Wednesday, April 30, 2008
WHINNY FIT (or, The Amazing Exploding Horse)
I had a major BFO (Blinding Flash of the Obvious) while playing with Cheerios Tuesday: my horse will not always be as I expect him to be.
We're headed to an Advanced L1/L2 clinic in—my goodness, ulp—ten days. Somebody needed to have his Coggins drawn and get some vax since he'll be playing with strange horses, so I arranged to meet the vet in the AM. The vet visit didn't happen until evening due to scheduling conflicts, so I changed my plans a bit and we played first before shoveling.
All the horses were inside because the barn manager was unsure of the weather predictions. She was at work. I had my instructions for the day. I left them in while playing because I didn't want Cheerios to be upset to see his buddies going out to play without him. He can get awfully right-brained about stuff like that still.
I thought we should get a program going to fix his objections to the Extreme Friendly Game. My plan was to warm up with some regular Friendly Game and ease into the Extreme version, just get him used to flopping it without it meaning anything.
Methinks that was the wrong plan. Perhaps I should have stuck to more familiar things a bit longer before introducing it. But hey, it's just Friendly Game, right?
Er, not to the horse, I guess.
It was a very interesting session. He wasn't particularly upset about the light flogging, he just didn't know what to do and seemed convinced he HAD to move his feet. I allowed it. Praised when he stopped. Acted like it wasn't anything. You know the drill.
When he seemed to have "gotten it", meaning he stopped and relaxed, I decided the game was over and moved on, thinking, good, he's calm, now I can teach him.
But I didn't see it. Because I was focusing on his being "relaxed" but misreading it.
The darndest thing happened.
HE WHINNIED. He looked at the barn and let loose.
Why is this fascinating?
Because I've had this horse for seven years. In seven years, I have heard him nicker twice. I have NEVER, to my recollection, EVER heard him whinny. Not the day I brought him home, not the day we moved, never. Ever. I was convinced he didn't know how.
He whinnied more in ten minutes than I'd heard in seven years. My mares are the whinniers (were, in Wildflower's case). Shaveya is known to have whinny fits all the time. She's very vocal. Cheerios, on the other hand, is silent but very physically expressive. So it blew my mind.
He obviously wasn't focusing on ME, so I tried distracting him with the games.
That's when the fun REALLY began.
I observed for the first time something I'd never consciously noticed—maybe it was the first time he did this, or maybe it was the first time I was aware enough to see it. He seemed to cycle very quickly between all four of the Horseanalities then flip between RB and LB Introvert several times before finally shutting down and beginning to go catatonic.
I'd done Extreme Friendly. I ran through the Games in order—yeah, boring, but I didn't dwell, I just preflighted to make sure he was responding to Porcupine versus Driving, that his Yo-Yo was in order, that he was Circling all right. He exploded during Circling, complete with tossing out a kick on the Send (in mid-air, quite dramatic), bucking and galloping, crowding me then kicking out when I asked him to move further away.
What surprised me was that I was asking with VERY LITTLE ENERGY. He's normally a less responsive soul who rolls his eyes and plods out onto the Circle like a bored teenager. I always see how little it takes to get a response before getting firmer so he knows the drill—very soft Phase 1, up the Phases until he responds. He knows what I'm asking. But for some reason, the bored plodding teenager was absent and Mr. Road Rage was in the house. It shocked me. I felt like today he was super sensitive and all it would take to send him was to look with my eyes in the direction of travel—he was THAT sensitive. When he circled in closer, I kept my energy down—all I did was barely tick the carrot stick in his general direction—casually, like maybe a half inch's worth of change!—and with barely ANY energy at all. OMG, you'd have thought I'd insulted his Mother and inflicted a curse upon his entire breed the way he reacted.
It unnerved me a bit. But I didn't react to that. I acknowledged mentally and from a remote observational distance that I found his reaction a tad unnerving but I refused to allow the thought close enough to affect my emotions. (Yeah, that's a neat trick.)
It also nudged up against the last bits of my fears surrounding him. Any of you know somebody who is usually a decent person but every now and then, they're just "in a mood" and you could be having a casual chat about the weather and you might remark "oh, it's sunny today" and they explode? And you cannot for the life of you figure out what you said or did? And it must just be some deep-rooted issue from childhood or something that you inadvertently triggered that set them off?
Yeah. Just like that.
On rare occasions, Cheerios is unmanageable. RARE occasions. The days when I just have this feeling that I do not want to attempt anything with him because though he's friendly and he's woken up on the right side of the corral, just this day he seems fragile—like anything could set him off and there is no way to tell what it might be. Maybe he decided he doesn't like the color of the shirt I'm wearing even though it never bothered him before, or maybe I smell funny. I don't know. Could be what I ate the night before. It's that random, just like the human I was talking about.
This suddenly felt like one of those days.
Here I am seven years into having him as my horse and six years into PNH, a L1 graduate into L2 who has spent a week in Ocala, and I was suddenly wondering if I'd be OK leading him from the round pen back to the barn (about 45 feet) or if we'd get almost in and then he'd explode, rip the rope violently out of my hands, rear, wheel around and gallop off into the road. Like he did that one time. Back in 2001. A few months after the fall. The incident that made me so afraid of my horse that I could not lead him ten feet without a buffer person between us to protect me from him.
The thought flittered briefly across my mind as he bucked and snorted his way around the pen. But I just stood there, pretending like I was OK with it, saying "that's fine, I don't care what gait you're in as long as you're Circling and please stay out there, thank you". Yep, business as usual. Not rattled emotionally. It was like an out of body experience. I observed myself wondering but it was remote and outside of my emotional experience and it was the dangdest thing. I suppose it was self-preservation because if I'd allowed the thoughts to access my emotions I really would have been in trouble.
I remembered that going forward is bad for his current mindset and changing directions might help, so I initiated the change. OH MY. OH BOY. Nope. Didn't help. Made it worse. I sensed that the best place for me might be somewhere other than in the middle of the round pen, so I crossed to the gate. Danged if he didn't decide to follow me. It was weird. His body was airborne but his mind was following me. I think he was having an out of body experience, too.
I gracefully extracted myself from the pen. Again—neat trick. Do it in such a way as to avoid having horse escape and run over oneself while gently deflecting said horse away while also retaining casual unaffected attitude and NOT do it in a manner suggesting OMG I HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE HELLLLLPPPPPP. Rather, it had to be, "Oh, ho hum, I think perhaps I'll try being on the outside of the pen while you, uh, do your thing, and yes, please stay inside, thank you, OK, carry on".
Interesting to note that even with me on the outside, I could just barely point my finger and he'd snort off and circle. So he's listening... but... hmm.
Every time he tried to stop at the gate with a bad attitude, I quietly suggested he continue. Oh, temper tantrum! But eventually he realized that he wasn't giving the right answer and it wasn't any fun anymore and he started blowing, dropping his head and slowing down. I stayed put, observing, waiting.
Finally I got the big sigh and the licks and the relaxation and Mr. Calm Horse returned.
I went back in and praised him. Lots of Friendly.
Now he was unresponsive. Now, bare suggestions were ignored. Hmm.
Without getting emotional, I upped my energy. I became very active and deliberate. When I drove his forequarters around, I didn't do it at a casual walk—I marched right up to him vigorously and kept going, move move move move move! Let's get EXCITED about pivoting! Good. A positive response. Same with the hinds. Same with backing up. I increased my intensity and he responded.
Suddenly we were getting somewhere. Suddenly, when I stood up and said "YES! Let's get EXCITED about Circling!" and sent him, he very politely and agreeably went out and circled at a pleasant walk. Great. Two rounds, nice attitude, questioning ears can I come in please and yes you can, and lots of rubs.
Finally in the right frame of mind.
Maybe I should have stopped right there. I didn't think that at the time. I thought, goody, let's try Sideways.
Blimey. He did it. The first time. Beautiful three or four steps sideways from a Phase one and a half. Much praise. Squeeze this way, squeeze that way... stop, hide your hiney, wait. Beautiful. Smooth as silk. Looks like a L2 horse now.
What's going on with his... eyes...
He'd stopped. He'd licked. He was standing there resting. Then his head dropped. Then it went a little too low. Then... the eyes began to glaze over. But—but—WHAT? I wasn't pressuring him.
Remembering last time, I turned away and stepped back an inch at a time until he emerged. He wasn't all the way under, he was just beginning to go catatonic. He was still with me, just thinking about going there.
I remembered too that I can't ask him out of it, I must wait for him to lick and chew. I resolved to wait, however long it took. I'd stepped off to where his head was aligned and his ears were forward but his eyes were wonky. I stayed put.
After only a few minutes, he decided to emerge on his own, licked, chewed, big sigh... oh, awareness. He remembered where we were. His eyes were focused again. He asked to come in. I said yes. I knew we were done for the day. I did plenty of Friendly Game. Then I asked him to do one thing I knew he was good at. He did, perfectly. More Friendly so we ended well.
Returned him to his stall. Turned out another horse to the round pen to commence stall cleaning. Decided maybe they should just all go out. Despite the slightest lack of confidence about managing them, I got all 12 of them safely out to the pasture without incident. Cleaned stalls, ended my day.
What I learned from this session is that you can have a horse for many years, think you know him, and find out you don't. It really drove home the concept of playing with the horse that showed up, because on this day, I had four different Horseanalities take turns being present AND he did something he'd never done around me before. Either he whinnied because he felt comfortable enough around me to finally speak, or he felt so uncomfortable with me that he had to call for help.
It also taught me that although I'm 97% over my fears, there are some remaining that may never go away. I have a ways to go. This horse, he might be more than I bargained for.
Then again... something else is tugging at my brain, a concept I learned ages ago and forgot... something from an old Savvy Club DVD or from one of the Levels about how horses react on the verge of a breakthrough when they first start the program... I have to go find that. Maybe this was a good sign and next time, I'll have Old Faithful back.