Going Dutch: On Tennessee Walkers, ‘Big Lick’ and Equine PTSD

Candace Wade speaks with Dutch Henry, an equine author, advocate for equine rehabilitation and critic of the Tennessee Walking Horse “Big Lick” show industry.

Dutch Henry with horse Keshia and dogs Sadie and Saturday. Photo by Robbie Henry.

Dutch Henry with horse Keshia and dogs Sadie and Saturday. Photo by Robbie Henry.

The title of his book, It’s for the Horses, is a metaphor for Dutch Henry. He lives and works for the care, respect and rehabilitation of those horses who have suffered at the hands of humans. The plots of his novels travel on the backs of horses. Horses have been Dutch’s lifebuoy since growing up as a foster child on a farm: they were his friends, educators and refuge. Trail riding grew into a lifelong love that carried him to competitions in long distance competitive and endurance riding.

Advocacy of “natural” horse care is the crux of his column Holistic Hall of Fame in Natural Horse Magazine. I found that his advocacy of “natural” horse care led Dutch to focus on the Tennessee Walking Horse, or TWH. He has illuminating pieces on his work with TWHs in the now defunct Trail Blazer magazine.  Dutch’s training in rehabilitating retired “big lick” Tennessee Walker show horses was my motivation to catch up, to learn more than I read in his blog and website.

Dutch’s view on Tennessee Walker show horses

Together with University of Tennessee equine veterinarian Dr. Neal Valk, Dutch addressed the training practices of the “big lick” performance show horses and the changes in the “flat shod” training practices in an article in Trail Blazer magazine. (Click to view the October 2014 Heartbeats – Dr Neal Valk TWHs, Soring, Big Lick, Flatshod, & the PAST Act, page 62.)

Nestled in the middle of the Henry/Valk article, Teresa Bippin of Friends of Sound Horses (FOSH) included photograph examples of some of the training paraphernalia and further discussion from her experience and point of view. These two pieces provide a primer for training practices and terminology of some trainers in the TWH show business: Basic education, as it were.

Horses with PTSD

I have learned from my association with Theo (see the “Saving Theo” series) that rehabilitation takes time, knowledge and patience. Even if the horse has not experienced obviously painful physical abuse (beatings, chemicals and other so-called training methods), being unable to graze in stacked shoes, limited interaction with other horses, limited exposure to the outdoors, training equipment (tail binding, tie downs, stacked shoes) and the stress of training in stacks on a young colt/filly can create post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and other mental issues. The change from long-term performance horse life to the jarring new world of retirement can create distress for a show horse. These horses may need time and knowledgeable help to deal with the loss of the only life they knew.

I asked Dutch about his experience with ex-“big lick” Tennessee Walking Horses. “I worked with and studied under Diane Sept, a senior certified Connected Riding® instructor.  Under her tutelage I mastered the techniques of Peggy Cummings, the founder of Connected Riding®  … to bring horses back who had lost their connection with their minds and bodies.”  Dutch recounted how he saw that besides foot issues, ex-“big lick” horses “knew not where their feet and hinds ends were.”  He saw horses under stress and abuse that “disconnect with their bodies … like abused children, rape victims and soldiers … will.”

Dutch took some of the rehabbed TWH horses to his home where he would introduce them to riding trails. He was able to “ … enter them in competitive trail rides so they could learn that crowds, excitement, horses, trailers and competitions no longer meant pain, fear, horror. Instead, it was fun.”

An article titled “Horses and PTSD” in the June 2015 issue of Trail Blazer magazine covers his method of working with rescued TWHs.

What Dutch is up to now

Dutch and his wife Robbie were just striding out the door when I called to catch up. They were headed to New Mexico to the Equine Spirit Sanctuary – a ranch dedicated to equine assisted therapy for women and children surviving trauma. “Few people understand the toll providing therapy takes on the horses.” Dutch teaches a series of exercises for the therapy horses that reconnects them with their minds.

However, years and miles take their toll. Chronic physical limitations have forced Dutch to cut back some of his riding — on horseback. Riding a keyboard instead, Dutch just released From the Banks of Little Bear Creek, the second historical fiction novel that follows his novel Tom Named by HorseWe’ll Have the Summer is a fictional journey (on horseback) of life and love.

“I’m going to rein it in a little,” Dutch states. He will still offer a few clinics and lessons, but he is drawn back to his ranch in Virginia to the joy and company of his mare Keshia, dogs Sadie and Saturday and wife Robbie. But Dutch won’t turn away from the horses. He believes, “If I can be mobile so can every horse. It’s our job, and indeed duty, to make it possible for them.”

Go riding!

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