Beyond Body Language: Training issue or discomfort?

In my blog last Wednesday I wrote about a horse named Summer who taught me quite a few important lessons. One of her greatest lessons was how good horses are at adapting to and compensating for lameness.

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This is a horse came to me because her behavior during training had become downright dangerous.  The consulting trainers treated the problems as behavior problems that could be fixed by disciplining her:  “she’s a dominant mare” – “she’s being disobedient”.  Luckily someone who had worked with me before stepped in and intervened on her behalf.  The first thing we did at my place was a lameness exam.  She was diagnosed with  issues in her poll and joints in all four limbs.  A horse who is lame in all four legs definitely isn’t going to look like they are limping.  Can you see the things in her body language that would have let you know she was in pain?  She’s sound and doing great now, by the way!

It’s important to remember that horses weren’t always domesticated. They evolved as prey animals with a keen awareness of what it takes to survive in the wild. One thing they know for certain, the lesson Summer reinforced, is that predators will select the lame ones first.

What this means is that if a horse has a lameness issue brewing they can power through it, tune it out and not limp for quite some time. I’m floored by what horses will adapt to!

What this means is that it’s quite common for a horse to have chronic, low-grade pain that can make them seem like they are being lazy, disobedient, rude and even down right dangerous. I even had a horse in chronic pain act like he was terribly itchy!

Remember, horses are masters at not limping. Just because they aren’t limping doesn’t necessarily mean they are comfortable. Any time a horse develops behavioral issues it’s a good idea to rule out physical discomfort from pain or illness before treating it as a training issue.

There are ways to identify when a horse is in pain even when they aren’t limping. Do you know what to look for?

Graceful Transitions

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As the last brown gold leaves fall from the trees and the first hints of winter chill my bones it’s that time. Time to take stock of the old ones. Most of the horses in my herd of twenty are over twenty. The fact that Gin is 28 still shocks me. Fafnir is 31, Aero is 30 and Dillinger is at least 34! With so many elderly sometimes I feel I am on life watch. Which is slightly less depressing than thinking of it as deathwatch.

Timing is everything. I sure don’t want to end a life when they still have life to live. I also don’t want to miss that window where things go on too long and they suffer.

It’s never an easy decision. Our horses are part of our family. They live with us and they die with us. I love the old ones. I love taking care of their special needs and partaking of the wisdom they share. I’ve been present with so many horses as they transition out of this life I lost count. Well over 50 I should imagine.

I often wonder if a horse lingers because they know I’m not ready to let them go? I’ve been suspicious enough about this possibility to vow to make peace with myself. Determined not to cling to my horse’s lives, to let them know that I will be okay when they go. They should not hang on for me. And I am okay. And they know that.

I even had this romantic notion that if I made peace with myself, when they were ready to go they would curl up peacefully out in the pasture, go to sleep and just not wake up.

Sometimes the decision is made for me. Failing health or life ending illness.  More often, it’s not so clear-cut. Many of the rescue horses in my care have physical challenges that limit their life span. These physically challenged horses teach me so much about quality of life. Their bodies adapt to their challenges and they find a purpose beyond human ideas of value. Many are simply grateful to be loved and appreciated for who they are for as long as they have.

Even so, I must remember that horses are masters at soldiering on. It’s instinctive to not limp if they can help it. Limping attracts predators. They can quite thoroughly tune out their aches and pains, until they can’t. And so I’m vigilant. Especially as I feel winters first chill winds and cold rains. What do I need to do to prepare for the old ones?

We got to know Summer as a vibrant and cheerful soul over the course of the year she spent with us. She came to my place via the local horse rescue. A bad case of neglect, she was skin and bones with overgrown feet and contracted tendons. The light in her eyes made us want to try.

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Summer thrived on the love and attention she received in our care. Her glowing copper coat glinted in the sun as she cavorted on the pasture. Her joy and exuberance for life made it a tough call as we came to realize that her fetlocks were in fact fused in a very awkward position. We had done all we could to manage her feet and nothing we tried helped.

She didn’t limp around or look miserable. She whinnied for her food and loved to go out and run. The problem was that we couldn’t trim her feet anymore. As time went on she got to where she couldn’t stand on one leg to have the other trimmed. And so I called in my animal communicator to see how Summer felt about her situation.

When I asked Theresa how Summer was doing, all she talked about was how happy she was. How much she enjoyed the feeling of being loved and appreciated for who she was. She especially loved getting to go out on grass!

“What about her leg?”

Theresa’s response: “What leg?”

And so I elaborated, explaining the situation to Theresa.

“Her left front leg is so knuckled over that she can’t stand on it to have it trimmed anymore. Isn’t that terribly uncomfortable?”

“Oh! THAT leg! Yea, that really hurts!”

Once Summer brought THAT leg back into her conscious awareness we could have a conversation about the realities of her situation. Then the tough questions could be asked and answered, her wishes taken into account.

She made it quite clear she was not ready to go. She still had grass to eat and love to give and receive. But, she said she was close. She would let us know when she was ready. And, when she was ready she did not want to have to wait! She had only one request. That she died with fresh green grass in her mouth.

When she was ready we honored her wishes. She passed peacefully, with assistance, with her mouth full of grass! We tied feathers in her mane and burned sage. Steve harvested fresh sage for her to lie on. Susan braided dandelion chains. We all felt so honored. Honored to be present for her passing and to have been able to assist her in passing peacefully and gracefully.

Summer had a message before she passed. A message for humans that I hold close each year when it’s time to take stock of the old ones and physically challenged ones:

“If I were living in the wild in this condition a predator would have taken me a long time ago. A predator’s purpose is to release our Spirit from a body that no longer serves us. When you chose to domesticate us and protect us from predation, it became your responsibility to do what the predators cannot. It’s your responsibility to release us from a body that no longer serves our Spirit when the time comes.”

I know so many who are wrestling with these tough decisions right along with me each year. Please know, no matter what timing you choose, your beloved four legged family members are grateful for your love and attention. Grateful for your courage to let them move on.

Be at peace with your decisions.

Summer 2

 

 

 

 

Beyond Body Language: Up Close and Personal

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Most people I know like to be up close personal with their horses.  Who doesn’t love the smell of horse breath and the touch of a soft muzzle?

But how close is too close?  Have you ever considered what closeness means to your horse?

Closeness can mean different things to different horses.  I like to find out what being close means to each horse before determining how close is too close.

Some people like to be close to horses and some don’t.  Similarly, some horses like to be close and others don’t.

Conflict arises when our personal preferences aren’t in sync with one another.

Consider that we set the tone for every interaction with our horses.  If your horse is too close for comfort what are they telling you about the tone you’ve set?   How can you change the dynamic without conflict?

 

 

Life Lessons

I have heard it said that the only way to learn to ride a horse is to ride a horse.  The only way to learn to play a guitar is by playing the guitar.  That practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. And perhaps from a technical, muscle memory perspective that’s true.  But when it comes to doing anything that involves another being there’s far more to consider than simple, technical proficiency.

When I decided to give my horses their voice and stop using any kind of force, coercion or bribery to get their cooperation, I discovered that our vocabulary was so limited as to be frustrating.  How on earth could I get anything to happen without making it happen?  How could I inspire a horse to want to do things with me?  I found it difficult to remain patient, to feel like I failed and keep coming back to try again.

This mission to find my own way sent me down a path of self-discovery. I had to dig deep.  Getting to know myself meant I had to find ways of upping my game that didn’t necessarily involve horses.  I had to find ways to rip the perfectionism out of me because perfectionism breeds impatience. There is no room for impatience in a relationship built on trust.

I had to test myself.  Learn how I respond to challenges, to fear, to failure.  And ultimately what it feels like to overcome, succeed, and be rewarded for my effort.

My first big lesson in facing my fears and being rewarded came in an unexpected way.

The shallow wash was dotted with cottonwood trees, their canopies gradually vanishing into vividly striped canyon walls.  Glimpses of golden leaves snaking across the landscape of twisting red rock canyon country pull me in. I have to see what’s around that first bend!

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Bundled up against the brisk autumn breeze Steve and I eagerly make our way down the forage choked, barely used trail to the mouth of the canyon.  It feels wild, unimproved, just the way I like it.  Steve is skeptical about what lies ahead, how far we’ll be able to go. I don’t care. I want an adventure!

20141105_111317 (2)Picking our way through the dense undergrowth, it isn’t long before we reach those slick rock walls that narrow the canyon. There is water here. Water in the desert is always magical and we feel blessed by the golden leaves, the water and crisp fall air.  The winding stream bed cuts deep swaths through the sand as it twists and turns through the canyon bottom.   Before long the stream cuts off our passage.

Just beyond we can see the deeper canyon country beckoning.  The walls are higher, the cottonwood trees more densely packed, glimmering gold in the sun, the rest of the canyon hidden around the first big bend.  Tantalizingly close.

The stream here cuts steep and deep into the sandy canyon bottom.  Sheer walls of crumbling sand drop straight down five feet to the water.  We could shimmy our way down and wade through the water but it’s hard to tell how deep it is and we’re unprepared for getting wet.  Just a bit too cold for that to be desirable and after all, it isn’t like we HAVE to see this canyon on this day. It isn’t life or death that we cross the stream. We can turn back now.

Fortunately, some industrious person had found two beaver cut young cottonwood trees and laid them across the gap to form a makeshift bridge.  The trees are small so they laid two across, one for each foot, making it oddly more challenging to balance on.  Never mind that they sway and bounce the farther out you go.

As Steve bounces nimbly across I wait until he reaches the other side before I begin my own transit.  I used to do this kind of thing all the time and never thought twice about it.  Imagine my surprise when, two feet out, I find myself frozen in terror.  Seriously. Frozen.  I can’t move and I’m starting to panic.  Walking back across, Steve holds out his hands and I find that I feel more secure in my balance when my hands are touching his.  With his support I am able to back off to the starting side, catch my breath and calm my racing heart.

What the heck!?

For the first time in my life I stand looking down that canyon seriously considering whether or not I can handle the unknown that lay ahead.  How many stream crossing are there? How treacherous might they be in comparison to this one?  Which really isn’t that treacherous it just seems that way in this moment.

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After calming down and considering our options I decide to give it another try.   Steve crosses ahead of me and comes part way back, holding out his hands for me to touch.  It’s just enough for me to feel I can trust my balance.  Phew!  I am across.

We encounter many more stream crossings, none as challenging as the first.  Shallow water, shallow shore lines, rocks to step on or water low enough to wade through.

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Every new bend in the canyon reveals another wonder.  This turns out to be one of the most magical places I have ever experienced!

As we explore, I take every opportunity to work on my balance like a kid using available obstacles to practice my skill. Industrious beavers have left behind downed trees of all shapes and sizes that provide ample opportunity! By the time we return to that first crossing it’s so easy it’s hard to believe I’d been so frozen before.

I thought a lot about that incident in the coming days.  What if I had given up and walked away?  What if I had let my fear make me turn back?  When I thought about the experience we had and what I would have missed it struck a deep chord.  Life lessons come when we least expect them and this one was a big one.

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That experience catapulted me into a huge period of personal growth where I worked through a lot of old baggage that I hadn’t even realized was holding me back. As all that baggage fell away I moved forward in other areas of my life. Letting go, among other things, of my need to find legitimacy through approval or certification by someone I felt was more qualified than me. Instead, embarking down my own path where I let the horses and the world around me guide me.

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It wasn’t the first profound lesson and it won’t be the last.

Only by finding myself, by understanding what I’m capable of, have I been able to access the kind of clarity and confidence that inspires horses to join me.  It’s not easy to give someone else a voice if you haven’t found your own.  Letting go of perfectionism was easy once I woke up to the depth of connection available when I allow myself to be fully immersed in my experiences.  Finding my voice meant opening myself up to be inspired by life, not just horses.

I still find inspiration and opportunity in the strangest places.  Each new experience teaches me something more about myself and how capable and resilient I am.

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Beyond Body Language: What did you say?

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Our horses are communicating with us all the time.  The better we get at understanding what all those facial expressions and gestures mean, the better our relationship becomes.

I wonder why we don’t spend more time learning about what we convey to our horse with our body language that they are responding to?  For example, last week I wrote about a horse who kind of shut himself down as a way to protect himself from all the confusing things people do.  I can’t tell you how often horses get punished for doing exactly, precisely what we are telling them to do.

“Moving in harmony with horses requires clear communication. And in comparison to most humans, horses might as well have a PHD in non-verbal communication. They read every nuance of what we’re saying via our posture, how we move, our energy, intention, mood and so much more. We convey volumes that we aren’t even aware of!” Excerpt from  There Can Be No Doubt

So, this week let’s turn the spotlight on ourselves and take a look at how naturally and accurately a horse follows our lead.  In this short video clip, the incomparable Gin, follows my lead flawlessly as I do some simple things: walking, changing direction, asking her to trot and drawing her in.  We did all this in a square pen off line so that her responses can be as honest as possible.

First I moved with my normal level of clarity (I had a terrible stiff neck today so even though I wasn’t terribly sound and my posture wasn’t it’s best she could still pick up on my intention and energy and is pretty responsive).

Then I let my shoulders round forward, collapse my core (so I’m not carrying any particular tone).  When this slouch is our way of being it affects our confidence, our ability to move and takes away our clarity.  I can purposely drop my shoulders and relax my core to help a nervous horse calm down and that’s a different thing.  What Gin tells us here is that I got wishy washy and she very accurately reflects that.

Next I pulled my shoulders up around my ears and got very tense and rigid.  Again, I can bring my energy up and increase my tone to increase a horse’s energy as an intentional thing and that’s perfectly acceptable and probably wouldn’t carry the tension that I had here.  When uptight and tense is my unconscious default it makes everything I do feel rushed and out of balance.  My horse is going to be energetic, tense and over reactive because she is accurately reflecting my body language.

I think it’s damaging to a horse’s psyche if we push them to go despite our lack of clarity or if we get mad at them for over reacting when we are tense.  We teach them that they can’t trust their instinctive response to mirror our body language when we do that. And it messes with their heads, as the gelding in my story last week so clearly demonstrates.

Another thing I want to mention, you’ll notice that when I’m tense Gin’s response is pretty energetic as compared to the rest of what we did.  I like to bring my horse’s energy up and watch them find their power.  But this is not that.  While she was energetic she was also tense.  You may notice when she comes in to me after that burst of energy she licks and chews.  Her lick and chew confirms for me that she was stressed by my energy and was showing her relief when I stopped behaving that way. Lick and chew doesn’t always mean they were happy about what we did – it might mean they are happy that we stopped.

Consistently, I find, the more I take my horse’s responses as an accurate reflection of my posture, energy and intention and adapt my response accordingly, the better our relationship.

Do you know what are you’re saying to your horse?

 

 

There Can Be No Doubt

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The lanky black horse is confused. His early experiences interacting with people create lasting memories and the black horse has not forgotten. He learned to go numb. Tune everything out, go inward, and turtle up. This way, he could protect himself from the mixed signals and stress of always doubting what was expected of him.

Here he is in my pen after eighteen years of living his life this way. He’s compulsively eating his way around the edges of the pen. Ignoring me as if his life depends on it.

“I can’t hear you. I can’t see you. Maybe you’ll just go away.”

When I get within five feet I feel waves of anxiety pouring off of him and so I back away until I don’t feel his anxiety anymore. It’s one way to begin the process of teaching him he can trust his instincts again. I can let him know, in this small way, that I hear him.

I have tried other things.

Getting him to move his feet made him feel chased. He ignores any subtler forms of communication. Using food to entice him satisfies my need to have him interact with me temporarily, but it didn’t resolve the deeper issue that plagues him. The only thing that is helping him heal from these long held wounds is me bringing my best self to him, me doing my level best to learn his language and speak to him on his level.

Last week I wrote about the surprising amount of influence we have on our horse’s behavior when we share their space, let alone when we actively do things with them. Moving in harmony with horses requires clear communication. And in comparison to most humans, horses might as well have a PHD in non-verbal communication. They read every nuance of what we’re saying via our posture, how we move, our energy, intention, mood and so much more. We convey volumes that we aren’t even aware of!

What if your horse was reading all of it? What if your horse could tell that you are afraid of them going too fast and so they hold back to protect you? What if your horse can feel the amped up energy you brought to the barn because you had a bad day at work and he is mirroring your bad attitude? What if you asked him to ignore all that and do what you wanted anyway?

Here’s the thing, body language does not lie. We constantly project exactly what we think and how we feel via how we sit, stand, move, and every other tiny gesture. In fact, studies show that despite our apparent lack of fluency in non-verbal communication we still tend to believe body language over words.

Think about that.

We humans, who by and large are pretty unaware of body language, are still influenced by it. Imagine how our horses must feel? If they have the human equivalent of a PHD in non-verbal communication they are reading things in us in such minutia it’s crazy.

Horses like this lanky black gelding studiously ignoring me in the pen and sending me waves of anxiety when I get anywhere near him have gotten me thinking. Since I stepped away from using force or any kind of conditioned response training system it’s opened the door for the horses to be completely honest about how they have felt about what’s been done with them over the course of their lives.

This horse, like so many others, has learned not to trust his PHD skill at reading body language because his entire life people have told him he was wrong when he did.   Now here we sit at an impasse. He studiously ignores me, eating when he isn’t hungry, his only way of telling me he’s nervous and stressed about my presence and my intentions.

Somehow I have to figure out how to help him learn to trust his instincts again. The only way I can do that, without force or bribery or conditioning, is be one hundred percent clear about what I’m projecting. MY body language, emotions, energy and intention must match all the time and I must, to the best of my ability, accurately respond to his feedback and his feelings.

The black horse is one of many who have me rethinking how I do things with horses. I’ve come to believe we seriously damage a horse’s psyche when we ask them to ignore, squash or subdue their natural ability to read body language and their instinctive desire to mirror it. Even horses who have been trained using positive methods come to me frustrated. It doesn’t seem to matter to them so much how kind we are while we do it, if we ask them to disregard what we are really saying (via our own non-verbal communication) we can create confusion, frustration and stress because we leave them in doubt about what we really want.

Slowly, surely, the black horse is learning to trust his instincts again. He’s learning that I say what I mean and mean what I say and that he cannot make any mistakes. If he doesn’t do as I ask I adapt and work with his response. Whatever he offers me is his way of communicating, guiding me to refine my ability to present my ideas with greater clarity. He’s teaching me,  my presence is enough. Free of distractions we engage in pure communication one body, one heart and mind to another.

The black horse is coming out of his shell and I am learning his language.

We are both learning.  There can be no doubt.

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If you’d like to read more stories along these lines and learn about the women who inspire me to be a better person with horses and in life:

Horse Interrupted by Crissi McDonald

Riding The Middle: My Horse is Lazy by Anna Blake

Who’s Aggravating Whom? by Andrea Datz

And for endless wisdom when it comes to taking yourself deeper into the wisdom of horses and the more spiritual aspects of being with horses check out Kim Walnes -The Way of the Horse on Facebook.

 

 

Beyond Body Language: “Scratch me!”

Does your horse really want to be scratched or could they be asking for something else?

Fafnir Christmas Day 2013Our horses are communicating with us all the time.   The trick is learning to interpret what they are trying to tell us.

The truth is, every single movement and gesture our horses make means something. It’s literally their way of communicating with us.  They can let us know everything from:

  •  how they feel about what and how we asked them to do something
  • whether or not they can do what we asked
  • if they like their food
  • where they need scratched
  • where they need body work and on and on

In fact studies are now mapping horse’s facial expressions and finding they are capable of complex facial movements that can tell us all manner of things about how they are doing.

This week I want to share some stories about how specific this communication can be, assuming we are open to listening!

How many times has your horse asked you to scratch an itchy spot? Do they have a favorite that they seem to want you to attend to every time they see you?

What if they did not want to be scratched but were actually trying to get you to pay attention to something else?

I can tell you that thought had never occurred to me until a few months back.

My 30 year old thoroughbred, Aero, has been in my care for a good 15 years now.   For years he has had this habit of walking up to people, presenting his side and then sticking his hind leg straight out to the side. He’s tall so that leg is long and by the time he’s done it’s at about hip height on a person, it’s fairly dramatic. I always thought he wanted something scratched so I’d scratch here and there and he’d fidget and fuss and keep asking. Eventually I’d hit an itchy spot and he’d act like he liked it so I’d figure that’s what it was.

Looking back I realize he never really calmed down after I hit that itchy spot – he’d stay rather agitated and keep asking until I eventually just walk away. Sometimes it would get a little dicey having that hind leg flying around….

The more I practice listening the more I see and feel when I’m with the horses. Finally, one day, Aero walked up to me and stuck his leg out. I tried scratching like I normally do. He got agitated like he normally does. But this time, for some reason, he stopped and cocked his leg so dramatically that his lower back was tilted at an angle just in front of my eyes. I couldn’t help but see his low back. Did I mention he’s tall? Anyway, I had the intuitive hit to rub his lower back. Which I did and he melted! He wanted a low back rub and he wanted some seriously deep tissue work. You can’t imagine the look of relief on his face when he realized I had finally, after YEARS of him patiently asking, gotten the message.

It’s easy to assume that horses want to be scratched. They make faces and we think it’s cute and scratch even more. Looking back I realized how many times I had these scratching fests going where my horses were pulling faces left and right and so I thought I was on the right track. But along with pulling faces they were also agitated. They were fussy, busy, fidgeting.

I’m beginning to realize that when they request something of me, if I get the right answer they calm down, they don’t get more fussy. The fussy, fidgety behavior might just be a sign that I have not yet gotten the message about what they want my help with. I mean maybe they do have an itch they can’t scratch – Fafnir loves having his belly scratched and if he can’t get a human to do it he will side pass over a large tree stump in his paddock and scratch his own belly on the tree stump!

But Gin backing up into anyone who comes into the paddock. What if she doesn’t want her butt scratched? What if she’s asking for something else? Last time she did this I decided to offer some body work instead. I placed my hands over her sit bones and she lowered her head, dropped her weight into my hands and kind of sat on me for a while. Her whole back released. Dang. When I think back she never seems satisfied with the scratching – no matter what – unless I scratch in such a way that it caused her to stretch her back. Really?

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Just in case I still didn’t believe what I was seeing, just this morning, Jack comes barreling up to me. Like he always does. With his nose pointed at the sky he slams his chest into me and stops. Head held high he looks for all the world like he wants me to scratch his neck. I’ve been exploring, trying to find the spot. I’ve hit a few good spots at the base of his withers that seem to make him happy if it feels more like deep tissue massage than scratching. But this morning I decided to scratch deep on the sides of his neck near the base – lo and behold he stretches his neck in a big graceful arc away from me and cracks his neck back into place. Dang. Really? Even Jack was asking for help with his neck and not asking to be scratched…

And yes, again, no matter how much I itched him he never seemed satisfied. He remained agitated.

I think this is significant and I will sure be paying more attention. I think my horses reward me when I get the right answer by calming down and letting it go. I think their way of letting me know I have not found the right answer is by continuing to agitate ME. They don’t calm down, they get more fussy and more insistent. Hmmmm.

Sure has got me paying more attention!!!

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