Horsey Therapist

Monday, August 20, 2007

Rusty and his mouth

Rusty has been particular about his mouth. With his need to have his teeth floated and my commitment to developing understanding and cooperation rather than using sedation and restraints, several unproductive visits from the equine floater left us all wondering if this visit would be successful or not.

Things I had done to prepare Rusty:

1) My fingers in his mouth, frequently to rub gums, touch tongue, scrape plague off his canine teeth with my finger nails.

2) Other people's fingers in his mouth -- I involved two friends in the past few months.

3) Foreign object in his mouth:
a) bits -- I've worked at my timing and feel so the bridling process goes better.
b) toothbrush -- using the soft bristles to rub his gums, and using the rubber handle to explore up where his molars are and let him chew if he wants.
c) old floating rasp, borrowed from a friend, dipped in applesauce at first then molasses.

James Cormier Jr. came on Saturday morning. Unfortunately, our two horses that need floating the most are the two most reluctant when it comes to foreign objects in their mouths. He started with Sofia and made progress but not enough to actually float her teeth. He has done her teeth in the past, and since then I needed to have her wolf teeth surgically removed by the vet because their size prevented him from accessing her teeth. I had that done last month. James and I talked for awhile about how frustrating it is for him as he does have a wonderful feel and willingness to experiment in order to get connected with a horse and gain their trust. He floats without speculum or sedatives, so trust and cooperation are key to safety of all and the success of his doing a good job. Yet he comes to my farm and encounters two horses he cannot connect with out of thousands he can.

So second we try Rusty. We were, by prior decision, in the arena where either horse would not feel boxed in and could back up as far as they wanted in the process of checking out their options. Rusty pulled his head away. Rusty backed up. Rusty twisted his head away. Rusty threw his head around some more. It looked like prior visits even though I'd done considerable preparation in hopes of this going well.

I was about to suggest to James that he use a stern voice and tell Rusty to "cut it out" -- something that had worked for me at times -- just as James stepped back from Rusty and threw his hands out and up in a stance of pleading, and said in a very loud, very certain voice: Rusty, I have to do your teeth!

James took yet another deep breath and walked up to Rusty, put his rasp into Rusty's mouth, and proceeded to float his teeth while Rusty lowered his head and stood there.

James was floored. He was ecstatic. He grinned from ear to ear as he progressed with all the rasping that was needed, occasionally stopping to look over to me, shake his head, and say "I can't believe this!"

We may never know what really happened, but I'm guessing that when James got 100% adamantly clear about the need to do this, Rusty understood, no ifs, ands, or buts, it was time for his teeth to be done. And that was that.

It probably helped that I had brought some new, tasty experiences to his memory bank of what happens when people put foreign objects into his mouth. No, James did not sweeten his floating tools, but indeed Rusty's conviction about stuff in his mouth was changed from what I'd done the prior few days.

James is coming back in a few days to try Sofia again. I'm not proud. I'm not stubborn about my preference not to use sweets to engage a horse's cooperation. I am clear that I am introducing a pleasant experience in her mouth and offering her the opportunity to think differently. I know exactly when she made up her mind that people should not put foreign objects in her mouth and can forever regret allowing someone else to use some force to dose her. I hope to report in a few days that she successfully opened her mind (and her mouth) to the possibility that it could be a neutral if not pleasant experience for her to allow the floating to happen.


Softness is on my mind a lot recently. I question if I could write a few sentences or a few books and sufficiently describe what I am talking about in a way that someone else would get it through the words, versus if we were in the same room or the same barn and we could play around with it. I acknowledge Kathleen Lindley's influence via her book, In the Company of Horses: A Year on the Road with Horseman Mark Rashid,

But a few words I'll try anyway, and maybe it will encourage others to think about this important topic.

First of all, I need to be the one OFFERING softness before I even think about looking for it, asking for it, recognizing it! in the horse. That means I'm on constant self monitoring to be the most soft I can be right now, and then again right now, and then again, right now. On into infinity.

Secondly -- and this is not a sequential 'secondly' though it could be -- I consider softness a thing of the mind. Yes, we look to FEEL softness through our senses, but it starts long before our bodies do anything.

Sometimes it's easiest for me to think of softness as the quality of responsiveness between me and another being. So if I'm intent on discerning if my horse is soft right now, I would be attending to his response to my request. When my request is met by his response (not his reaction), we are soft together. It's not really experienced as me and him, it's experienced as us with perhaps me the leader (like a dance partner is a leader, NOT like a dictator is a leader or a boss is a leader). Softness is a readiness to be together with oneself and with another at the same time. A readiness AND the being together, either one and both aspects.

The concept of 'picking up a soft feel' in my mind is a way to invite a horse to be thinking about being soft with us. That might be the preparation for softness between us. But when the softness is present, there is no need to pick up a soft feel, because the softness is there when I use my mind and/or my body to convey a request to my attentive and responsive horse.

I am trying out these words today. I recently spent a weekend with two of my horses under the tutelage of Joe Wolter. Softness -- although he doesn't use that term regularly -- was exactly what we were wanting -- or having -- depending on any horse and rider combo.

Leading, following

RNB and I enjoy dancing. Recently we went to a "Mostly Waltz" evening of dancing. An instructor was there who started with the basics, including everyone learning both the leading and the following roles of a few basic waltz patterns. I took the opportunity to switch roles with RNB for a dance, and then practice leading as well as 'enjoy' my usual following role.

I was especially struck by these words of instruction (hmm, is that where the word "instructor" comes from?):

It is the responsibility of the leader to lead in a way that the follower needs to be led.

Why did this strike me so profoundly? Several reasons, one of which is that this applies to my horsemanship. It does not work if I am leading in a way that suits me but doesn't suit the horse.

I was surprised how hard it was to lead RNB in a way that he needed me to lead him. I wanted to lead how I wanted to lead -- actually to lead how I wanted to be led. That didn't work for him. It left him feeling frustrated, confused, and uncertain about how to follow. I sorted through my reactions to this -- including 'boy, this isn't any fun to lead him this way' and other angry and frustrated thoughts before I 'got it' -- and adjusted what I was doing so he felt good with my leading style. This did change and progress to something that felt closer to how I would lead if left to my own devises. I would hope that if we danced in reverse roles more often, we would come to an understanding of my leading cues that would allow much softer cues -- more response to intention -- than our achievement the other evening.

It very much reminded me of riding different horses. Naturally, I have my favorites and now can see that my preferences are based on being able to 'lead' in the style that comes most comfortably to me. I have had to develop flexibility in my leading/handling/riding styles in order to suit the various horses I handle and ride. Effort! Awareness! 'Work'!

And that amount of work sets the foundation for less work. The understanding between two beings develops over time so the messages from one are received and effectively put into appropriate action with less and less effort, with more and more subtlety.

Meanwhile, from all I've questioned, it is a prevalent gender difference that shows up around horses: women are culturally trained to be superb followers and struggle to grow into the leadership role. And horses need good leadership.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Another Bo update

This little fellow continues to amaze me. I don't know when or why this happened, but he has pretty much stopped his protective, aggressive behavior around Sofia and the rest of the horses.

Not completely, as he arched and squealed a couple of times when I rode Rusty near where he and Sofia were snoozing in the shade yesterday morning, but it was minor.

Then last evening I watched while Sofia and Prince grazed together in another part of the field from where Bo was grazing, rolling, and carrying on as a normal horse.

Sure is pleasant to see. Do I test this with some assumption that his behavior would generalize to other settings?