Starting Again – Again

It is only after I started writing this that I realised I’m talking about starting over at the beginning of a new year.

I don’t really do New Year’s Resolutions, if you need to start something new, why wait?

I’m starting over again with Grace – again. Sometimes things get a bit stuck and we feel like the only way to get back in the flow is to start again, to go back to the beginning.

This can feel like we’re forever going backwards and never moving forwards. But the truth is we never go back to where we were before – we can’t, because we’ve moved on, we’ve changed, we’ve had new experiences, we can’t go back, we can only start afresh with a new perspective from where we already are.

The feeling of needing to go back comes from the realisation that we didn’t attend to something that needed attending to.

We can’t go back to where we were before; we can only attend to it from where we are right now.

We might be repeating actions that we’ve done before, but they will be viewed from a different perspective, and we will therefore do them differently and when we move forward it will be on a slightly different route, even if our destination hasn’t changed.

So when you feel like you’re going back to the beginning – again, remember you’re not, because you can’t.

When we come back again and again to the present moment we remember there is no before or after, there is only now.

Relationship

As a Trust Technique Practitioner I work with all kinds of animals, not just horses.

This week I worked with a couple and their 3 dogs. They had asked for my help with the newest member of the household who was unexpectedly and randomly launching at house guests. Strongheart had already experienced many traumatic events in his short life and household guests were just about the last straw.

The Trust Technique is about building trust and confidence through relationship by working at the emotional level with everyone involved. It turned out that Strongheart, the new dog hadn’t really been welcomed into the home by Empress, one of the other two dogs. The third dog, Alaska, was generally highly sensitive and was sceptical with even  this gentle approach.

In a household of more than one individual, in this case 2 adults and 3 dogs there is a relationship between each individual and each one of the others, that adds up to quite a few relationships!

 A relationship is the way two or more individuals are connected, or the way they behave toward each other.

When even one of those relationships is less than harmonious it puts the whole household dynamic out of balance. With this undercurrent of anxiety, new individuals (guests) entering the house can be the tipping point.

So we made a start on helping the dogs find peace with each other. We worked with Strongheart and Empress on the leash and Alaska was able to take part at his choosing- which he did and he also benefitted.

Because Amy and Ken live on the other side of the world from me, this was all done over a Zoom call. They have already laid some good foundations with the Trust Technique, so this wasn’t starting from scratch, but moving on to the next phase in strengthening their relationships and building trust with and between their dogs.

I got this wonderful feedback shortly after the session:

“Wow, what an awesome session we had with the dogs this morning.  You are so talented, so peaceful and so clear.  I am so grateful.  I now understand on a deep level how much un-peace the original dogs (Empress and Alaska) experience.  This summer with the arrival of Strongheart I came to understand much un-peace I carried around, and just how much “work” I needed to do on myself before I was going to be able to have enough peace to give to the animals.  

After this session I went from intellectually understanding how much non-peace Alaska and Empress have to knowing in my heart how much non-peace they experience.  If I let myself think too much it is overwhelming how much non-peace we have to move out of here. I mean, all the animals are suffering, but, today also reaffirmed to me that we can do it.  We can do this.  We can give the animals the great home I thought I had been providing but wasn’t.”

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!