Domo Has My Back

Over the holidays last year, I had let Domo out to play and show off for a visitor. It is part of our routine, as I do not wish him to feel getting out of his pen is forbidden excitement and go tearing down the driveway into suburban traffic. So most days he gets a chance to stretch his legs, check the perimeter, receive his accolades from his admirers (Handsome and Gorgeous float past my ears), eat a few weeds, and come up to the front door for a carrot when he’s ready to go back into his refuge.

This day he was feeling particularly fine and was on parade, showing off his moves. He has tremendous natural impulsion and likes to carry himself so lightly he can choose which hoof taps the ground in which direction and gait at any instant. It is a beautiful sight to watch and he does so appreciate an admiring audience. He was 25-30 yards away, close enough to be impressive, far enough away to move freely when suddenly things changed.

One moment I was standing at the exit, watching his display, and talking to my friend on the other side of the gate. The next, he went into total alarm mode, covered the distance to the gate in a couple of leaps, spun, and used his very large behind to shove me down the gate so he could position himself between me and the alleyway. He then squatted there, holding me in place while rearing, striking, stomping, and shaking his head.

His moves were urgent, precise and focused on my protection. In a functioning socially adept horse herd, the last ditch defense against a deadly predator is to circle up with new babies and butts to the center, teeth and hooves to the outside. I have only seen my horses respond this way when stray dog-packs would show up and start circling mares with wobbly new foals struggling to stand while their dams were still dropping their placentas. With that context, Domo’s perception was clearly that there was a life-threatening situation brewing that I was the primary focus of and the most vulnerable too. In horse-talk, Domo was telling me that we were under attack, that he would keep me safe, and that he was going to strike the predators to the ground, stomp them in the dirt, and shake them like a rag.

I was a bit surprised to be immobilized, but totally unharmed. My friend was terrified and had grabbed a hold of me as well, so it took a minute for me to extricate myself from the gate, the human, and the horse, and get myself turned around so I could see what had alarmed him. I was sure this would quickly become clear because another of our rituals is ‘identify that threat’.

When Domo startles, spooks, shies, or goes on the alert, I follow his lead to find and focus on his concern, and then 99% of the time we can dismiss it. I would much rather he learn to consult and trust me when unknowns appear then feel that his best bet is to dump the human and head for the hills. So our WTF?!? Is THAT!? routine usually goes something like this:

Domo freezes, head up and alert:
• WTF?!?
• Is
• THAT?!!?

Sara stands beside Domo and looks around: That plastic bag?

Domo:
• No!!
• FOOL!
• THAT!!!
• Over There!!!

Sara: Bouncy kids on pogo sticks with flappy coats, basketballs, and shoes that light up?

Domo:
• YES!
• WTF ?!?
• is THAT?!?

Sara: No threat to you and me.

Domo: You’re kidding me.

Sara: Nope

Domo: You are sure about THAT?

Sara: Yep

Domo: I dunno

Sara: Me, I am sure enough to eat a bite. Want a carrot?

Domo: Carrots are ok

Domo eats carrot, then considers: Is it possible that’s some variety of human?

Sara: Yep

Domo: Might they be forthcoming with a carrot or two?

Sara: We can go see

Domo: Stick close by my side and we will saunter over and check it out.

Sara checks the carrot supply and heads over with Domo.

Neighbor kid and horse exchange greetings and carrots.

All ends well.

This time his high alert was focused a large truck coming down our narrow alleyway. Large trucks such as dump trucks and trash trucks routinely appear in our little alley so him reacting to this particular vehicle as though it were a deadly predator was quite unusual. Although I did not recognize the vehicle, I finally realized that it was bringing the brother I had had to chase off my property most recently. After many requests over many months for no personal contact of any kind from any of my siblings, this one had showed up at my front door only a few days earlier doing his rabid were-wolf impersonation.

Domo was standing tensely immobile and alert just beside me at this point, totally focused on the people and the truck. I had to project my voice loudly enough that my friend could hear my explanation from the other side of the gate; so I am sure my brother and company could also hear when I said that Domo was responding to my brother’s arrival as a life-threatening event. As I said, yes I did have to chase the brother off the property recently, Domo exploded into action again. So this particular episode of WTF?!? Is THAT!?! went more like this:

Domo bolts:
• DANGER at your back!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!
Domo spins, shoving in between Sara and threat:
• Move over!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!
Domo squats, pinning Sara in the safe zone behind his butt:
• I’ve got you covered!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!
Domo rears:
• DANGER in the alley way!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!
Domo strikes:
• Strike’em down!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!
Domo rears:
• DANGER in the alley way!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!
Domo stomps:
• Trample’em in the dirt!!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!
Domo rears:
• DANGER in the alley way!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!
Domo shakes his head
• Shake’em like a rag!!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!
Domo rears:
• DANGER in the alleyway!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!

Sara: WTF?!? was that?

Domo strikes, rears, stomps, and shakes his head:
• DANGER in the alley way!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!
• Strike’em down!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!
• Trample’em in the dirt!!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!
• Shake’em like a rag!!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!
• DANGER in the alleyway!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!

Sara extricates herself and gets oriented:
• WTF?!?
• That truck and
• those people?!

Domo freezes, head up, and pins his attention on the truck and people:

• EXACTLY!!!
• DEATH-MONGERS!!!
• DANGER!!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!

Sara: You are right. He was here before and he is dangerous

Domo explodes into action again, strikes, rears, stomps, and shakes his head:
• DANGER in the alley way!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!
• Strike’em down!!!
• Trample’em in the dirt!!!!
• Shake’em like a rag!!!!
• DANGER in the alleyway!!!
• WE ARE GOING TO DIE!

Sara: As long as he makes no offensive move, and stays on his side of the fence we will be ok.

Domo considers, head up and pinning his attention on the truck and people, one ear tilted towards Sara:

• THOSE?!
• Ok???
• THE DEATH-BRINGERS?!?

Sara: Yep. As long as they stay outside our perimeter, we are ok.

Domo tilts one eye AND one ear towards Sara:
• You are sure?

Sara: Pretty sure

Domo:
• If you say so
• I’m still keeping an eye on them

Sara: Me too

Domo:
• I’m watching
• You’re watching
• Good move
• We might survive…

Sara sees movement and feels anxious: But if there is any offensive action….

Domo rolls an eye at Sara and explodes into action again:

• DANGER in the alley way!!!
• Strike’em down!!!
• Trample’em in the dirt!!!!
• Shake’em like a rag!!!!
• DANGER in the alleyway!!!

Sara continues: any move to open a gate or come across the fence- line…

Domo continues his display:
• Strike’em down!!!
• Trample’em in the dirt!!!!
• Shake’em like a rag!!!!

Sara concludes: You can do whatever it takes to keep me safe.

Domo stands and stares fixedly at the enemy.

This has very clearly become a highly animated, intelligent, and focused conversation between me and the horse and it does appear to impress my brother and company. The atmosphere abruptly changes, my brother backs off the bad vibes and:

Domo relaxes, drops his head, and rubs his nose on his front leg signaling:

• The alert is over
• The predators are discouraged for now
• All is clear

After a moment, Domo turns his back to the alley, truck, and people, walking off with a big sigh to take a roll in the sand pit. He looks briefly back over one shoulder at me and my friend as though to say:

• You two go back to your mare/girl talk.
• Myself, I am a bit hot and sweaty after all that.
• I’m off to take roll, grab a bite to eat, and cruise the perimeter.
• Check with you later…

The horse-handling lesson here is that if you have established good communication and rapport with your horse, it will get you through the most unexpected encounters and dangerous situations unscathed. In those cases, it is your trust in your equine partner that is your foundation and striving to interpret your horse’s behavior accurately under pressure that is the key. It would be all too easy to categorize Domo as a ‘Killer Horse’ (click here), and he was definitely threatening the person he perceived as dangerous to me. However, his perceptions were accurate, his actions precise, and his intent was to protect me. If I truly value his full participation in our relationship, I need to acknowledge and appreciate the full spectrum of behavior that results from my being accepted as one of his herd. This horse literally has my back covered, and in the battlegrounds of life, he is my faithful and fierce companion, a quintessential War Horse.

while I am grateful these holidays are more peaceable than last years, the personal lesson here is that congruency and respect for our relationship demands that I act on his perceptions. While this horse does have a history of abuse, the handful of visitors he has judged violent and/or untrustworthy, he simply avoided. He has never reacted as though my life was threatened, even when a pair of pit bulls climbed the fence and were snapping at both of us, even drawing blood. Moreover, not only was I unaware that any vehicle was approaching, Domo has had no direct contact with any of my brothers, this was not my brother’s usual vehicle, and the horse has only witnessed a bare handful of my encounters with all of my siblings combined prior to this episode. Therefore, if my horse responds to my brothers’ mere appearance as a uniquely life-threatening event, I need to take the danger seriously. If it takes lawyers, restraining orders, and GPS locater anklets to insure not only my own safety but also that of my animals and my property from my brothers, that is what is going to happen.

go to the beginning

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