I had some spare time on Thursday and it was a gorgeous day out - like 40 degrees and sunny! I actually got to spend a full 6 hours out playing with the horses, which is something I haven't gotten to do much of lately. Got to the barn to check out how Xena did her first night in the new stall. She was outside in her paddock enjoying some sun. I decided to enjoy the luxury of not being on a time limit, I didn't have to be direct line, so I grabbed some brushes and just went to hang out with her.
She came right up to me. We played lots and lots of friendly game. It was so nice to not care about anything other than being able to love on her. I thoroughly brushed her all over. I went for her favorite scratchy spot right above her freeze brand. Nobody else was around, so we were enjoying each others company. It kind of gets timeless after a while, so I haven't a clue how much time had elapsed, but after I had been scratching all her favorite spots for a while, I went back to her neck... and she started nuzzling me! I wondered if she was just nudging me out of the way or something, so I move a bit closer to her and it turned completely into mutual grooming!!!
I think I introspected about herd dynamics in those few minutes with her than I have ever done at one time. I have often noticed my minis grooming each other, and the leader seems to always dictate how it goes. When it starts, when it stops, what the other does. So I experiented. If I moved up on her neck, she moved up on me. If I started scratching too hard, she would use her teeth (ouch!), then all I had to do was go lighter, and she mirrored it. Then I stopped to take off my gloves, and she stopped right when I did. Hmmm how interesting!!!!
I wonder if all of that was some sort of sign... had she accepted me as part of her herd? Was she now my follower? Would she look to me for leadership? Is this some obvious example of rapport?
Since I had 6 hours to kill and 8 horses to be played with, I actually got to enjoy doing something with each one of them. Mostly average play although I feel compelled to share that I finally touched my extreme prey animal RBI abused rescue mini's lower legs. Like that thing Pat says "If she's wild and wooly and full of fleas, she's never been curried below the knees." That was her. I have had her for 3 years, I'm the only one who's ever been able to halter her, and I finally got to run my hand all the way down her leg and touch her hooves.
So I was high and giddy off of that major personal success, when I went back in to Xena's pen. After a bit more scratching, I put her halter on and since she had enjoyed the snow pile so much the night before, I figure we'll just go wandering and play put your nose on the snow piles. Lets go snif the closest one. She climbed halfway up it and absolutely destroyed it. She bit it, she pawed at it, she had fun playing in it, and afterwards it looked like that scene from Wizard of Oz where the flying monkeys rip apart the scarecrow. :)
What I should have done was taken that as more than enough steps in our relationship and put her back. What I did do was follow her to the next snow pile. Whoops, overstepped a thresh hold. She can be really hard to read though, looking back I guess she was a little stary eyed leaving the first one, but she practically dragged me over to the second one, so I thought she wanted to go play in it. I should have known - since she did her head bobbing thing while she was walking - that for whatever reason, she was nervous, despite the fact that she kept approaching. Anyway she blindly went right past the snow pile. Yo-yo didn't work. I circled, and she was at the end of a very tight rope fighting the pressure. Sudden onset of opposition reflex!! I realized at that point I had 0 control, so I scurried off to the first snowpile, high-headed head bobbing snorting horse in hand. She climbed right over it without looking, like she didn't even see it. I was stuck on the other side of it, so I ask her to give to the halter pressure and come back around.... she did a Casper-esque defiant head toss in my direction and I practically had to drag her back around. Okay, I knew she didn't listen when she was scared, but this just means I have absolutely no leadership and no way to communicate with her. I had my carrot stick, so I inched towards the barn just to get the both of us back in one piece. She got way too far ahead of me, and since she has only ever been taught to be dragged around, she doesn't know the appropriate response to the halter pressure... so I go to yeild her hindquarters. And WHAM she had no hesitation of kicking right out at me. She didn't get me, since there was a carrot stick between us, but she tried.
Back in her pen, I realize we have to fix this whole opposition reflex business. Porcupine game with carrot stick, and not only did she push into it enough to push me almost backwards, but she was physically resisting it by walking forwards! This horse has NEVER been taught the correct way to respond to pressure. One thing of Pat's that sticks with me is "The most dangerous horse in the world is one that is afraid of things and also doesn't respect peoples space." ...Uh-oh.
Conclusion: Love, Language, Leadership, in equal doses. I think that day I finally earned the love, but the other two are nonexistant. If not, then in the negatives. She was never taught a true language in which to communicate with people. She has NEVER seen humans as a source of leadership. Put it all together and - you get a horse that under quiet controlled settings looks like a calm animal, but the minute she steps out of her comfort zone, you're the enemy, and she goes in a reeeeally extreme defense mode. I am seriously wondering how on earth anyone ever rode her safely!!! I'm wondering how the heck I ever rode her safely! So I don't know about you, but a horse like that isn't even what I call tame! I remember one demo I was watching when the horse Pat was working with did a lot of the same thing Xena does, and even though the owner could touch him all over and lead him places, Pat said that horse wasn't even tame... because "tame" means that the animal is pretty certain people aren't going to kill him.
Where do we go from here? We work inside of her comfort zone. And in any new setting, I'm going to lead her there, not send her and let her become an emotional wreck. If I think that just for a second we maybe might be approaching a thresh hold, I am going to turn around. And I need to build a language from nothing, because dangerous situations aren't the time or the place to find out she won't respond to the halter. It appears as though my "not so wild mustang" is, indeed... pretty wild.