Lily’s Story Part 5 – Learning “Feel”

Horses will keep you humble! In the last post Lily was finally accepting Amy’s leadership. Their bond was strengthened and trust became deeper. We were steadily moving forward in a positive direction, however, not without challenges.

Lily has a background of abuse. I believe horses, like humans, can have flashbacks to situations that have caused them distress. One of the difficulties in working with abused horses is we can innocently trigger a negative memory. During training sessions with Lily, it became apparent that she has deep-seated trust issues. She accepts leadership only until she feels threatened. Her cerebral energy heightens and her survival instinct kicks in. Since her flight instinct is inhibited when working in an enclosed space, her fight mode takes over. One minute we’re all good and the next Lily will be doing “airs above ground.” It’s how one handles these situations that either guides the horse comfortably forward, or not.

I have explained to Amy and Brian the importance of allowing Lily to work through these situations. Amy has a tendency to back away at times of resistance, allowing Lily to avoid the situation that caused the reaction. She sympathizes with Lily and only wants to be her friend. I explained to Amy and Brian that they had a choice: they could either work through the areas of difficulty and keep taking steps towards an eventual true leadership/partnership, or they could keep Lily as a pasture pet, at liberty to do as she wished.

I truly feel Lily enjoys the interaction with humans. My training is always with the utmost respect for the horse with the goal in mind of “partnership” not “dictatorship.” However, in order to become a partner with Lily, the Morrises have to ask her to work with them. If we don’t allow our horses to work through these situations, they will not improve. In order to be a safe riding partner for Amy, Lily must show respect and trust.

By introducing her to obstacles and new challenges, and then allowing her the time to express herself, she would find that at the end of the “expression” things hadn’t changed. Amy was still there, still guiding her, and she was okay! She would eventually understand the relationship. Lily would develop the foundation so necessary for success.
Regardless of whether a horse is with or without human guidance, it is of the utmost importance for the horse to move forward through stressful situations. The natural instinct of a frightened horse is to move. Standing still would be inviting the predator to lunch! However, horses seem to have a need to understand what it is that is frightening them. They often run from some object of concern, only to stop, look back, and eventually head in the direction towards it to investigate. They may have inner radar telling them when and if it’s okay. Human-made objects are not natural to a horse, but through exposure, they become accustomed to them.

When faced with a stressful situation, the horse must react. If we encourage the horse to move forward through the situation and allow them time to absorb, breath and sort out the situation, they will. This is quite different from forcing a horse through a fear. Regardless of what has caused the fear, one can’t deny the posture, breathing, or actions of a frightened horse. I’ve heard comments from handlers regarding horses “faking” fear. Horses do not fake fear! Forcing a horse to overcome fear simply will not have a positive outcome. If their leader becomes aggressive they have all the more reason to believe the situation is indeed a bad one. You may accomplish the task at hand, but you will not have a secure or willing horse. But if you do not turn away from a situation, and allow your horse to absorb and work towards resolve, acceptance will follow.

One final thought on this aspect of training, I see horse handlers forcing horses to stand in front of an object to “look at it.” I do not believe this approach brings the best results. By forcing the horse to stand still, we take away his natural instinct and completely humanize the situation.

Lily had proven her ability to work through being hobbled, tied, and locked in a tiny stall. She looked for a way “through the open door” and found one. Given the opportunity, I was sure she would do the same in training. I must clarify that we are not asking anything of her other than the basic foundation of bonding, which includes trust and respect, oh, and a little time with her nose out of the green grass in order to entertain her humans! Her people give her a wonderful home, lots of pasture, a pasture mate, plenty of feed, monthly pedicure, salon styling of mane and tail, and the best of veterinary care, so putting a little time in to give them some fun is only a fair trade. Mentally, coming to a place of peace regarding the process of training, the Morrises were ready to move forward.

We graduated to a lovely grass fenced arena surrounded by trees – a quiet and serene place to expand Lily’s horizons. There I did it again…I just humanized the horse! Quiet and serene to me, but to Lily it was initially an unknown enclosed area with trees hiding those ever present Dragons. We turned both horses (we had brought Olympia along to lessen the trauma) loose and allowed them to investigate the area at their comfort. Once settled, we then hand walked Lily around the perimeter, asking her to focus on Amy and to move when and where she asked. Trust, simply trust, is what we needed. She did well, so we moved towards lunging.

Soon, we moved into trotting straight along the fence line, then circling in the corners using many transitions in order to keep her focus on Amy. Lily started out high-headed and wide-eyed, but remained obedient and soon began to lower her head and relax a bit. Over the next few sessions we saw amazing changes in Lily. The wide-eyed “ready to flee or fight” attitude seemed to diminish. For the first time in training, her general posture was more relaxed and she wasn’t quite as worried or over reactive to new challenges. We were able to ask for canter without her standing on her head, hind legs waving at the sky! Obstacles were added to the routine. We asked her to back through poles, weave in and out of cones and walk then trot over poles.

Lily and Amy

One point of interest is how Lily responds differently to Amy vs. Brian. Amy normally works with Lily, but Brian is always present to learn and offer support to Amy. On occasion, I ask him to take over. Sometimes, Amy is unable to attend a session and I feel all will benefit to have him participate when possible. Brian is tall and lanky with a very gentle and quiet manner. But as soon as he is on the other end of the line, Lily will posture and show her willingness to fight. Brian doesn’t fight! Lily has had to learn that. Perhaps Lily was leery because her last owner was male, or just simply because she had worked out many things with Amy but had not with Brian.

It confirms my beliefs that horses do not instinctively trust you. They need the opportunity to develop a relationship with you. A talented horse person or a brute of a horse person can generally accomplish whatever they ask of the horse without developing a relationship, but it doesn’t make it right. Horses should not be “passed around” like an inanimate object. It’s not respect if we don’t take the time to allow the horse to get to know us. I try and impress upon my students what a wonderful gift and privilege it is to have a partner in a horse. It’s a beautiful things and well worth the effort. So, we quietly take some time to allow Lily to see the truth in the situation and to breathe…and she does!

I do not know if Lily comprehends how lucky she is to have chosen the Morrises. Perhaps that is also a human thought. Personally, I am thrilled to have the honor of working with people who truly wish the best for the horse. She always comes first. Although I am sure they are anxious to be mounted and riding their horses on the trails, they are also completely committed to move at a pace that Lily dictates through her acceptance. It may take a bit longer since they have chosen the path to work with Lily themselves (with my guidance). Our sessions are once weekly. This allows them time to practice and develop each step we work on it before I return.

Being newbies, obstacles do show up along the way. Without experience, it’s that much easier to hit setbacks due to honest mistakes. Even the most experienced horse people make mistakes! Amy still has a tendency to want to give Lily her freedom to do as she pleases, but she knows that in the end it’s not the healthy thing for anyone. So much to learn – when to apply pressure, how much to apply, when to be firm, when to be supportive and soothing. A “feel” must be developed and I assure Amy and Brian that no one learns without mistakes. It’s what we do with them that matters. So, she’s getting better at biting her lip and following through when Lily argues and… all is good!

I am looking forward to sharing the next chapter when Lily is under saddle again! I believe it will be soon. Stay tuned!

Lily’s Story Part 1 – Meeting Lily
Lily’s Story Part 2 – The Rescue
Lily’s Story Part 3 – New Beginnings
Lily’s Story Part 4 – Following the Leader
Lily’s Story Part 5 – Learning “Feel”
Lily’s Story Part 6 – Making Mistakes and Moving on

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