Striking Out

I often use the flower essence Rescue Remedy with distressed animals.  The tiny and expensive bottle usually gets knocked over long before it is empty, and persuading various unhappy creatures they should try to eat chewy lozenges is beyond my abilities, so I usually use the pump spray.  Until Domo, I had only had one negative reaction, and that was the aged Mexican Game rooster that came with the property.  When I clipped his spurs and toenails that were growing twisted and much too long,  I ended up cutting into the quick.

Once I got the startling amount of blood stopped, I loosely  tied a piece of baling twine around his leg so I could catch him if it started pouring blood again. Since he can fly just enough to get over the fence, he, of course, managed  to tangle the twine up and hang himself.  He was outraged at all the indignities I had heaped upon him, so once I got him untangled, I gave him a spray of the stuff.  To my own shock, his purpling comb and bloodshot eyes suddenly blanched to a pale pink and he fell over on his side and lay still. Eventually he and I both recovered, but I realized as a fighting cock, he really was bred to fight, and was not at all wired for peace and flowers.

While Domo hasn’t fainted, he too detests Rescue Remedy.  I found this out when he smacked it out of my hand with one front hoof after I had sprayed some on him early on in our acquaintance.  Now, horse people reading this may leap to a couple of conclusions. One is that, like many horses, he just doesn’t like the sound of the pump spray.  Since he stands there yawning when I crawl around under his belly pumping fly spray on his legs and tender parts, it is pretty clear his opinion is specific to Rescue Remedy.  The second is that he is an aggressive and dangerous individual. I am well aware of the dangers of a horse striking out and striking can be an aggressive act for horses.

The first horse I (re)trained when I was about 14 was a colt out of my sister’s little red mare (click here). He had quickly learned that charging and striking at my mother and her drunken friends was a successful strategy. My brothers were elementary school age so it was extremely dangerous. Once I had worked with him, he had a long and happy life as a child’s trail and parade pony.  However, he demonstrated that a quick smack with a front hoof between the eyes of a yapping hound could mean the end (yes, I do mean dead) for a number of ill-mannered dogs that transgressed a horse’s boundaries. One of my previously abused Spanish mares also  reached out and broke my brother’s nose with a front hoof while I was attempting to rehab both of them. However, as with the dogs, she was responding to his aggressive body language as much as to the tape measure he rattled in her face, and she promptly settled down when he stepped back and bowed his head.

What is important in this interaction with Domo is that even though striking out as he did is the horse equivalent of shouting in outrage and only an inch or two difference in his aim could easily have broken my arm, he did not even brush my fingertips. The pump spray version of Rescue Remedy is only slightly larger than your average lipstick so I was impressed , not only at his speed but with his precision, accuracy, and his adamance. Clearly, he did not have a lot of  experience with humans responding to more subtle conversations, and just as clearly he wanted his input understood, appreciated, and responded to.

Listening to Thoroughbred jockeys talk about their mounts illustrates how much of a partnership a winning ride really is. The horse not only has to understand what is wanted, but also figure out what strategy will accomplish that goal. Once the horse knows that they need to get out of the starting gate and into position for the final sprint, the ride itself is an ongoing conversation. Thoroughbreds have also been selected for something variously called heart or bottom or fighting spirit, much like my fighting cock. The Thoroughbred is expected to sprint for the finish line after running full speed for nearly a mile. People selected for the physiological as well as the mental basis for this behavior, and denying it or punishing the horse for it is a profound betrayal of their nature and our responsibilities.

For Domo, undermining his essential nature is an insult far worse than any physical injury could ever be. Since we wouldn’t be racing anytime soon, I needed to find a way to build a sense of partnership and accomplishment with my horse. That process starts with understanding that when horses start waving their front feet around it can mean impatience, as in needing less flies, more food, and freedom to move;  or it can be flirtatious as both mares and stallions will squeal and strike when the mare is in heat and likes the stallion; and it can be an expression of exuberant good health and high spirits as colts will stomp and strike in play, as well as aggression.

The Spanish Walk (click to see an example) is a slow and elegant gait developed out of that coltish playfulness. The horse struts proudly along snapping his forelegs out to their fullest extension at each step. Some horses are able to extend their front legs out completely horizontal at each step. It develops great strength and flexibility especially in the horse’s back, neck and shoulders. Like the racing gallop it requires the horse to invest every ounce of himself in the movement, just slowly and  deliberately instead of at full speed. I decided this would be my goal. It would give Domo a way to express that part of himself that needs to strive to excel and give me something to admire and praise in him . It would also start strengthening and limbering up his injured neck, back, and shoulders. It is usually taught to the horse from the ground, so we could begin long before he was healed enough to carry weight on his back.

My primary concern in this situation was to open up a broader conversation with the horse with physical rehabilitation running a close second. Since he loves carrots, we started with pawing for food.  I do the training with him at liberty, sometimes in the round pen, sometimes in my one-acre arena. So he gets to choose if he wants to work on this or not. I started by asking him to WAIT when he picked up his foot to paw.  If he did, he got a carrot. Then we tried variety. I asked him to take a step in between, to alternate one leg and then the other and so on.  I never ask him for more than a few steps at any one time and always stopped the instant he did something even close to what I asked.

Eventually we had some discussions about where NOT do it, like in his stall, or while being groomed.  He’d raise his front leg, I’d put my hand on his forearm with a slight downward pressure and say no and keep on with what I was doing. We had an ongoing conversation, and that was my first, foremost, and deepest focus (click for components of non-violent communication). About eighteen months after we started this, he gave me the complete movement of his own accord. He had been thinking about it for a couple of days. I would have him wait, I would walk away, then turn around, we would wait again,  and then finally I would ask him to walk towards me with the lift and pause in his steps.  He had been coming towards me very slowly with the only slightest of hesitations in his steps and his contemplating-outer-space expression for a few days.  That day he decided to raise his head, prick up his ears, and strut towards me swinging those long long legs through the air and stomping them down on the ground.

It was a magical moment. It means he is physically healed enough to do the movement. It means he has put his mind to figuring out what I want. It means he is willing to exert himself to accomplish that desire. Beyond all that, it means he is enjoying expressing himself. Domo is bred to win and he may always enjoy swaggering up to people and horses to see if he can intimidate them.  Now we can begin to discuss the competition and decide what the best course of action is. Off track, once a Thoroughbred has shifted into their win-at-any-cost mode, the resolution is for the  human to find a way to celebrate victory together.  I am looking forward to some sweet ones.

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