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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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 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.