Have you considered avoidance?
In my somewhat “off grid” experiments with Wyoming this fall, I am changing my approach to her education away from the direct pressure paradigm and trying to lead her mind and emotions by guiding instead of driving. I am finding myself yet again back at the basics with this mare. Last winter I spent four months with complete liberty and no halter-lead rope where she had to choose to engage if we did anything. This winter I suppose we’ve stepped it up as now I find us in the step of putting the halter on and teaching her to be led.
I had a friend take a video Monday of the process on a challenging high alert day because the farm cows were being moved around in the horse field so her environmental antennae were fully tuned and her ability to focus on me and consider being willingly restrained was very difficult. What a great opportunity to see how deep the cracks are in this trust foundation.
What I saw in great clarity when I watched the video was avoidance.
In the video you can see Wyoming is not comfortable with the idea of being confined by wearing the halter attached to a lead rope. Her personality is fear based and her flight mode is easily triggered. Her freedom is her most sacred need. [Hm, they say our horses teach us about ourselves….] If she is attached to me I would interfere with her perceived need to move those feet (fast) when she feels enough worry to flip to the sympathetic nervous system and go into flight. I have come to understand more than ever for this mare to partner with a human it is going to take massive trust on a higher level than the average horse.
When I position myself in the place I would put the halter on her, she is pressed to discomfort but not thrown over her threshold. This is an important factor in the work with her. If I break through her threshold I push her into full on flight-fight-freeze mode and we cannot do any mental work there. Note that with many horses you can work in that mode, but you are training reactions not responses and neither of you can access the horse’s brain when they are in sympathetic response mode. What I hope to find is the place where she is slightly uncomfortable because I’m pressing on that bubble but haven’t exploded it. This is where she can think and learn, and my hope is finally get some traction on progress with our partnership that is lasting.
How I know in this video that I have not gone into full flight mode is she is never attached to a tool (she has her freedom) and she doesn’t exit stage left. Still it is clear she is pressed into discomfort because she does “leave”, but in more subtle ways.
I knew it was happening but I saw it with more clarity from the 3rd perspective eye of the video. She didn’t want me to put the halter on and I could see this in the ways she would disconnect from being present with me. She would turn her full attention to the cows (mental). She walked a few steps away (physical). She “nipped” at me with her lips (emotional). She tried to ignore me through eating grass (how many of us have avoidance issues that turn us toward food or drink?).
My response to these was not punishment. The goal of punishment is to change a behavior. While I am pressing on her comfort zone it only makes sense she is going to have to sort out what to do about it and telling me she is uncomfortable. I don’t want to change the behavior, I want to change her mind.
In order to do this I will stay in the place where it’s pressing in but not exploding and make sure she knows I hear her. I let her know I hear her by not crossing the line she is most worried about. She is not uncomfortable with my presence around her body in any place. She is uncomfortable with the next step of losing her freedom to me (halter). So I stay in the conversation with her and let her know I will not force her to make the next step. This is how I build trust with her. I stay present with her exactly where she is until she can make the change mentally that she is safe with me and can relax.
In the video I talk through the conversation I have with her as she uses various avoidance ideas to disconnect and not stay present with me in the uncomfortable place. I can tell you for sure- I can see that this mare is afraid of punishment. She is afraid of correction. I have to communicate with her so the correction is helpful and gentle while still guiding her toward a better path. If it’s too much she overreacts and goes into flight-fight. So when she “leaves” me mentally I do something to bring her back. This is part of the experimental part for me because I have to always find that sweet spot where she feels heard and led into a better place not thrown into sympathetic response mode. I wiggle my lead rope sometimes, I annoy her grazing attempts with my boot (and you can see how that works out!), I stay in step with her when she takes a few steps.
This kind of work takes unique understanding of each horse because there is no set answer to all horses. I would have to get much bigger to break Hope out of a shut down state and get her back to present in ways that would send Wyoming to flight. My relationship with Khaleesi is much stronger so I can do a bigger correction without her taking it as personally- she doesn’t have an unnatural response and we can move forward together more efficiently together.
At some point the change I hope for comes and she releases the tension and worry she had been holding in her body with a big neck shake. On this particular day that is a great place to finish and I tell her thank you and walk away. I don’t pierce into the next level with the halter although the session before this (which was over a week before due to being out of town) we had put the halter on and done some leading work without worry.
Each session I must take the horse I have and do what she can tolerate or I will create relationship damage. That is the thing I am coming to realize more and more as I “grow up” is that yes, we can go forward when we don’t have agreement and connection- but do we fully understand the damage that is caused? I wonder.
This is the case with the humans around us as well. Some are more geared toward progress and goals and some are naturally geared toward relationship and connection. I see that both are strengths and weaknesses. Those goal-progress oriented can do a lot of damage as we believe the prize is worth it and everyone will see that eventually. We run over others mostly for their own good. And yet the relational-connection folks can get so stuck in the messy imperfect relationship questions that they don’t get the strength of relationship because they don’t press into the challenges with courage and intention.
If I never ask anything of my horses it does not create any relationship. Asking them to do things they don’t understand or are not ready to do mentally destroys relationship opportunities.
I see great value in this work and will continue to experiment with it.
Wyoming has by far required me to understand new ways of thinking or one of us was eventually going to get really injured. Yet as she has kept me in the curious mindset (I am too stubborn to just give up on us) I am seeing an early harvest with this line of work with Khaleesi and Hope as well. Because these two are less of a challenge for every day “simple” tasks (like wearing a halter without anxiety) their changes have been deeper and exciting.
As always, I appreciate the clarity working with these horses gives me on my own life. I have begun to see in others around me to deeper layers of questions below the surface behaviors and it helps me have more compassion and not get so focused on the “unwanted behavior” and realize it’s the deeper heart and mind cracks that are behind the behavior. I can’t always help each person depending on our relationship and connection, but I can have more freedom in my own responses and not go into sympathetic self-protection responses as quickly.
More transformational still, it’s brought awareness to my own avoidance behavior. When am I uncomfortable and want to distract myself with “the cows over there” or trying to eat or drink (or pick up my phone to check emails and messages rather than engage a troubling situation or thought), when do I nip at those around me hoping to send them away so I can self-protect? Truly not everyone should have my full submission and trust and that must be built, but I’m certain I can do this more intentionally and made decisions instead of reactions if I slow down and try to understand why I am feeling so anxious, angry or afraid. I can sort out my own cracks and look for greater truths to strengthen with, and maybe stop some of the cycles around me of irresponsible relationship behaviors that leave people wounded and lashing out in self-protection (creating more wounds in others).
Link to YouTube videos: