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Back to basics

I had a lot of plans for yesterday. Maybe a bit too much, as I felt that I'm already tired. Early in the morning I sat on my sofa, drinking strong black coffee and waiting for myself to wake up properly. I had one customer for the day, and my plan was to do some shopping and go visit Sami for the rest of the day - which would mean total six hours of driving. I had finished my first cup of coffee and was halfway through the second one when the customer called and cancelled his time. OK, no problem with that. And it helped me realize that my plans weren't that clever - with a bit of reorganizing I could reasonably postpone some of the stuff, visit Sami someday later when I have more time, and spend this day at home.

Usually, if I have spent too much time away from my home I feel bit lost when I again have free time - it is bit like returning to a project after a too long break, looking around and wondering "now where was I, what was I doing before the break, what should I do next, and what was that half-finished thing anyway?" To get rid of that feeling I cooked food, enjoyed a meal, took a nap and spent couple of hours raking my yard. That helped me to settle down. I soon felt that too many weeks have passed without me actually spending time with my horses. I decided to focus on Raiku the young mare - it would be nice to teach her to pull a sleigh. But I felt that after this longer break I'd better get back to basics - to start with just strenghtening mutual trust and communication

The sun was about to set, it was four o'clock pm. I went inside the horses pen, greeted the horses and haltered Raiku. At first both of the horses were bit kind of expecting something to happen - hoping that I'm either going to give them food, or then I'm going to ask them to do some work. But no, my intention was just to be together with them. With no spesific goal, no work to be done, no timetables. I gently touched Raiku's neck and shoulders, she stood still and relaxed. I slowly went on to pet her back, and made my way towards her hindquarters - to be honest, I'm still a bit afraid of her hindlegs. So, my project is to teach both her and myself that there is nothing to be afraid of, that it is safe and easy to touch her hindlegs, to pick her feet and to trim her hooves. And, I guess it is mostly me who is still afraid of working with her hindlegs. I didn't want to do it yet, for me it was enough to just pet her hindquarters and to see that she didn't get nervous about that. I returned to pet her shoulders, neck and head. And that was enough for this time, I went back indoors.

So, the problem with her hindlegs is that I've so many times seen how it is her typical reaction to kick when she feel insecure or annoyed. And she easily does feel like that. Now it would be simple to see it as just bad behaviour, in which case my duty would be to teach her manners. But deep inside me I have a feeling that with this horse it is not a question of lack of manners. She is communicating her feelings, and I'd better listen to, if I ever want to strenghten trust and co-operation between two of us. To illustrate this, let me tell a small story from my childhood;

I guess it was my eleventh birthday. The day hadn't been especially nice, I don't remember anymore what had happened, but propably it was that my older brother had treated me bad and I felt pissed off. My mother wanted to take a picture of me and my birthday cake. And she wanted me to smile, but I refused as I didn't feel like smiling. Inside me I wished that my mother would notice that I feel bad, that she would set the camera aside and ask what's the matter, to listen to me and to see if she can be of any help. But no, she just thought that I refuse to smile because I behave badly. She told me to behave myself. I got even more pissed off, and flashed an evil grin - my eyes filled with scorn and hatred, and my mouth smiling awkwardly. There still was a secret hope inside me that maybe if we get this picture thing done then my mother would stop to ask if I have something to tell. And at the same time I was already anticipating her getting mad because of me making stupid faces. But to my great surprise she was satisfied with my ironical pseudo-smile, and with that she went away, leaving me alone. I felt abandoned, I felt mistreated, I felt disapointed, and I felt my sense of reality cracking - I thought my message was clear, but either she didn't see it, or she didn't understand it, or didn't want to listen. I really couldn't figure out what was the case, but anyway, it was frustrating. Once again I learned that it was of no use trying to communicate my feelings to my own family members - the ones who were supposed to love me. And, honestly, we didn't have that many contacts with other people, so I learned not to show my feelings to anyone. And I learned that my mother is interested in me just performing the right trick, no matter how I feel.

Now I guess this is pretty much what many of the horses feel with their humans. The humans just come there and want the horse to do some work, no matter how the horse feels. And when the horse tries to communicate that (s)he doesn't understand the task at hand, or that (s)he is afraid of something, or that (s)he has physical pain, or that (s)he doesn't trust the person, in most cases that is just seen as bad behaviour, which usually leads to the horse getting punished. Well, that might be the way to get the horse to obey. Most of the time I did what my parents or my older brother asked me to do, but inside I hated them and waited for them to leave me alone. So, with these memories I certainly don't want to neglect my horse when she tries to communicate her feelings. I think it is up to me to try to listen, to understand and to find a way to help my horse. I don't want to be a tyrant leader forcing the horse to obey no matter what - I'd like to be a fellow being offering safety, peace, respect and nice things to do.

Oh well. I moved an armchair next to the fireplace and lit a fire. I mixed cranberry juice with a little of Polish Vodka 'Wyborowa'. I read a horsemanship book by Mark Rashid, slowly sipping my drink and listening to the fire cracking in the fireplace and a cat purring on my lap. The book, 'Considering the Horse' was very interesting, with lively and detailed descriptions of real life situations. I like the way Mark tells about his learning process; how he did things one way and how he learned that it doesn't always work, and how he invented new ways for himself. A lot of that made sense. There was one particular story which made me actually a bit worried. Mark told about a horse who was particularly unwilling to do any co-operation with humans, and he was mostly disinterested in other horses too. The horse had been traumatized in his early years, and apparently had developed this negative attitude because of that. Well, instead of punishing or beating the horse Mark systematically and methodologically found ways to make it easier for the horse to do what was asked, and making protesting harder. He hoped that this way the horse would himself figure out that it was actually always easier to do what is asked, and out of his free will he would then choose to co-operate. But it was a long process, as the horse was very capable of inventing new ways to protest, and Mark had to constantly invent new ways to set up the situation so that protesting was unpleasant and co-operation was the easier alternative. Which, effectively, led to the horse finding out that there is no alternative. After months of systematical work the horse finally submitted and began to do anything what was asked. But, Mark confessed that he couldn't be so happy about that as he saw that the horse had actually lost his spirit, the spark in his eyes was gone, he had turned into a machine. (now, the horrible truth is that many horse traines wouldn't see anything wrong with that, they would just consider it a victory when the horse does anything what is being asked.) I haven't yet read the rest of the book, so I don't know if that incident led to Mark reconsidering some of his training methods. But at least it worked for me - I knew that I don't want to try that. I'd rather have my horse killed that see her living with empty eyes.

I do have a feeling that Raiku's way of kicking stems from some kind of traumatical memories. Which, in turn, activates my own memories. When I approach her hindlegs I so do remember how it feels to get puched and kicked, my shoulders get tense, my heart starts to beat faster, I feel insecure. And that, of course, is of no help to Raiku. I should be able to show her that everything is safe and OK, as she is listening to my body language, reading every signal of nervousness or anxiety and reacting to that. This is our big question, and I know that if I don't get this solved we will run into problems in other areas too - it wouldn't be very wise to train her to pull a sleigh when there are problems in our basic trust. So, we need that first, the basic trust. Not a big deal - just release your traumas and you are good to go! Oh well, I can go see a therapist (actually, I already reserved a series of meetings with my therapist - it has been many years since I last visited her, and now I feel that I'm in a good position to actively work with some of my unsolved problems) - but how to offer therapy for a horse? Horses don't use words, but body language is their native language and they are very fluent in it.

Over the years I have worked as a massage therapist and it has became more and more natural for me to feel and sense my customers. Sometimes it feels as if I'm not only touching their skin, but also their memories and emotions. When that happens it is also possible to communicate with those feelings - if I sense fear I offer peace and safety, if I sense low self-esteem I offer cheering and total acceptance, and so on. Usually I don't speak during the massage, as I just get immersed into the bodylanguage. But after the massage when we talk, most of time it is so that my customers reports similar feelings and experiences that I also felt. Over the years I've learned to accept this as a natural way of communication, even if I don't know what is the scientific explanation behind the phenomenon (I'm sure there is one, it is just that this field has not been studied that much in the western science). Well, but I believe that through body language it is also possible to help my horse to overcome her traumatic memories.

I mean, to me it feels like her basic attitude towards the whole world is that it is not easy to trust anyone, so it is safer to defend herself in advance. And kicking with hindlegs is one of the best method of self-defence available for horses - a loud and clear signal for others to stay away. And how can I expect her to trust me when she generally speaking has problems with trusting anyone? So, I should help her to find how trust feels and what does it mean. Luckily enough my other horse, Velmu, has been doing very good work at that. With these thoughts I went to see my horses again. It was already dark, stars and the moon in the sky. In the dim light of the moon I met my horses. Again I softly touched Raiku, listening to how her body feels, listening to her breathing, and feeling my own heart beat, feeling my balance resting on my feet, feeling my breathing getting deeper and deeper. Where I felt a slight tension in Raiku's body I stopped there, thinking that my hand is like a small torch radiating warm light to ease her tensions. I heard and felt Raiku taking a deep breath, I saw her head hanging lower. It was so good and nice to be there that I felt almost sorry to go indoors to sleep. But I told myself that it is not wise to do too much at one go, I'd better stop when things are smooth, leaving Raiku with good memories about us being together.

Before I fell asleep I thought about the whole situation. I believe that Raiku's kicking is because of her traumas, and I believe that it is possible to help her. And I feel that I can learn to do that. I don't know everything beforehand, I know than even great masters like Mark Rashid might not always know how to heal a traumatized horse. But somehow I felt that I can just follow my intuition and see where it takes. I have learned a lot attending to horsemanship clinics by Noora Ehnqvist, she has showed the way, an now I have to take the necessary steps myself. I don't know if it will take a month, a year or more, but I don't care - not to try is a sure way to fail, so why not just try and see how things go.

Today I had couple of hours of free time at home before going to work. Again I went to spend a moment with Raiku - my intention was to see how it feels to touch her hips and to stand near her hindlegs. But first we started with just being there together, as I still want to reinforce the foundations, to make sure that she feels that my presence is OK. It sure felt so, she took her head next to mine, and as I closed my eyes and took a deep breath I heard her doing the same. I felt safe and peaceful and I guess she felt about the same. With that I moved on to touch her neck, shoulders, back, and hips. She didn't get nervous at all, and I allowed myself some time just to stop there, feeling my own fears fading away. After a moment Raiku showed that she would prefer me doing something else - but she didn't even try to kick, instead she just took two steps backwards, repositioning herself so that I was now standing next to her head. Once again we enjoyed a moment of mutual acceptance and peace. After that I went to again touch her hips, then returned back standing near her head. We did that couple of times. Then Raiku decided to start walking away from me. Without thinking too much about it I felt that since she herself offers to walk, I'll ask her to walk half a circe around me. So I asked her not to move away from me, but to turn right. That made her immediately annoyed - she showed her teeth, making a biting gesture towards my direction, with a fast pace she walked a whole cirlcle around me, and then stopped. I went to pet her as smoothly and friendly as I could.

Well, I knew that I can't just stop there. If I did, I would leave her with the impression that standing still with me is nice, but if I ask her to do anything things become uncomfortable, and if she shows her teeth to me I soon quit and go away. No, instead I wanted to show her that even if I ask her to move to a certain direction it doesn't mean that the connection between us is ruined. Instead of forcing her to do anything I wanted to show her that doing things together could be nice and rewarding. So, peacefully I asked her to move again. She whipped her tail and made a kicking gesture with her hindleg, then started to make a circle - this time I asked her to stop when she had done half a circle. I went to cheer and to pet her. And asked again - this there was no kicking or biting, she was still walking in a nervous way but not as fast as she did a minute ago. I was satisfied with that - we were going to a good direction. I cheered her, let her loose and went indoors to rest a little. After a short while I returned with a piece of dried bread. Again I softly asked her to make half a circle. I asked her couple of times, seeing her becoming more and more relaxed each time. The first time I saw her taking two steps in a smooth and relaxed way I went to give her a piece of bread. That definitely was enough for this time. I went to change my gear and headed for the customers of the day.

I returned home at around ten pm and went to briefly visit the horses. This time it was cloudy with a hint of rain in the air. Raiku had no problems with haltering, and she wanted to know if I have any more of the dried bread. I didn't, and soon she wasn't asking any more. But otherwise she felt like being a bit more nervous than before. I decided to be as smooth as possible, just petting her and talking softly - making sure that I'm not asking her to do anything special. It was fine. So, I feel that we both are walking the path of trauma recovery, learning to trust each other.

mutual acceptance
mutual acceptance
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