Romeo paints No. 19

Original art painted by a horse.

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The Diary of DaVinci
© 2006-2007 by Cheryl Ward

Installment 1: Re-foaling
Dec 4, 2006

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric illness that can occur following a traumatic event in which there was threat of injury or death to you or someone else. PTSD alters the body’s response to stress by affecting stress hormones and neurotransmitters (chemicals that carry information between our nerves). 

PTSD often creates exaggerated arousal responses, especially in situations reminiscent of the trauma event. It produces bodily reactions like nausea, diarrhea and sweating. This creates a heightened state of avoidance, like staying away from places or people that are reminders of the event. 

Meet DaVinci
Yikes. I have no idea what I’m getting myself into when I bring him home. He is really ill. I also have no idea how much mucous a horse is capable of producing, and then long-distance expectorating. Several of my shirts end up in the garbage. Nor have I ever seen such a collection of holiday-colored worms—bright red. 

Up Periscope
Looking at the footage we filmed of his first few days at home, he is the picture of lethargy. His eyes are heavy and his head hangs low. Now, as he starts to recover, his eyes become googly (wild and rimmed with white). His neck and head operate like a periscope, allowing him to look around from a protected position. His neck is always fully extended to give him the best vantage point. The muscles on the underside of his neck are over developed and his top line is underdeveloped, not from incorrect riding, but from maintaining his protective stance. 

In terms of Homeland Security, his DEFCON Level (DEFensive CONdition) remains on high alert 24/7 against terrorists, which are anything with two legs. His posture shouts, “Don’t hurt me. Don’t look at me. Don’t touch me. Stay away. Really far away. I don’t like you. I don’t like anyone. I don’t like things that move. I don’t like things that make noise. Get back!” He still has a wretched cough and the power of expectoration, so for me, staying back is easy. 

I knew he was green broke. I didn’t know it was green as in expectorant and broke as in needing serious repair. 

This Poor Soul
By his teeth he looks to be around four-years-old. By the way he carries his body he looks like he survived a bomb blast. His ear is split and he’s got gashes up and down his legs. He’s always in the ready position. At the slightest stimuli, whether it’s a clump of hay blowing past or a raised hand, he’s a blur on the horizon, a poster child for the flight response. Prior to fleeing he frequently has an episode of diarrhea, yet another visible sign of his arousal response. 

Since he’s low on the fight response, I’m at least relieved for my safety. Now my concern is for his immune system. His constant stressful state isn’t allowing his body time to relax and heal. 

What Do I Do?
I’ve never dealt with a horse I can’t touch. With my background in alternative medicine I know the healing power of touch, so I begin considering a foal’s first experience out of the womb. It feels the warmth and touch of the mare. Then it learns to suckle and to receive nourishment. 

Then it dawns on me. DaVinci needs to be re-foaled. 

I need to create a place where his traumatic memories can be replaced with safe, healing and joyful experiences. I begin to view this time with him as “equine neurolinguistic programming,” my fancy title for re-foaling. 

Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) is a technique for personal growth that’s based on how our language patterns and our perceptions affect our behavior. 

“Based upon language patterns and body language cues derived from the observation of several world-renowned therapists, NLP focuses on areas such as how subjective reality drives beliefs, perceptions and behaviors, and therefore how behavior change, transforming beliefs, and treatment of traumas is often possible through appropriate techniques based upon how known experts worked with this relationship.” 

Re-foaling may not be exactly NLP, but it is similar. I’m trying to figure out what DaVinci’s reality is for him and what he believes about humans, then use a language he understands to transform his negative beliefs into a new way of being. 

First Hurdle
Neuro means mind, and linguistic means language. NLP focuses on the meanings we attach to words. All I have from DaVinci is his body language, but fortunately it speaks louder than words. I have to identify what meaning he attaches to the triggers that create his behavior, and then give those triggers a new meaning. 

His main trigger is anything two-legged. With the understanding that all horses speak “bucket,” I begin making an appearance, saying a few soft words and depositing a tablespoon of grain in his feed bucket and then leaving him alone. This, I could tell, was new to him. I give him two things he enjoys, a bit of grain and walking away. I mark the moment of depositing the grain with the sound of a click. 

I do this a few times until I can see his face change from fearful to puzzled. This is when I get my first taste of “blowing his mind” in a wonderful way. He begins to face me when I approach instead of running away. He’s becoming curious about me, a dreaded two-legged.  I do the ‘bucket and retreat’ game several times a day until I don’t need to retreat. He’s becoming so interested in me that it’s more fun for him if I stay. 

One day he starts nickering at me when I walk out my back door. This is when I know I’ve made contact. In less than a week he has changed his reality, as defined by NLP. His belief that humans are a threat is transforming into an experience he looks forward to, as evidenced by his nickering, and the obvious lack of bolting-with-diarrhea. 

Sensitive horses like DaVinci are instant feedback mechanisms. In my human relationships I’m famous for asking “What are you thinking?” This is a dangerous habit, I know, but humans are very difficult to read sometimes. I want to know. With DaVinci, I never have to wonder. He’s very in tune with his emotions. He is an expert at border patrol. He has his boundaries firmly in place. The moment I think “let’s see if I can touch him,” he alerts the troops (his legs) and is at the far end of his pasture, leaving me in a cloud of dust. 

How am I supposed to re-foal him if I can’t touch him? The mare/foal relationship is based on touch. DaVinci loathes the human touch. The moments I can get close, I see his muscles contracting and flinching, doing their best to avoid contact as if it’s the claw of a mountain lion. 

Am I the Lion?
This is a difficult time for me. I feel awful that “I” am the cause of his pain at this moment. I try to consol myself remembering that it isn’t actually me, but an accumulation of frightening experiences involving people. 

For a foal, his dam is truly the source of all good things. Nourishment, warmth, security. A healthy dam will risk her life for the safety of the foal. Even when the foal weans, the herd becomes the source of all good things–safety, companionship and survival. I figure a good place for me to start is to become the source of all good things for DaVinci. I start with the nourishment. 

Who’s Your Momma?
DaVinci is turned out 24/7 on grass with a shelter. I bring him hay and his soupy beet pulp. While he’s eating I hang out with him until he’s finished eating, but I don’t touch him. I’m just there while something good is happening. As I hoped, he begins associating me with pleasant things, like nourishment. 

I still want desperately to touch him. 

As I become less of a threat, I inch closer to him. He lets me approach only if it’s head first. His sides are off limits. He slowly lets me touch his muzzle. If I go any further he retreats. I always make the sound of a click the instant he touches me, and give him a bit of grain or a tiny piece of carrot. This isn’t really much of a payoff for him as he’s extremely apprehensive of my hand. Often as a reward, I simply back away and let him approach me. This, as it turns out is another turning point. 

What Happened?
It becomes crystal clear that this is a horse that had things “done” to him. I think he may have had a past where two-leggeds demanded things from him, possibly by force, and his young mind wasn’t able to process the experience. It’s pretty obvious that “something happened” that created a huge divide in his trust department. 

Once I begin interacting within touching distance I quickly learn he’s a push button horse. Push his buttons and he’s gone. His buttons include anything required for day-to-day horse care like seeing a halter, grooming tools or even a flake of hay. This is very unsettling. I wonder how in the world he would be handled in a medical situation if he panicked at the sight of a simple halter. 

I quickly adjust my goals to meet his needs. I work with him unhaltered. I have to make certain I am free of any object that looks like something that can “do something” to him. I fashion a target stick out of a three foot bamboo pole and a rolled up sock for the tip. This odd contraption seems to be ok with him as it doesn’t resemble anything from his past. He quickly takes to following the target stick where ever I point it. This is a comfort for me because I can lead him places without a halter. 

His focus is so strong that he can block out many of his triggers and keep walking. I think this is a new experience to be able to choose to be with me, rather than being pulled to be with me via a halter and lead. This is also an example of positive reinforcement. Negative reinforcement, not to be confused with punishment, would be pulling him by his halter. Punishment, would be harsh words a whack which occurs after the behavior. 

At the close of week one I feel like I’m gaining more of his trust. I think the key for DaVinci is allowing him his freedom at all times. I make certain he always has access to his flight mechanism and I think this helps him feel much safer. Once he begins targeting, if something spooks him, he bolts a few strides then whips around and runs back to touch the target. How adorable. He is trying really hard. 

Mind Reader
I have a thought that these super sensitive horses are probably at the top of the gene pool. No doubt they’d be the top survivors in the wild. They’d be the first to sense danger and then split. I begin to view DaVinci not as damaged or inferior, but perhaps very evolved. My past horsemanship involved bomb proof, trail safe, extremely obedient horses. DaVinci is changing my perspective. He’s so sensitive he can literally read my thoughts before I know I’m thinking them. As much as I think I’m teaching him new things about humans he’s teaching me more about myself. 

I am the descendant of a long line of worriers. Consequently I grew up with a slightly skewed view of my place in the world. To me the world was unsafe and at any moment the carpet would be pulled out from underneath me and I’d die, because I wasn’t worthy of survival. I was able to make peace with death, but it was life and the thought of pain and suffering that scared me the most. DaVinci’s bolting, spooking, distrustful and random behaviors remind me of someone else I know. Me. 

Creating a New Reality
Over the years I’ve learned that my thoughts about things create things, either positive or negative and often neutral. Classic example. If you’re riding a horse and you’re staring at a stump, there’s a good chance you might hit it. If you stare beyond the stump, you glide on past. I find the more I focus on my worries, the more they materialize. I decide to defy my lineage and stop worrying by thinking about what I want to happen. PRESTO, CHANGO. Good things begin to happen to me instead of running into stumps. 

DaVinci’s behaviors probably brought out the worst in his handlers as my behaviors brought out the worst in my experiences. We all know the frustration of trying to give a shot to a horse that’s needle-phobic, or trying to worm a horse that’s more squiggly than the worms you’re trying to eliminate. We all get to a point where we’ll choose whatever method to get it done. I have no doubt that dear DaVinci was the recipient of what must have been the end of the handler’s rope. 

DaVinci Paints
If he had a different view of these things his treatment would have been different. I begin to really focus on rewarding him for relaxing. Any time I see him breathe out or lick and chew, or lower his head, he gets something he enjoys. He initiates rubbing his forehead along my hand. He actually moves towards me. He rubs his head up and down along my hand as long as I don’t try to touch him. I put the behavior on cue to the verbal signal of “up-and-down” and soon he can’t wait to do up-and-down. 

His target stick serves as his security blanket. He follows it anywhere as if he’s hypnotized by its power. Or he maybe he thinks of it as his blankey. So we play everyday letting him touch it, letting him start to move it around. Once he begins to pick up the end of the target stick in his mouth, I introduce him to a paint brush. He loves holding his paint brush. With the brush in his mouth and the cue “up and down,” he gets the motions of painting. 

By the end of week two I introduce paint and canvas and to my utter astonishment he completes his first painting. I think the reason he takes to painting so quickly is that it’s a completely new experience. There are no triggers, or buttons, from his past. He’s free to move about, unhaltered and in charge of manipulating the brush. This is a huge boost of confidence, for both of us. 

Now what?
My main goal was to take a horse who’d be the least likely to paint and teach him to paint. In less than two weeks my mission is accomplished. And when one goal is reached it often gives birth to a new goal. 

My next goals are less glamorous. DaVinci needs confidence in situations common to most horses. Will he ever be okay with a halter? Can he stand and not bolt if I try to comb his mane? Can I pick up his feet, his most prized possessions? Suddenly my goals seem insurmountable. 

High Upon a Pedestal
At about week three I introduce a pedestal. It’s roughly 20 inches wide by 40 inches long and about 9 inches high. I lead him with the target stick and encourage him to touch the pedestal with his nose. Then I wait to see what happens next. He begins testing the pedestal first with his nose, then his hoof. Huge reward. After a few more tries with his hoof he steps up with two front feet. 

A few days later he hops up with all four. To my utter amazement he mounts the pedestal on the narrow side. I just knew his short body and long legs would find a niche. Like the target stick, the pedestal soon becomes a huge focus for him. If he doesn’t like something we’re working on he walks away and stands by his pedestal as if to say “I don’t want to do what you’re asking, so I’ll do this instead.” 

It’s a joy to honor his request. At first I think, “No, he should do as I say and stay with me,” which is probably the mindset of the handlers from his past. Part of my thrill in working with him is blowing his mind, showing him a completely different side of humans. When I honor his request, I feel like a real conversation begins. I listen to him and respond, honoring his desire, not mine. Soon he begins letting me into his closed off areas. I’m allowed to touch behind his ears, and begin to touch his neck. 

Then another breakthrough happens. On his pedestal he seems to act invincible. He’s up high and proud of his accomplishment of climbing an obstacle. He lets me walk all the way around him without jumping off the pedestal. He lets me touch him on his neck, then his back and around the other side as long as he’s on his pedestal. The first time I’m able to pick up all of his feet in succession and with his permission is while he’s high atop his pedestal. His feeling of invincibility earns him the nickname “In-Da-Vinch-able.”

Building on a New Foundation
In-Da-Vinch-able and I now enter our second month of re-foaling. This process of helping him redefine all he knows about the world is completely changing my view of the world. It encourages me more than I can say to see a brave, undamaged personality emerge as he learns things he’s never been exposed to, like painting or climbing on the pedestal.

It turns out that the steps involved in teaching him how to paint do much more than create a painting. They create a wonderful foundation of trust.

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© 2004-2007 Cheryl Ward & Sam Sharnik
Last updated January 10, 2009