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A Good Horse Trainer

Updated: Apr 19

I want to give you something you can take away, something you can hold. The best I can do to connect with you through this article in this magazine is tell you about the beautiful pieces of wisdom I’ve collected through the horses I’ve had the privilege of working with. These are not world class horses, they are average. A lot of them were full of trauma and anxiety just like me. They have been elemental stepping stones in my life for healing, love, and the truth. Through the humility these horses taught me, I recognized that my trauma and wounds cause me to get into endless self-fulfilling prophecies of pain, hurt, fear, and helplessness. 

I learned this through my own hands, not in the way one pulls themselves up by their own boot-straps, but more in the “what have I done?” kind of way. I hope my story of grief, helplessness, the truth, and healing gives you something you take away from this Louisiana girl. So, I will attempt to give you something you can hold.


Kate and Title
Kate and Title

My name is Kate McGauly. I was born and raised in Louisiana and for as long as I can remember I wanted to train horses. I currently train some, I’m a certified PEMF practitioner and I’m quite active on my Instagram account, @smilinghorsellc. My background as far as training goes is mostly the hunter jumpers. 

I started riding at a farm relatively close to me. It was there I learned some horsemanship, responsibility, and how to stay on. Then I left that after 10 years and started in the ranch riding and the cow horse side of things. My aunt is a professional in the industry and I was training under her. This is where my world really opened up. I gained a lot of technical knowledge that I didn’t get in the hunter jumper side of the industry. I learned a lot about what it takes to develop competitive show horses and just how exciting and big the horse world is. 


After another 2 years of that, I started having strange bouts of brain fog that left me feeling incoherent at times, I had fatigue that made it difficult to complete tasks and it kept escalating until I felt like I was only existing, it was absolutely miserable. During this time a little gray mare entered my life, she was used as a brood mare a very obese one at that, she measured right at 14.3 and she had the most abnormal lope where she seemed gaited at times, no matter what she did she went around with a hollow back, her head in the air and a stressed out expression on her face. I was advised by my aunt to find her a home quickly- it was also her way of telling me that she was now my responsibility. Well, fast forward a year and the little gray mare I named Annie was still in my care. As my health issues escalated, I moved barns for a slower pace and it was a lot closer to home, so I could hopefully find out what the heck was wrong with me. 


My philosophy as far as horse training looked a little something like this at the time. Horses got their room and board paid for, and I gave them a ‘posh’ life, so they owed me at least an hour or two of their time. What that translated to was if the horse wasn’t obedient then it gave me a right to punish him. I believed the horse was misbehaving and saw him and some of his behaviors as bad, evil, or that he was out to get me.


Annie
Annie

Annie is the kind of horse that will do absolutely anything you want her to. As she progressed, she became quite amazing. 

She jumped beautifully and had not an ounce of fear when it came to jumping. She learned to counter canter and developed a nice lead change. She was my ‘ideal’ horse as far as behavior goes. But I had yet to discover why she had so much try and willingness. And why such desirable attributes in a horse were actually a result of something absolutely crushing.


And so, it began. Annie started having some muscle atrophy and she started stumbling. To make a long story very short I found out she had EPM, and she had it pretty bad. Instantly something in me broke. This lovely horse, perhaps the best horse I’ve ever ridden was still obeying every single one of my commands through an illness that affects her nervous system, her eyesight, and her confidence. Through all of it, she still tried 300% like she always did. After that, I immediately gave her time to rest, and it was in this time that I began to learn about being present. Just being. I realized that every time I was with Annie it was mostly about what she could do for me. It was mostly me living in my head while Annie tolerated anything I did with her. As whatever was going on with my health, and Annie’s as well, it forced me to slow down.


I started just noticing. Noticing her. I noticed when she looked at me, flicked an ear towards me, or moved away. I began respecting the boundaries she had never been allowed to set. After that, for the first time in 2 years, I saw her lying down, but when she saw me, she jumped up. After I began noticing, I started showing her I noticed by gently scratching her when she would look at me or flick her ears in my direction. I moved away when she moved away. And then she noticed that I saw her. The next time I saw her lying down she let me open the loud, dragging stall door and lay with her. What’s more is she laid her head in my lap and went to sleep and started dreaming. I instantly burst into tears. I had been so, so wrong in how I treated her. How I treated other horses, and even how I treated myself. 


I eventually learned about how Annie could “push through” and do all the things asked of her even when she was struggling so much. She was in learned helplessness. So many people would say she has so much heart, so much try, she’s so special- and she is all of those things. But she was in a lot of ways motivated by fear to be those things. 


What’s learned helplessness? 

Here’s the most relatable way I’ve found to explain it. Think back to when you were a child, have you been yelled at over your math homework? 


No matter what you did nothing was ever correct and you kept trying over and over only to be more confused and frustrated. Nothing you tried worked and only led to more confusion and frustration. 

You came to the conclusion that no matter what you do, it’s always wrong, you get punished by confusion and stress at each attempt. So, you stopped trying, you become numb, and you check out. 

Nothing you try works so why try at all? This is learned helplessness. When a horse is beaten, worked excessively, stressed out, and confused for his behaviors (which are his words) he shuts down because he gets no relief in anything, so he just complies and tolerates pain, so he doesn’t have to experience even worse pain. 


That’s where Annie was at. I seriously considered quitting training and took a job at a bakery. My health issues were becoming worse and the activity level that working with horses demanded was no longer an option for me. I found Annie a loving home, I gave her away because I could never put a price tag on her, it felt disgusting to me. I gave her to people who will be her advocate and love her well.


But it was not the end for me. I struggled with the ethicality of even riding a horse after that. 

Being in the industry I’ve seen and been the hand that had caused horses to work through pain, to endure excessive pressure, and seen them terrorized. I saw everything so differently after Annie. I warred with myself, my love for horses couldn’t include riding, not if it was all the things I'd been a part of and seen.


Then I got a phone call. 

A lovely woman had got my number from my aunt. She had several off the track Thoroughbreds that she bred, raced, and retired when they no longer could race. She called me looking to rehome some of them. We clicked immediately and spoke for hours about equine welfare and the current state of the horse industry and the wickedness we had both seen. She was the hand of God in my life at such a confusing time for me. The Lord used her to give me clarity and direction. She sent me a few photos of her horses and I was immediately drawn to Finisimo, also called Finn. Without more than speaking to her on the phone, I drove 5 hours to see her where she invited a complete stranger into her home. She gave me a tour of her place and all the wonderful horses she had on her farm, where they all lived outside in herds, they were all so happy and well cared for. This lovely woman breathed such hope into my lungs when I didn’t have any. She showed me that there is hope for a better way.


Finisimo
Finisimo

And so, I headed home with my new horse Finisimo in tow. She told me some of his past, he had been abused on the track unbeknownst to her and it broke her heart. He had also been blown up to where he just hated his job, which was such a painful thing for them both. 

She had carefully selected a mare and stallion and raised this beautiful horse full of life only to be betrayed by someone she thought she could trust with such a precious thing. She made the call to retire him and there he lived with her and his companions for 6 years. And then I came into Finn’s life.


When Finn arrived, he was the same horse that was blown up off the track again. Without the security of his friend, he was very reactive and scared. Even still this insecure horse was so beautiful and strong. It was as if he didn’t know himself. It was like if only he could see himself through my eyes, then he would be so sure, so confident. The truth is it took a long time for Finn to begin to regulate his emotions. And honestly, it’s probably because I was trying to learn how to teach him. I myself was only beginning to regulate my own emotions, half the time I had absolutely no idea how I felt. I was able to be more aware thanks to Annie but the years and years of training that I had previously known no longer ‘held up in court’ so to speak. I was so convicted of my mistakes I could never train how I did before Annie. Finn and I had to figure this out together, and unbeknownst to me at the time we were much more connected than I could have ever even imagined. 


My health issues continued to get worse, until I could hardly do anything but rest most days. But then something incredibly profound happened. After several doctors’ appointments, cancelations, and re-scheduling my hopes were dashed. 

I cried out to God. I said, “Lord, I know your heart is to see me well.” I know now because of how I learned to treat my horses. It has always been a reflection of his heart towards me. I just needed to unravel the picture I'd painted of him through my painful experiences. I said “I need to hear from you personally. I need you to tell me, so I have something to hold onto because I have nothing left.” A few days later I was in church, the same church I’ve been to since I was 5 years old, where I know everyone, where I’ve been hurt, and where I’ve experienced the love of God too. My pastor grabbed the mic and said “There’s someone here who has been waiting on doctors’ appointments, and you’re feeling really hopeless, the Lord wanted me to tell you that He’s been waiting for you to come to Him. He is going to heal you” I took that and ran with it; the Lord heard my cry, and he answered me. I had no idea of what that looked like or meant but I learned another piece of his love for me. 


I found out that I had all the symptoms of PTSD at the doctor’s appointment. I lived in fight or flight mode constantly. If it wasn’t for the lessons Annie taught me about being present, 

I would have never been able to identify the deep feelings of terror I’d been running from for so long. I'd been so unaware of how I felt in order to survive that I wouldn’t have been able to understand what was going on in me. All the physical health issues that were destroying my life were a result of my extremely dysregulated nervous system. 

So much of me, like Annie, existed in learned helplessness.


And so, Finn and I started healing together, as Finn wasn’t in learned helplessness. In fact, Finn is the way he is because he was never forced to work through his pain. He was deeply honest and truthful about his feelings, which was where I was learning to be. As I could see myself through the eyes of God, He had nothing but grace, empathy, and love for me I started to heal in really deep ways. 


My beautiful Finisimo was the reflection of myself in the mirror. Horribly dysregulated but so, so loved- the both of us. I had room to be the most authentic version of myself. It was ugly for me to look at, but I had the peace to be who I truthfully was for the first time in my life. And the frustration and confusion and helplessness I sometimes felt at Finn's explosive behavior started changing to an even deeper sense of compassion and love for him in his chaos. I only could have that for him when God had that for me, and I adopted his perspective of myself. 


As I healed, I could extend Finn a safe place to heal too. 

And that is what I want to leave you with. The only way to be a good trainer is to learn how loved you are. How empowered to heal you are through grace and the truth. How truthfully and radically loved you are. The beautiful, wonderful, broken horses that entered my life reflected myself back to me, but they also reflected back the heart of someone who has the ability to love me better than anyone ever possibly could. And because of my horses, my mirrors, I began to see how strong, kind, and compassionate I had the capacity to be. The guilt and shame I carried around with me turned to peace in the truth and mercy towards myself. My story is one of so much love, unfathomable love.

All my health issues started to go away as my perspective changed and my nervous system began to function in rest not terror. That is my story, and it can be anyone else’s story too. 

You are so loved my friends, go be good horse trainers.


Article submitted by Kate McGauly

Smiling Horse LLC | Holistic Equine Wellness
Smiling Horse LLC | Holistic Equine Wellness

Kate McGauly is a passionate horse trainer and PEMF practitioner, dedicated to promoting equine welfare and emotional and spiritual well-being. She resides in Louisiana with her horses, dogs, and cats.

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