that when I was riding, my eating disorder thoughts would go away and I felt more “present” than I had in a long time. Horses are amazing creatures – they take so many cues from their rider, not just the physical ones, but the mental ones as well. If you’re stressed, the horse will feel it. If you’re angry, he’ll know. If you mind is elsewhere, he’ll wander as well. So riding almost forces you into mindfulness – the more present and focused you are, the more you get back from your horse. I stopped at that point in the book and told my husband that I wanted to get back into riding – nothing crazy, just one or two days a week – to see how it made me feel. When I went on my first ride, all those great feelings came rushing back. I knew I had to keep doing this.

And then I met Finn. I was visiting Red Wing Farm and Beth was introducing me to all of the horses. We got to Finn – it was hard not to love him. He was a friendly little flea-bitten gray pony with freckles all over his face and a mane and forelock that looked like it hadn’t been touched in months. But he came right over, poked his head over the stall and welcomed the attention. Beth told me he was a Nokota pony (at the time I had never heard of that breed) and that he might be a good one for me to ride as he didn’t get ridden a lot. Red Wing teaches a lot of Western and Finn was better suited for an English rider since he was more forward (e.g.. much more go, a lot less whoa). I couldn’t get him out of my head the rest of the night. So I started taking lessons and after a few weeks I got to ride Finn.  As I was tacking him up, you could just tell he was an anxious horse – alert on the crossties, curious about everything and didn’t seem quite trusting of me. So the lesson began and I can’t say we cliqued immediately – Finn was forward, wanted to trot or canter pretty much as soon as you got on him and seemed very nervous. You can tell when a horse is comfortable and settled in – their ears relax, their head drops and they lick and chew with their lips. This was not Finn. But we persisted through the lesson and I enjoyed it enough that I wanted to ride him again. In prep for my upcoming rides, I started reading and researching why certain horses get anxious, and different ways to calm them (one of the biggest ways is to just be calm yourself). I started practicing some things during my ride and I started to see an improvement. This horse had so much try in him – even though he was nervous and unfocused, you could tell he WANTED to learn and when he did he learned VERY quickly. I started to half-lease him – meaning I got to take one lesson on him a week and also do a “practice ride” once a week as well.

Somewhere during these initial weeks I started reading up a little more on his breed. The Nokota is a feral and semi-feral horse breed that roamed the badlands of North Dokota. They have been traced back to direct descendants of the Sioux horses that carried Sitting Bull and his tribe. The breed was almost wiped from existence in the early 20th century when ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management worked to round up the wild horses in an attempt to reduce competition for livestock grazing. However, when Theodore Roosevelt National Park was created in the 1940s, a few bands were inadvertently trapped inside, and thus the breed persevered. In 1986, the park sold off a large number of horses, including herd stallions, and released several stallions with outside bloodlines (Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, etc.) into the herds. The idea was to modify the appearance and temperament of the Nokota so they would sell better at auction. At this point, brothers Leo and Frank Kuntz began purchasing the horses the park was getting rid of with the aim of preserving the breed. They founded the Nokota Horse Conservancy in 1999, later beginning a breed registry through the same organization. Frank and Leo haven’t stopped since and have committed their lives to the breed – raising awareness, preserving the original bloodlines, etc. Today, it is thought there are only about 1000 fully “foundation” Nokotas (Finn is about 50% foundation, meaning his ancestry includes some horses that aren’t Nokota). Red Wing has two other Nokotas as well. One of the things that Frank and Leo fell in love with is the breed’s temperament. They were found to be extremely intelligent, friendly, and responsive to the human touch. They are very smart horses and “problem solvers”– you can almost see them figuring out a given situation. They also develop unusually strong, reciprocal and trustworthy bonds with those that show them patience, respect, and friendship.

This was eye-opening to me. Not only was the history of the breed fascinating, but it helped explain why Finn might have been a difficult lesson pony. Some horses are perfectly fine with anyone jumping on their back and taking them for a spin. This didn’t seem to be what the Nokota was about – they wanted and craved consistency and a real “relationship.” Exactly what I was looking for too. It gave me hope that with patience and time, Finn and I could settle in together. And that indeed was what started happening. Over the next few months, I noticed slight changes in Finn – he seemed calmer and more content just relaxing and “hanging out.” We started to do a lot of ground work together to keep building our relationship (including a two month stint of strictly groundwork when he was lame). Finn responded extremely well and soon was starting to follow me around the ring even when he wasn’t on a lead line. I can’t explain the feelings this brings up – when the horse “chooses” to be with you. Horses are prey animals. They live in herds that have a clear hierarchy. The alpha maintains his spot by being a strong but kind leader who the horses look to for safety, decisions and survival. The alpha does not use aggression to control the herd as much as they use discipline. So in order to be the “alpha” in a horse and human pair, you need to act in the way the herd leader does – firm, consistent, but caring. To see that Finn was accepting me as his “alpha” almost brought tears to my eyes.

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Don’t get me wrong – this did not mean smooth sailing from here on out. Finn and I still had (and have!) our moments. By nature he’s a very social horse and he’ll always carry anxiety with him (just like me!). But I just couldn’t get over how much he wanted to try, the improvement I was seeing, and the reward I was getting from him. As a Christmas gift, I wanted to create a nameplate for his stall, so I asked Amber what his registered Nokota name was. She told me it was “Enapay” – very Indian sounding not surprising given his breed. I knew it had to have some meaning, so I looked it up. I almost dropped to the floor when I saw it means “appears bravely” in Sioux. Being brave is a common moniker used in eating disorder recovery. In order to fully recover, you need to make decisions and do things your eating disorder doesn’t want you to do – and that can’t be accomplished without a little bravery and confidence in yourself.

After six or so months, the girl who just wanted to ride one or two days a week was now full-leasing a pony with every intention and desire to buy him. He kept surprising me with his – go figure – bravery. I love to trail ride and was honestly a little concerned the first time I took him out given his propensity to get nervous in new situations and places. He was definitely nervous (as was I), but he did SO good. In one instance, he didn’t even bat an eyelash when we took the horses into a small river and kept pushing them to walk deeper and deeper into the water. I took this (and all the other times he surprised me) as a sign of his trust and respect. Yes, there are still times it feels like we’re starting from the beginning again – he gets nervous, distracted, and seems like he’d rather follow his horse buddies than listen to me – but we continue to work on it as I know it’s not something that happens overnight. And in many ways, I often wonder if his behavior is just reflecting mine – I easily get nervous, distracted and unable to be fully present during many things.

So fast forward to Spring of 2017. I had been full-leasing Finn for several months now and made the decision to officially buy him from Red Wing Farm. Like I mentioned, I never walked into this thinking I was going to BUY a horse, but meeting Finn has changed me in so many ways – he’s given me confidence, he’s given me a new passion and he’s taught me a person is better defined by who they are on the inside vs. the outside. Finn 100% does not care what size I’m wearing or what I look like – he just wants a leader to trust and respect. I’m so thankful to Amber and Beth for introducing me to him – I’ve found my heart horse

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3 Comments:

  1. Oh WOW, Debbie!!! What a fabulous story!! Very heart warming, informative and captivating!! Thanks so much for sharing!!

  2. Wow deb. You & Finn are a true partnership. I see it & feel it everytime I see you together.

  3. Oh my goodness that was a really good story! Thanks so much for sharing it. I only met you once, but I figured you and Finn would be a great pair based on you being with him on crossties. That story you posted inspired me and will inspire others too! Thank you Debbie!

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