Conversations with Taj: Moods Swing

Listening to my horse these days frequently results in hearing, “I’m not in the mood.” Two of my three horses are actually quite consistent with their curious moods, and yet I find myself hell-bent on “figuring out” the one horse with the intense mood swings, much of the time swinging on the unhappy, shut down end of the spectrum. A sizable percentage of my closest relationships have been with people who are prone to mood swings. I have spent a significant portion of my life adapting to the predictably unpredictable moods that accompany addiction, borderline personality and bipolar disorder. So it was no enormous surprise when I found myself frustrated at the prospect of feeling beholden to the moods of a horse.

I went into this winter project with Taj a month ago, thinking that in two or three months, surely I would have some significant insights about what truly makes her happy and whether or not she could break free of her negative associations with saddling and mounting to actually enjoy riding. Even when I find some successes, some moments of enjoyment from Taj, there is no consistency, no telling whether she will dread something today that she seemed to enjoy yesterday. In the Freedom Based Training process, we must learn to work with the mood of the horse, whatever that may be, because learning and healing can’t happen when stress and tension are too high. Turns out that the first month was just enough time to show me that I needed to slow down, back up and rethink my process.

When I look out at this beautiful paint mare, still stunning in her older age at twenty-three, I see a proud and determined being. She is not one to hold back her feelings, and if someone doesn’t “hear” her first warning that she doesn’t like something, she will most definitely reiterate her feelings and opinions with a sense of urgency. On the one hand, she makes it easy to understand her signals. On the other hand, because she responds with disapproval and discomfort to so many things, she makes it hard to believe that she’s not over-reacting.

Is over-reacting a trait that even exists in the horse world? The “over” part of the equation seems to be in the eye of the human beholder. I have been accused of over-reacting in my life, and, I must admit, it makes me feel even more reactive. To be called a “Drama Queen” feels like one of the worst insults someone could hurl at me. Especially now, in my forties, after years of studying emotion, energy and reaction versus response… it feels like an undermining of all the “work on myself” I’ve done. I have a friend who tells me, when I get triggered by something, “You still have energy on it, Honey.” Even that throws me into a tailspin – I don’t want to have that energy or those feelings.

It does not work to simply reject feelings. Not one’s own nor anyone else’s.

One day this week, I found that Taj would not even let me stand on her left side. She was triggered by my approach on the left any time I moved forward of her hindquarters. She had been standing and cribbing on the water trough for most of the morning – a common occurrence now that the shreds of dead grass left in the pasture are frosted over for most hours of the day and night. If she can’t be eating, Taj is usually cribbing.

It rips at my heart the same way it did to see someone addicted to cocaine go back and get high and lose yet another job, or to see someone repeatedly drinking so much that he can no longer carry on a new or coherent conversation after 5:00pm. Cribbing is a somewhat elusive habit, in that humans can’t quite figure out if it is internal pain causing the activity, or if it is a “vice” the horse picked up in response to old stress and it now causes internal pain. A horse who cribs will place her front teeth over a hard surface, such as a fence board, stall door, or the edge of a water trough, and pull back, arching her neck and gulping air. Somewhere along the line, the horse figured out that in doing this, she releases a flood of endorphins which makes everything feel better for the moment. But then the horse wants to feel better every moment. In Taj’s case, she will now elect to crib almost any time she is not eating, sleeping or being engaged in an activity. I’ve seen her habit lessen when she is feeling good and when there is plentiful grazing available, but I have not seen it disappear completely.

The problem, other than the destruction of fence boards as well as the complete erosion of her front teeth, is that this gulping of air may be having an adverse effect on her gut. There is a higher incidence of colic and ulcers in horses who crib vs. those who don’t. Taj’s recent intestinal distress has made me wonder even more about how cribbing affects her gut. When I see Taj standing and cribbing while the other horses are snoozing, foraging or generally ambling about the pasture, I feel the pang of sorrow and longing that comes with seeing someone who appears to be stuck in a rut of her own pain. The next thing I feel is my habitual urge to want to make it better for her. Haven’t I learned this lesson enough times in my human relationships?

Any time I approach her while she’s cribbing, she will pin her ears and even throw a teeth gnash in my direction if she feels that I am going to try to make her stop. The effort I am making now is to let go of the emotional attachment I have to wishing she would stop, because I realized that underneath of it is a judgment. As surely as she can feel my hand on her chest, she can feel the energy of judgment, and she has a reaction to it. I might as well just be shouting, “You Drama Queen!” at her.

I’ve begun to actively meet her exactly where she is. If she’s cribbing on the water trough, I’ll pull on the side of the tub, trying to stretch my spine and create a sense of release or relief. I’ll reiterate my acceptance of her in that moment, regardless of her mood. And I’ll do away with the agenda I might have lurking in my mind; it may be an agenda with the best of intentions to make her feel better, but ultimately, she is not going to abandon her habits until she chooses from within for herself.

In this video clip, the powerful impact that intention plays in the gesture of an arm affirms for me that I need to hone my energetic clarity when asking her for anything. I want to better balance joining her in the things she chooses with asking her to join me in what I choose. And last but not least, here’s an opportunity for me to shift from a place of feeling beholden to her mood into a place of identifying with her mood until it shifts.

It might be a mistake to think that we are ever NOT beholden to the moods of others – unless we don’t mind bulldozing our way through conversations, invitations, negotiations and anything else involved in a relationship. When we choose how to interact with anyone at any time, we are also choosing whether to and how to account for the other’s mood or emotional state. If we can show others acceptance of whatever feelings are present for them, that is one step towards decreasing stress and tension, paving the way for a new possible mood to emerge.


Interested in reading more about Freedom Based Training and working with a horse’s moods? Elsa Sinclair discusses this topic in detail here:










Conversations with Taj: Two Steps, Forward and Back

Two steps forward, one step back. Apparently, this saying originated from a story about a frog trying to climb out of a well, making his progress slow and torturous. The effort to bring more enjoyment into Taj’s life can feel a lot like trying to crawl out of a well.

For more than a week, she has been stricken with this unique and particularly unseemly form of intestinal distress. Without embellishing in graphic detail, the mess this gastric problem creates has been too awful for me not to wash her up every day. Any other time of year, this would not be an issue. This past week, we had freezing and sub-freezing temperatures here in Maryland, creating a less-than-pleasant bathing experience. I called a friend, lamenting that I didn’t think I could clean the mess in that weather, and that her tail had become a heavy, brown icicle. My friend consoled me, saying “We can only do the best we can do.” Little did she know that she was actually giving me motivation to see what the best I could do would be.

My hot and cold wash stall is a hose connected to a laundry sink, run up through the basement to a tree in the back yard. But when daytime highs were around 20 degrees with winds at about 20 miles per hour, I elected to go for a sponge bath and a hair dryer running from an outlet in the garage. Imagine the look on Taj’s face when I backed her up to the garage door and did a full blow out of her tail. Conditioner included. Accompanied by a bucket of hay.

What I am learning about Taj is that she can enjoy new things. That is, if they are interesting enough to her or involve food. If I can provide opportunities to do things that hold her interest, and give her a chance to eat, I am ahead of the curve. If she thinks I am going to take her away from her food, or away from her familiar comforts to do something mundane and uninteresting, I can pretty much forget about my plan. Read: no tacking up and practicing walk-trot-canter circles.

I continue to wonder: Can I make riding interesting for her – so interesting that she shifts out of having a mounting block trigger old pain, stress or fear? This question encompasses more than just riding. My goal is to help Taj enjoy life more in general. I figure I need to make it interesting for her. I am currently taking her on walks, much like one would take a dog on a walk. In fact, I have been walking Taj and my dog at the same time. At first, she pinned her ears and was downright disapproving of this unruly pup, but she seems to be warming up as long as he doesn’t get too close. Currently, when we are walking through a grassy field, her drive to eat is much stronger than her interest to “explore the possibly interesting” on a walk. When we are on a trail devoid of grass, however, she is a pleasant, contented walking companion.

This week, with the help of some flax seed meal, a lower protein feed and some hind gut ulcer supplements, her gastric distress has begun to subside. With that discomfort decreasing, her capacity to be open and interested in taking walks has increased. Taj has always been very reactive to physical discomfort. A former owner told me that she knew better than to try and ride her at all when she was in season – a “time of month” for her that predictably brings on severe cramps and irritability. I, too, learned this quickly about her. Taj’s aversion to the saddle has always increased dramatically when she is in season.

That said, her aversion to the prospect of riding seems to be present, sometimes to a large degree, even when there is no evidence of physical pain, leading me to believe that she assumes there will be discomfort or there is still “emotional baggage.” The challenge is to determine where her physical discomfort ends and her emotional discomfort, or fear of discomfort, begins… and then, how to work with it to make life better.

Taking this one step further, practicing Freedom Based Training with her has shown me that she demonstrates an aversion to almost any interruption and request to move, unless I spend a significant amount of time easing her into the prospect, gaining her trust and earning her curiosity, or unless I use dominance, which can be as simple as bringing out a halter and lead. If I enter her pasture with a halter, put it on her, and ask her to stop what she’s doing, back up, move her front end and move her hind end in both directions, her resistance might be barely discernible, nothing more than the absence of any enthusiasm or real connection. She is a horse who has been trained thoroughly, and she understands cues on the ground and in the saddle. And she has little to no intrinsic interest in doing any of what she’s been trained.

If I enter her pasture and just ask her to stop what she’s doing and take any backwards or lateral steps, she typically pins her ears and walks away, or begrudgingly moves with a foot stomp and disapproving tail swish. If I enter her pasture and use some finesse, moving around her, scanning the environment, scratching her neck or the top of her tail now and then, she starts to warm up to the idea of doing something together. She starts to feel that interacting with me could be an experience at least as pleasant as standing around foraging in the dead grass. This approach, one of building on natural curiosity and intrinsic motivation, is an underpinning of Freedom Based Training. Without tools, without any dominance or consequences for saying “no,” what a horse chooses to do with you when you ask directly corresponds to the amount of enjoyment they believe they will get out of it.


From a more traditional perspective, one might believe that this horse is just stubborn, ornery, or “misbehaving because she gets away with it.” Could I use dominance and force her to lunge and ride for the sake of at least keeping her physically fit? Yes, and I’ve tried that. What doesn’t change with that approach is her emotional fitness, and I am a firm believer that she and all the rest of us need both. I am using this freedom based work as a foundation for our relationship, as well as a way to expand her capacity for enjoyment. The more time she can spend enjoying different things, the less time she spends in any form of worry, fear, or stress. What I am learning is how to work with the moods, with the fear and with the stress. If I look at these things as information about what choices to make around and with the horse, I feel like they are helping me make progress towards enjoyment.

Whereas the frog in the well would make two steps forward and one step back, or in the worst of times, one step forward and two steps back, I am focusing on the two steps. In my elementary study of aikido, I learned a fundamental practice called “Two-Step.” Essentially, a person takes two steps forward and two steps back, arriving back at the start. The elegance of it is, each step is in a semi-circle, so the person is turning, seeing and feeling all around, and gaining from the rounded-out perspective.

In creating this short video of a walk with Taj, I realized how much more like a Two-Step this journey towards enjoyment with Taj actually is.

A Walk in the Woods with Taj  (click to see video)


Conversations with Taj: Should I Stop or Should I Go (For It)?

Ten days ago, I began a dedicated conversation with Taj about whether or not she could enjoy riding again. The sight of a saddle, the act of stepping up on a mounting block next to her – these things trigger a response in her that, at its most extreme appears to be fear and loathing, and at best, is an expression of discomfort.

For six years, I have tried various approaches to saddling and mounting, as well as varied and “fun” trail and other riding experiences in an effort to give her a new and acceptable, if not enjoyable, experience around riding. There are better days and worse days, and to date, I have not been able to consistently change her negative opinion about the prospect of a rider getting on. Once a rider is on, she does not communicate that she is in pain or distress; she seems to be perfectly fine, as long as I do not ask her to do flat work in an arena. She also balks at the transition from a trot to a canter, likely due to a lack of strength and balance in her hind end.


My approach now is to slowly, regularly be with her on the mounting block in the paddock, in the field, in the barnyard – sometimes getting on bareback, sometimes just standing in meditation there with her, sometimes while she is eating her mash, sometimes while grooming her. Taj tends to be focused on herself and her immediate desires – and she does not appreciate interruption. What she really dislikes, is the threat of being interrupted and forced to do something other than what she’s chosen to do. I can relate. I’m pretty sure my former husband can attest to that.

Part of my process is to learn how to change her focus away from herself in a way that promotes curiosity, so that she enjoys the transition to looking at something in the environment or to engaging with me. It reminds me of trying to “get myself out of a funk.” It is when I am self-focused and dwelling on anticipated pain or hardship that I am the least accessible, the least open to a new idea and the most miserable.


The better she is feeling overall, but especially physically, on any given day, the easier this effort is to change her focus to something new. For the past week, she has been stricken with a bout of intestinal distress, causing intermittent liquid discharge from her bowels. After an initial three days of willingness to engage, ease in mounting, and much reduced ear pinning, the last seven days have been riddled with displays of aggravation and aversion to me just carrying the mounting block over to her. I have chosen not to get on, sensing her physical discomfort.


I decided to add the practice of free lunging, as I’d seen her trotting and cantering in the field when I threw hay to the horses, so I figured her tummy trouble couldn’t be too bad. Taj has historically been averse to lunging on a line, and more open, at least on occasion, to free lunging with a flag. In order to build strength and endurance, I have found some success in free lunging with Taj in an arena. Some days, and I imagine these are days when she is feeling ill or sore, she is very difficult to start. Such was the case yesterday.


I was initially surprised at Taj’s refusal to stop grazing and move. Just the previous day, I had asked her to trot around the area and introduced a ground pole. She actually moved into a more extended trot and seemed interested in going over the ground pole. Knowing that she had once loved jumping, I wanted to give her the opportunity to try it out. My plan was to continue to build her fitness through free lunging, hiking together, and trail riding, if she proved willing, and I wanted to start with a tiny six-inch jump to see whether she was interested and inclined.  She seemed absolutely inclined, and moved over it twice with ease. I did not want to do too much too soon, so although she seemed eager to go around again, I brought the exercise to a close.


Yesterday, when I asked her to stop grazing and move around me in the arena, it took several minutes to get her to even walk forward. She refused repeatedly, would take a few steps forward when I insisted, and then stop and graze again. I forced the issue, by waving the flag vigorously in front of her nose to block the grazing, and then toward her hind end to propel her forward. When she broke into a trot, it was stiff, awkward, and short-stepped. She looked like she was sore and uncomfortable and as she rounded the turn toward the 6-inch jump, I lowered the flag and thought, “oh no, don’t jump that,” to which she responded by slowing to a walk, stepping over the rail, and then picking up her trot again afterwards.


This horse seemed to know what was okay for her to do. I wanted her to keep moving, to see if once she was warmed up, her trot would become easier and smoother. She went around again with very little insistence from me, and once again, walked over the rail, and began trotting again afterwards. The trot did improve as she loosened up, but not to the point where either of us felt it was safe to jump. She had used some muscles the previous day that she hadn’t used in quite a long time, and needed some time to let them adjust. It’s not much different at all from how sore a person feels after riding, even for a short time, after months or years of not riding.


Free lunging with Taj is a lot like riding with her, in that she may be really resistant to getting started, but once she gets going, she seems to be willing and at ease, except if something in particular is bothering her, physically or emotionally. If she feels her hind end is weak or sore, she will often refuse to transition to a canter. If she feels insecure about leaving the other horses’ sight, she will balk and often stop.


I believe that the more I listen to her and acknowledge that she has feelings about what we are doing, the more she will trust me and be willing to shift focus and, eventually, her assumed feelings and habitual reactions. The difficulty arises when I have to push her beyond her comfort zone in order to progress. Push too little, and nothing changes. Push too much, and she can react with hostility, making me feel like I might be eroding trust rather than building it. There also feels like a fine line between her taking a stand against something because she doesn’t want to be bothered or interrupted or because she is truly concerned or afraid of some form of pain. It is in this space that the conversation becomes more layered and requires more listening skill and more intuition.


Yesterday, when I stepped on the mounting block placed next to her bowl of mash, she pinned her ears and clarified she did not want to be bothered. Today, she was completely at ease with me stepping up on the mounting block placed next to her mash. She was so comfortable, in fact, that I went ahead and got on. Finding that she was still perfectly comfortable and slurping away at the mash, I lay down and breathed deeply for a few moments. Perhaps the intestinal distress is diminishing. Perhaps my timing and her mood were both better today. What I knew in those moments was, there was more in the column of indicators to keep going for it than in the column of signs to stop trying.