A Magical Healing Journey
By Tass Bell
As a child, I was horse mad—hacking, jumping, gymkhanas, and hunter trials—I couldn’t get enough. Then came the day when my wonderful Connemara horse, Lysander, reared over backwards on the road with me underneath him, limpet like. His new saddle did not fit him properly, and I was too young and unknowledgeable to know it. This fall aggravated a previous childhood spinal injury, and riding was never the same again. I gradually drifted away and, heartbroken, sold my horse.
These injuries locked themselves away—even allowing me to become a passionate windsurfer later in life—with only occasional underlying discomfort. However, in my 30s, I started to suffer with intense back pain. The original prolapsed disc had got entangled with my spinal cord. There seemed no choice but to have an operation especially, I was told, if I wanted to have children.
In 1990, I had the operation, but unfortunately it did not go well. I woke up paralysed from the waist down and the prognosis was not good. I went home eight weeks later in a wheelchair with the first minimal signs of movement. I have worked continuously since then to achieve more mobility. Despite the lack (or severe weakness) of most muscles, I gradually became able to walk, albeit very inelegantly and with little balance.
I had our two longed for children. When my daughter, Amber, became horse mad in her turn, I did nothing to encourage it—in fact quite the opposite. Although, if I wouldn’t take her to ride, then she would get a friend’s mother to take them. I didn’t stand a chance!
So I found myself amongst horses again, remembering the smell, the warmth, and the friendship. It wasn’t so very long before I wondered if I would be able to ride again. I tried, and it wasn’t pretty. I was like a sack of potatoes, but somehow it felt good. I realized that I could get to places on a horse that I couldn’t go to by foot, so I persevered.
I saw an advert in my daughter’s riding magazine for a free DVD about Parelli Natural Horsemanship and sent off for it. I watched it and was hooked. I joined the Savvy Club and sent off for the big red Level 1 pack. By now, Amber had her first pony, and I decided that I would like to join her and look for a horse of my own.
There is an extraordinary story about how I was brought together with this horse of mine. I was given such a comprehensive and accurate description of him by a clairvoyant—including how he looked, how he stood, how he held his neck, and most importantly, his level of eye contact with me—that it was impossible to miss him even in the herd of 35 horses where I found him. She said that I would have no doubt when I saw him, and it was true!
He came from a place called Criollo Farm. Though I hadn’t heard of it before, Monique from Criollo Farm described it on her website and sparked my curiosity; I went to take a look. She encouraged people to try as many horses as they liked as many times as they liked and to take their time until they came back with a big beaming smile on their face, having found their perfect partner. This was such a refreshing change from our experiences looking for ponies in the English equine market with its less than honest adverts.
So there he was, the only one of 35 horses—all going about their own herd like business—who was just standing there and staring at me face on no matter how long I sat watching. He looked exactly as the clairvoyant had described him, so he was the one I asked to try. Well, he was not the type of horse I had liked when I was younger when I’d liked horses with a bit of spirit. He was certainly not forward going and could not be persuaded to walk up alongside the gaucho’s horse who accompanied me. I thought, “You’re disabled. Of course you are going to be sent to a calm and placid horse. You will be out riding with your daughter, and you need to be safe.”
The farm was in a great location with amazing rides, fantastic gallops through prairie like grass, and tracks through mature woodland. I went to ride him several times with the gauchos that worked there. Every time I went, there he was, standing in the field looking out for me. There didn’t seem much point in trying other horses because even if I had liked them and decided to buy them, I would always have wondered why I had been sent to this horse, Cinco. I knew he was the one for me.
When I had him vetted, Monique was surprised to hear that he was only four-years-old and not five years as she had thought. Other than that, there were no surprises, so I paid the cheque and prepared to have the first ride on my own horse. Everything went fine until we had just passed a small piece of woodland. Suddenly a deer shot out behind us and spooked both the horses. The gaucho was prepared for anything and stopped very quickly, leaving Cinco nowhere to go but sideways, tipping me off into the long grass. The moment the split reins touched the grass, he bolted, galloping flat out away from us. The gaucho sat with his mouth agape in astonishment. This was Cinco, the safe horse that they tried people out on. He couldn’t believe it. He ran until he was almost out of our sight to the edge of another woodland where he ran straight into a barbed wire fence, turned, and galloped back to us dripping with blood. As I was unhurt and he seemed totally calm again, I rode him back to the farm and saw the shocked reactions to his bloodstained chest and legs. I could have torn up the check and tried some of the other horses, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it; by then, I was committed.
The photographs from his passport, which arrived several weeks later, clearly showed how young and distressed he was on arrival at the port in Italy. He came to his new home in our recently acquired field in 2007 and met my daughter’s ponies, Anna and Rosie.
As Cinco lost the last of his winter coat, I could clearly see scars from rope burns on all his legs. I had been so looking forward to getting started on the Seven Games and practice my skills with the rope, but there was absolutely no way he would let me trail a rope on the ground anywhere near him. For a long time, he wouldn’t let me near enough to play the Friendly Game with either the rope or the Carrot Stick. This was not remotely friendly to him nor in any way a game.
He became crabby and depressed.
A month or two after he came to live with us, an incident happened that gave me an inkling of the kind of challenge that I was really facing. We were having a barbecue with family and friends in a fenced off area where we kept the camper van. Cinco was tied up since he was unpredictable, but Amber’s two little mares were wandering free. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. Cinco had pulled back and had started running round the camper van, long rope trailing faster and faster. Panic on! Anna and Rosie bolted round after him. The barbecue went flying and people scattered in fear. I tried to separate Cinco from the mares in a corner; he tried to stop, but he couldn’t. He jumped a full size, metal farm gate from a virtual standstill and galloped up the field, gathering the electric fence up in his rope as he jumped it. At the far fence, he turned and galloped down again, shedding the electric fence on the way. Eventually, he came to a corner where he whirled round to face the “attacker” chasing him. He was panting, snorting, and lathered in sweat. It breaks my heart to think of the things that he must have endured to be so terrified of ropes.
Now, 8 years later, he is brave about so many things, and he tries so hard to do whatever is asked of him, but his underlying fear of ropes remains. He can still panic if anything, especially a rope, touches his legs without warning. He might crouch down ready for flight, spin, or kick out with lightening speed. It is worse still when he steps on the rope and feels the sudden pull on his halter. To this day, he can still take off in the middle of a totally calm session when this happens. Though his flight distance is much shorter, and he now turns back to me for comfort.
Perhaps this is a good time to try to explain my present level of physical ability. It is very difficult to describe how the world is for me especially as I can appear to be so normal. During my healing journey, many of my neural pathways have managed to reroute themselves, which gives me some muscles that try to do everything and others that have extremely minimal uses. I miss muscle in my inner thighs and pelvis but more significantly in my calves, ankles, feet, and toes. Because of this, I lack both shock absorbers and stabilisers. I cannot come even close to lifting my weight onto my toes, and I have great difficulty stepping over anything or standing on one leg. Walking backwards and even standing still is almost impossible for me. I do not feel the ground properly and, in effect, have the balance of a pirate with two wooden legs! I am often in pain, and I fall frequently.
This presents me with many challenges, particularly as Cinco is so incredibly sensitive. When I stumble or lose my balance whilst playing On Line, I send all sorts of unintended requests down the rope. As an introvert, he likes to interpret them mostly as requests to stop or come to me.
I find it hard to keep my balance at the same time as managing my rope, Carrot Stick, and string. Sometimes, I find myself in quite a tangle, but perhaps the thing that gives me the greatest problem is finding a way to be truly neutral. This is, of course, is at the very core of the whole Parelli Program. It takes a lot of effort for me to stand still without moving. Even a tilt of the head can tip me off balance. I have to move my feet rather like someone on stilts or crouch down slightly with my legs spread and concentrate, which is hardly neutral.
So, not on the face of it, the best partner for this unpredictable and demanding horse, “Psycho” as he became known in our lane of equestrian properties. But I had been sent to him. I had my own healing journey, and I was not one to give up. Besides, he was so forgiving and loving that I knew it was just meant to be.
I lapped up all the Savvy Club DVDs and magazines, learned about Horsenalities, and progressed slowly for four years because I knew no one else who practiced Parelli. I am so grateful to Linda and Pat Parelli for their mission to make the world a better place for horses and humans. Without the information on strategies for extreme Right Brain Introverts in their home study programme, I would not have known where to begin to help this deeply traumatised horse.
Since then, I have had help from 2-Star Parelli Professional Rebecca Holloway and 3-Star Parelli Professional Stephanie Gaunt. I spent a very productive week with 4-Star Senior Parelli Professionals Alison and David Zuend in Devon learning techniques to help Cinco (now affectionately known as Kissi) overcome his fear of ropes and to improve my riding skills. Last year, I stayed a few days with 3-Star Parelli Professional Sharon Crabbe and 1-Star Junior Parelli Professional Jackie Evans in the Cotswolds. I practiced and filmed for my Level 2 Auditions, which to my great amazement and delight I passed—Level 2+ On Line and Level 2++ FreeStyle!
My disability and pain have become more intense over the past year, and I have found myself unable to mount up and ride. However, I have still been able to continue to progress On Line and have a lot of fun with my lovely horse, Kissi. Recently, I started to play at Liberty under the guidance of my fabulous Parelli instructor Becca Holloway. Kissi, still mistrustful of ropes, gave me perfect trot circles the very first time I took the halter off in a large rectangular arena. He is absolutely loving it, and he gives me such a big “thank you” every time. Though, of course, I still have to earn our connection on a daily basis, I think our journey together has created an extra special bond of love between us.
Several months ago, I discovered that a lot of the pain that I had thought was the result of my ongoing disability was actually caused by the total wearing away of all the cartilage in both of my hips. It was recommended that I receive two hip replacements. Both hip replacements have gone very well. I feel stronger and much more stable. I already have less pain.
Getting my hip replacements means that I can now look forward to more mobility and to the wonderful possibility of being able to ride again. It also means that I may get the longed for chance to progress to Finesse. I am so joyfully excited about this!
There is such magic at the heart of the relationship between horses and humans such an extraordinary opportunity for healing and transformation on so many levels. As I continue playing with Kissi, my legs are strengthening and my balance is improving. I fully believe that Kissi and I were brought together to heal each other and that the journey will continue into Level 3 and beyond!
It seems impossible for me to emphasize strongly enough how incredibly life changing and enhancing the Parelli Program has been to me and to others like me around the world. The fact that the Parelli family has gone out of their way to make the program so inclusive and supportive to people with all kinds of disabilities—whether physical, mental, or emotional—is truly remarkable and awe inspiring.With the On Line and Liberty on the ground, the Parelli system allows people to achieve amazing things without ever even being in the saddle. Pat’s own personal journey with his son Caton—along with his faith that nothing is necessarily as dark as it may be presented at the time and that anything is possible—has been a beacon to me in my life and in my horsemanship. Caton’s own achievements are totally breathtaking!
Thank you really doesn’t seem to cover it, but I will say it just the same. A really massive thank you to Linda and Pat Parelli for changing the world of both horses and their humans and especially so for me!
Follow Tass and Kissi and see their Auditions at: https://www.vibrantvisions.co.uk/natural-horsemanship
A few words from Tass’ instructor, 2-Star Parelli Professional Rebecca Holloway—
On our first introduction, I thought that Tass was a very brave lady and that Cinco was super kind but troubled particularly by specific aspects of the Friendly Game as Tass explained.
Tass had a massive leg trauma, so her biggest challenge was playing the games and being clear enough with her body language given her lack of stability and freedom of movement. Cinco had a massive Friendly Game issue with ropes (we believe he had been trapped, roped, or had some similar traumatic experience). We really helped this by doing much less and by teaching Cinco to understand Tass’ energy cues. We focused a lot on small, achievable tasks with the Friendly Game so that we could log lots of successful sessions for Cinco to understand and rely on the Friendly Game. We also introduced much Liberty play. This was huge for Tass and Cinco as both of them found it easier to communicate. Once Tass understood the higher Levels were achievable with energy and without moving her feet too much, then they had some amazing communication together.
I am most proud of Tass’ canter circles and Stick-To-Me! For Tass, canter Stick-To-Me was something that she thought she could not do; however, with some imagination and control of energy, I was so proud when she showed me what they could achieve! As an RBI, Cinco found canter circles tough. Through patience, persistence, and clear communication, Tass helped him understand the route, the line, and the game. She really used her psychology!
If I could offer Tass and other horse owners in a similar situation any advice, it would be that anything is possible when you believe. There are no rules, only guidelines, so listen to your horse and use your imagination!
Through this experience of coaching Tass and Cinco, I’ve learned much more patience and to trust in the process. What started as very small tries would improve hugely as Tass played with the concepts. Tass has a great outlook on life and that comes across in her very positive attitude. I also learned that less is more and to trust the student more. Thanks, Tass!