Like the delicate strength of the beautiful Scottish isle he was named after, Skye was an extraordinary horse. An Arabian Paint that joined the herd at Healing Hooves in Cremona, Alberta at the age of seven, where he started off not really knowing his place.

“He had been receiving good physical care in his home,” shared Sue McIntosh founder and lead counsellor and trainer of Healing Hooves and Skye’s owner until his death in February 2022, “but had been seized in lieu of unpaid board as a two-year-old and as a result didn’t really have one consistent handler in his life until he came to me.”

Not surprisingly, Skye needed a few years of quiet consistent care to settle in and find his confidence with both other horses and with people. “He taught me a lot through that process,” shared McIntosh, “about patience and taking things slowly.”

Once he settled into the farm, he began to take on a role in the therapy work that was a part of the mandate of safeguarding and improving the emotional and physical wellbeing of their clients, colleagues, and animal partners. 

Horse of the Month: Skye’s Strength in Vulnerability

Skye worked hands on with many clients over two decades involving some riding in his younger days but mainly through interactions on the ground and through observing him as the leader of and with his herd.
Photo Credit: Jeff McIntosh

“Skye was incredibly sensitive. Early days this meant he could be quite reactive as he also had lots of things that scared him,” McIntosh, an EC licensed coach, certified mental health professional, and tri-certified practitioner in Equine Facilitated Wellness, described. “So, we took it very slowly introducing him to clients and to this work and made lots of space for him to express what was going on for him; with boundaries of course to keep everyone, including him, safe.”

The chestnut gelding eventually became a steadfast leader both in working with therapy clients, and with the herd. He was also an inspiration and an amazing partner to explore the concept of hope with.

“Many of the clients we work with arrive here with very little hope. They’ve experienced significant challenges in life and feel little or no hope for recovery,” McIntosh went on to explain. “Some are self harming, some are suicidal, and some are making choices which are hurting others. When they met and connected with Skye, and I would share his story, they met another being who had also experienced challenges in life and with his heightened sensitivity continued to face challenges.”

But the resilient steed that he was, found a way to live with life’s challenges in a way which allowed him to both be there for others and find rest and a fulfilling life for himself. His way of being often served the purpose of allowing people to ‘borrow hope’ from Skye until they found it for themselves in their healing process.

Horse of the Month: Skye’s Strength in Vulnerability

Skye and Sue McIntosh, MA, CCC were a great partnership who found hanging out in the pasture together on the Healing Hooves Property both energizing and restful.

Skye was also an amazing teacher of vulnerability and was very adept at modeling how to express emotions. “I believe all horses tend to follow this emotional process more naturally than we as people typically do,” shared McIntosh. “Which is part of what makes partnering with horses in counselling such a powerful approach. Skye embodied it in a particularly powerful way that had great impact on hundreds of clients over the past two decades.”

Like the time that a client, a young Mom struggling with social anxiety and depression, learned a powerful lesson from Skye. In her observations, the young woman discovered that she shared many characteristics with him, including heightened sensitivity and a strong desire to take care of others.

During one session, they brought Skye and one of his companions into an arena and let them roam while they closed the gate and observed from the other side of the fence. Skye immediately trotted around with his head high, while the other horse rested at the gate, unphased. Worried for him and wanting to understand, the Mom asked what was going on? McIntosh explained, “it’s hard for Skye to be away from his herd, and running is his way of releasing the emotion that’s coming up for him.”

He resumed his circuit and then pooped, “that’s also something horses do when they’re scared,” McIntosh added with a smile. And in that moment, after the woman let out a deep breath, her observations turned to understanding. “I don’t think he even worried what we thought of him when he pooped,” she said.

The mom realized she could unapologetically express her emotions so that she could move through her fears and insecurities. Within a few simple moments Skye had provided her with all she needed to start making changes in how she approached life and found insight and courage to start living – and expressing – in a more emotionally honest way.

Working with clients like this young woman was one of his gifts. He was drawn to people with anxiety and especially loved to work with teenage girls. “He seemed to see it as his job to nurture and take care of others, especially when he sensed hurt, anxiety or grief,” explained McIntosh.

But like empaths are known for, Skye struggled with taking on too much in his caretaking role with clients or out taking care of his herd. “I needed to monitor him and make sure he had time off and find ways to invite him to rest in my care,” his owner shared. “This took time. For example, we practice T-touch here; initially Skye was unsure of this, and we had to take it slowly and allow him to say no. But gradually over the years I figured out the touches and exercises that he liked and was comfortable with, and he started to trust me more to provide this care for him.”

Skye was a great role model for people in helping and educator roles who are chronic caretakers ̶ teaching that to be there for others, we need to allow someone to care for us. He also exemplified how to accept care, one needs to feel safe, and that can take time, especially when relationships have been wounding in the past.

One of Skye’s lasting bequests was how he demonstrated what power is supposed to look like. “So many of us, Skye included, have witnessed and or experienced an abuse of power,” said McIntosh. “The equine industry is certainly not exempt from this. Anyone in a position of influence over others has power, and there is always a risk of this power being abused or used in a way which causes harm to others and exploits those in their care.”

Skye showed everyone at Healing Hooves what power is supposed to look like. When he saw vulnerability, he moved to take care of, not to exploit it. People who had been on the receiving end of the exploitation and abuse of power were invited to experience a different type of relationship.

“As human counsellors,” McIntosh shared, “we aspire to offer this sort of relationship and invitation but many struggle to accept, trust and believe this from a person, especially at first. Receiving trust from a horse often comes more naturally and Skye was one that I discovered many of my most vulnerable clients were drawn to.”

After an era of taking care of others, at 31 years old he earned his ultimate retirement this past winter but remains sorrily missed by all at Healing Hooves. Skye’s powerful and compassionate impact will be felt by hundreds of humans and horses for many decades to come.  

To learn more about equine facilitated wellness or Healing Hooves, please visit www.healinghooves.ca or connect with Sue via email: sue@healinghooves.ca

Horse of the Month: Skye’s Strength in Vulnerability

Named after the Isle of Skye, one of her favourite places in her native Scotland, Sue McIntosh ensured Skye was the voice of wisdom and played a starring role in many of the therapeutic stories Healing Hooves has published for children over the years.
Photo credit: inspiredbymaps.com

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