This post is from/for my horse, Joshua. It was inspired by a recent visit from our farrier, but could just as easily be written to any of us humans. Even I need reminders sometimes, and I'm grateful to have the lessons reinforced for me, again and again…
When you first came to meet me and do my feet, I really liked you. You brought a calm, positive energy and were considerate. You were respectful of my personal space, and waited for me to move towards you, expressing my willingness and interest in connecting. You offered me the back of your hand to smell and touch, letting me initiate contact. I felt respected, safe, understood. I relaxed in your presence and was calm and content as you picked up my feet and trimmed them. After you finished, I didn’t want to leave your side! I stayed close by, nearly falling asleep while you worked with my herd mates. I felt so at ease and peaceful.
But the other day was quite a different experience.
Getting my feet done has never been an issue. But you must have had a lot of stress that day, because I felt your energy as tumultuous and unstable. As you approached me, you had no sense of my personal space or boundaries. It felt very aggressive and disrespectful when you barged right in and didn’t even give me the opportunity to initiate contact before you roughly rubbed me all over my face and neck with your hands. I felt like I was being attacked and gobbled up by a predator, felt like I needed to defend myself. As if that wasn’t bad enough, you then put your hand directly on my blind eye and rubbed it vigorously- I feel especially vulnerable there, as I was blinded by a man whipping me in the face; my mom has worked hard to help me feel safe about being contacted there, so that she can gently wash and care for my eye, but I still feel scared when people touch that side of my face especially since I can’t see what’s coming. I put my ears back and showed you my teeth - my only way to communicate how I felt, my only way to ask you to STOP - but you didn’t listen, you didn’t hear. You just blew it off as “typical Thoroughbred posturing.” I wasn't asked for permission; I didn’t have any say or choice. I don’t feel understood, cared about, or respected. I don’t feel relaxed or safe in your presence. It’s hard to cooperate when my nervous system has triggered hormones in my body that make me want to run or fight, that make me feel like I need to defend myself. Old memories of uncomfortable or upsetting experiences at the hands of humans resurface, as if I’m reliving them and they are all happening simultaneously in this present moment. Strange how something in the present can trigger a trauma from the past.
I stood still and you got my feet trimmed without incident, but I resented you the whole time. As you finished my feet and went on to work with my herd mate, she had witnessed our interaction and noticed how I felt. She did not feel at ease, didn’t trust you, and hence was fidgety and uncooperative. You commented on how atypical her behaviour was. I stayed close by, this time not because I wanted to be near you but because I felt like I needed to protect my friend. I tried to interfere, and my mom had to hold me off to one side for everyone’s safety. I stood there, nervously twisting my mouth and jaw, which I do when I‘m stressed.
Then my mom had an idea: she played with me my favorite simple game, and that let me feel a sense of control and choice in the situation. She held the rope up so I could choose to dip my head under it, and she stayed passive while I moved my head and neck through the loop; she expressed happiness and delight at my simple success, praised me and gave me a tidbit. Then she put brief, light pressure on the rope as it dangled from my poll, signaling me to lower my head so she could slide it off; she expressed happiness again, and I began to feel my adrenaline come down. Instead of twisting my mouth with stress, I began to lick and chew. My heart rate slowed, my breathing became calmer. I felt more relaxed and safe. The herd member you were working with calmed down and became more cooperative for you. The energy of the situation shifted in a positive direction, and everyone involved was happier, calmer, and safer. Things became easier for us all.
I would really like to have a good relationship with you again, like we did in the beginning, only now I’m a little skeptical about you. You couldn’t hear what I tried to tell you, but I’m hoping that these words in your own language might make it easier for you to understand. I want things to go smoothly for us, I want to feel safe and respected so I can cooperate more easily. So here’s what I need you to remember:
If you want respect and cooperation FROM me, I need you to act that way TOWARDS me. Give what you want to receive.
Take a few deep breaths and get grounded in your feet before you approach me and my friends. Try to leave your personal cares behind, and appreciate the present moment while you’re with us.
You set the tone for your interaction with us - horses match your energy. Calm energy attracts more of the same. Happiness, gratitude, and peace are positive vibes which attract cooperation from others. Anger, irritation, frustration, and opposition are negative, aggressive vibes which stimulate sensitive beings like horses and some humans to want to get as far away from you as possible.
Ask permission before you come into my space, and wait for my invitation to connect (like ringing the doorbell at someone’s house and waiting respectfully to be let in). Likewise with touching me. Not all horses enjoy being touched, especially those like me who have spent most of our lives being touched in ways we found unpleasant and did not have any choice about.
“Approach determines direction and depth” - a well-known saying in bodywork, referring to the way one should approach soft tissue for a successful release, is just as applicable to your interaction with a horse. Likewise, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” and “Force creates resistance.” These are natural laws of Life.
If you act like a dominant predator, we feel like prey. You’ve just stimulated our natural self-preservation mechanism to defend ourselves or run away - not a great basis for cooperation. We might shut it down, internalize the reaction because we are restrained and/or fear worse punishment if we move, but that doesn’t change the fact that hormones are already running through our bloodstream. We can’t control that any more than you can when you get triggered. Don’t mistake the outer lack of movement for inner lack of turmoil. If we can’t react to release that adrenaline, it just gets stored in our body to come out later (and usually in a bigger way, as other little stressors accumulate… then you humans really get upset with us, and we feel more unsafe, and a whole unpleasant cycle ensues).
If you’re still reading this, thanks for listening. I hope what I’ve shared helps us have a better relationship, and helps you as you work with others of my kind - I bet they’ll be more relaxed and cooperative, so your job will be easier and safer for the rest of your career. If you ever need a reminder, the horse in front of you will be communicating all the time. All you have to do is listen.