Dillenger’s Lesson in Observation!


It’s a great blessing and privilege to live with horses and interact with them throughout the day. It affords me all sorts of opportunities to develop my skills in using my senses. Many of the folks I work with are fairly new to being the primary care-giver of horses. It can be a daunting task trying to figure out how to wade through the vast sea of conflicting information about the best way to care for our friends. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of anxiety and worry as we embark on the journey of discovering our horse’s needs and how to best meet them. Learning to expand our awareness and utilize all our senses each and every time with interact with our horse friends puts us in direct communication with them, allowing us to recognize instantly when something is off, identify the cause and take appropriate action with confidence.

My barn helpers often ask me how I can stay so calm in a crisis. Largely it’s because I know horses are terrible at disregarding their survival needs and that makes it pretty easy to determine just how concerned I need to be. For example, horses are extremely keyed into meal times. Given they are designed to be out moving and eating all the time and most places feed horses on a fixed schedule, they are always ready to eat at feeding time! I notice things when I head out to feed. I can visually assess and notice if someone is lying down or ignoring me as I begin to gather feed, both of those things are red flags. I can immediately use my felt perception sense, focused in their direction and ask – how does this feel? – and get a better sense of if they are just napping or if something more is going on. It’s very handy. But even without that I can use my eyes to help me gauge the situation by noticing the behavior of the other horses. If they are all calm that’s a good sign. The horse that’s lying down or isolated can also be visually assessed – if they are laying or standing quietly that’s potentially a good sign.

As I approach with the feed wagon and begin feeding I pay attention. Do they get up or continue lying down. If they continue lying down and disregard my presence all together it might be a concern but they might just be sleeping so I just wait, watch and feel in. I have learned that the more I develop my ability to use my felt sense the more information I have access to, including the kind of information often referred to as animal communication, as in I may get a clear message from the horse saying – ‘I’m okay, just napping’ – I’ve had that happen. Something I always look for when a horse who’s been lying down around feeding time gets up is if they shake. I’ve noticed over the years that a good, vigorous, full body shake is something a colicky horse will not do. Now keep in mind this may not be a good barometer if your horse has structural issues, as in they may not be comfortable enough physically to do a full body shake but they’ll usually shake what they can shake, give a good snort or sigh and amble over for food. The more I get to know each horse as an individual the more I know their physical signals that convey they are happy and healthy.

We had a nasty winter storm here a few weeks ago. Dillenger is over 30 years old at this point and has no molars left. He chooses to live in an area by himself and eats mash 3 or 4 times a day. He does great, but I always worry about him dropping a lot of weight in the stormy weather and so we blanket him. I always say putting a blanket on and off of Dilly is like disarming a bomb. I don’t have to halter him but we definitely negotiate and if any straps hit his legs he has a full on Arab moment and will flee the scene, blanket flying!

During this last storm my lunchtime feeder reported in that Dilly was very spooky and wasn’t able to stay focused enough to eat his mash. He gets spooky sometimes and can take a while to eat sometimes but he hadn’t finished his breakfast either and so I had nagging concerns. As I thought about it it occurred to me that I wasn’t sure I understood – had he eaten at all or? So I called her back and asked. No, he hadn’t even looked at his food. This in combination with the left over breakfast made me think he might have choked on his breakfast, he’s done it before, and that would be a time sensitive concern. That or he was colicky. So I suited up and headed out to investigate.

Now I could have used my sense of direct communication but you see I was in the midst of working on the content for the online class that accompanies this material. I had deadlines and was feeling quite stressed, overwhelmed by pervasive anxiety. When I’m in that state it doesn’t do me a lot of good to use my felt perception to tune in, especially to another being who is in a state of deep anxiety. I touched in enough to know that he and I had similar feelings of anxiety, at that point all we’re going to do is resonate with each other. This is something we’ll delve into soon as it relates to the subject of empathic or emotional overwhelm and how we often resonate with what others are feeling to the degree it drains our energy or feels as though we are picking up on ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ stuff. Really what it boils down to is learning how to use the information we perceive and then know how to do something with it, other than resonate.   In this instance, I would have gotten overwhelmed by the felt sense of Dilly’s anxiety, it matched my own too closely. What other tools do I have?

I consciously dialed down my felt perception so that I could have a clear place from which to observe. Yes, Dilly seemed very anxious, standing stock still with his head high, stuck in startle reflex, shaking. I pulled his food out so it was sitting right in front of him, stepped back and observed. He did not move a muscle. Hmm. No overt signs of choke – he usually has nasal discharge and a visible lump in his throat when that happens and usually he puts his head down. One way to know for sure. I took a handful of feed and held it under his nose. He sniffed it and ate it carefully out of my hand and seemed keen for more. Definitely not choke and I could now also rule out colic. Phew. But then what the heck!

I took a walk around him, knowing how he feels about blankets, to make sure no straps were loose. All good on that front. Pause, take a step back and feel in a bit, what is concerning him?   Not sure, still just feel extreme anxiety, verging on panic. So I went back and offered another handful of feed, this time luring him to lower his head and reach for the bucket, maybe something is wrong physically? He slowly lowered his head when, at a certain point, his entire blanket shifted on his back, creaking and snapping and crunching as it shifted. He practically sat down with the shock of it, popped his head back up and froze.

Ah-ha! His blanket had accumulated a layer of snow that had melted with his body heat. Then the temperature plummeted and the layer of melted snow froze into a layer of solid ice. He had icicles hanging off the edges of the blanket. Every time he moved at all the whole blanket would snap and crack, scaring the heck out of him. We talked about and I was able to convince him that it was just his blanket, I knew it was scary but could he work with it until it quit snowing? He managed to eat his lunch and dinner while wearing the terrifying frozen blanket and I was able to remove it later that night when it stopped snowing.

This is how I am able to stay calm when there is a crisis. I know I can trust my senses and the horses to guide me to the solution as long as I stay calm and keep the lines of inquiry open. I have taken care of so many horses for so long that I keep a running tab of sorts going all the time. I’m constantly tuning into the various issues that crop up so that I’m available to hear communications from the horses and receive insight and information that might guide me to a solution, in whatever form it comes. I am far more effective at utilizing this ability when I take really good care of myself!

This is an excerpt from the 2017 Online Coaching Series Part 1: The Foundations of Perception where we are currently discussing the importance of taking good care of ourselves as a component of being able to engage in effective communication (especially listening and observing) with our horses.


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