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)