How Long Will it Take?

When people want help to change an animal’s behaviour they will often ask “How long will it take?”

Of course it depends on so many factors but I would also like to say that it’s best to let go of that thought.

 I’ve heard it said that the space between where we are now and where we want to be is called stress, and that also goes for our relationships with our animals, especially when challenging behaviours are involved.

When we become fixated on a specific outcome we are no longer present. When we reject where we are now, it creates either a closed or a stressed feeling which we share with our animal partners. Our animals find it difficult to connect with us because we are not peaceful with the current situation. The choices we make in the present moment are the ones which create that future outcome that we so desire; wishing we were already there is creating the closed feeling which halts progress.  So it helps to stay focused on where we are and what is needed in this moment, not where we would rather be.

That doesn’t mean we can’t have a clear intention about what we are going to do next – that is the next small step towards the future, but it’s only one step and it may not go in the direction we were expecting, so it’s important to remain flexible and open to where it may take us. This way we don’t limit our experiences and our progress.

When we can accept that where we are is where we are meant to be and can fully engage ourselves in the process and take the time our animals need us to take – we soften a little and the feeling we share creates space for trust and confidence to build.

Change rarely occurs in one jump – it happens gradually over time and at varying rates. Sometimes there is clear movement and sometimes it feels like nothing is happening, and then 6 months later you see that you are in a different place, but the increments were so small they were imperceptible.

The principles of the Trust Technique are Peace, Patience, Persistence and Purpose

Peace – of Mind

Patience – work at the animal’s pace

Persistence – keep being peaceful and patient

Purpose – remember why you’re doing this.

Do You See Your Horse?

Horses have so much pressure put on them these days and a lot of people aren’t aware of it.

Do you pause to notice how your horse responds when you enter their space, when you pick up a halter, when you touch them, when you ask them something, or are you too busy getting the job done?

Are your interactions all pushing and pulling, kicking and smacking or do you interact with lightness, ease and grace?

Do you manhandle your horse or do they respond to your intention and energy?

Do you drag each other around or do you move together in a light connection?

What language do you use when you talk about them?

If they could hear your words how would they feel about what you say?

When we act, speak or even think, we put out a feeling and they can read us like a book.

When we slow down, pay attention and observe we can read them too.

What is getting in the way?

What is getting in the way of enjoying the time spent with your animals? Those things that we call problems, which when we spend our time and energy trying to “fix” them, wear us down and create conflict.

What if we could find peace with these difficult situations, let go of the emotional baggage that gets in the way of creating change?

When we can stop trying to fix our animals and look beyond the problem, understand that their behaviour is an expression of how they feel; become aware that we can take responsibility for the shared feeling, by recognising our own part in all of this, then we can see it all from a different perspective.

We can see that by helping the animal feel safe and secure, and find peace with challenging situations, that “unwanted” behaviours are no longer required.

When you are experiencing problems with your animals, how does it make you feel?  This is the awareness that creates change.

Notice the First Signs of Tension

The problems we experience with our animals, whether while handling or riding or with general behaviour, all result from tension or pain, whether that is physical or emotional.

This can come from association with past experiences or it can start building up from the moment we meet then on any given day.

Tension can start building way before the problem occurs – if you can notice the first signs of discomfort and help to disperse them before moving on to the next thing, it doesn’t need to accumulate in this way.

For example – how does your horse respond when they first see you, when you halter them, when you walk together, when you tack up, when you get on?

If tension is building up through any of these activities by the time you are asking them for something significant you have a very tense horse, and then it’s very likely that things won’t go too well!

It really makes a difference to take a little more time to observe how your animals respond to you in every interaction, and how  you respond or react in return – where are your problems coming from?

Emotions and Behaviour

The Trust Technique is not about fixing problems, it’s about understanding the underlying emotions which can create a problem.

For example, a horse who gets upset when separated from their friends, or a dog who is aggressive or over excited when they meet other dogs. This behaviour may be related to a past traumatic event that causes them to feel unsafe and stressed in this particular situation, or it could be the result of tension and worry built up over a period of time which is then realised and released to an overwhelming degree when triggered by a particular situation or event.

Many domestic animals hold on to their fears and worries because they are not given the space to express them especially when in the company of people.

This is how the Trust Technique works. We provide the animal with a safe space, in human company, to express their feelings and release built up stress and tension. It helps their human to better observe and understand behaviour so they are more inclined to listen to their animal than to shut them down (which creates more holding).

Over time this reduces the likelihood that they will be triggered by certain events, and even if they are they are able to self-regulate more quickly until the behaviour is no longer required. They develop their own means of self control so there is less need for us to feel we need to control them.

How long does this take? It depends on many factors, not least of all the human’s commitment and their own emotional state. We learn to regulate our own emotions especially those which arise in reaction to the animal’s behaviour. I have witnessed significant change within days, but for most it is steady progress over a longer period of time. It develops awareness of both ourselves  and our animals and the way we interact with them, creating continuous and lasting change.

On Presence and Curiosity

How many times do human beings fall into the same trap of allowing a pattern of thinking to sabotage progress?

Maybe you have an “issue” with your horse, but today everything went better than you could have imagined. Your spirits soar –  we did it, onward and upward, we’ve fixed it – you can’t wait to come out tomorrow and do it all again.

Tomorrow comes – full of expectation of further success, but the horse says “Not today, thank you!” Spirits plummet, what went wrong? Maybe you are disappointed or frustrated or you can’t help but beat yourself up or blame the horse.

How could it be different?

Work with the horse you have in front of you – right here, right now in this present moment. Let go of thoughts of past successes and failures, future hopes and fears.

Approach with a sense of curiosity, a beginners mind, as if there is no prior knowledge, only what you see now, what you feel now, what you know now.

Let go of judgement – the horse is good or bad, their behaviour is good or bad, you are good or bad.

Be present, observe, listen, feel, act.

Start from where you and your horse are right now in this moment, not where you were yesterday, or where you think you should be. Look for the edges of comfort and safety; don’t be tempted to push through into fear and tension. These edges may be in different places each time you look for them. Play with these edges, expanding them gently, listen to your horse and work at their pace, however slow that seems.

Forget about where you were or where you want to be, just being here in each present moment.

Of course you can have an intention or even a goal – but don’t become attached to it. You need a destination in order to take a journey – but be prepared to change course if the way ahead is blocked, and remember:

Expectation leads to disappointment and the space between where you are and where you want to be is where you find tension and stress.

Be Present, Be Curious.

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

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.