The opinions expressed in previous entries may or may not express the current opinion of the author.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

George Deals with his Frustration

I was up giving water to the horses today, and George was standing with his head over the fence. I stood on the other side of the fence next to him. I really wanted to give him a big hug, but with George it's best to hang back a little. He was wearing his put-upon face - not the same as his cranky face, more like he's inwardly shaking his head and sighing. We stood. Finally he reached over and nuzzled my hair a couple of times, before resuming his martyred expression.

Ok, George, I get it. I come back with the halter, George waiting for me at the fence.

Yes, we had 5" of snow on Monday night.
We exited the field, and all that snow meant there wasn't much to be found in the way of  food. George set off ahead of me to see what was out there.

He found one or two interesting items to explore.

This is more like it.
He scraped off some snow to uncover the grass, but only once. I had to stop him from eating the box hedge. (Is box poisonous?)

Then I decided it was time to practice some maneuvers. George and I seem to be progressing in an odd direction these days. Part of it is that he's allowed to express his frustration. Which takes the form of grabbing bits of me or my clothing with his mouth. This is not biting. If it starts to feel like biting, I get crabby. He understands this. 

So - for example - we're standing there, and I'm saying: "George, just chill for a moment, relax your neck, and then take a step forward. It's good for you." And he wants to go off and do his own thing maybe. Or maybe he doesn't like the feeling of being controlled. So he gets hold of my sleeve and holds it. I don't get mad. Maybe I wait a little and ask again, or maybe I rub his ears really hard and tell him he's a silly billy. Or maybe I snort and shake my head, because that's what he does sometimes when he just feels that pent-up frustration but doesn't want to do anything rude.

All this feels in some ways like we're moving backwards. I can't help thinking back to our round pen days, when George would move forward, and turn and stop and speed up and slow down, all on command. But in those days, he was much more of a cipher to me. Occasionally I would see little flashes of resentment, like tips of an iceberg, without really knowing what was under the surface.

Now when he is frustrated or resentful, it's out in the open, laid out on the table and part of the negotiations. I know many people would be horrified at the way I let him use his mouth and would say that I'm opening the door for him to press the advantage and become more and more aggressive. But he's already bitten me, and when he did, it was not the culmination of a process of ever greater liberty-taking - it was more or less out of the blue.

I would rather be with him in the moment, and have him present his feelings to me- I'm having a hard time with this. And then I can respond - It's ok, we can work this out together.

I do have doubts. I think that when you allow humans to continually express frustration, sometimes it can breed more frustration and lead to an inability to focus. On the other hand, supporting a fellow human through the frustration block does not necessitate becoming punitive. Sometimes you may say, "Come on, just get on with it." But that is a different thing from saying, "Shut up, you bad person" - which is what hitting a horse amounts to.

I always used to say it takes two years to get to know a horse. Although I first met George more than two years ago, I've only really known him for a year and a half. We have a ways to go yet, and I'm sure the situation is further complicated by baggage from the past - both his and mine. If I had to characterize the difference between our old way of working and the new, I'd say that before I was working outside George's bubble. In some ways it was a safe place to be for both of us. Neither of us really had to deal with the other - it was all remote control. Nowadays, I'm inside the bubble with George. It was he who let me in initially. When I'm in that close, I have to allow him to wriggle and fuss and complain - anything else would be like having him in a stranglehold.

My thoughts and words on this subject are abstract. I can only describe what I think is going on in impressionistic brush strokes. The way forward is not clear (although I have ideas), but despite our ostentatious lack of achievement (what? no riding? no lunging? no "training"?), I feel ok about where we are.


  1. Fascinating post that I could go one about forever after thanking you for writing it. Instead, I'll answer in impressionistic brush strokes.

    "Martyred expression." Delightful! Animals can pull that look, can't they?

    George reminds me so much of Dar, who I don't have anymore but still miss so much. Complex.

    What do you know about George and fear? Does he have fear?

    It's easy to judge, and I don't want to. The only thing I would not be comfortable with is letting a horse spool out in front of me on the lead, as George does in the second photo. How can that not cast you as subordinate, or at least less than equal to him? And if so, what does George do with that?

    I agree with you about two years to know a horse. That's harder for those of us who board our horses.

    Given George's complexity, I feel like you have to stake out at least one claim that he must adhere to, whether it's the mouthiness or lead-line work or some other George-ism he and you would both do better without.

    I think I understand why you feel okay about where you are. In the bubble. But George needs to think about being inside your bubble as well.

    I like him so much.

  2. Yes, George has fear - it's not a flighty fear, more of a defensive fear. He's very self protective. I have a feeling he was vulnerable as a youngster (weaned too early maybe?) and has learned to be tough to protect himself. He has a very thin "aura" around him and, I believe, feels naked, which is why he sometimes doesn't want to be touched. In my experience, warm, maternal horses have a large aura. His difficulty in learning to get along with the mares I think stems from his feeling threatened by them - even though they're scared of him.

    That's a good point about staking out one claim for myself. George does do well when you're insistent about some things. What I find doesn't work for me is to arbitrarily decide something - e.g. you always have to walk in a certain position. In the photo, I had chosen to let him go ahead. Other times I ask him to assume what I call the duckling position - i.e. walking along beside me, slightly in my shadow, under my wing as it were. I find that if I artificially decide "ok, we have to do it this way," I just don't have the conviction. I think the claim I have to stake for myself is that in those moments when I do care (e.g. when I'm trimming his feet and I darn well want him to stand still), then I unapologetically - but politely - insist that he get with the program.

    I think George is learning about being inside my bubble. We're sort of going through a new stage I think.

    And of course, my daughter will go out, catch him, slap a saddle on, go for a trail ride, and will spend not a single moment soul searching. But George knows we're two different people.

  3. I get a feeling that George has started to believe that maybe some day he can really open up to you. But you are still in a test period, he is not certain you can deal with it, as he maybe hasn't read the big book:

    "But all things, when they are reproved, are revealed by the light, for everything that reveals is light."

    I don't know if this is really the case but this is something I am going through with my new friend Skuggi :)

  4. Ephesians 5:13! τὰ δὲ πάντα ἐλεγχόμενα ὑπὸ τοῦ φωτὸς φανεροῦται πᾶν γὰρ τὸ φανερούμενον φῶς ἐστιν. This is so profound - what made you come up with this?

    I think you're right about George. I hope you're right about his feeling he can maybe open up to me, and I know you're right about being in a test period.

    I'm really looking forward to hearing more about Skuggi!

  5. Interesting post, June. Very well described and I look forward to reading about how George's frustrations work themselves out.