Shared activity builds bonds

My problem child

The other day I went for a walk with GG and Sensei, gathering kindling. GG is my problem child, he has issues – his story is a whole other blog – but, he is basically terrified of life. On one hand he is a big softy who loves a cuddle, on the other, he is so reactive and un-trusting that he can be dangerous to people. He already broke my partner’s ribs. Prasado had a moment of unawareness at the end of a long day passed a little too close, in the dark, at feeding time (all exonerating circumstances, nobody’s holding any grudges, least of all Prasado) and GG double barrelled him. I may never ride this horse, but I do want him to be comfortable in himself and the environment he lives in and safe for the people that work around him. So I have to help him feel secure inside.

I have been told over and over by various helpful horsepeople that he needs to be de-sensitized. Personally I dont think that ‘sacking out’, in other words repeatedly scaring him until he stops reacting, is the way to go. I think this approach will teach him to repress his natural reaction, – to flee when fearful – however it will not teach him to assess a situation and react appropriately. Ultimately it would just make him more insecure and less trusting of himself, and more dangerous.

two horses eat hay together
Shared activity builds bonds

Everyone learns differently

I get the feeling from him that he needs context and definition in his work, something that I am not so good at my self, precise or repetitive work is not my forte. He wants to be told what to do, I like my horses to develop their intelligence and think for themselves; I flow with the moment and work mostly in freedom, he is most comfortable when on the end of a rope being told exactly what to do. He is a fine example of someone who would like to shut down and be a good soldier/bureaucrat/slave because self-responsibility looks too big of a task.

In my nature I am a collaborator not a dictator, I want to liberate not enslave, and sometimes I think it would be kinder to hand him over to a more authoritarian trainer. I won’t of course, I love him and what I am learning from him. To help him move forward I am forced to let go of some of my dearly held ideas, especially, “Everyone wants freedom”. This is a masterclass in finding the balance between telling and listening, and I am immensely grateful.

Gathering wood

So why did we go gathering firewood? My partner – who is not a horse trainer per se, but often has creative solutions to problems of all sorts, and a rather special relationship with this horse – had the idea to use an old Tantric method. The method sewed two people into one garment, binding them together physically so they could learn to live together in harmony and become one being. Prasado suggested that he tie GG to him for a few days, so GG could experience new situations in a relaxed, ‘no big deal’ fashion and draw strength from Prasado.

I couldn’t see how this would work logistically, as Prasado is mostly busy on a tractor pulling up tree stumps at the moment. But I took that principle and let it sit in my belly until it became an idea. GG is mostly Quarter horse by breeding, son of working cow horses, born on a cattle ranch, his morphogenetic memory is set for having a job. Like many Quarter horses he doesn’t really ‘get’ abstract principles, he needs to learn on the job. I cant ride him yet, but maybe he could help me with various chores around the place as a pack horse. And shared activity builds bonds, hence gathering firewood.

I strapped the bareback pad to his back and added big flappy saddle bags for collecting kindling. I long-lined him with heavy ropes attached to his halter (all things we have worked on in the arena), and off we went. At the last minute Sensei chose to join us when he saw we were having trouble crossing over the scary new drainage gutter. GG stood there frozen for five minutes, eyes glazed, processing the feeling of the girth and facing the fearful ditch – but he didn’t blow up (that was BIG!) and when Sensei bustled across it he went with him.

Learning through doing

At the first pile of deadfall we stopped, lines trailing, to eat grass and load up. Surprisingly he had no problem with me tugging and banging at the bags as I stuffed in the sticklets, not even an ear twitch, you just never know with him what will be the trigger. Then off we went again, and without noticing it GG was doing a little haunches-in or shoulders-in as we went. I would stop and pick up pine cones and load them into the bags as we walked along and he quickly he got the idea that when I bent down to pick up a pine cone he should stop and let me put it in his saddle bag, I didn’t tell him to do it, he just figured it out, which means he was ‘with’ me and voluntarily sharing the activity, yeah!

horse investigates tractor
Everybody likes to feel useful sometimes.

As we toured the perimeter of the property, which took about 45 minutes, the look in his eyes became softer and he became lighter and lighter in the controls. We returned through the front yard of the house, where builders worked on power tools and various vehicles were parked haphazardly. I expected GG to be concerned, or refuse to go past, but he floated calmly through, looking with curiosity but no fear; unlike o-Sensei who danced through on the tips of his hooves, doing dragon impersonations.

We all felt good for so many reasons (a lovely walk in beautiful nature, shared activities with friends, a sense of accomplishment…) but for me the main one was the renewed trust that we will be able to liberate the wise and gentle nature that hides behind the fear and aggression, and GG will be free from his demons.

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