Romeo paints No. 19

Original art painted by a horse.

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The Diary of DaVinci
© 2006-2007 by Cheryl Ward

Installment 4: It's All Good
Feb 10, 2007

Watch the video for Installment 4

In Installment 3, I interviewed Cassie Malina. She's an avian trainer who's opened my eyes to a whole new concept. It was one of those special moments in time where you meet someone, they share something with you that you may not understand at the time, but then later you find yourself in a situation where what they shared becomes a portal into a completely new dimension.

My brother was always raving about his neighbor who trains wild and exotic birds for free-flight shows at amusement parks and major events throughout the country. I invited Cassie to meet Romeo and Juliet for a day of painting. After the horses painted I showed Cassie some of the things that Romeo could do that I was really proud of, one of which was Romeo lunging at liberty.

A Defining Moment
Unhaltered, Romeo would walk, trot/corto, canter and reverse around me in a large field. He basically was doing round pen work in an imaginary round pen. There were no panels to contain him; he was choosing to stay connected to me. Even if he would perform a very large circle or wander off to play with Juliet, I could always call him back. To me it was extraordinary to have that connection without a lunge line or a round pen. However, I did use a lunge whip to cue him to change gaits. I'd hold the lunge whip at different heights and wave it a bit if he slowed down. It never touched him. No big deal.

Cassie watched me carefully. I thought for sure she'd be in awe at how Romeo and I were so connected and he was so obedient. She paused for a moment and then thoughtfully explained the definition of negative reinforcement.

The Definition
As Cassie noted in Installment 3: "The classic example is the pulling on the horse's reins. The horse is moving forward, you pull the reins, the horse stops. The behavior of moving forward decreases (punishment) because you added the rein pull (positive punishment). The behavior of not moving forward or remaining still or stopping is increased (reinforcement) because the horse is avoiding the rein pull (negative reinforcement). When the horse stops, the negative rein pull is taken away."

In the case of lunging Romeo at liberty, I added the wave of the lunge whip to make him go faster or make his circle wider then removed the whip when I got a change. Unbeknownst to me, I was using negative reinforcement to send him out away from me and increase his speed. He was moving away from something he wanted to avoid.

She then gave me an assignment. I was to make note of every time I used positive reinforcement, making a deposit into the trust account, and negative reinforcement, removing something unpleasant to increase a result (the waving of the lunge whip, pulling on the reins, etc).

The Assignment
So now that Cassie's words have been brewing in my head for over a year, I begin to see the importance of identifying positive versus negative reinforcement. I take inventory of where I'm at with DaVinci in my fifth month with him (watch the video for Installment 4).

DaVinci, given the trauma of his past, operates on pure reaction. He's had so many withdrawals from his past that he's bankrupt. He leaves me no margin for error and clearly defines when I've used negative reinforcement; he simply runs away. He has no training to override his instinct to flee when threatened. At this fragile point in time the only thing that keeps him from running is positive reinforcement. He makes my assignment really easy to tell which type of reinforcement I'm using.

The horses of my past would walk/trot/canter/stand/load/tie and I would take the credit. When DaVinci runs away he leaves me with nothing, except a really bruised ego. I've elected to work with him as if he is a wild bird, but I often feel like I have no tools. I can't grab his lead and make him come back. He doesn't have the walls of a round pen to contain him and force him to look at me. The decision to work him like this is stretching me way beyond my comfort zone. I feel as if I'm entering the most raw, heartfelt conversation I've ever had with anyone.

I Don't Wanna!
Five months ago DaVinci was full of phlegm and worms. Five months later, after a variety of wormers in his food, I have to go the Panacur Power Pak route. I wanted to avoid this as the syringes are huge and full of wormer that require a halter and his head held up to swallow. All for five days in a row! I'm not ready for this. This will put DaVinci in a place where I have to DO something to him.

This first day we play the halter game where he picks it up in his teeth and whirls it around. He then targets his nose through it and I ask for head down while I'm on his right side. (Haltering from the left side is still a bit tense for him.) When his head goes down, it allows me to place the poll strap behind his off-limit ears. I then catch the strap and the buckle on the left side, slowly walk around and fasten it. We then play the touch-the-wormer game. I ask him to pick it up in his mouth. He does. Then I feel we're ready. I hold the halter in one hand and squirt with the other. I hold his head up until he swallows. He's okay but not thrilled. I reward him with lots of alfalfa pellets. We then play step up on the pedestal and some of his other favorite games.

I Blew It
The second day we repeat the halter process, but this time when he sees the wormer his eyes get buggy. I'm in a hurry so I go for it and have a mis-fire so I have to do it again. This time he runs away. He's been violated. I offer his target stick to get him back and he returns. I quickly finish the job.

Later that day I walk into his paddock and he walks away from me. My heart sinks. Usually he walks energetically toward me, nickering softly. My withdrawal obviously was too great. This really hurts. We had become so close in the past few weeks and I blew it.

I do everything I can think of to get him to come towards me. Everything I do just sends him farther away. He's quite content to busy himself on the far side of his paddock.

Flat On My Back
At this point I'm really discouraged. I know I should have practiced worming him with syringes filled with apple juice, but he's so distrustful of anything in my hand, and I was mainly concentrating on just being able to touch him. I sit on the ground and rehash all my mistakes, basically punishing myself for every wrong decision. (When will I learn that positive reinforcement works for humans too?)

After a good five minutes of serious rehashing, I notice that DaVinci is looking at me. He's stopped grazing and he's just staring. I offer my hand out as a target to invite him back, but he's still suspicious. I'm pretty defeated at this point, so I just lie on the ground and stare at the sky. Fortunately it's a cool day and I'm wearing a bright purple ski hat. This makes it much more palatable to lay my head on ground, naturally fertilized via road apples. All of a sudden I hear hoof beats. I roll over to see DaVinci approaching. I sit up and he stops. I lay back down and in a moment he begins to walk over to me. At this point I can only imagine what my neighbors think, and if Sam happens to glance out the window I pray he doesn't call 911.

I fight back my urge to sit up. I continue lying on the ground until I see his hooves up close and personal. He lowers his head and nuzzles my head, warmed by my bright purple ski hat, with his soft muzzle. He's nuzzled my hand before, but rarely does he reach out to me. I click and reward him as I lay on my back offering the treat up from my outstretched hand.

I realize what a precarious situation I've gotten myself into, recalling how he enjoys vigorously kicking his red ball with his front hooves. Please God, help him differentiate my purple head from his red ball! We play a few rounds of touch my hand while I'm still on my back. I then sit up and he stays with me. The rest of the day he resumes his usual greeting of walking towards me and nickering. On days three, four and five he accepts the wormer without hesitation.

I made him vulnerable by shoving wormer down his throat, creating a huge withdrawal, costing me all the hard earned deposits I'd made for the past few months. So then I became vulnerable, lying on the ground, to earn back his trust. In turn he made a huge deposit. He reached out to me, kept his hooves away from my head, and showed me the balance of our trust account.

Reciprocity At Its Finest
Little did DaVinci know what that did for me. At 17 my dad died suddenly in a traffic accident. For decades I clung to my familiar defense mechanisms. I didn't want to get close to anyone because of the pain that would occur if that person suddenly left me. Attachment to anything meant being vulnerable and afraid of pain. To me vulnerability was a weakness, my Achilles' tendon. Emotional distance equaled safety. How fascinating that I now have a horse who equates physical distance with safety.

Something huge occurred that moment while I was laying at the feet of my horse. I have no words to describe the feeling, other than perhaps to say that DaVinci and I shared our vulnerabilities. Maybe I showed him that he's not the only one that experiences fear. He certainly showed me what it means to feel vulnerable (with hooves so close to my head) and what a new level of trust feels like.

It's All Good
When I first got DaVinci, I judged him. I saw him as flawed, injured and in need of repair. He needed fixing according to my perception of what a horse should be and do. Today I see there's nothing wrong with him. He's perfect. And he's no different than any other person trying to figure out how to be in a relationship.

In short, DaVinci is the most sincere being I know.

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