Happy 4th of July!
We’ve been having ‘fun’ with fireworks in our neighborhood, which afforded a good opportunity to practice what I preach when 34-year-old Dillenger had a panic attack Sunday night! Who can blame him when there was a full on, full-scale fireworks display less than 1/2 mile due south of us. It was rather large!
When I heard the first boom I hurried out to make sure the horses were okay. As the main herd high tailed it out to the pasture, Dilly, who chooses to remain separate most of the time anymore, panicked. He charged from one corner to the next, pressing his chest against the electric fence, threatening to run through it to get in with some other horses. This is the perfect opportunity to practice modeling calmness for him, letting him know with every fiber of my being, he is safe, nothing to fear here. All the other horses, who were looking nervous when I stepped out the door, instantly settled when they saw me. Not Dilly. He was too caught up in his mounting panic.
Many years ago Romeo taught me that some horses require physical connection to calm down. A thoroughbred, off the track, back in my experimenting with “liberty” work in round pens, he would run frantically around the pen screaming at the top of his lungs. I was powerless to help him standing as I was in the middle of a round pen with no line attached to him. After that first terrifying round pen episode I always lunged him with a halter and line. At least then if he panicked I could reel him in and offer some support. That was a powerful lesson!
Sunday night I opened the gate to Dilly’s pen, giving him a larger area to move around in and hoping he might head for the pasture with the rest of the herd. Of course that would mean going TOWARDS the terrifying, booming lights in the sky and he would have none of it. Normally he’ll follow me at liberty anywhere but not this time. So I gave him more room to move and fetched a halter from the nearby trailer.
Putting a halter on a panicked horse is such a test of relationship. I can’t show any doubt or hesitation. I know touch can be calming so I placed a hand solidly on his shoulder and spoke to him as I put the halter on. He was tense but stood for me and once the halter was on he settled in beside me and followed me quietly (though filled with held tension) to the pasture where he could find comfort among the now grazing herd.
I hope none of you find yourselves in a similar situation with any of your four-legged friends this holiday. But if you do, remember that horses, like any other being, are capable of reading our energy and emotions.
Become a calm, solid presence that lets them know with certainty that they are safe, nothing to worry about here. Plant your feet firmly on the ground, standing tall and breathing deeply, how we carry ourselves matters a lot. And remember that touch and physical connection from someone thus grounded provides a lifeline they can ground into if your presence alone isn’t enough (assuming you can do so without risking injury to yourself in the process)!