Can your horse go to sleep with you on the end of the rope?

An exploration into expectation anxiety

Its a funny thing ‘expectation’. You put water in a kettle, turn the kettle on and expect the water to boil in a minute or so. If it doesn’t we start to fret and ask questions such as ‘ Is it plugged in? Is it broken? Do I need to get out a saucepan? Are we having a power cut?’ and so on. It didn’t do what was expected so the feeling of ambivalence and trust we had in the kettle changes to one of worry and anxiety and wanting to do things to help it work as we expected.

Expectations of things, of others (including our animals), ourselves, felt from others, is so deep and normal for us, the majority of the time we don’t even recognise it as expectation. And expectation requires a response to succeed. 

So what if we change our expectation of the kettle. Lets expect it not to boil. Now it has succeeded and our response is one of happiness or more likely ambivalence. It did what was expected so we don’t need to react. But having expectations can also create reactions of disappointment, frustration, anxiety, when the expectation is not met. 

Can we stop having expectations? Yes, but you would have to really work hard at it, acknowledging every time you expect something from the easy everyday ones of ‘things’ to the more subtle ones of expectations within our relationships. Conditions are expectations. Unconditional love is love without expectation. Living without expectation is something to aspire to, but the first expectation to remove is the expectation that you will be able to do that within this lifetime, but also remove the expectation that you can’t or won’t be able to.

That sounds complicated but all that is needed is to understand what expectation feels like in yourself, acknowledge what it feels like when that expectation is not met, and respond by changing the expectation, instead of reacting with other emotions. When you create an expectation and then react to it not being realised, you create a feeling within yourself, usually of disappointment when working with an animals, sometimes even anger. This is what the horse feels from you and this is what can create expectation anxiety.

Well, I hear you say..what has that got to do with whether your horse can go to sleep with you on the end of a rope?

I tried a little something with Timmy in the arena yesterday. I opened the arena and he came in so I decided to put a head collar on him and see what happened today. These days I enjoy just seeing what occurs. The expectation thing was on my mind and had been as I had sensed some expectation anxiety around a friend and her new herd addition. 

So I initially had no expectation. I wandered around with Timmy for a bit sensing in to what he was feeling and what I was feeling. He was fidgety. He wanted to graze. He wanted to crib. I kept feeling like I was not coming up to scratch for him, I was being disappointing, even annoying. I was being confusing. My lack of any expectation of him after putting a head collar and rope on him was actually making him anxious, which in turn was creating a sense of not being good enough within me.  How Interesting! 

This is not surprising as all my horses have historic expectation anxieties developed over years with various owners, including myself. I created lots of expectations over the years and it is only recently that I have learned to know when I am creating an expectation, particularly an expectation in my feelings, which is the only language we can use with our animals. When you are starting with a youngster, and you are their first human relationship, they initially would not have any anxiety around expectations of them from their human, until we start to create them. Then when they move from their first human where they have learnt a level of communication, to a new human relationship, the communication changes, the expectations change, and the horse will initially develop a level of what I will call expectation anxiety. What he has always done, how he has always responded is now not right. He is not getting the same response from his human as he got before and he doesn’t know why, or what to do about it, so he gets anxious.

You can see levels of emotions coming up in Timmy as he tries to figure out why I am not directing him to do something. Basically I have set two expectations: one is that he remain focussed on me, and when I lose his focus I do something about it, just a little refocus. He is trying to figure out what is expected of him. He stamps his feet in frustration. He bites the rope. He tries to bite me. He gets really itchy as the emotions come up and wants to roll, but is not sure he can because he is at the end of the rope. After a while of allowing all these emotions to rise up it came to me to then create a second expectation. I created a feeling of relaxing and going to sleep at the end of the rope. It took a while but you can see how he releases the anxiety through yawning and how his eyes start to soften and he feels sleepy, although initially he fights it a little. He wants to leave the arena as then he can relax and sleep where he normally does. Eventually he can’t help himself. It is such a peaceful feeling and so much nicer than all the anxious feelings running around in him, and you just can’t be anxious and peaceful at the same time. When he did fall asleep I stayed with him keeping peaceful myself. It lasted about 8 minutes. The entire session from putting the rope on to taking it off was about 40 minutes.

Now we are starting to create a new expectation or condition. One of being peaceful on the end of the rope. One of not feeling like he should be ‘doing’ something. One of starting with a blank page every time the rope goes on. It could take a few sessions before the new condition is a habitual response. A habitual response to an expectation of peace. The neutral place. The place where trust is. The place from where a new conversation can begin.

How long it takes to get to this response each time will tell you so much about what the horse is feeling that day. And be aware, there is a big difference between a horse relaxing and sleeping at the end of the rope, and a horse emotionally shutting down and going inside. If you can’t feel the difference it is likely that you will see it in the eye and the jaw. The jaw will be tense, not slack. The eye will be glazed over and staring, not blinking or shut. If this happens just keep focussed on being completely still and not thinking at all, having no expectations except that of sleeping.  Eventually the demeanour will change and the jaw will relax and the emotions will release more than likely through yawning. The difference is you won’t be moving around so much avoiding nips and stamps, but you have to be more aware of the subtleties. 

So ask your horse to go to sleep at the end of a rope in the place where you normally ask him to do something. The responses will be interesting.

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