Saturday, January 22, 2011

I FEEL YOUR @%*&*#!

Is it just me or do normally sweet horses morph into a cranky Mr. Hyde alter ego in winter? I feel their pain, really I do; nothing can dampen spirits like the Pacific NW in January--dark, cold, and wet, wet, wet. Thinking a Costco "happy light" is in order--for me and my boys in the barn! I notice the horses look more forward to feeding time in winter and even just taking them out of the paddock/barn and giving them a good grooming can lighten the Mr. Hyde mood that takes over on days of unrelenting rain.

Soon I will be able to talk more openly about my current book project (the one stealing most of my creative energies these days). I can't wait until the first drafts are finished and publication is around the corner. For now, I'll be content with sharing some general thoughts and look forward to any feedback.

One of the topics the work explores is the shared emotions of horses and humans. This begs the question, Do horses have emotions? I say there is no doubt, but for those that aren't sure check out the work of Temple Grandin and neuroscientist Jaak Panskeep. It's been pretty well proven that the basic emotions of humans--including fear and anger--are shared by all mammals. How do we know? By stimulating specific emotion circuits deep in the limbic region of the brain predictible behavior is the result--ie: Rage circuit makes a dog snarl and the human feel angry, etc.

With that in mind, I've been watching my very emotional (yet introverted) stallion more closely and trying to listen, not just react, to what he tells me with his behavior. Of course I have a story for you:

A few days ago I returned from a day long gaming show with my daughter (it took hours for my butt to defrost--wintertime arenas contain a brand of "cold" found nowhere else on earth). Poor Cowboy--sporting a five inch winter coat and case of the winter flabbies--had worked hard. I thought it appropriate to reward him later with an apple. Since he and Eli share a paddock/stall I figured I'd share the apple between them. When Eli saw me enter the barn and approach the stall, he immediately turned tail and walked off. I felt snubbed. Gee, I haven't seen you all day and you give me attitude?? Well, fine. I fed the entire apple to nice Dr. Jekyll and ignored Mr. Hyde who had returned and hung at the back of the stall watching. And grumbling. He did not approach and I did not look at him--Take that. I have other horses that enjoy my attention. When I began cleaning stalls it became apparent Eli was angry with me. Really angry. He seemed to want to come into my space but I was less than enthusiastic about sharing it with an amped up stallion that wanted to give me a piece of his mind. At one point he walked in to the stall, backed up to the wall, and shook his head at me with ears pinned. Not okay. I made an ugly sound, raised my hand and said, "Well get out of here then." We were a good ten feet apart but just the sight of my raised hand made Eli rush out of the stall like I'd beaten him with a whip. Now he was pissed and offended. It took maybe 15 mintutes for him to come near me again. Eventually he walked back in the stall and stood, his head down, ears struggling at half mast, about six feet away as I worked. Negative energy radiated from his body yet he seemed to want to have a conversation. As long as I didn't touch him (or stare at him!) he wanted to share space. Curious. A couple of years ago I would have dealt severely with an angry horse. Not by physical punishment but by making him work until I saw a level of submission. I was still ready to do this, should I see any aggressiveness, but this horse has never threatened me and the behavior was atypical so I decided to try to decipher what his emotion was telling me. I left the barn confused and curious. I'd managed to soothe his anger a little by singing to him (he enjoys this) but he remained aloof and tolerated the nightly blanketing only because he had to.

The next day I approached when I saw him watching me from the pasture. I waited for him by the fence line. "Dr. Jekyll" walked over all sweet and affectionate. I rubbed his neck, then produced another apple from my pocket--oh joy!

A friend shared some thoughts with me later. She suggested I pay closer attention to the environment before engaging with him and be sure I wasn't obtuse to any horsey "social culture" going on. Horses aren't people but they do have an animal culture and seem to appreciate when we respect boundaries and show some sensitivity. Of course, stallions have unique social issues to consider and I have more to learn here. And the issue of respect of boundaries is huge--especially for a stud. It is never okay for a horse to threaten or hurt me--bite, push, kick, etc. This is a very firm boundary for which there are swift consequences. That said, I find I jump too quickly to assumption--That horse is trying to dominate me; doesn't like me; is just being a "jerk." I find those scenarios are much more rare than I imagine. The horse is, after all, just a horse. He has his own life, agenda, needs, and emotions. Listening for the message behind the behavior should be the first step I think. What do you think?

I'm not sure what was going on that dark, wet afternoon. A few things I considered later: It was a day for Mr. Hyde to show itself in bored, underworked horses; I'd immediately assumed Eli was snubbing me by leaving(human beings, especially women I think, project emotion onto their horses that often doesn't exist) and decided to snub him back; I fed a subordinate horse a special treat. The last thing is rather huge to a stallion who places more value on things like who eats first and who moves who. Usually I always feed him first, honoring the pecking order that exists with two other geldings. I didn't know he was angry--and perhaps he wasn't--until after the apple feeding. He could have left for any number of reasons when I walked in the barn.

I don't like to anthropomorphize, but its interesting to "decode" horse behavior. It seems too often we don't want them to be too expressive becauses we worry about control. Safety is important, no doubt. In no way should pushy, aggresive behavior at feed time--or any time--be tolerated. Not saying that at all. But just what was Eli saying? Hopefully I'll listen more closely next time. And I may decide to buy that happy light.