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The Diary of DaVinci
© 2006-2007 by Cheryl Ward
Installment 1: Re-foaling
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.
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
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?
Then it dawns on me. DaVinci needs to be re-foaled.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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