Updated: Apr 26, 2022
Darma Part 3 – Finding a Still Haven – 1997
Read Darma Part 2 here
Darma at trainer’s barn, 1997
Despite the moments of peace I had found with Darma, I still didn’t feel confident in leading her, or in knowing what to do when she was anxious. I tried boarding her at a professional trainer’s. He insisted I needed to be assertive and show the horse that I meant what I asked. Despite his instruction to teach me to be “the leader”, and her “the follower”, it was difficult for me to feel like I could achieve dominance over this very intimidating horse. Besides, dominance wasn’t what I wanted. Where was that sweet filly that I had met a year before? Where was the connection that I longed for? The trainer worked with her at liberty and on the ground until he felt she was healthy and fit enough to ride. But she resisted being ridden by me, often refusing to move forward even at a walk.
When I tried riding her under his instruction she was tense and she spooked at the slightest provocation. One time I made the mistake of riding her in my new riding pants which didn’t have a suede seat, and a new bit – which I didn’t know was something to be avoided, and no helmet – which I now know better, and a few minutes into our ride at the busy stable, she spooked and swerved as a car went by and I fell and of course, hit my head on the gravel. It was a painful and frustrating lesson.
I tried as hard as I could to be the “strong” one, and not to be afraid, but it was difficult. I realized later that even though he purported to be a horse behaviorist – and that he did what he called “liberty training”, that this trainer’s techniques were about obedience by intimidation, and that the only thing that Darma learned from him was that she would obey – but she never became softer, or understood what she was being asked. In attempting to use the training methods he taught me she began to resist me even more.
In the meantime, my husband and I had been working to clear a paddock on our 2 1/2 acre rental property. The owner of the property had ridden in her youth and she liked the idea that I was going to have a horse on her property. She lived next door, so perhaps she was reliving her own past dreams. I think in her vision we’d be riding happily up and down the roads and I didn’t dissuade her from this assumption.
Darma at Still Haven, August 1998
We called our little property “Still Haven”. It was our first home together and we really loved it. It was too small a property to house a horse, especially an energetic thoroughbred mare off the track, but I instinctively felt that the only way to truly help Darma was for me to have here where I lived.
We finally reached the point where we could safely house her at the same time that I thought I was getting confident enough to handle her on my own. We moved her to the property and prepared for the true reality of feeding, cleaning, health care, and handling her in a less than ideal backyard environment. However, I hoped having her at home with me as a familiar presence meant that we could live together in harmony.
My expectations were too high. Darma spent the first three months spooking at everything and acting like we were starving her. She had no interest in bonding with me; in fact she acted like she preferred to be left alone. It was so frustrating to go out each day wanting to touch her and brush her and be with her only to have her back up, pin her ears, and turn away. What more could I do to get through to her? We acquired a companion goat for her named Tess. She adored Tess and the company alleviated some of her stress but she was still far from being a happy horse.
Darma and her pet goat, Tess
I continued to study different training techniques. I attended an intensive week-long clinic taught by a trainer named Frank Bell. Frank approached training horses from the sensitive and emotional approach that I longed to apply. His way of working with horses appealed both to the part of me that wanted to emotionally bond with Darma, as well as the practical side of how to be safe around a large, unpredictable animal. I’ll admit, when I described Darma’s behaviors, Frank gently tried to tell me that I was in over my head. But I-was committed to helping Darma lead a normal, happy life.
When I returned from the clinic I finally began to experience a new level of connection with Darma. I was more confident because I had gained working knowledge rather than intellectual understanding. I didn’t have to remember techniques that required the horse to do what I wanted. I had learned to ask hoping that the horse could try to meet me halfway instead of being obeying but unwilling.
Darma learning what home is, Still Haven 1998
After a few weeks of getting promising results from Darma on the ground I decided to try riding her again. On this day she was soft as butter, up until the time when I mounted. That’s where I should have left off. Instead, I tried to ride her once around the house and paddock, feeling fairly confident that I could handle any reaction on her part. What I wasn’t prepared for was her to start violently bucking from a standstill, so suddenly that I couldn’t maintain my balance. I crashed to the ground as she turned tail and charged down the driveway and running, empty stirrups bouncing, down the road. Rod and I ran down the driveway and called to her. She turned and trotted back, followed by an uncertain driver who had fortunately seen her and stopped.
It wasn’t until I caught her and began to unsaddle her that the shock started wearing off and I realized that my finger was broken. I was emotionally shattered as well. A deep sadness overwhelmed me. What was I doing? This was insane. This horse was never going to respond and I felt powerless to handle her safely. Why had she left the property? It was so strange that she took off away from her home. I couldn’t understand and I felt helpless, hopeless, and alone.
Most people would have given up at that point and sold the horse or worse. Yet I was committed to providing Darma with a home whether I could have a relationship with her or not. Besides, I hadn’t bought her to be my riding horse, I was only trying riding as a form of recreation we could share. Riding was what everyone taught me was how to bond with a horse. But I was resigned to the fact that I would never feel that deep connection with her the way I had felt the moment we met.
I met animal communicator who did a past life reading for Darma. She revealed that Darma had died a traumatic death during a wartime which involved her owner’s death for which she blamed herself. She said when she was born again into this lifetime, she felt she was a disappointment by her owners, and from then on – despite her desperate attempts to please the people around her, she wasn’t a successful racehorse, further imprinting her with her own failures. In my attempts to have her trained, and work with her myself, her performance anxiety had increased. In addition, she was terrified of something going inexplicably horribly wrong. Perhaps this was why she had run away that day she bucked me off – her unresolved fear of things going wrong had happened, and when they did and I was injured, she had run away from the only security she knew.
After this session I began to see a noticeable difference in Darma. She became relaxed and playful and seemed to be released from some of her earlier tension. I began to relax as well, feeling that we were on a new path together at last. I began to realize that I had focused so hard on making a relationship with her by doing. Every horse person I met talked about the need for training and handling. But the best times I’d had with Darma were when we were just being, getting to know each other, without me asking anything of her. I began to return to that frame of mind, and Darma and I began to relax and enjoy our time more.
Darma and Kim find a new kinship
A few days later I was visiting with Darma, marveling at the change in her, and she gave me the greatest confirmation I could have asked for. While I was petting her in acknowledgement of how far we had come together, she dipped her head down, pressed her muzzle against my cheek, then her nose to my mouth, and breathed her gentle, warm breath into mind in a silent communication of our friendship. After months of her barely allowing me to touch her, she was showing me she was beginning to trust me. We stood thus for what seemed an eternity, and tears came to my eyes as I remembered the way we met at the racetrack two years before. I knew she was offering me love and gratitude for helping her through her fears.
My “theme” song for Darma and I was coincidentally the song for the TV Show “Dharma and Greg” called You’re Still the One by Shania Twain.
“Looks like we made it… look how far we’ve come my baby… we mighta took the long way.
We knew we’d get there someday… They said, I’ll bet, they’ll never make it …
but just look at us goin’ on, we’re still together, still goin’ strong.
Ain’t nothin’ better… We beat the odds together. I’m glad we didn’t listen.
Look at what we would be missing.
You’re still the one… still the one that I love, the only one I dream of…
still the one I want for life… Still the one I kiss good night.”
Read Darma Part 4 here