Random Acts of Scritchy-Scratch

There’s a mantra in the field of sales that says, People don’t care what you know until they know that you care. DaVinci, my post traumatic stress gelding, has caused me to tweak that saying to fit his point of view — DaVinci doesn’t want to interact with me until he knows that I care. Which leads me to a question. How do you show a horse that you care?

A salesperson can show their compassion by identifying with the customer with words like, I hear you or Trust me, I’ve been there. Our product will do x, y, z, and you’ll never have to worry again. The words communicate caring.

DaVinci could see right through my words and even my best intentions. He could be classified as a horse that brings out the worst in people. Because of his trauma, he’ll melt down at the drop of hat. This makes a simple, two-minute task of applying Neosporin to a cut into a half-hour ordeal. Nothing is easy with him. Looking back, I think is was to teach me about miracles.

My Confession
I bought DaVinci for the purpose of showing just how effective positive reinforcement training could be for a difficult horse. My exact words were, I want to take a horse that would be least likely to paint–or do anything for that matter–and see what happens. Looking back, my focus was not purely on DaVinci, it was on proving a point. I had experienced such easy success with Romeo, a very troubled horse, and Juliet a young green horse, that I thought DaVinci would be a breeze.

DaVinci thought otherwise. He was no breeze. He’s been more like a tornado. At first I thought I was making great progress since he learned to paint after only eleven, five-minute sessions within his first two weeks of arriving. In fact he learned to paint before I could touch him.

Not only that, anything I asked him to do that didn’t remind him of his past treatment, he would do willingly, as if he were a normal horse. These were painting, climbing on obstacles, fetching, targeting and dancing with me. The minute I began an activity that resembled normal horse keeping, like using a halter and lead to take him someplace, instead of using a target stick to lead him, he began to melt down. I didn’t dare approach him with a grooming tool in my hand. Yet, if I held a paint brush or a ball, he was fine.

No amount of click/treating by touching or even holding the grooming tool in his mouth seemed to make the object less threatening.

My Discovery
What I discovered, three years later, is that even with all the clicker training and pure positive reinforcement he was living in, it was not enough. His old memories of mistreatment were proving too strong to undo. I had hoped I could reprogram him, to override and replace his traumatic past experiences with fresh ones that felt good. But what I found is that I can’t reprogram him. The decision has to be his.

I began to get really discouraged after reading Dr. Temple Grandin’s thoughts about the possibility of abused horses never recovering. I slowly began to accept the idea that DaVinci may be too damaged to recover. That’s when the big shift occurred — when I stopped trying to reform him.

The Shift
I wrote about the start of the shift in a post Free to Decide, when DaVinci developed a case of itchy neck threadworms. This was when I felt like I became known as “the one who could relieve the itch.” Instead of shying away at my touch, he would seek me out. If I kept scratching he’d position himself with all sorts of horse yoga moves (back leg in the air) just so I could reach areas he couldn’t.

Even when the worms disappeared he still seemed to seek me out for a session of scritchy-scratch. It soon became our nightly ritual. I found myself really looking forward to our quiet time of scritching. On occasion he reciprocated and gently rested his muzzle in the nook of my shoulder and neck. Sometimes I could feel him softly nuzzle my cheek.

For the first time I felt like I understood the meaning of communion. Merriam Webster’s definition of communion is:

intimate fellowship or rapport, the act or instance of sharing

Soon our evening ritual of scritching became my time to commune with DaVinci. What I began feeling was this sense of intimate fellowship that I had not felt before, even with all the positive reinforcement. I think because the aspect of sharing was not there.

Perhaps DaVinci had to know that I really cared for him as an individual, not because he was a project or a broken creature than I needed to fix. Up until this point there was no sharing. It was just me with a mission. Even with all the attraction-based work, positive reinforcement and clicker training, it obviously wasn’t enough to cause him want to share himself with me. Perhaps I was just doing a lot of asking, even though it was pressure-free asking and I could get new behaviors, it was still asking. My aha moment in all of this was that I wasn’t giving.

I thought the currency of click/treat was enough to make him feel good. I think it made him feel better than his previous treatment, but it didn’t rank high enough to make a decent deposit into his feel-good account. But when I was able to meet a deep need of his, to relieve his itching, that was the currency that mattered to him. After the itching stopped, it seemed like he was just as happy with the moments he had where I would hang out and just be with him.

This concept became very clear a few days ago when he and I were painting. We hadn’t painted together in about a year. It was as if we entered a meditative zen-like state where we both were so happy to be together. In between brush changes he’d lower his head and rest his muzzle on my cheek and just breathe. We’d take time out for a scritchy-scratch and then he’d look for a brush to start painting with again.

I completely lost track of time. DaVinci stood unhaltered and unrestrained at my side, moving only to run the brush over the painting or rest his nose on my shoulder. I had never experienced this type of closeness with him before.

Until this shift occurred, I had basically given up the thought of ever riding him. In the back of my mind, I figured he’d tell me if he were ready. With all my horses, I watch for their invitation, a willingness to have me interacting with them on their backs. If they don’t want me there, I certainly don’t want to be there!

A few days after our zen painting day, DaVinci was standing next to the mounting block. We have an exercise where he sidepasses up to the mounting block and stands still. I get on the mounting block, lay my arm across his back, he flexes his neck away from me, I click and he accepts a treat.

I do this exercise with DaVinci unhaltered, so if at any time he’s not ready for me to hover over his back, he can walk away. Some days he stands still, while other days he skirts out from under my arm. You can watch a video showing early stages of this work  here.

On this day, however, I felt a completely different energy. He was soft and interactive just like on our communion days. Just like he was when we were painting. Instead of my arm across his back, I laid my torso over him with my arm outstretched, but he was not bearing any of my weight, yet.

Then I felt it. I felt the invitation. I felt him say, “I’m ready.” I boosted myself up, my full weight lying across his back. I had my arm out stretched and as he flexed his head to accept the treat, he paused for a moment as his nose almost touched my face. Our heads were very close–the same position when we ‘take communion.’

I felt his body relax. I clicked/treated and slid off. I repeated this a few more times with the same response from him. This was the first time he’d accepted me on his back.

I think I was finally able to create a situation that normally feels predatory to a horse–climbing on its back–and turned it into a situation that reminded him of a time that felt wonderful to him.

Little Miracles
Obviously for a normal horse this would be a boring story. For DaVinci and me, this is almost earth shattering. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given up hope for his recovery and said things like, “It’s a good thing he doesn’t eat much.”

DaVinci never ceases to make me believe in miracles. Just when I think all hope is lost, he turns around and says, “Keep going.”

All along I thought I was being so giving and compassionate with my attraction-based treatment. No doubt it created a great foundation, but the real miracle occurred in realizing what DaVinci views as giving. For him I think the meaning of true giving is simply being able to be with him without taking. This means no asking for behaviors, no trying to make him okay with fly spray, no trying to make him a normal horse. In other words, I need to just take the Taoist approach and do nothing.

This means simply standing next to him and breathing together, with me offering an occasional scritch. When I can do that, he bowls me over with more gifts than I thought he was capable of. From now on, I will never underestimate the beauty, simplicity and power of Random Acts of Scritchy-Scratch. What an easy way to say to DaVinci, I care.



4 thoughts on “Random Acts of Scritchy-Scratch

  1. Wow! What a beautiful story! How fortunate DaVinci is to have found you. And vice versa. It seems our biggest lessons come when we release resistance (whatever it might be) and just find the feel-good place. 🙂


  2. I can’t tell you how much this has touched me, reading of your work with DaVinci. I had so hoped to learn of ways to get closer with my horses, and reading of your learnings with DaVinci has shown me that there is a way to communicate with horses to arrive at a better place together.

    I hope to read more of your work and learn all that I can. I am so appreciative what you have accomplished in this endeavor. I love the paintings! As an artist myself, it seems like the most natural thing to try with one of these beloved animals. I can’t wait to learn more.


    • Hi Phyllis,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. Some days I think I should rename DaVinci and simply call him Teacher. There’s no doubt in my mind that his issues and difficulties are by divine design. I have to remember this when I wish he’d just ‘hurry up and get over it’. But, if he did that, I certainly wouldn’t have so much to write about.

      The remarkable part is how he positively reinforces me at the right time-just when I’m about to give up and think he’ll never be normal, he’ll throw me a curve ball and show me just how spectacular he can be. His newest paintings are just one example. He’s perfected a stroke completely different from my other horses that allows me to create paintings with a definite floral theme.

      Thank you again for your note. I have many more DaVinci updates on the way…..

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