Great Expectations

One winter I attended a horse clinic on cow sorting with my horse, Arrow. I was going to this clinic with my new horse trainer and had hoped it would be fun all around. Cow sorting amounts to moving a group of cows one at a time, out of one pen and into another. While this is a practical thing to know if you actually work cattle for a living, I just wanted to try something new with my horse. I was told Arrow had worked cows before I owned him. For those of you who are not horse people, let me explain that you get told a lot of things about a horse when you are looking to buy it. However, if you haven’t seen it with your own eyes, all of this information needs to taken with a grain of salt.

On the day of the clinic, I unloaded Arrow from the trailer, tacked him up and rode over to the arena where the teacher was talking. The arena was filled with other horses and riders. Some of the horses were standing quietly, while some were leaning over and nibbling on the horses adjacent to them. Others were quite squirmy, dancing around in place or being ridden in small circles by their riders to work off the excess energy. Too many unfamiliar horses doing all sorts of different behaviors around me made me feel very on edge. I tried to focus on what the teacher was saying, but I just couldn’t settle down. I had taken a big fall off of Arrow several months before when I was in the company of other horses and the fear of being hurt again was just too strong to ignore.

My trainer was helping me overcome this fear and I used one of her suggestions. I tried to distract myself by focusing on Arrow and asking him to back up and move around a little, but he just didn’t want to listen. He was as stiff as I was. After standing there for a moment, Arrow asked me, “What are we afraid of?”

At first I thought this was an odd question. “What are WE afraid of?” Then I began to understand what was happening. Arrow wasn’t afraid of the other horses. He wasn’t worried about the situation at all until I began to worry. Arrow had picked up on my fear, both physically in my body and mentally from my thoughts. Only then did Arrow come to believe there might be something to be concerned about, even if he couldn’t see what it was. I had created the very situation I had wanted to avoid. Instead of having a fun and engaging time at the clinic, here I was setting up a scene where Arrow and I were both afraid, which wasn’t safe for either of us.

I turned to my trainer and explained I was having a meltdown and needed help. She immediately took Arrow and me out of the big arena and made us work together in a smaller arena without other horses around. As she gave me instructions on where to turn Arrow and what speed we should be going, she said, “Polly, you just forgot that you and your horse know how to ride together.” Giving me the break to get away from the situation and regroup allowed me to become present to the situation. My body got softer. Arrow’s body got softer and I was genuinely able to communicate to Arrow that things were okay again.

We returned to the clinic as a team. We nestled in between the other horses and Arrow stood calmly, with his neck softly outstretched while I listened to the teacher. When it came time to go into the pen with the cows to sort them, we had a blast. Apparently what I had been told about Arrow’s past cow experience had been true, as he locked right onto the cow I pointed his nose at and determinedly drove it around the pen.

I share this story because it illustrates something I see over and over again in my practice. Our animals are very tuned in to us, even when we aren’t as tuned in to them. They are very good at rising to our expectations and mirroring our own emotional states. I once was speaking to a husband and wife who were talking about their cat. They were going away on vacation and their house sitter and her young daughter would be staying in this couple’s home. The wife was really worried. She told me her cat was very nervous around children and always ran in fear. Her husband then said he didn’t understand what his wife was talking about, because he had been with the cat before when children were around and the cat allowed the children to pet her and pick her up. I asked the couple if there had been a time when they had both been present when their cat was around children and they said no. They didn’t have children of their own and it was a pretty rare occurrence to have children in their home.

When I talked with their cat, the cat told me when she was with the woman she picked up mental images of the cat running and looking afraid around children, so that’s why she thought there must be something to fear. However, when the man was there she felt no tension about being near the children and felt comfortable allowing them to come near her.

There are certainly additional factors that can play into why an animal reacts the way it does in a given situation besides our thoughts and expectations, but I am a firm believer that if nothing else, we contribute to the intensity of behaviors with the expectations and thoughts we send to our animals. When an unwanted behavior presents itself, we need to consider the possibility that we are adding some stress to the situation with our thoughts. Then we can consciously think of a new, more positive scenario for our animals.

Another client, Liz, told me she was having a problem with her horse, Twinkle. Whenever Twinkle needed to have her feet trimmed, she pitched a fit with the farrier. There had been a bad farrier experience in the past that first created this situation, but now, years later, it was still playing itself out. Liz had found one farrier who was able to work extremely gingerly with Twinkle and this allowed for the horse’s hooves to be trimmed. Now that farrier wasn’t available and Liz didn’t know what to do.

Liz told me there was another farrier who she brought her other horses to at the barn where she trained, so I suggested she try an experiment. I asked if Liz was focused on the horse she was riding when she took lessons from her trainer. She said she was. I suggested she bring Twinkle with her to the barn on a day when she was going to have a lesson with another horse. I told Liz to set up the farrier appointment at the same time as her lesson. I suggested she leave Twinkle in a stall and show a mental picture to Twinkle of the new farrier taking her out of the stall and trimming her feet peacefully. I told Liz she should go off to her lesson and not be there during the trimming.

A few days later Liz phoned to tell me she had tried the experiment. Not wanting to leave Twinkle completely alone, she told another boarder at the barn to keep on eye on the horse and if there was a problem, to let the farrier know Twinkle was very sensitive in her front feet when being trimmed. When Liz came back from her lesson, there was Twinkle with four new shoes on. The boarder told Liz she had been busy during most of the time the farrier was working with Twinkle and by the time she had thought to warn the farrier about the potential problem, the farrier had already completed the work on Twinkle’s front feet. Liz was ecstatic. She hadn’t realized how long she had kept the expectation alive that Twinkle had a problem. Without Liz to remind her of the problem and with the reinforcement of the new mental image that the trimming was going to go smoothly, Twinkle did great!

The next time you are facing a problem situation with your animal, take a moment to consider what kind of pictures and expectations you might be sending to them. Simply changing your expectations and showing a new possibility to your animal might just solve the problem.

© Polly Klein 2004

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