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.