The Context of Animal Behaviour

You know when someone asks you what a word means, and you think to yourself, well that depends… so you ask them “What is the context?” then they put the word in a sentence and the meaning becomes clear.

It’s the same with animal behaviour, when someone asks, “What does it mean when my horse/dog/cat does this? What should I do about it?” We have to be very careful because if the behaviour is taken out of context we could give unhelpful advice.

We need to look at that behaviour in the context of the other signals the animal is giving.

The same is true in reverse – we can look at the bigger picture and put meaning to it, but miss some of the smaller details which may change the meaning of the “whole sentence”.

The Trust Technique allows us to create a space where we can step back for a few moments and really listen to the way our animals communicate to us through their behaviour. We learn to look out for the small details that form the whole picture.

Just as in our human language each individual will have their own their nuances which may give their words (behaviours) very different meanings.

In this space we can get to know our animals own “language”, we can become a better listener and better understand how they respond to us, and then make better decisions about how we can help them.

Dealing with Setbacks

You’re toddling along and making steady progress, you’re being calm and patient, working at your horse’s pace, when BAM! You’re right back at square one. All that careful, mindful work you’ve been doing over the past days, weeks, months…. it was all for nothing. How does THAT make you feel?

Do you know what? It happens. It happens to EVERYONE, all the time. Linear progress is a human obsession and even though we never experience it, we all expect it.

We can’t keep our horses in a bubble; they will have experiences which they find stressful. That in itself is not a problem if we can help them come back from that stressful experience and reconnect with their own peace of mind.

Grace has always suffered with separation anxiety – I’ve spent hours helping her with this, 1 step forward, 1 step back, 2 steps forward, 2 steps back….  At the beginning of the year she went through a particularly difficult time with it. Someone even kindly showed me a newspaper article by someone who was looking for problem horses for a case study!

There was a time when I would have joined Grace in her stress, but we’d been here before (a lot) and we’d made it out the other side and we would again, of that I had no doubt. Grace isn’t a “problem”; she just needs me to hold it all together when she can’t. Roll on a few weeks and the separation anxiety is GONE, gone in a way it has never been gone before. Grace is 14 years old, this was a deeply ingrained pattern, and it can take a long time to get to the bottom of it. Patterns of behaviour developed out of traumatic experiences don’t just disappear overnight. You have to work at them in layers, and when you hit the next layer it can be interesting! But know this is not a setback, stay with it until that layer is breached and one day all the layers will be gone and peace will prevail.

So please don’t lose heart when it all goes pear-shaped, when your hard work seems to be for nothing, you’ve just reached the next layer and positive change is afoot. You’ve been here before and you’ll be here again, but it is repeating the steady path back to the top of the hill (where the view is fine) that builds confidence and resilience. And the more you do it, the fitter you get!

A Road Less Travelled

I wrote this piece for a private group, but it has relevance for anyone who is not following a mainstream approach.  Sometimes when you take a path off the beaten track, when you take a different approach to the one you always followed along with everyone else, it can be a lonely journey. The help and support you desire is not always available to you as often as you would like. You may feel judged or receive unwanted advice that goes against what you want for yourself and your horse.

One evening I was attempting to put into words what help I may need right now – I couldn’t really find the right words so I just parked it for the night.

The following day I had a lovely morning with Grace and while I was walking along the track with her, what I had written the previous evening came into my mind and it all suddenly seemed irrelevant – not needed.

I was thinking…..

We are just perfect as we are; all is as it should be. We are indeed on a journey together, and we are where we are, which is where we should be. Progress has been slow and not always comfortable but we are going in the right direction. We were simply walking (in hand) along a track away from the yard – no big deal, but for us it was. Grace has a long history of not being confident on her own without another horse. In the early days I tried to make it happen and I had professional help to make it happen. But all that did happen was that we put a massive cork on her emotions and at some point they would explode out and she would head for home (mostly on her own).  The next day she would refuse to go anywhere and if I pushed it she would go straight up on her hind legs.

 I no longer need a lunge line, or bridle or something wrapped round her nose, just a simple halter and 12ft lead rope. We were not far from home but we were both totally relaxed, I had no fear that she may be frightened by something or get away from me. We were both in a peaceful mental state, so I can recognise immediately when she is starting to worry – her pace quickens, her heads goes up, she dives for the hedgerow – all signs that emotions are coming up to the surface, it is so important that I don’t squash them back down or “correct” her behaviour, but recognise she needs some help.

 I have been using positive reinforcement (carrots) to acknowledge when she recognises her own fear and is able to consciously inhibit her desire to push forward or away from me. It is important I don’t use the carrots to bribe her to do what I want despite her anxiety – this would tip her over the edge and break her trust. Instead I reward her efforts and then change the environment – do something that makes it easier for her to come back into balance; and of course including periods of simply being present in the moment and constant regard for the behaviours which give away her mental/emotional state.  Baby, baby steps, but all in the right direction. The foundation for this work is what I have learned from The Trust Technique – Peace, Patience and Persistence.  The feeling changed because in the morning I could see it all from a different, more peaceful  perspective. Not having “outside” help means we have to dig deeper into ourselves, that’s where the truth lies. But of course if you’re struggling, share it with someone who understands or reach out and ask for helpful help!

Expanding the Comfort Zone

You need to work outside of your comfort zone in order to grow – it’s true!

BUT if you go too far out, too often, the opposite can also be true.

 It helps to recognise that some people and /or horses have relatively small stretch/not sure zones, so once you are out of the comfort zone, you are very soon entering the area of stress/survival. In this outer zone, confidence is soon lost and the other zones also start to shrink.

Learning to recognise the signs that occur when moving from one area to another helps us to keep stretching towards growth without taking ourselves over the edge. At the first sign of discomfort in EITHER the person or the horse, we have 3 choices – stay where we are, press on, or go back. There is no right or wrong decision, it is experimental and experiential, and experience gives us greater insight into where the edges of each zone lie and what are the signs in ourselves or our horses that we are heading for the red zone. Once we have this knowledge, if we can move between comfort and stretch and aim to keep out of the red zone, both the comfort and stretch zones, along with trust and confidence will expand – this is the growth we are seeking.

Unfortunately there is still a lot of peer pressure and demand from some trainers too; to press on and work through situations that are causing either one or both partners unnecessary stress. Mostly these helpful advisors are making judgements based on their own experiences and not reading the situation in front of them. You know how you feel and you know how your horse feels too. It can take a good deal of courage to tread your own path in this respect and to not feel the need to do what others say you SHOULD do, even if you feel either you or your horse are starting to feel under too much pressure.

Is feeling good about what you do more important than achieving someone else’s goals?  Whether you are just starting out with a new horse, or feel like you have lost your way, I am here to support you and your horse in finding your own way forward along whichever path you have chosen.

The Perfect Moment is The Present Moment

It’s very easy to put off something we would like to do because we are waiting for a better time to do it; a better time in the future when circumstances may be more conducive to success. We are waiting for that perfect moment. Unfortunately that perfect moment we are waiting for may never arrive. It doesn’t exist. It is in the imagination of our thinking mind, it is simply a thought.

When we have an idea to do something and our mind steps in with all the reasons why we should leave it for a “better” time, we are caught up in thinking, we are no longer present.

Acknowledge those thoughts that tell you now is not the best time and let them pass. Go ahead with your idea anyway; even if it is for only 5 minutes, we can all find 5 minutes, it’s a start.

How often does this happen to you? What are those thoughts that cause delay and how often do they step in your way and interrupt your progress? Can you acknowledge them and let them pass instead of allowing them to block your path?

There is only one perfect moment and it is NOW, The Present Moment.

Setting Boundaries

Setting Boundaries is always a hot topic. There is the view that says you should keep your horse out of your space at all costs, another view that says setting boundaries is not necessary and you can just politely step out of the way if your horse comes in too close, and there are those who don’t really consider it at all. As usual it is all a question of finding the right balance.

Setting boundaries has nothing to do with the horse, it isn’t about putting a boundary around someone else, it is about protecting our own personal space. We all have a personal space bubble, where we feel more or less discomfort depending on how far away another being is. This may vary depending on how well we know someone and how they are behaving, but we are perfectly entitled to let someone know, including our horse, if they are invading our space and making us feel uncomfortable.

It is important to me that my horse has a voice, that she can express her opinion and doesn’t just follow my directions slavishly, but on the other hand, being given too much choice and no clear direction can also be stressful and create insecurity.

If I feel the need to be clear about creating a boundary around my own space, it is important that I also acknowledge WHY the horse feels the need to push into it sometimes. Pushing of any sort is a coping mechanism, how she copes with her own fear and insecurity, coming in close to the herd where she feels safer.  If I am going to ask her to stay out of my space, I then need to follow that with something that is going to help her feel safe in that situation.  If I just carry on regardless I am not listening to or understanding her point of view and then we lose trust.

You cannot expect your horse to respect your space if you don’t also recognise, respect and understand their fear.

Sensitive Horses

I am horrified by some of the “advice” that is dished out to people who are seeking help with their horses – it’s like something out of the dark ages. What is it that makes human beings want to make animals bend to their will, regardless of how they are coping (or not) with a particular situation. All behaviour is communication. If your horse is displaying behaviours that are being labelled as difficult, bad, naughty, disrespectful or problematic they are letting you know that they have a problem, not that they are a problem. Maybe they are in pain or afraid. If they are walking all over you and cannot hear you they are not disrespectful, they are highly fearful and in survival mode.

If we choose to go down the route of dominance and control, this always involves inflicting pain, discomfort or fear on some level. We may succeed in shutting down these behaviours by making the horse too fearful to display them, but we are also asking them to suppress strong emotions. This results in a horse who is either dull and unresponsive (depressed) or unpredictable and explosive (anxious/stressed). And if they are stressed chances are we are too. Is this the sort of relationship you want with your horse, one that is built on pain and fear?

There is another way, and it’s not them, but you who needs to change something.

Step off the merry-go-round of life for a moment. The one where we are so intent on success and winning the battles, where we are so focused on some imaginary future that we have completely lost touch with what is happening right here and now. Horses have no interest in our goals, only how they are feeling right now in this moment, and for a lot of them, it’s not great.

Just STOP! Be present. Be mindful. Listen to your horse without reaction or judgement. Allow them to express how they feel and give them a voice. Help them feel safe. Develop self-awareness and acknowledge your own fears which arise in this process – this isn’t about fear of your horse, but the innate fears which hold you back in life. Your sensitive horse sees them even before you do – they will highlight where you are contained by your our conditioned past if you are open enough to hear it. This is what they are showing you with their behaviour, they don’t feel safe and you can only help them if you let go of your own fear, find your truth and connect to yourself and them on a deeper level. Replace fear and control with trust and cooperation.

Timeless Presence

Last week in my Tai Chi class, our teacher remarked on how the Tai Chi masters are able to access a timeless quality in their mind, how a single moment can last almost indefinitely.

This is what it means to be truly present. Most humans are in too much of a hurry to linger in a timeless presence, always looking forward to the next place where they would rather be or dwelling on some past event and unable to let go of the associated negative emotions. Animals on the whole also experience this timeless presence – they are unaware of time passing and have no need to watch the clock. This is why many can find it so hard to truly find the authentic connection with their animals which we all seek. We can only connect authentically in the present moment – and we both have to be there.

Unfortunately domesticated animals can be less present than their native counterparts. Why is this? Look at animals in the wild, even the herd of antelope can be quiet and calm with a lion near by if he does not happen to be looking for his next lunch at the time. The only time wild animals experience a sense of urgency is when their safety and survival depend on it. How often are we humans going about our everyday activities with a sense of urgency, because it all has to be done within a certain time frame – our animals feel this, and inadvertantly we put them on red alert for danger.

Have you noticed how your horse responds when you appear with a halter, or your dog with a lead? Are they really excited to see us and about what we are about to do next? Maybe they are already putting themselves on red alert in response to the sense of urgency we bring with us, together with an item which means a degree of constraint and therefore removing the chance of escape from this impending situation.

How can we change this feeling? By accessing that feeling of timeless presence which exists in all of us when we remove the pressure of time. Being fully present and working at the animal’s pace during the time we share with them, has health and well being benefits for all concerned.

This is my mission, to access this place of timeless presence, to work at an animal’s pace towards a mutually beneficial goal which is not only enjoyable for one half of the partnership; and as a teacher to help others to do the same.

Communication or Control?

A discussion on bitless bridles inevitably brings up the subject of control. I am not passing judgement on anyone who rides in a bit, everyone has their own reasons for doing what they do – I have spent more years using a bit than not, I am just sharing my own discoveries in recent years.

I believe that if a horse is in a high emotional state they are unable to “hear” you, meaning your requests have no effect. You then have 2 options:

  1. To shout louder – in other words use stronger aids or equipment. This I would call CONTROL.
  2.  Reduce the horse’s emotional state so that they ARE able to hear you on a more subtle level, you are then able to hold a dialogue. This I would call COMMUNICATION.

High emotional states may be caused by fear, pain, misunderstanding or generally feeling unsafe. If my horse becomes emotional in certain situations, instead of trying to control her (which would mean I could get her to do what I want, but wouldn’t necessarily help her feel any better about it), I would question should I be putting her in this situation where she is unable to cope?  How can I help her to feel better/safer so that we can retain a comfortable level of communication, so neither of us has to go louder or stronger?

Grace can be a highly emotional horse.  In the days when I tried to control her she could frequently be seen standing on her hind legs or galloping away without me, lead line trailing in the wind….. Over the years I have put an enormous effort into understanding how she feels (and how I feel for that matter) and making it a priority to help her feel better, safer, giving her more freedom and more choice; even if she does become emotional, she will now choose to stay with me – as long as she can trust me to listen, understand and have a conversation; not force her into situations that are more than she can handle. If you cannot help a horse to cope then they will engage their own coping mechanisms – which we know as fight, flight or freeze – unfortunately also commonly known as bad behaviour.  Then you are back to the above 2 options again, CONTROL it, or know that all behaviour is COMMUNICATION and continue the dialogue.

Meditation and The Trust Technique

Inner stillness – a place of quiet confidence, free from judgement, expectation or attachment to outcomes, where we can reduce our thinking levels and find space for our intuition to come to the surface.

This is the mental/emotional state we can access through meditation practice. The value of this practice is that it gives us the tools to access a more mindful approach when we are interacting with our horses (or other animals in our life).

The Trust Technique is a meditation practice that we can do WITH our animals. As well as focusing on being present we “listen” by observing behaviour, with a time frame that is led by them, teaching us to work at their pace.

Then when we interact with them, focused presence in stillness becomes focused attention in action. We continue the practice of listening through observation and working at their pace from a place of quiet confidence.

The Trust Technique can be taught in one session, but it is not the learning of it that creates change but the practice. What is it that can make it so difficult to be still for a few minutes each day, just holding space and observing an animal that needs your help? Whatever it is, it is what gets in the way of real progress – that desire to be doing, getting on with it, wanting to be or feeling you should be somewhere other than where you are right now, that makes us push on regardless.

We are so over-stimulated in our modern world that sitting quietly can be a challenge – it appears as if nothing of interest is happening. But when we can find that inner stillness we notice the subtleties of communication which we miss on a daily basis. That is why horses can surprise us with sudden unexpected behaviours – they were telling us something all along, but our minds were too full of chatter for us to notice. They have to do something big to drag us back into the present moment and get us to listen.

Be present, create the space to listen to your horse and yourself and learn to work at their pace – it’s all you need.