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

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Freedom to Refuse

On Saturday I went out on two last-minute trimming calls. Two different barns but, coincidentally, two recent rescues who needed trimming, preferably before Christmas.

The first call was to a new mini, adopted a few days before by a man who already owns three. He has a lovely, neat set-up for his pets and takes very good care of them. He's a softie when it comes to dwarf minis, and he heard about this little one who was being fostered by a dog-rescue lady until a permanent home could be found for him.

His name is Bashful, and he is the teeniest, tiniest mini you have ever seen. Five years old and fully grown, weighing less than 60 pounds. It was obviously a very, very long time since his last trim - perhaps he'd never been trimmed before. Both fore hoofs were growing out to the side, and he was walking on the side wall of both hoofs. Both hoofs curved to the left. These dwarfs can have distorted joints, but he has mobility in the fetlock joint, and I think if his hoofs could grow straight, he might be able to walk on his heels. But HOW to effect the transition? This will require some thinking and consultation with others more experienced than I. On Saturday we settled for getting rid of most of the excessive over growth to get things started, but I didn't want to take it all away, as it wasn't clear what would be left for him to land on.

He was so little, his owner just picked him up and plonked him on his side. He didn't seem to mind, and when we were done, he stuck around being curious and friendly.

The second call was to a newly-adopted pinto Shetland pony. When we started, he was very distracted by his absence from his pasture-mates, and he reared away occasionally while I was working on his forefeet. I encouraged him to "ask politely" and pretty soon he got the hang of doing just that, and we were able work on his feet, taking little breaks when he wanted.

The hind legs were a different matter. He turned out to be a kicker, and when it comes to kicking, ponies are champs. At one point, he kicked out with both feet at once, and the stand went flying. So - time to back off and re-group. Seemed like he had had a bad experience in the past with his hind legs being worked on, which is turning out to be a not-infrequent experience, with ponies especially. The first thing to do was to ask him NOT to pick up his leg. I put my hand on his leg and asked him to leave it on the ground. Kick. Try again. Kick. But after several more tries, he left his foot planted.

At this point, the pony became pensive, calm, and inwardly listening. He turned to look at me sometimes. I started asking him to pick up his foot, and each time he refused. I backed off, asked again, he refused, I backed off, asked again, received a refusal .... and so on. I've come to see this as a powerfully positive experience for both horse and human -  this opportunity for the horse to respond to a request with a refusal. Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling talks about obtaining an almost immediate "healing" in horses when he works with them. I've always found this very puzzling, but in this dialog of "Will you?"-"No, I won't," I'm finding there is a balm and a peace for both species involved. Perhaps this is akin to what KFH talks about?

After a while, I started to put a little suggestive pressure on to his foot - not trying to make him pick up his foot, but to illustrate what I was asking. We set up a little quiet conversation between my pressure and his resistance. I was saying "Do you think you might shift your balance a little so that your foot could come up?" He knew it wasn't going to escalate to an argument, and so he was able to respond with, "Well, maybe, let me see, maybe I could, just a little."

And then, with no fuss, he picked his foot up; I plonked it on the stand, and there it remained of its own accord until I was done trimming. Work on the other foot proceeded more quickly.

The thing is - for this to "work," it can't be about getting it to work. I have to be willing to walk away with the work unstarted or incomplete. I remember Lynne Gerard saying something to this effect (I believe it was in response to a comment I left on her blog). I had succeeded in "getting" a friend's mare to take her medicine (which she normally resisted) by holding her on a loose rope, politely asking her to take the medicine, and by expecting her to take it. Lynne congratulated me but wisely reminded me that if my intentions were sincere, I had to be willing to not succeed as well.

This is the way we should treat our fellow humans too, I believe. Unless someone is going to cause harm to themselves or others, there is no cause for coercion. That is why I admire the special ed school where my daughter teaches. The kids are given ample opportunity to act goofy and play, but when it comes time to teach The Basics (manners, sharing, anger control, arithmetic, reading, etc.), the teachers do the equivalent of me standing with my hand on the pony's fetlock, waiting. My daughter has been punched, bitten, kicked, and cursed at. But she and the other teachers don't react; they stand quietly, waiting and suggesting. These children, who have failed at (been failed by) all the other programs they have attended, gradually blossom and improve. I wish all school children could be treated like this.

I am thankful to the little pinto pony for being present, for trusting for listening, and for communicating.


  1. awww that was so cute to hear that it trusted you towards the enddd xx

    1. Hi, AmberRose - thanks for reading and for your comment. He was a very cute pony!