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: https://equineclarity.org/2017/12/26/surfing-the-emotional-waves/