Free to Decide

I just read a post on a forum about how a woman said she cured a small dog of its aggression. She only had to alpha roll it twice! She bragged about how it was licking her face afterward. I’m curious to see what happens next. Does the dog have to see a chiropractor from being thrown on its back?

I shudder thinking of all the horses that were tripped and thrown onto their backs to break them.

So is all this animal tossing really necessary? I keep feeling the whole herd-hierarchy, dominance-submissive mentality is archaic and verging on barbaric. I propose we treat the animals with the same dignity we ask from each other. Instead of forcing them to do what we want from them, let’s give them the chance to decide, through reasoning to do what we ask.

For example, let’s say I’m at a team-building leadership seminar and I’m assigned to a group that’s given a task. The task is to hypothetically build a rocket.  Sitting at my table are a chef, a brain surgeon, a rocket scientist, an English teacher, a pro wrestler and I. We have to decide who will lead the project.

I feel the choice will be obvious. The chef, however, pulls out his spatula and begins slapping us on our shoulders to show us that he’ll be the better leader. The wrestler muscles the chef into a headlock and says he wants to lead.

The rocket scientist calmly pulls out his resume and some schematics for a rocket he’d just built and launched. The surgeon, the teacher and I survey the plans while the chef and the wrestler alpha roll each other around the floor. Once they grow tired, they surface to the table for a drink of water. We then put the choice to vote. Majority rules and the rocket scientist gets to lead.

In reading that silly example, what choice for leadership felt best? Why did it feel good? To me, it felt right to choose the scientist. It was not only logical, but he was calm and self assured while explaining to us his experience. I also got the privilege of deciding. I didn’t have to submit to bullying. If the wrestler got to lead, we’d be following him because we’d be afraid he’d break our necks and we’d be really nervous because we knew he didn’t have the experience.

I think my horses also relish the privilege of deciding, especially DaVinci, my horse recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

For over two years I’ve been trying to find a way to help him change his mind about his fear of humans. His overwhelming fear is that someone is going to do something to him (like the equivalent of being put in a headlock by the wrestler). This makes normal horse keeping really difficult. It took months for him to see that a bucket was his friend and a grooming tool in my hand was not a weapon.

His fears about everyday life appeared to be so painful to him that my husband and I wondered if euthanasia would be the most humane way to end his pain. The level of tension he carried in his body all day long was almost too much for us to bear.

Then last summer, DaVinci came down with a case of Neck Thread Worms, lovely invisible creatures that burrow under the skin and create all kinds of bumps and intense, hair-removing itching. Living in Florida in the summer is like living a real, microscopic, horror movie. In this case, though, it turned out to be more of a romantic comedy.

One night when I gave him his hay, I reached my hand out to touch him, and as usual he braced and prepared to walk away. As luck would have it, I happened to touch a raised itchy spot which I began to softly scritchy-scratch. Instead of moving away, he moved into me. He began showing me the itchiest spots by positioning his body where I could reach the areas that were most itchy. And they were in vulnerable areas that he’d never let me touch before.

We repeated this nightly scritchy-ritual until the Equimax and Ivermectin (wormers) did their job. Before the worms, I’d have to click and give a food reward for him to stay with me at liberty. Even then his body was tense. He’d stay with me, but it wasn’t because he initiated the interaction. There was something powerful about that moment when he saw me as something that could make him feel better.

In that worm-ridden moment, he decided that I felt good to him. I wasn’t trying to condition him that I was safe by lots of repetition of clicking and treating for standing still. This was clearly his decision. I didn’t have to do anything except be a scratching post.

Since I can’t get into DaVinci’s mind, I can only observe his behaviors to try to figure out what happened. I feel like he made some logical decisions based on reasoning that might have sounded like this:

I itch. She can scratch me. I feel better when she scratches me. Staying with her feels better than walking away.

This is why I feel the whole herd-hierarchy, dominance-submission mentality needs a face lift. I think communicating with our horses can be as simple as creating logical choices for them based on what makes them feel better.

I had spent two years trying to get DaVinci to accept me. In the space of about 10 seconds when he decided that I was good in his world, our entire relationship changed. He’s arrived at a different level of relaxing. He holds his head much lower when I’m around. I hear him breath softly instead of holding his breath. He lowers his head for his fly mask, where before he’d tense up. I think somehow this is the key to his recovery, letting him decide that humans can help him, not hurt him.

I couldn’t force him to make the connection that I wouldn’t hurt him, no matter how many clicks and food rewards I gave him. It seemed no amount of conditioning would get us there.

That brief moment, where DaVinci decided that I was welcome to touch him, seemed to cancel out years of trauma and jump-started his recovery. And I have neck thread worms to thank for it.

Now my focus with him and the rest of the herd is to see what happens when I appeal to their sense of logic, not mine. I want to create situations where they’re free to decide.



4 thoughts on “Free to Decide

  1. okay cheryl when are you going to write a BOOK! for us. i tell everone i know about you and about this way of seeing and being with our horses but…we need more. your a great writer with a delightful imagination whadaya think?? your friend, roxanne >>>——->

    • I’m thrilled that you think a book would be in order and I’m really glad you’re enjoying the blog. I think I’ll be ready to consider a book when DaVinci says he’s ready for me to tell his story. I have the belief, if these methods work on DaVinci, they’ll work on any horse. I’ve never, ever seen a horse this deep in fear. If I can turn his thoughts around about life, humans, touch, things that move, things that smell funny, things that sound weird etc, then I’ll know it’s time.

      DaVinci has an instant panic mechanism. You can literally see the line of muscles in his back twitch and tighten when he’s weighing a situation and beginning to get suspicious. This can be brought on by a new grooming tool that he’s never seen. I use his body tension as my gauge. My goal is to keep him in his ‘zone’ where he’s relaxed and attentive. The minute he starts to brace in his mind, his body turns into rock, it’s like his muscle turns to stone. It can’t feel very good to him with that happens…..

      Over the past few months I’ve made a ton of progress simply working with him in his zone. All the major setbacks I created occurred when I pushed him, by trying to ‘help’ him get over a fear by continually exposing him to the source of fear (fly spray bottle) while he was too tense.

      I had the mistaken notion that I could desensitize him, and eventually he’d see that he had nothing to fear. Because of his instant panic mechanism, I think the moment he feels any fear, he can’t make a positive association because of the adrenaline surge. (I’m guessing.)

      If I can keep him calm when introducing something new, it seems to create a different memory pathway for him than when I introduce something when he’s braced, mentally or physically.

      I’d also like to be able to write more about starting a young horse with attraction. Once Raleigh matures a bit, and I’ve had more time with him under saddle, I’ll have much more to report!

      But you’ll always hear it here first!

      Thank you so much for your encouragement,

  2. hello again…i wrote that first response right before i went to bed and woke up at 2:30 this morning thinking more about what all you wrote cheryl and laying a horse down. i saw it done once and it broke my heart. right before my eyes this horses eyes went from being panicked and wild with the whites showing, to sad, lost and watery. it was as if the horses very soul had been injured and it had no choice but to surrender to it. i saw that horse two years later and he always had his head down, and would never look you in the eye. in a way both humans and horses have to do some surrendering to live with each other and this is, to me, okay but only if it is done through love. when we are forced to surrender, it injures the spirit. when one of my horses chooses freely to come see me from way back in the pasture or gently nudges me while i’m scritchin’ him and has that soft n dreamy look in his eye, it turns my world and make me feel like a million bucks. not because i’ve done something to make this happen, but because he’s feeling good. plain and simple. and because he came there thru (excuse my corny metaphor) the tunnel of love, not the path of most resistance. oh yes and a word about rope halters…why were they invented. to put PRESSURE on trigger spots on the horses face and poll. i saw the-guy-with-TWO!-white-sticks who is on tv, smack a mare on the butt because she pulled back while she was tied at a pole. the bottom of that halter had gotten wedged under the gums of her lower teeth and was cutting into her flesh. when i mentioned it to him he said “she’ll got over it…teach her a lesson”. all of this has got to change….control, alpha, wrestlers, whips, sticks, smacks, dominance, boss, “light hands” but with a two pound bit, doesn’t ring very ‘natural’ to me! the way we think about our horses has to evolve, change, be better, grow, that WE may learn. seems in more way then one, they’re already there.

  3. “the way we think about our horses has to evolve, change, be better, grow, that WE may learn. seems in more way then one, they’re already there.” (roxanne)

    How cool would it be, that a dreamy way of relating to our horses in way where both horse and human feel great, would be as simple as a change of thought?

    Hmmmmm, maybe it is.

    As always, thank you for your thoughts,

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