I went to Oxbow Academy today to shoot *equine imprinting. It’s a fancy term for the simple process of handling a new baby horse while it is only days old in order to help the horse feel comfortable with human touch. The theory goes that if the little one is used to having his ears rubbed, hooves examined, and face stroked he won’t be frightened when it comes time to wear a halter or be treated by a vet. Horse professionals say the animal won’t run from humans entering the corral. Instead, he’ll greet them. Sounded good to me. But what does this kind of horse theory have to do with teen boys who have been victims of sexual abuse, many of whom have, in turn, touched others inappropriately. How does this help them?
Brita and Tony North, the horse pros at Oxbow let me watch and find out. One at a time the boys enter the corral and slowly approach the mother, who is halter-held by Brita. Tony has his arms around the wobbly baby. Tony, the mother and baby, and the Oxbow student are all almost nose-to-nose as the boy tentatively pats first the mare and then slowly moves to her baby.
Stroking the tiny horse’s velvet nose, then running hands down its neck, softly tickling its belly, and slowly lifting the spindly legs to tap tiny hooves.
Brita is softly talking to the boys, explaining the mare must trust that they will not hurt her baby. Their movements must be slow and careful. If alarmed, she will do whatever she must to protect her foal.
In each boy the reaction is different. Some seem stone faced and unimpressed. Those are often the newest students to arrive at Oxbow. Others are filled with wonder at the foal’s fragile little body. Most ask for a second chance to stroke the little horse again.
Now Brita explains to the boys that as prey animals, it is ultimate act of trust for the mare to allow them close to her baby. And for the baby to allow the boys to temporarily disable it by lifting its legs is the essence of vulnerability. There is no chance to run or escape in that condition.
She asks the boys, “Are you giving your therapist a leg?” An odd question, but one they immediately relate to. Are you being honest? Have you disclosed everything from your past so your healing present can begin? Are you sincere in your work and willingness to turn the horror of your past into the hope of your future?
Brita tells the boys the night the foal was born she went to the corral every two hours to help the mare learn to nurse her baby. Her udder was swollen and sore and the nursing process was painful for the first few tries. Gradually, the swelling subsided and the thristy baby could nurse completely.
She asked the boys, “Do you think it is painful for your parents to help you deal with your sexual issues?” The boys share the reactions of their parents, particularly their mothers, when they disclosed sexual behaviors. “Your parents,” Brita tells them, “are standing by you. It is difficult for them but they are determined to give you the tools you need to succeed.” Her voice drops a notch. “That’s why you’re here,” she says, gently, giving each of them a long look.
Brita continues, “All of you should have had someone to give you appropriate touch the moment you were born. Some of you didn’t. For some of you, that trust was betrayed. Does that mean it’s too late for you?”
Almost in unison the boys shake their heads no. But one student asks, “If the mom didn’t learn imprinting will she turn on her baby? Will she reject her baby?” His question is loaded with concern.
“Will it matter what she does,” Brita responds, “if her baby learns the tools he needs to behave appropriately?”
The boys think about this in silence for a while. Another student asks, “How long do most horses live?” The intention is clear. What he really wants to know is how long does a foal that hasn’t been imprinted have to “get it,” to re-learn the fearlessness of positive touch?
Brita’s answer is simple. “Not nearly as long as you will. You can take these tools and create a happy, safe life.”
Almost on cue the little foal skitters away and the mare moves to a protective stance between baby and boys. Lesson over.
*Visit the video section of our website to see how equine imprinting works.