A look at how a feeling that we may consider is compassionate and sympathetic can have a very different interpretation for our animals.
I was having a chat with the amazing woman that runs Heehaws Donkey Sanctuary a week or so ago. During that conversation she asked me a question:
“Why does your horse still try and bite your farrier?”
The question has stayed with me for a while, wandering around in my thoughts…..
A number of things came up in my thinking including, but not limited to:
- Why haven’t I fixed it?
- Do I need to fix it?
- Have I listened properly?
- Am I ready to teach the Trust Technique if I haven’t sorted out my own animals?
I let all of these thoughts flow through, checking the feelings each bought up and acknowledging that. If it didn’t feel peaceful it wasn’t the right question. So what feelings did these questions bring up: Each and every one bought up a feeling of self doubt and anxiety about meeting expectations. All of them I let go. What I felt was absolutely right was patience. I held on to that. The feeling of being patient and at peace with where we are on our journey.
And on Saturday the farrier arrived and I decided I would really listen to Risada – the horse that always offers her teeth to the farrier. She is a horse with a lot to say about ‘having things done to her’, and her behaviours can look extreme. I asked the farrier to work with me, at her pace and mine, to see if we can understand more about what she was trying to tell us.
The first thing I did was to put myself completely in the present moment, and then asked Risada with my feelings : right now be peaceful. She felt that and started to join me. When her thinking levels came down a bit and I felt some tension leave, I asked the farrier to start doing his trimming.
She showed him her back foot and he started there.
We did that one peacefully. He then moved to her other back foot (she is historically always more worried about her fronts) but her thinking levels came up very quickly, that is she started to react and her behaviour showed us she was not happy about us doing her other back foot.. We did have a level of expectation that she may have some discomfort because she has had two abscesses in the same front foot over the last eight weeks and that foot is still tender, so she was not happy about putting additional weight into that foot. I asked the farrier to wait while I asked Risada whether she could go peaceful again. She could not because for her it was too uncomfortable.
And this is where our own thinking starts to spiral….What do I do now? The farrier has a job to do? Risada needs trimming and it will make her more comfortable, but I can’t force her, can I? This is the moment of choice for us. The moment when we can either go into controlling mode or listening mode.
Every time we attempted to trim her her behaviours got more and more aggressive, stamping, ears flat, cow kicking, showing her teeth, bucking, walking off, etc.
So I took her rope off and let her go. Should I have done that? Absolutely! Why? I needed to get into a peaceful place, get right into the present moment, and allow my intuition to tell me what to do. While I had her on the end of a rope all I was getting was ‘No’ from her, and I couldn’t find an alternative option.
We went off and trimmed the ponies and then we came back to her. I put her rope on and asked her to walk back to the barn with me. She planted, and said ‘No’. I said ‘ That’s okay’. I gave the rope to the farrier and asked him to wait with her while I went to get some food or hay to distract her from her discomfort. I walked away.
While I was making up a hay net she came round the corner with ‘Her‘ farrier walking next to her . We gave her her net and continued trimming with no further issues.
She told me two things during our conversations:
- “I can’t be peaceful because my feet are sore and my body is in discomfort”; and
- “You are telling me with your behaviour that I shouldn’t trust this person who wants to touch me and do things to my feet”.
The first statement is easy to understand as she is sharing her feeling with me and I sense that feeling, and felt we needed to find a little distraction to help her through the discomfort today.
The second is more complex because this is me sharing a feeling with her. A feeling I wasn’t aware of until I let my intuition lead me. I ‘knew’ she would be uncomfortable and have some pain when the farrier wanted to trim her. She could sense that feeling in me, that concern, and worry. But she interpreted it as ‘don’t trust that man because my human feels concern and worry around him‘. So she reacted by distrusting him also. When I gave him her rope and walked away I was saying to her, I trust him and I trust you with him. I changed the feeling in me while I was doing the hay and when she came back with him the worry and concern in me were gone and we were able to get on with the job in hand. The hay was the distraction she needed that allowed her to deal with the discomfort as it was too difficult to get peaceful with the discomfort without a distraction.
It is so easy to say that behaviours are based on past experiences. They can and often are. But they can also be based on the feelings we bring to the relationship. In our minds there may be concern and worry which we have learnt are good feelings to have as they show sympathy. But when there are no words we are sharing a feeling that is saying ‘ I am worried therefore so should you be’.
If a behaviour has been happening for a long time, where we may even have gotten used it and just apologise for it, take a step back and look into your own depths and ask yourself this:
Is this behaviour a response to my feeling?
What am I feeling right now and how is he/she interpreting that?
So, why does my horse still try and bite my farrier? Because I am telling her to. She had a bad experience with another farrier many many years ago. Since then when a farrier arrives her response is to defend herself. I have always said to myself that that is okay because she is just responding to that trauma she had years ago. What I have now realised is that I bring a feeling of concern when the farrier arrives; concern that she will bite, and worry that I don’t want anybody to get hurt. By having that worry and concern and bringing that to the process, she is responding with her interpretation which is to defend herself from the man that her human is concerned and worried about.
I will let you know next time if we have changed the response by changing the feeling.