Conversations With Taj: Voices

One of the farm cats has taken to sitting on top of the fence posts from which I hang the hay bags for the horses. He waits to see exactly which post I am going to choose, and runs to it, sits squarely on top of it, making the job of crossing the straps over and around it inordinately difficult. At 11:00 pm, I do not find this a particularly fun game. Neither does Taj. The cat was sitting there as she started eating from the bag below, twitching his tail, watching to see where I might go next, and Taj, behind him, started pinning her ears at him as if to say, “Get out of my space.” The cat completely ignored her, so she proceeded to lunge at him, biting at the air behind him in a menacing threat. I think the cat would have sat there assuming he could call her bluff, but my own reaction was to move away, drawing the cat with me to pull him from harm’s way.

I tried calling Taj’s bluff a few years ago. It wasn’t a bluff. I have the x-rays of a crushed fingertip to show for it. Taj’s ear pinning, teeth gnashing and foot stomping at anyone she believes will interrupt her or make her do something she doesn’t want to do is a habit. It is not a physical habit that means nothing, it is a habit of over-reacting to a perceived threat. No matter what another’s intentions are, if we perceive what they are doing as a threat, we are going to want to defend ourselves.

A few days ago, I had an opportunity to work with trainer Bruce Anderson, who was in town for the Maryland stop on the Equus Film Festival. Bruce has helped countless horses with challenging behavioral “problems,” though, as he says, the behavior is a problem for the horse only because it is a problem for humans. Most frequently, these “problems” were created by humans to begin with. We have this in common with horses: we are triggered by the perceived threat of painful or uncomfortable consequences we experienced in our past. In order to avoid or defend against these unwanted situations, we develop habitual ways of defending ourselves.

One of my habits is to overreact to perceived dominance or control by others, particularly when someone raises his or her voice, talks over me, and generally makes me feel as if my own voice is being taken away. I can trace this back through my life to childhood, as I was raised in a “children should be seen and not heard” environment, and many adults rarely listened, assuming what I had to say was insignificant. The origin of the habit is not as important as what I do with the awareness of its existence now. Is it serving me to expend energy getting defensive?

Bruce’s approach was to apply whatever amount of pressure was required by the horse to identify and work through the unwanted behavior. Stipulating that the things which trigger a horse’s “problems” are created by pressure from the past, he aims to apply only enough pressure for the horse to be able to recognize and work through his or her own reactivity and begin to create a new experience. Though he had a rope as a tool, most of the pressure Bruce put on the horse was from volume and tone of voice and body language, asking her to move in one direction or another at a certain speed, and increasing the pressure when she did not comply. He used this same strategy to let her know that pinning her ears or gnashing her teeth was not an acceptable response to any request, including the introduction of a saddle.

My initial reaction was: But this is only training the horse not to pin her ears – it is taking away her voice, the only voice she has being her body language.

Not only that, his loud voice, the constant barrage of questions he aimed at me which had specific answers I didn’t know nor understand, and his talking over me triggered that awful, desperate feeling of having no voice for myself as well. At first, I fought. Just like Taj, I responded with the human equivalent of ear-pinning, raising my own voice and refusing to comply. I was defensive, I did not trust him, I felt the overwhelming discomfort of everything I ever experienced with people who are domineering and controlling.  I felt a lot like Taj must feel when she gets defensive. That realization made me want to change, made me want to find the possibility in the experience for both of us.

I watched Taj quickly stop her conditioned reaction of ear pinning, and stay engaged in all kinds of requests from Bruce, including the request to follow him blindfolded. Was it fear operating in her or was it trust? My aim is to build trust and enjoyment for Taj in her life, not to scare her into submission…

My former husband, Kevin, helped me look at this question in a new light. He said, “Don’t think of it as fear. Think of it as exhaustion. She is tired of making her own boundaries. She is tired of feeling like she has to be in charge.”

I tried this on myself for size. Is there a part of me, when I react to those loud, controlling voices in my life, that is tired of feeling like I have to take the control back? I asked myself, what does it matter if someone is taking over the conversation, needing to be heard more, needing to be right? Does that really hurt me? Does it actually take away my voice? Or is it a perceived threat, created by the pressure from the past?

Perhaps, just perhaps, learning to accept and even to comply with dominant, dictatorial voices will actually be liberating. I will not have to fight for my voice if I know no one can really take it from me. There are, after all, so many people I know and meet who care, share and listen. If that possibility exists for me, and if I can be made aware that I am wasting energy on a habit of overreacting and I can change it, then I am optimistic that Taj can, too. Perhaps, as Bruce said, it is not a matter of Taj trusting him, it is a matter of her trusting herself.

I created a video of a session with Taj in which there are moments of intense pressure and moments of lovely ease and flow. I am still not comfortable watching the parts where I am rising up with a loud voice and dominant energetic pressure to get her to stop focusing on her habitual reaction to the saddle. Deep down, or maybe not even so far from the surface, I am someone who wants to be kind and gentle all the time. I want to be nice. It seems so hard to believe that a horse would suddenly be happier when I am “not nice.”

When push comes to shove, and we are forced to face the pressure of things we would rather avoid, the feeling we get when we “survive” the incident is everything from relieved to empowered. In many cases, it wasn’t nearly as bad as we thought it would be when we started getting defensive and reactive. And there is the additional value in surrendering, in giving up control and trusting one’s self to survive the situation. I may even be able to trust that the cat can take care of himself.

 

 

Personal Note: This is one of the hardest posts I’ve ever made. I’ve intentionally set the thumbnail for the video on one of the hardest moments we had. I’m realizing how deeply difficult it is to really face Taj’s demons and my own. This is a work in progress, as life always is.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Conversations With Taj: Soul Health

 

In the midst of a “cyclone bomb,” as meteorologists deemed it, contrary to what I expected in such harsh conditions, Taj’s ill health improved. Winds were gusting between 20-30mph and daytime highs were in the teens, which, with that wind chill, felt like less than zero, and at night, your nose hairs would instantly freeze. I was feeding the horses six times a day and always put hay in slow-feed nets around 10:00-11:00pm. I thanked my lucky stars that I had a water heating device in the water trough, which had been moved to the top of the pasture closest to my house so I could plug it in. This weather was the worst of the Maryland winter so far.

This tough, California paint mare had grown a thick, soft winter coat, and only the delicate skin around her eyes seemed slightly frostbitten. For more than a month she had been miserable with chronic runny gut problems. She had taken to glowering at me with her deep brown eyes, as she stood cribbing on the water trough, presumably bored and lashing out a bit at me about her discomfort, her unhappiness with the lack of grass and the lack of interesting things to do.

TajRoundpen011018_F

At this same time, when no one on the whole east coast wanted to be outside, I decided to try taking the Equine Guided experience online, and started with inviting a small group of friends to send questions for which I could ask the horses’ insight. At first, Taj hesitated to get fully involved. But with the second inquiry, she demonstrated that she was very interested and wanted to engage in the process of finding new perspective and giving advice.

In the 48 hours that I brought those questions to the field, Taj’s extreme frustrated attitude and digestive issues both improved dramatically. Having tried a lower protein feed, a hind gut medicinal powder, and an anti-parasitic over the last few weeks, all to no significant avail, I also began giving her an herbal supplement I’d used to help her gut in the past. It had ceased having any helpful effect, but perhaps reintroducing that was an additional, physical boost to her gut health. However, I am certain that addressing her physical issues alone would not have been sufficient. Despite the harsh winter conditions, this horse began to heal and thrive again when her entire health was addressed: body, mind and spirit.

It is for the sake of improving overall well being, for humans and for horses, that I do equine guided work. There is an unmistakable “magic” about gaining insight from a horse. Even the fact that the horses show interest in us and our inquiries sends signals to the human heart that result in feelings of hope and joy. When I pull out a slip of paper inscribed with the words of someone’s heartfelt question, they are drawn in. The horses listen as I read the words, evaluating the energy of the inquiry I’ve brought to them. One or more of them then step up to help me explore possible ways to approach the challenge.

TajListeningToQuestion_F

I do my best to step into the shoes of the person inquiring, and to experience the horse’s responses as if the question were my own. Undoubtedly, there is some part of the question or the struggle that is familiar to me; the human experience is rich and varied, but the essence of our challenges and our quests for more joy in life tends to be woven with unbreakable, common threads.

My mare, Taj, who had been shut down and averse to doing almost anything but eating and cribbing for several weeks, opened up and wanted to engage again. Witnessing this shift in her re-introduced the magic of this work to me.

I call it “work,” for lack of a better term. I call it “magic” for lack of a better term. In fact, there’s not much about what I do with horses that can be described easily in words. I’ve often felt that people have to take a leap of faith and just try it to understand it for themselves. It is my hope that the online “Advice from the Field” forum will provide more people with an easily accessible window into the potential for self-discovery, possibility and change that horses can offer. In the process, horses like Taj who have struggled through multiple owners, trainers, competitive demands and injuries, both physical and emotional, find something they can enjoy in a life where enjoyment has seemed so hard to come by.

I’ve had people see how “easy” my horses’ lives seem, and make comments like: “How could they possibly have stress?” or “What on earth could they have to complain about?” It strikes the same chord in me when people assess other people’s lives as “easy,” and therefore make judgments about the difficulty or validity of their problems. None of us knows what kind of challenges or pain anyone else may be grappling with at any given moment. Many people, and horses, put on a brave face and a tough exterior, not wanting to appear vulnerable. Yet it is precisely the willingness to be vulnerable that opens up pathways for compassion, empathy, connection and trust.

TajRoundPen_MyFeet_F

In my current conversations with Taj, I am searching for ways to earn her trust in situations where she is particularly triggered and defensive, such as putting on a saddle or asking her to stop cribbing. It usually boils down to acceptance and patience. I need to show up, meet her wherever she is, and continue to gently make suggestions. There is not a lot of room for an agenda in this scenario. There is a need to make for room for outcomes different from what we originally envisioned – to let ourselves be surprised by what can be created in the space we open with our efforts.

There is also room for goals and for dreams. In my view, the goals I set are the specific changes I want to make or activities I want to be able to do together. The dreams are the heart-and-soul-felt visions and desires I have for our experiences and broad accomplishments together. In the most recent inquiry I took to the horses, Taj jumped at the opportunity to help. At its core, the question was about how to stay true to one’s dreams. Life throws at us a barrage of distractions, derailments and stumbling blocks. How do we stay the course, through it all?

As I stood with Taj in the round pen, my hand lightly near her heart, I realized that she embodies my dream of reaching thousands, no, hundreds of thousands of people and horses around the world, engaging them in a new way of seeing and being with horses… and a new way of seeing and being with each other. Horses are a gateway to the soul. The health of one’s spirit is an essential piece of the quest for feeling good. So how do we stay the course? First, we must be sure to identify our dreams, our true heartfelt longings and callings. Second, we must cultivate confidence in believing we can live those dreams – the confidence that we are strong enough, smart enough, good enough to live into what we long for and what we are called to do.

And then, we keep showing up for our lives, meeting each moment wherever we are, continuing to gently make suggestions.

Here is the video for the “How to be true to your dreams” session in Advice from the Field:

If you are interested in joining the “Advice from the Field” group online to try the virtual equine guided experience, please click the Visit Group button on this page: https://www.facebook.com/horsesforthesoul/