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

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Challenge

Well, just in case we were getting all too complacent and comfy around here, we had a good old shake-up today. Did I say, "If that means half an hour has gone by and nobody has their shots yet, and [the vet] has to leave and come back another day, then that's ok"? What I obviously meant was "an hour and a half."

As reported in my last entry, I invited the vet to come to my place to discuss the possibility with the horses of their receiving shots. I told him in advance that we were going to be willing to relinquish any and all tangible accomplishments of a veterinary nature.
This morning, I had the horses confined to the yard, and had Bridget ready with her halter and leadrope. The vet arrived, introduced his nice new young assistant, and produced cookies for the horses. Bridget was quite willing to be swabbed, and to have her temperature taken and her heart listened to. Foolishly, I then let the vet prepare three shots for her - rabies, eastern/western/tetanus, and potomac. Foolishly, because I should have said to get only one ready, and we'd see.

Bridget was positively, no way, don't even think about it, totally not willing to be stuck in the neck. I was very careful that we gave her space, paused, left the rope loose, etc. But when she felt that needle, she was pissed off. The vet got the rabies stuck into her, but then she pulled away, and hopped about until she shook it loose.
We backed off and then worked on familiarizing Bridget with the capped hypodermic. Her curiosity kept bringing her back to see what the vet was holding in his hand, and she finally allowed the vet to touch the syringe to the scary spot on her neck. At this point (which, I might add, took quite a long time to get to), George hove into view. I decided to take this as notification that we should quit while we were ahead with Bridget, cut her loose, and start with George.
I think at this point, I was losing my focus (or hadn't found it yet) - after a brief introduction, we started right in with the vet tech swabbing George's neck, which - sorry to say - lead to George reaching round and biting the poor girl's arm. Without waiting to see the damage, I got
really mad at George, and whacked him several times with the lead rope. I'm sorry, I just want George to be quite clear that serious bites will cause me to attempt equicide. Maybe it's not fair, but that's the way it is. Actually, I whacked him precisely the right number of times, plus one. Because he stood there and let me whack him, until the last time, when he said, "Nope, that's enough, you made your point," and sortof bucked. So I stopped, and he calmed right down and came back to me, physically and mentally.
Fortunately, the vet tech had on long sleeves and a sweatshirt and so was unharmed. She's a horsewoman and remained cheerful and unfazed. I must say George's outburst brought us to a more focussed place, which was needed. Up to this point, I really wasn't very specific about what I wanted the vet to do, and all of a sudden there was a lot more clarity to the situation.

First of all, we started discussing George's past, and his personality. I had not originally wanted to bring any of this up, as I don't think it's fair to throw a horse's past in his face if he's moved on. However, George is obviously still very, very protective of his body, and I felt we really needed to talk about it. We talked about how sensitive he is, how his aggression is based in fear and defensiveness. I told the vet how far George has come, how it's taken him a year to let the mares into his space, and how he's only recently taken to enjoying being scratched, etc., etc. I said I thought he had been weaned too early and turned out at a young, defenseless age with larger, meaner horses.

Then we started working in earnest. We stood with George, and the vet asked him if he could listen to his heart. The vet's first approach was to raise his arm with the stethoscope and hold it out towards George and wait for his pinned-ears/stinkeye look to subside - a sortof desensitization approach. But I asked him to try something different - namely to look for the "no" and retreat immediately upon seeing it. So he raised his arm and then retracted it as soon as George looked askance. Pause, ask again. Retreat, pause, ask again. In this way, the vet was able to listen to a few seconds' of George's heartbeat. Importantly, in the process the vet became very tuned in to George. 
Again, we quit while we're ahead - the vet could hear all he needed in a very short space of time.
Then George did something quite remarkable. He swung around and turned his rear end to face the vet and began grazing. For George to do that shows a lot of trust. I told the vet that all George's aggression is at the front - for George, it's all about the crosshairs and the head-on offensive, whereas Bridget will stake her claim with her hindlegs too - for George to turn his back on someone shows he is comfortable with them. I began scratching George's tummy, and he began to stretch out his neck and do the happy nose-waggle, and I told the vet he could scratch George too. Lo and behold, George did the happy nose-waggle for him too. After a while, the vet leaned on George's back and remarked that sometimes he hated to gain the horse's trust and then "betray" it by jabbing him in the neck with a needle. I said, Let's just quit for the day, and we cut George loose.

We talked some more. The vet was interested to hear about Imke Spilker and wants to check out her website. He had quite a brilliant idea for George - some dogs are greatly helped with anxiety issues by the "
thunder vest" - a sort of swaddling jacket, which hugs them tight and enables them to deal emotionally with thunderstorms and other slings and arrows of that sort. The vet said that there's this post-colic surgery band which is wrapped around a horse's torso to protect the incision, and that maybe it could function like a horse thunder vest.
I tried to explain my approach. I said it is an approach, not a technique or a method but that it might help to say the main tenets are "the horse is allowed to say no" and "ask, don't tell." I said I used to be into natural horsemanship and John Lyons and stuff, but that the mantra of natural horsemanship - "Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard" was not something I followed any more. My intention is to win the full, free cooperation of the horse simply by asking. I told him one or two anecdotes to suggest that this is possible.

I told him that George had really opened up to him at the end, and he agreed that he'd
 really felt that.
Here are some other points of note:
1) I was actually nervous when the vet first arrived.
2) When we were intially working with George, Bridget was getting in the way, so I put her through a gate into the field. Chloe and Rose were out of sight around the house, and Bridget started going crazy. When she slipped and fell, I decided I'd better go let her join the others, but as the vet was holding George, I didn't want to just open the gate and let her charge through. So I went in with a halter to fetch her out. She refused to let me catch her - which has never happened before - to the point of starting to rear up or strike at me when I attempted. So in the end I did just open the gate, and charge she did. However, it didn't rattle George. There must have been a Strange Disturbance in the Force for Bridget to act like this.
3) I found myself able, as we went along, to become more articulate and more authoritative toward the vet, which helped him understand the situation.

4) When we started working with the vet and the stethoscope, George several times "nipped" my arm - but not really a nip, more like just a little tug or something. Each time, I just said "No, I really don't like that." But it was a gesture of communication, not aggression.

5)  Despite our differences, Bridget and George stayed engaged with us and did not attempt to leave.

 Afterwards, I kept finding myself tempted to say to the horses, "Well now, you got off lightly today, but next time he comes, you'd better behave ...." Nuh uh, not the point of the exercise.
7) This has made me realize how deep in this I am. I don't even know how to explain this.

8) I am $220 out and no shots. This could happen again, and again, and .......

9)  When George bites, the universe unfolds.


  1. You've just made me realize how lucky I am with my horses. The vet can walk out into the pasture with me and give their shots right there. I clicker train though, so they always get a click and treat after a shot. Hopefully that takes some of the sting out.

    Have you tried to touch George with random objects? I'd just grab something from the house and play the "can I touch you" game with it. Might help him to be less distrustful of the vet's instruments.

  2. Yeah, our old horses were like that.

    I might try George with the clicker. Only trouble is, he gets way distracted by treats. I can touch him with any old thing anywhere, and he doesn't mind. Like, I could brush him with a broom or put a tarp over his head, and he wouldn't blink. He's very bold in some ways but is just so sensitive to intentionality or something. A soft poke with the end of a finger could be very intrusive to him. I really think with George the key is asking permission and respecting the no. I believe that empowering him is a better approach than desensitization. At least next time we'll know where to start. When the vet came, I really didn't know how we were going to proceed, but as the visit progressed, I realized the way to go was for me to coach the vet and that he wanted me to do that. He's a really good guy.

  3. Your vet sounds great, you are obviously not living in Switzerland :-) I'm with Smazourek with the clicker training, it worked really well for a pony that wouldn't let anyone touch him anywhere on his body. But of course he was fearful, if anything, and the clicker communicated the good intentions of the humans. It also allowed him to say "no" whenever he wanted to. He was always completely free to leave, which he did many times. In the end the trimmer could trim his feet, which was one of the goals. But it took months to get him there. You should have seen his feet at that point...
    George's case is a bit different, since there is aggression instead of fear. But, clicker training might help him, it's amazing how powerful positive reinforcement can be. And in the end it is the horse that is training the human rather than the other way around, so it does empower the animal. The treat issue is always there, although that too can perhaps be resolved with the clicker. Sounds weird, but I've done clicker with food frenzied horses and once they figured out the routine, never bullied me for treats again. IF you do go the clicker route with George, get someone he doesn't know to help you with touching with strange objects. It could "up the stakes" so to say, before you actually so the same with the vet.

    Little Love does not like strange people to touch her (this very much includes the vet) and some areas are more off limits than others but she will allow a shot on the neck, which I know is HUGE. So, I'm lucky with that one. However, if we ever get a serious cut on the back leg or the chest, we are screwed...

    I think it's absolutely wonderful that you are taking this approach. It could be that next time there will be a significant improvement in both horses. I'm sure both Bridget and George are spending some time processing what just happened.
    PS. This is K, I just couldn't post as myself for some weird reason. Tried three times but then gave up.

  4. That was a very interesting session. You also seem to have an understanding vet. I can well imagine how the session unfolded and you became empowered yourself in explaining your approach to the vet. I am impressed with George, this really shows how far he has come.

  5. June, the exploration you are continuing with begins now to penetrate the psyche of a broader audience. It says a lot about your inner strength to reach out so earnestly to your veterinarian and his assistant and share with them this manner of interacting with horses. It says a lot about these equestrian professionals that they are open and willing to explore this more egalitarian approach with you!

    As it happens, this more partnership oriented manner of being we are cultivating has the benefit of improving human to human relationships as well as equine to human relationships.

    Funny how it seems that even though the innoculations you were hoping to be administered didn't happen yet, this appointment with the vet seems like a success on many different levels.

    Thank you for sharing your experience!

  6. Thanks, Lynne. I couldn't/wouldn't be doing this without you and Maire and Sandra and Jen-ska and Kris.