Three years ago, I met a horse that unbeknownst to me would use his story to help others see hope. Cody’s owner contacted me about helping this particular horse through some anxiety issues. His anxiety was so severe that he was quite explosive at times and understandably, she had lost confidence in him and wanted some guidance. Her goal was to be able to safely ride him again.
When Cody first came into training, he was afraid of EVERYTHING! He hadn’t been off his property for a few years and now the world seemed like a big scary place to him. He was afraid to walk past parked cars, open doors, anything that moved, noises, training tools, oftentimes me, everything. When he was scared, it would result in a panic attack that started with a huge spook and was followed by a secondary panic that often had him running backwards terrified. We wondered if it was something to do with his eyesight, that when he threw his head up with the initial startle, possibly poor eyesight led him to believe something was chasing him. However, a later appointment with an equine dentist found that his tongue, of all things, was the source. See, Cody’s tongue is about three times thicker than the average horse’s tongue. Our dentist had seen this before, when a horse with that problem flips their head up- as Cody did when he was startled, the tongue flips up and cuts off the air at the back of the throat. As you can imagine, this results in the secondary panic.
As if that weren’t enough, Cody also suffers from another form of panic if his saddle isn’t done up exactly perfect (which can be harder than you’d think). He is abnormally sensitive in his girth area, and if the cinch is not flawless, some sort of pain or claustrophobic sensation is triggered that causes him to absolutely explode- running and bucking in full hysteria trying to ward off an invisible attacker.
Gaining understanding of these physical ailments that caused major reactions to the point of very dangerous behavior allowed us to be able to help him move forward. Cody slowly overcame his anxiety, through the understanding of his owner who got help for him instead of writing him off as “bad” or dangerous.” Through the equine dentist who helped us to diagnose his enormous tongue. Through my time spent with him trying to understand him and gently pushing him forward, instead of allowing him to stay where he was, scared, confused, and sure the whole world was out to get him.
I had him in training for two consecutive summers and found out he loves trail riding, which is how I spend most of my riding time these days. So when his owner had some life changes, she told me she needed to find him a home, but was concerned that no one would understand his “quirks” as we call them. If someone didn’t understand how important it was to manage his physical issues, he could react in a way that would get him labelled as “dangerous” “bad” “not worth anyone’s time.” Do you see how these same issues apply to people who are misunderstood or who need help? Instead of backing away from the mess, the explosion, the ugly- Cody needed someone who would stand quietly with him in those moments and guide him back to a safe place.
We both felt it wasn’t a good idea to just offer him for sale, and by then he had a special place in my heart, so he ended up with me.
But Cody was still a risk factor. At times he would panic when tied up, especially if saddled and tied. I loved riding him and he was really blossoming into a much more secure horse. I was enjoying him as my personal horse, but it never occurred to me he would be safe enough or be needed in ministry.
So imagine my surprise when choosing a couple extra horses to take to the retreat last year, I felt God telling me Cody needed to go. I hate to admit, I thought I was hearing wrong. Safety is a priority for any horse program and we make all efforts to keep things as safe as possible. I didn’t include Cody on that safe horse list. I even tried to pass the buck off on my staff members. “I feel led to bring Cody to the retreat, but I am very aware of his issues, and if you don’t feel comfortable with me bringing him, I won’t.” I said. And although there were some raised eyebrows, they all agreed if I felt led to bring him, I needed to bring him.
As the retreat approached, it became clear that Cody was there for one definitive reason, to connect with a specific person. One of our survivors had had surgery a couple months prior and hadn’t been attending horse sessions. She loved horses and was bummed to be on a horse retreat where she couldn’t ride, so she was a tad grumpy about the horse sessions, saying she didn’t want to participate. We managed to get her over to meet Cody, and told her even though she couldn’t ride, she could hang with him, because he could use a friend to help show him the world was a safe place to be. I told her about his physical ailments, about his insecurities, about his panic attacks, and about how he had learned to overcome these issues in his day to day life and now he was learning to broaden his circle of comfort. She was immediately drawn to him, being in a small but growing circle of comfort herself. She began walking with him, around and around and around, talking to him, encouraging him and telling him her story.
After that first day, she shared with me some of her extreme insecurities, to the point of panic attacks in public. She said, “If Cody can overcome his anxiety, I can too!” And she repeated that about every five minutes for the rest of the weekend. She proclaimed to everyone who was near, “I love this horse! This horse has changed my life! I love Cody!”
The last day, she and Cody walked past a small house and Cody had a moment of fear, he spooked and dropped away from the house. And I couldn’t have been prouder of our girl, when instead of jumping away from him as he was acting “scary” she calmly straightened, laid her hand on him, and said, “Come on, it’s ok. I’m with you and you can do this. We will do it together.” Cody immediately calmed, and they walked off together without a care in the world. Together they OVERCAME fear.
Little did I know that Cody’s work in the ministry was just beginning!
Recently, we met a new survivor – an unbeliever, young, and scared out of her wits. She didn’t have much to say to any of us, except that she was very scared of horses and didn’t want to go near them. She had been bitten as a child and had seen someone kicked by a horse, and wanted no part of all that. We did our teaching lesson and afterwards our team encouraged her to step into the arena, just to pet Cody. Just for a minute. She tentatively reached out to pet him, from about as far away as she possibly could be. Then came her smile, “he’s so soft.” she said quietly. We started to tell his story- huge tongue- panic attacks- anxiety- and how he OVERCAME it. Within minutes, she ended up petting him, grooming him, getting closer and closer… until she was hugging his head and completely trusting him.
Cody has an amazing way of interacting with these scared girls. He is gentle, he places his head on them or against them, without nibbling or being pushy… he makes it clear that he WANTS to be with them. He LOVES on them, he ACCEPTS them just as they are, and by doing so he shows them that they are VALUABLE to him. God has made these horses so special, to represent himself!
By the second session she was dying to get in there and be with Cody. She spoke of her anxieties, how she never trusts anyone to stand behind her and how she’s always waiting to get jumped (beaten up). Then she saw the hope through our angel in horsehair…and said… “Maybe if he can overcome all he has overcome, then maybe I can too… IT IS SO HOPEFUL…”
At our last session, we taught on boundaries and we encouraged the ladies to paint a positive word or words onto their horse that had to do with boundaries. I was amazed when our survivor, who two weeks prior said she wanted no part of horses and could only focus on fear, wrote these two words on Cody – our once scared, reactive, anxious-to-the-point-of-dangerous horse.
God is so good. I didn’t know these words were even in her vocabulary or anything she was reaching towards yet. Not that long ago, these words weren’t in Cody’s vocabulary. But they are in God’s vocabulary. And HE is transforming explosive misunderstood horses in order to help scared, hurting survivors overcome their horrors and to feel secure and content. Jesus uses these horses to unlock hearts so fast it makes my head spin. I have seen many times a survivor come into the program not wanting anything to do with horses or with us, wrapping fear around themselves, only to have it thrown off within MINUTES!
The no’s are being exchanged for yes’s, the hopeless exchanged for hope, the broken exchanged for healed, the ashamed exchanged for restored…
Jesus is overcoming!