Romeo paints No. 19

Original art painted by a horse.

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The Diary of DaVinci
© 2006-2007 by Cheryl Ward

Installment 5: Follow the Leader
Mar 1, 2007

Watch the video for Installment 5

Somehow I stumble upon a website that lists the Top Eight Things a Horse Should Know. They are:

Lead quietly in hand
Allow every body part to be touched
Stand quietly to have feet handled
Accept paste wormers
Get in a trailer
Be caught
Stand tied

I'm not sure if these were to occur in order, but as I tallied up DaVinci's progress I was feeling encouraged. So far I can lead him in a large fenced field, unhaltered as he targets his sponge whip. He's allowing me touch all body parts, his ears a still a bit iffy, but we're working on it. He stands quietly to have his feet handled. Just last month we experienced an epiphany during paste worming. I never have to catch him, he comes when I call his name. All that was left was "Get in a trailer," "Wait," and "Stand tied."

Dungeon on Wheels
I decide to tackle trailer loading (with my own personal baggage attached unfortunately). When I was nine, during a game of hide-and-seek, I hid underneath my parent's waterbed. I crawled in just fine, but when I attempted to back out, I wedge myself in so I couldn't move. A fine case of claustrophobia was born. Although we didn't have to call an emergency rescue team it still left a lasting impression. My empathy level for a horse who relies on open spaces and a flight response to enter a dungeon on wheels is high.

Plus, Romeo darling, the old master of evasions, put me through brutal, boot-camp, trailer loading lessons. We didn't own our own trailer so I'd have to borrow one, usually a day or two before he had a painting engagement. I would try to practice with him beforehand, but always when it was time to load for the appointment, he'd elect out. I'd ask nicely and he always reply "No thanks. See ya!" I felt awful making him do something he'd work so hard to avoid. Once he actually did get in the trailer, he'd stand and shake.

Eventually when we got our own trailer I was able to make it a different experience. Now I can point to the trailer and he hops in, hangs out and will only exit if I give him the signal. He just needed a new meaning for what the trailer meant. But I still carry with me the bad taste of his earlier opinion.

And now I ask myself what would I rather do, load DaVinci for the first time or put a stick in my eye? Gimme the stick. I fully realize this is the wrong attitude to bring into the situation. Now that I've found the Top Eight Things a Horse Should Know, I have a renewed sense of motivation. We put the trailer in the middle of our pasture, secured all the dividers and opened the exit door for humans. It was well lit and hopefully somewhat more appealing than a dungeon (watch the video for Installment 5).

The First Step
First, DaVinci and I practiced stepping up on his pedestal and then backing off. I figured it may help assimilate the motion of stepping up on the trailer floor. Then he happily targeted his target stick as we walked to the trailer. The trailer had been in the pasture for a few days so he was accustomed to the sight of it. The last time he saw the neighbors loading their trailer with round pen panels he panicked himself into a lather.

To my surprise he has a neutral response to our trailer. I step up and walk to the back of the trailer and stand near the exit door. I ask him to touch his sponge whip. I also give him the cue to step up by moving my feet up and down in a similar motion. He willingly puts his head rather far into the trailer. I click and treat. The very next step, he plops his two front feet and stands very calmly with at least 1/4 of his body in the trailer. I'm in awe. He's seems really relaxed.

He's In!
I ask him to back out, and I ask him to step up again. We play a few rounds of touch the wall, touch the divider and hold my hat. I back him out and decide to ask him all the way in. His pedestal is 20in. x 40in. x 9in. He takes great delight stepping up with all fours on the narrow side. Romeo and Juliet can't maneuver that yet. I've noticed that after he mounts with his front feet, I stare at his back feet until he puts them on the pedestal. Now even when we're not near his pedestal, if I stare at his back feet he lifts them. I do the same thing now in the trailer—and he steps in! All four feet are in the trailer. He becomes a little more wide-eyed so I ask him to back out and he rests a moment.

Meanwhile the kids next door are barrel racing their horse, complete with loud shouts of YAH! LET'S GO! DaVinci's a bit concerned, but keeps his focus when I ask him to target his sponge. I ask him in again, and this time he walks in all four feet. I have a bucket prepared to greet him with his favorite goodies of alfalfa pellets and carrots. I simply want to make this first experience to be one that he'll remember as being completely wonderful. It certainly turned out for me that way.

Here's a horse that won't stand in his run-in stall if it's raining because the loud noise on the roof frightens him. I still can't believe we had such an easy loading session. But then it occurred to me. He was ready. We had prepared. The pedestal work was a huge part of encouraging muscle memory. I wasn't asking him to do anything he didn't know how to do or had never done. The act itself was very familiar to him. The only variable that concerned me was having him enter an enclosed, rattling space. I suppose that variable goes into the trust account. I've made enough memorable deposits that he enjoys and it's not a big stretch for him to try something new.

Pride Comes Before a Fall
The next day I'm full of pride. I check-off the trailer loading from my list of Top Eight Things. I do realize it's not complete. I need to haul him somewhere, but at least in my mind I know I could at least get him in the trailer without valerian root for either of us.

I decide to do something very basic. I need to comb his mane. He's been so willing to let me groom him with my hand. I can brush him with a soft grooming brush now. But for some reason his mane remains a touchy subject. Full of confidence, I show him the mane comb and run it along his mane without actually combing. Then I begin. The moment he feels a slight pull on his hair.....BOLT! He's outta there, not to return until I drop my weapon. My bubble of pride burst in a single stroke of an innocent mane comb. Yes, I do remember his extreme aversion to any object in my hand. But dang, if he can load on a trailer, I should be able to comb his mane. So I was wrong, not every body part can be touched. I just never considered his mane to be a body part.

I've grown to truly admire his coppery bay coat, his wide white blaze and his thick black mane. Owning Pasos, with their luxurious manes and tails, I've become very addicted to all the grooming gook that makes them shiny and aromatic. Almost as a right of passage I feel DaVinci needs to be inducted into the 'Hall of Froofy Mane and Tail Maintenance.' But alas, it needs more time, as I look longingly at my new bottle of mane and tail tamer.

Go for a Walk?
With my collapsed bubble of pride I decide to change gears and work on haltering. I introduce a rope halter that has a twelve foot marine rope attached. It has no hardware so I figure DaVinci will enjoy picking it up and slinging it around in his teeth. And as predicted, he loves it. I then ask him to target his nose through the loop and he actually stands still and lets me tie the knot below his off-limits left ear.

I call to mind the Top Eight Things. The first one is "Lead quietly in hand." He leads like a dream in his pasture, but what happens in the front yard or down the street or when a car goes by? My primary focus is to maintain an atmosphere where he moves toward what he wants rather than away from what he doesn't want. For DaVinci's big adventure into the real world of our neighborhood, I don't want to have to tug on his halter and lead. I want him to feel as if he's unhaltered with freedom to move. With his rope halter and a long lead, we exit the gate while he targets his trusty sponge whip. I also brought his favorite pink ball. I maintain just enough slack so he can't step on the rope but so he doesn't feel any tension.

I recall the words of various horse trainers. "If you don't have control of your horse on the ground, how do you expect to have control on their back?" As we take two strides out of the gate, DaVinci looks at a nearby trampoline and leaps and snorts into orbit. I'm very glad I opted for the groundwork. Fortunately I have lots of slack and he never came to the end of the rope. I ask him back to target the sponge. Once he realizes the trampoline is NOT a black hole to suck him into oblivion, he amuses himself by biting the bright blue padding on the sides of the trampoline.

Mailbox with Fangs
We walk to the front yard. I ask him to put his head down to graze, but he's way too excited. He then spies the Mailbox-of-Terror. His four hooves slap the ground as he crouches and prepares for some kind of attack. I calmly ask him to target his sponge and click and treat. I repeat this a few more times, asking him closer to the mailbox. He eventually becomes very intrigued by this formerly frightening postal device. But he's still very jumpy.

I'm wondering if he's had enough stimuli for one day because he's starting to get that 'googly-eyed, up-periscope, contracted-back' look. I throw his ball and he picks it up and gives it a vigorous, albeit nervous, shake that resembles a speed bag pummeled by a pro boxer. I throw the ball a few more times. It seems like his nervousness dissipates the more he works with his ball. Just as I'm about to ask him to target his sponge to lead him back, he picks up his ball and throws it about 10 feet. He walks over, picks up and throws it again, bringing him about 20 feet into the next yard. He sees something at the end of the street and clearly wants to go see it. I decide to follow him.

Human, Follow Closely
He begins to walk purposefully at a medium gait down the road. I follow, holding the rope about ten feet away on his left side, slightly behind his hips. If he spooks I'll be out of the way and have plenty of time to react. It almost appears as if I'm driving him. I lay the rope along his left side and he softly walks to the right. I wonder if he has driving experience. Meanwhile, we stop and visit with all the formerly-fang-filled mailboxes.

He's on alert, but curious about his surroundings, especially the giant oak laden with moss. As it turns out Spanish moss is quite a delicacy in DaVinci's world. I pick a couple of extra strands for the road.

We return home and DaVinci has a different look about him. He's relaxed, but there's a new bounce to his step. I unhalter him, stroke his forehead and watch him walk a few strides into the pasture. He leaps into to the air bucking and twisting, galloping past Romeo and Juliet with his neck arched and tail high.

The next day we walk the same route. DaVinci calmly strolls past the trampoline, mailboxes and he plays with the empty trash can again. Perhaps I'm reading him correctly when we get home from our walk. The contrast between the first walk and the second gives me enough hope to believe one day I will be able to comb his mane!

I don't know if there's a list of "Top Eight Things a Human Should Know," but I learned something from DaVinci about being a human. He followed me into what was potentially a terrifying experience for any horse—confinement in a horse trailer. Through weeks of targeting his sponge, following me up and down the pedestal, through the field and wherever else I asked, he learned it was safe to go where I went.

What Do You See?
When the tables turned and DaVinci wanted to see where the road led, I had to make a quick decision. My gut violated the teachings of almost every horse training text. "Be the alpha. You're in charge. Your horse should follow your feel, not the other way around." I clearly became a follower. DaVinci was now the leader asking me to go with him. He was asking me to lead quietly.

Something happened in that moment for both of us. It seemed only fair that I "return the favor" and investigate where he wanted to go. After all, he led quietly in my hand. I felt like I honored his 'horseness' when common sense would tell me to "have him do what a horse should do." When I responded to his desire to walk down the road, he led me quietly, letting me peer into his world through new eyes. His eyes.

Seeing him explore the wide-open world, I realized a simple walk around the block could be a life changing adventure. When I pass the meaningless, rusty, old mailbox on the corner, I smile. It's not meaningless at all. It's a moment where DaVinci overcame a giant hurdle of fear. The mailbox now stands as monument of courage for both of us. I followed him, trusting he wouldn't trample me in a flight of panic. He followed me, willingly, into a very counterintuitive place for him, the horse trailer.

Together we always seem to tackle these deep spaces within us that need attention. We're not always graceful or certain of where we're going, but when we get there, it's like a mouthful of Spanish moss. It tastes really sweet.

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