Building Trust Takes Time
I love sharing partnership stories between people and their horses. Having met Karen back in 2014 during a visit to Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch (CPYR), I am pleased to share her story with her dear steed, Isaac.
Deep in the heart of Oregon lies the plateau east of the Three Sisters Mountains. Characteristically known as a destination for hiking, fishing, outdoor sports, coffee, small town culture, and horses, the town of Bend, and nearby Redmond, are nothing short of magical. It is here that Karen Downer resides with her family and equine partner-in-crime, Isaac.
A Cold Shoulder
Karen’s first introduction to Isaac took place at a ranch in central Oregon that rescues horses and mentors disadvantaged youth through horse lessons. Karen came to CPYR back in 2011 to volunteer.
She was poop scooping the paddocks one day and beheld Isaac, a beautiful Palomino with four knee-height socks and a cascading blaze that traveled down his forehead and nearly covered his nose. When he caught her gaze, he turned his head and shoulders away from her. Immediately, Karen understood there was much more behind this gesture and she thought:
“I want to connect with this horse. I want him to know that he’s safe here.”
Rescued from Devastation
Karen came to find that there was so much more to Isaac behind that exchange. He had triggers in every area of handling and riding. Not knowing what could have caused him to be so shut down towards humans, she inquired about his story.
Isaac was a stallion for seven years, and he ran in a herd of horses. His lack of consistent handling lent him to being “domestically wild.” A woman saw this gorgeous, golden horse in his herd one day, and quickly purchased him, gelded him, and sent him to the trainer. Isaac remained in training for two years.
Karen knows little about those two years of Isaac’s life, but it is evident through his behavior “they did not handle this horse in a way that built trust and respect.” Isaac’s triggers spoke to being mishandled in fear.
He was, after all, a stallion for many years, fighting for his place among the herd. Dominance had previously been his way of life, which could have been met with drastic training methods.
In 2009, Isaac’s owner concluded that he was too much horse for her, even after two years of training. She decided to sell him and cut her losses. She just wanted this horse out of her hair, and to get the money back that she had invested in him. Isaac’s owner was relieved to find a young 4-H girl to sell him to.
Shattered Beyond Recognition
When the family came to pick him up, Isaacs’s owner forced him into the trailer in her haste to get him out of her hair. He pulled back with such a violent force that he crushed the bridge of his nose in three places and severed his lip and tongue. Isaac’s owner couldn’t go through with the sale, so she called the vet and instructed her to put him down.
Bend Equine arrived to the scene and deduced from the damage a severe trailer accident. Dr. Jesse Evans told the owner “I can save this horse.” The owner replied that she didn’t want to spend any more money on Isaac. Forsaking money, Dr. Evans thought she had a good shot of saving him so she asked if she could take ownership, rehabilitate him, and find him a good home.
The owner replied with a simple, “I don’t care.”
Dr. Evans and the Bend Equine team operated on Isaac’s mangled face, reconstructing his nose by wiring it together. After recovering from surgery, he was brought to CYPR to recover. There were many hands on deck to work with him.
The Crystal Peaks family focused on getting him around trailers again, but even between 2009, when he was brought to the ranch, and 2011, when Karen arrived to the ranch, he still wouldn’t easily approach a trailer.
In those early years at the ranch, Isaac was difficult to approach, let alone to touch his face. The farrier dreaded trimming his feet, as this horse didn’t allow anything to confine him. Thankfully, they patiently worked with him to overcome his fear of someone holding his hooves to trim them. Yet even in the solace of a rescue ranch where he was promised safety, Isaac was still alone.
That is, until someone took a special interest in him.
Karen’s Work with Isaac
After her first encounter with Isaac, Karen deeply desired to see him thrive at the ranch.
Connecting with Isaac was a pursuit—a dance to figure out what trust meant to him, and how to gain it.
With permission from Kim and Troy Meeder, Karen started to set aside time to work with him three days per week. In these early years at the ranch, he was clearly not fit to work with children. The ranch had never rescued a horse this tough: “I’ve worked with some difficult horses,” Karen said, “but never one with this level of trauma.”
She came up with lesson plans for walking Isaac through recovery. But many times, his response was so enormous that it left her perplexed about how to help him. It was in that moment that Karen, a woman of faith, turned to her faith for help: “I said, ‘I need Your help to love this horse to a healthy place.’”
Often, she had to work backwards from where she started her lessons to determine Isaac’s comfort zone, and move forward from there.
But Karen took things slowly with him, letting him show her his deepest fears and what he was ready to work on. The first and most pronounced fear that Karen began to tackle was ropes. Isaac was terrified about them. She had a 22-foot-long Parelli line, which was nice and soft.
She felt she got insight beyond her own wisdom, and the guidance came moment-to-moment: “Really, it’s about communication, building the bond – the rapport.”
Given time, she has gotten him more comfortable with his halter and lead rope, tack, and even loading in a trailer.
Karen comes from the horse show world, where agenda ruled her early interactions with horses. That changed once she discovered the partnership orientation of Dressage. Agenda had taken on a new meaning for Karen once she started working with rescue horses at CPYR.
She had an agenda, and that was to find the partnership opportunity that awaited her with each horse, to walk them through rehabilitation.
With Isaac, all her plans centered around building his confidence were shattered. Everything is spontaneous, dictated largely by Isaac’s psychological healing process:
“What I’ve found for him is that, yes, there can be building blocks, but it can be fragmented. I can have an agenda, and he’ll just blow it out of the water. So, we work on something else.”
This is the crux of Karen’s trust-bond with Isaac. She lets him tell her what he needs, where he is in his process, and she listens. Karen doesn’t look at progress within months, but rather with years: “I don’t want to have an agenda that is going to compromise my relationship with him.”
Because she worked with him on a regular basis, there came a time when she could use him for sessions with a couple of children at the Ranch. He did well with the youth, and proved to be a powerful example of trusting submission. He could reach kids with fear and anxiety issues, because they could see him choose to release his fear and start to trust.
Check out our 4-part series on how to build a better bond with your horse.
Isaac Comes ‘Home’
Through the rehabilitation process, Karen was winning Isaac’s heart. But he had already stolen hers. There came a day, after working with him over the course of a year, that when Karen went out to get Isaac, he left the safety of his fifteen-member herd to be with her.
That day, Isaac was sandwiched between the boss mare and another horse when he saw Karen coming. To the boss mare’s dissatisfaction, Isaac backed out of the fold of his herd, turned around, and left them to meet her.
The ranch came to a point that they needed to reduce the herd size so that they could take on more rescues. Kim and Troy knew of Karen’s devotion to Isaac and the rehabilitation work she had accomplished with him already. Because Isaac’s recovery process was going to be a life-long journey, they allowed Karen to adopt him, so she could walk with him through that journey and provide a forever home.
A horse like Isaac is really suited for just one person. Karen had wanted to be that person for him since the day they met, when he turned away from her in the paddock. “I never thought this day would come. When I got the call, I just about dropped on the floor. They knew how much I loved him.”
Rehab Begins in Ernest
At the Downer’s home, love and affection surrounded Isaac daily. Karen’s husband, Todd, had built a round pen and pasture, and their children came to visit regularly. He also had Georgie, a 30-year-old pasture pony, and Jewel, a 4-year-old mini, to keep him company.
Isaac’s accident still showed in his body. You could still see the piece missing from his lip, where the rope had split into his mouth. He still dealt with sore and stiff muscles from his body being pulled out of alignment in the trailer, but massage and rehabilitative exercise helped him slowly recover in his body.
Karen continued to work with Isaac through each fear as it arose in their sessions together.
Having him at home with her allowed her to recognize his triggers more quickly, and work with him more often. She frequently began their sessions in the round pen, where he would run around her—free of ropes—for as long as he wished, until he chose to meet her in the middle of the pen as his trusted leader.
Isaac’s fears were not necessarily about the circumstances or objects, but rather people-plus-circumstances. Isaac was not afraid of objects in the arena, but he was afraid of someone asking him to maneuver them. He was not afraid of saddles, bridles, halters and ropes on their own, but add a human, and they could be terrifying.
Isaac had internalized what was virtually true before being rescued: humans are the ones who are dangerous.
So as Karen discovered these people-plus-circumstance fears, she located his comfort zone, and walked him through the fear to the other side.
Isaac’s ongoing progress lent him to continue working with children that Karen invited to their home. He had a special way of reaching into kid’s hearts who have been through extreme hardship. As many triggers that Isaac had to work through, he did have a super-power that many “average” horses did not: Isaac was completely unafraid of water. He loved a slosh through a nice, deep puddle, and didn’t think twice about it.
Now that he had settled in, Isaac was way more vocal than he ever was before. At the ranch, he was always quiet. But soon after he arrived to be home with his family, he nickered every time he saw Karen or Todd.
“It’s not just food-related—we’re his people.”
Looking out her window with a full heart on Isaac munching on breakfast in his paddock, Karen thinks back on that day at the ranch, where Isaac left the safety of his herd to be with her. As much as Karen has transformed Isaac through their journey together, he has touched her heart in ways she never expected. When Karen faces fears in her own life, she considers Isaac’s story, and thinks he can teach her a thing or two about persevering through intense fear.
Karen reflects on how Isaac puts his trust into her hands. “When he gets troubled, he just wants to turn and run. But I need him to keep his eyes on me, because I know how to keep him safe. He has such a heart to try and submit, even when he’s trembling.” It’s almost as though he says “Lead me to that peace, because I want it.”
And as long as he lives, Karen will be by his side to bring him there.
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
- A Partnership Like Ours: Lilah and Ashaya
- A Partnership Like Ours: Courtney and Dusty
- A Partnership Like Ours: Michelle and Admiral
- 5 Simple Tips: How to Help an Abused Horse
- Horse Rookie’s Monthly Horse Expense Reports
- How Much Horses Cost & How Can You Afford One?
- I Want a Horse But Can’t Afford One (Now What?)