I have a horse named DaVinci who is recovering from what seems to be Post Traumatic Stress. I’ve had him for almost two years now and an outsider looking in might tell me to get rid of him and tell me he’s useless. Just when I thought he may have irreparable damage and I was considering the thought he may have a mental illness, wondering if he’s even worth keeping, I received an unexpected phone call from a wonderful woman in California, named Roxanne, who works with Mustangs.
Roxanne and I had never met before, but I felt like we had known each other for years, I think because we share the same passion, trying to reach the heart of difficult horses. I asked her what she thought about horses having a mental illness, and she replied very thoughtfully that she thinks those horses are not mentally ill, but emotionally fractured. As soon as I heard those words, my heart just about broke in two. Emotionally fractured, implying that he’s suffered, and needs to be pieced back together. (P.S. Roxanne, I’d love for you to share more about this!)
DaVinci is always the first to greet me. He’s the first to utter those low, motor boat nickers. Yet he’s the first to run away if I’m wearing my fuzzy bathrobe, or if my lip gloss smells funny, or if I’m wearing my wrist brace, or if I’m carrying a different bucket than usual.
When I first got him, he was untouchable. He wouldn’t lower his head to eat until the last human had disappeared. I was totally up for the challenge, but two years later, he still has serious trust issues. One veterinarian commented that he’s never seen anything like him. Well, except for a wild zebra they’re constantly tranquilizing.
(To read installments and watch videos from The Diary of DaVinci, an ongoing journal of my experiences with this special horse, visit paintinghorse.com/artist.htm.)
The veterinarian couldn’t understand that DaVinci couldn’t understand that he wasn’t going to hurt him. He said even the wild horses he’s worked with eventually calm down once they understand they won’t be hurt. Again, my heart broke in two.
DaVinci, like an agoraphobic, appears to be afraid of being afraid, afraid of being hurt, afraid of the unknown, of open spaces, of my lip gloss! Not a day goes by where I wonder What happened to you?
So in these two years, I can trim his hooves while he’s unhaltered, I can worm him, he can be tacked up, bridled. It appears he’s had some rope work, as he responds with the blink of my eye. He is the very best of all the horses at crossing the teeter totter, spinning on his pedestal, climbing on his four-foot-high wooden spool, and he loves to dance with me.
But, and it’s a big but, he’s so very far from being normal. His panic factor is off the charts. I think this is what the veterinarian was seeing. Two years ago I would have thought I’d be riding him by now.
In the time I’ve had him, I’ve also been starting a young Clydesdale named Raleigh. If it weren’t for this super willing wonder horse, I’d seriously question my abilities with DaVinci. All of my hopes and dreams for DaVinci are being filled with this Clyde that lives to be at my side.
So here’s my pressure, after two years where is DaVinci? On the surface he’s another mouth to feed. He’s not earning his keep. I can’t say if he’ll ever be normal. Is he worth it? Should I keep him? Is he dangerous? The vet seemed to think so.
(These deep thoughts always come to me when I’m heaving a heaping pile of manure into my wheelbarrow.)
Then my heart broke in four pieces. I began thinking of all the horses that have been cast off simply because they weren’t usable anymore. Most of us have dogs and cats without expecting them to perform a service. Why are horses singled out for having to earn their keep in this era?
I wish I’d never heard the term pasture ornament. Doesn’t the horse have the right to exist, just because? As I looked into DaVinci’s deep brown eyes set within his wide white blaze, I thought, I will keep you as long as it takes, or until you show me otherwise. I will not pressure you to conform to any standard except the ones you and I decide.
For now, I have three horses that invite me to be carried on their backs. These two years DaVinci has invited me into so many parts of his life that were previously unreachable, that I will not be pressured to do anything other than keep listening for his invitations.
I would love to hear more about DaVinci, if you have a chance sometime to write more about his past and how you started working with him.
One of the mares I’m working with now sounds similar to your horse. She lives at a rescue I work with, and although they don’t know her past, she was probably abused and beat, as she has scars on her body.
She’s interesting, I’ve been spending 20-30 minutes with her about twice a week and she’s gone from ignoring me/wanting nothing to do with me, to following me around the pasture like a big dog. (It helps that her buddy Rosie also follows me around, as I think this helps give her confidence.) She’s incredibly curious, will come over to the fence to see me.
She doesn’t want physical contact, though, at all, even to the point that she won’t eat treats from my hand. I’ve fed her a few candy canes. Sometimes she’ll take them from my hand and happily crunch them, sometimes her nose will touch the treat and then her head will shoot up with wide eyes, almost like she’s having a flashback to bygone days. It breaks my heart.
I think I’m going to start teaching her some behaviors this week and putting them on cue. Some basics, like target something, stand on a mat, head lowering, things I can teach her without having to touch her, and just toss a treat into a bucket to reward her.
At this point, she’s ready to play and ready to learn, but she seems like she’s still no where near ready to be touched.
Thanks so much for all your insightful posts. If you’d like to read more about DaVinci you can visit The Diary of DaVinci at my website, paintinghorse.com/artist.htm. I have a bunch of videos of DaVinci and attraction based interactions. What a great opportunity to work with the mare you described. I found that the more I could figure out what made DaVinci feel better, the more he wanted to interact with me. When I first got him, I could make him feel instantly better by simply walking away. So for a few days in a row, I’d appear in his paddock, call his name, click and drop some alfalfa pellets really loudly in his bucket. Soon he began to view me and the sound of the click (I click with my tongue…I’m too fumbly with a hand held) as something to look forward to. I think it meant the world to him that I rewarded him by walking away. I think it told him that I knew what was important to him and he began to feel safe with me.
Thanks for the link to your other website. I’ve started reading some of the stories and watching some of the videos–I’m really enjoying them so far!
I also love the art work your horses have done. I think at some point I’m going to have to try to teach some of mine to paint!
I have a gelding something like DaVinci, and I was silly enough to buy him as my first horse. 3 years ago I started working with clicker training and the world changed for both of us. He is a very tough horse to work with, but as my instructor says, a well trained horse won’t teach you anything. I understand him so much better now – he was afraid of everything!
I was astonished at how easy my new fillly is to work with, it is such a joy to realize how well PRT works with a “clean slate” horse. I think Alberto will come around and I love doing ground work with him. He has taught me more than I have ever taught him. He will always have a home with me, and he doesn’t have to have a purpose that benefits humans.
Thank you so much for your valuable comment.
Sometimes I think that the horses that appear to have the least benefit to humans actually have the biggest benefit, but not in traditional terms. I’ve found with the difficult horses that demand my complete and utter presence to be able to communicate with them, especially in a way where they feel good, not threatened. In the these spaces where I’m entirely present with my horse, I’m completely caught up in a zen like place where past and future no longer and exist and all I have is now. It’s almost a hallowed space where my horse and I can simply ‘be’. I leave these sessions as if I’ve spend hours meditating, when in reality it’s been five minutes of clicker training! So even though DaVinci may still be suspicious of veterinarians or people that want to ‘do’ something to him, I will have all the health benefits of meditation and stress reduction from being completely present!
Best wishes with Alberto and your new filly!
PS both my horses are Paso Finos – I really enjoyed your blog entries on them – they are so sensitive it takes a different approach to working with them. Clicker training is perfect.
Love your writing, I just found your site a couple of weeks ago and am working my way through it all.
I have a theory about Paso Finos…I think because they are traditionally bred to have a rapid footfall, their brain/synapses, in order to command such a rapid footfall, have to fire really fast. This ability, I’ve noticed, creates not only a sensitive horse, but a fast processor. This makes them outstanding thinkers and problem solvers. As you’ve found, clicker training, is one of the best ways to keep their busy minds directed and enriched. They truly are a breed apart…
Thanks so much!