In the post Free to Decide, I described how a nasty, itchy case of neck threadworms was the major turning point for DaVinci and me. This was the shining moment where he decided that human touch could be valuable. This turning point lead to a wonderful discovery I made last night.
But before I describe what happened, I need to give you a little background about DaVinci to explain why I feel it’s so important.
Prior to the moment when DaVinci decided human touch was good, I got the feeling he thought that human touch was something to be avoided at all costs. Judging by his reactions, even worse than human touch was a human with an object in their hand. Any object, even seemingly benign objects such as a bucket or a soft grooming tool or a whole carrot would trigger a series of reactions, like bolting, snorting, spooking and often a lovely blast of diarrhea.
During his first few weeks with us, I’d appear near his paddock, make the sound of the click, drop food in his bucket and walk away. This proved to be a double reward, he received food and I (in his mind, something to be avoided) walked away. I honored what felt better to him. My presence felt bad to him, so when I walked away he felt better.
Soon he began to look forward to my appearance as I was always carrying something that felt good, food. Within a short time I could stand near his food bucket without him bolting. Even then, he looked like he was controlled by a giant puppet in the sky and his head was a yo-yo bobbing up and down, but at least he wasn’t running away.
As soon as I saw him connecting me with something that felt good, I began to teach him to target while he was on one side of the fence and I was on the other. He started targeting his bucket. I could then walk with his bucket and he’d follow me. The next thing I taught him to target was a soft dandy brush.
This, I thought, was an interesting sequence, which proved very valuable two years later. After he was consistently targeting the brush, I held it still in my outstretched hand and waited until his forehead accidentally touched the brush. I clicked, and he did it again.
Soon, I could simply hold the brush up and he’d brush his own head. At this point, I was not making any moves toward him, or doing anything to him. It was as if he were brushing himself. For some silly reason I used the verbal cue “Kitty” because it looked just like the way a cat will rub it’s head against something so it can pet itself.
As time passed I would use the “Kitty” cue to target his head to his halter. I used this cue so much that my neighbors thought his name was Kitty. In retrospect I should have continued with teaching him to target other parts of body, besides his muzzle, lips, teeth and hooves, to different objects.
Instead, since he was now letting me touch him, sort of, I would just liberally click and treat when my hand made contact to his body. This method was working well until it came time I needed to “apply” something to his body, like an ointment.
It became a double whammy. I had an object in my hand and it smelled funny. Since I work with him at liberty, giving him the freedom to bolt when he needs to, it was really hard to get near him.
One day I got greedy. I decided he really needed to get over himself, so I attached him to a lead rope and did our usual routine except at this time I wouldn’t let him walk away. He could move his feet, but only within the radius of the lead rope. This of course brought on a mild panic attack, but I worked him through it.
Later I thought, Hmmm, let’s work him through his fly spray anxiety. For months I had been spraying the other horses as he stood next to them. I had been spraying water close to him while he was eating. He seemed fairly unnerved by the sound of the sprayer. I was even able to spray the front of his body with the hose, but his sides were still off limits.
I hate to use the word mistake, but this was a mistake, or rather a serious set back. I thought I had enough clout with him. After he saw and felt that the fly spray would not hurt him, he’d realize there was nothing to fear.
But I created a train wreck. In a few moments of, This won’t hurt you. See? (squirt, squirt), I undid months of progress. This was because I created a situation where he was restrained and had absolutely no choice. He also could not see past his fear. Probably because his major fear lies in be afraid of being restrained and having no choice. Duh.
So here I was back to square one with thoughts like, How will I ever treat him if he’s injured? What will happen in an emergency?
Then to add insult to injury, DaVinci needed his coggins pulled. I had it pulled the year before by a female veterinarian who took a lot of time with him while we played with DaVinci as he targeted his favorite toys. It took a few tries, but DaVinci held still long enough for the vet to insert the needle and pull a small vial of blood. I was thrilled. The moment wasn’t perfect, but at least we got the job done without injury, mental or physical.
A year later a male veterinarian and equine dentist came with their mobile practice to float Raleigh’s teeth and pull DaVinci’s coggins. DaVinci got one glimpse of their truck and trailer and started to snort. I offered a target for DaVinci to touch, but he was already on high alert. After DaVinci gave them a sampling of his aerial maneuvers, they decided to sedate him.
But after an hour of every possible horse restraint technique, blind folds, stud chains and head locks, the vet told me he’s never seen anything like DaVinci. He said most horses will submit to treatment once they realize you won’t hurt them, even the wild mustangs they work with. He told me that the most similar client to DaVinci that they treat is a Zebra.
The vet left without so much as a drop of DaVinci’s blood and I was left with a huge pit in my stomach. Especially, after the vet told me that it might be a good idea to find a place for DaVinci within a herd where he doesn’t have to have human contact.
I reflected on their visit for days. In the midst of a huge cloud of discouragement, I felt I was given a huge clue when the vet said, Most horses will submit to treatment once they realized you won’t hurt them.
I began thinking that DaVinci has probably experienced so much hurt from human touch, that human touch means hurt. So anytime a human is about to touch him he prepares with all his might to avoid potential pain. I saw clearly that DaVinci was not demonstrating bad behavior or being disagreeable. Probably in his mind, he was fighting for his life.
In the past, even though I could touch DaVinci, I could always tell he it didn’t feel good to him. No matter how fervently I clicked and treated for touching him, I could not make him see I would not hurt him.
This is when I gave him some time off and I learned about serendipity. During this time he got neck threadworms and decided I could be useful because my human touch could relieve his itching.
It seemed like after he made this realization (on his own), I’ve made more progress than ever towards normal horse keeping.
Now we come to the discovery. I had to give him yet another dose of ivermectin. At first he had his initial googly eyed response to the object in my hand. I asked him to target the wormer tube. Then I asked him to take it in his teeth. He’s very used to this because of his skill in handling paint brushes. I administered the wormer as if he’s a normal horse and my thoughts turned to the dreaded coggins test I needed to get.
I thought, Hmmm. This wormer tube looks like a syringe. I decided to try something that worked well two years ago. I held up the tube to DaVinci’s forehead and said, “Kitty.” He immediately targeted his cute little blaze until it hit the tube. We did this a few times until he was very clear that’s what I wanted.
(On a side note, DaVinci’s major issue is that he is adamant that no one stands at his side, especially his neck or his flank, especially with an object in their hand. When I had his teeth floated, he was unsedated and did very well, because the dentist stood directly in front of him the entire time. Had the dentist made one step to the side, the jig would have been up.)
As I stood directly in front of him, I held the tube out to the side of his neck and said the magic word, “Kitty.” I could see the wheels turning. He bobbed his head a few times and slowly leaned his neck into the tube. He received a major jackpot of treats for that one, as well as all kinds of praise.
I repeated this a few times and he kept bringing his neck to the tube. I eventually was able to stand at his side and he’d even perform a tiny side pass to move closer to me to allow his neck to reach. During this time, he was relaxed, even a bit enthusiastic as sometimes he’d nicker softly after he touched the tube, knowing something great was about to happen.
As I write this, I’m still in awe of what happened and am trying figure why it worked. I think the moral of the story with DaVinci is that by giving him the freedom to decide and the choice to act, rather than have something act upon him, he feels less of a victim and more of a participant. Sometimes when I was with him I got weird images as if he were a former prisoner of war, tortured, contained and still experiencing the pain of all those memories.
In contrast, lately I have been having moments with him where he looks at me with his lids half open and he nuzzles my cheek and exhales. This usually happens after a practice session of something that requires me to touch him. I swear he’s saying, Thank you for making my world feel better, which would be a big anthropomorphization, but I can’t help it.
In my heart I think DaVinci experiences huge relief when he works through something that previously scared him. But the key, I’m finding, is that he can’t get overly scared during this process. If he’s always given a choice, he doesn’t seem to enter panic mode.
The big discovery for me was in realizing the importance of letting DaVinci particpate, in this case, letting him bring his neck to the object, rather than having the object forced upon him regardless of how gently. For his recovery, I think it’s crucial he’s allowed to decide to act rather than made to act.
Again there seems to be something magical or healing that occurs each time I give DaVinci the freedom to interact with me, to express his feelings, to voice his concerns without me asserting my will on him. When I take this time I see that we get so much closer to achieving the same goals.
It feels extraordinary to see a creature, once so obviously burdened with fear, begin to relax and perhaps shed his mental demons and embrace a much more peaceful view of life.
For now, I plan to continue challenging my brain to find ways for DaVinci to choose the behavior I invite, rather than make him choose. I’ve learned my lesson about trying to make the decision for him.
Rest assured we’ll be practicing the Let’s pull blood out of your neck game. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to say, DaVinci had his blood pulled with all four feet on the ground and he liked it! And so did I!