Romeo paints No. 19

Original art painted by a horse.

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The Diary of DaVinci
© 2006-2007 by Cheryl Ward

Installment 7: You Decide
May 9, 2007

Watch the video for Installment 7

It's about 9 pm; the air is still, the night sky sprinkled with stars and DaVinci's at my side munching rhythmically on his hay. His head is down, his breathing soft, my arm is draped over his back and I'm smiling. Earlier that day DaVinci let the vet pull his coggins and I can now comb his mane.

The Mane Event
I laugh as I read what I just wrote. How silly that I consider mane combing and a vet visit a serious obstacle that we faced and came out victorious! I only had three days to prepare for the vet and we weren't near ready. I can't comb his mane or hold my index finger to his neck, simulating a shot. I had enrolled DaVinci in what I told him was "Baby Boot Camp" were he spent the majority of the day in the immediate back yard with dogs. This put him in close proximity so I could work with him as many times a day as inspiration struck. I'd let the dogs out, play with him for a few minutes and go back inside. Our play consisted of "Let me touch your neck without seeing the whites of your eyes or running away in a blind panic."

Day One is discouraging. I am as gentle and soft and soothing as I can possibly be as I stand in the position that the vet would be in to draw blood. I click and treat and wow, he still runs away. This tells me the motivation, or reward, to stand calmly is not as powerful as his desire to avoid pain. The next day I try again but with the same results. I decide on a slightly different approach. I'm usually quiet and sensitive but today I begin to pat him a little more firmly and erratically. I click and treat profusely for his attention. I start to rough up his mane. Click/treat. I do this so much that he seems to get used to the new touch (watch the video for Installment 7).

Rough It Up
On day three I play with his head and neck like you would a rough and tumble Golden Retriever puppy. To my surprise he seems to like it. I'm not sure why, but I watch him lean into my hands as I tousle his forelock. I'm able to hold a pretend syringe to his neck and he stays calm. Fingers crossed for Vet Day.

The vet comes and we decide to pull DaVinci's coggins first. The vet is amazing. She is very still and quiet. When DaVinci sees the needle and starts to panic, the vet asks, "Does he really need his coggins pulled? Will he be going anywhere soon?" I tell her I really want the coggins in my name and I know we can do this. We practiced! She tries again. He still jumps around. The third try, I'm next to the vet patting DaVinci's neck like a puppy, and Sam's at his nose dispensing a treat with each click. Within moments we hear "Got it!" The vet has her blood sample.

Not that this is a picture perfect pulling of the coggins, but it is a big deal. We need more practice obviously, but it provides another moment for DaVinci's memory banks that he had something "done" to him and that he's okay.

Not Yet!
I'm starting to have dreams that I'm riding DaVinci. I tell DaVinci and myself that I will not get on his back until he's 100% okay with anything I do with him on the ground, such as mane combing, fly spraying, touching his ears and shots! I think we both need to trust each other implicitly. Still, every so often I have to fight the urge to just climb aboard. As a kid, I earned the name "Velcro Butt." I was more comfortable bareback and was happiest riding the horses that no one wanted to ride. As an adult I derive a weird pleasure daring myself to ride bareback and sit gracefully on the most brain-jarring trots. My smooth gaited Pasos offer little challenge while riding bareback. DaVinci, however, appears to be non-gaited. I can't wait to ride him! But I must for the sake of my promise to him.

Several years ago I would have by-passed the groundwork and hopped on for the sheer adventure. I see now that it would be no adventure for the horse. What DaVinci is showing me is that less is always more and slower is always faster.

To appease my longing to ride, I begin to introduce him to basic tack. I continue to do everything at liberty, even tacking up. I rely so much on giving him space to move or run away if things get too stressful. This way if he chooses to stay with me I know he really wants to be there.

We start with the bareback pad. He's unhaltered and I approach with the pad. He's suspicious, so he touches it, steps on it and picks it up. I hold it to his side and he runs away. We practice a few more times and he learns it's safe. I place it on his back and slowly cinch it up. I click and treat often for his standing in place. We do this a few more times then I let it fall off his back. Soon he's okay with the pad on his back, on the ground, on his butt and between his legs.

Next the bridle. How do I get his ears through the headstall? I have him target his nose through the nose band, ask him for head down and slide his good ear through the poll strap. I rough up his forelock, ask for head down and slide through his squirrelly off limits left ear. I fasten the nose band, put the pad back on and call Sam to the back yard to see DaVinci the Big Boy, all dressed up. He looks sooooo rideable.

DaVinci Speaks
The next day I have one of those clear moments where DaVinci's thoughts become almost audible. I start to play with bridling. I tousle his forelock and his ears as I slide the bridle in place. I notice his eyes are half-lid and his pink nose extended. It looks like he's smiling. I can almost hear him telling me, "It feels so good not to be afraid."

Then I think, is there any creature that likes being afraid? I think for DaVinci, fear has been a state of being that his been uncomfortable for him, so much so that it influenced his confirmation. I think it also weakened his immunity.

Each day I watch DaVinci evolve from a frightened, insecure horse to a curious and trusting being that has opinions. Some days he wants to play ball but other days he'd rather climb on his pedestal. Because he's at liberty, he's able to walk to the activity of his choice. I love to honor his preferences. One of his preferences is not to be afraid. I'm humbled by watching him, little by little, let go of those fears that ruled his thoughts and his health.

I hear so many parents tell their children, and I've uttered it myself to silence whining, "You get what you get and you'll be happy about it!" I begin to think how stifling that statement is to the child. It takes away their preference. Something dies inside when a person's ability to choose is taken away. I think the same happens for horses. The wonderful thing that I'm seeing, with DaVinci, is when he's given a choice, he chooses the option that's most beneficial for both of us.

As I honor DaVinci's choice based on his preferences, I wonder what I would choose if I gave myself the chance to honestly ask what I want. If I suddenly found Aladdin's Lamp, besides asking for more wishes, what would I ask? I have a feeling it would be very similar to DaVinci. I don't want to be afraid. It's scary to be a human sometimes. It's so easy to focus on fear. Fear of gunmen, global warming....cellulite, wrinkles! I would choose to be unafraid. So how would I say that in the positive without using the word afraid? I want to feel happy, loved, inspired and blessed. Just like DaVinci.

DaVinci Decides
One day DaVinci is petrified of a mane comb. The next day he lets me use it to comb out tangles. The mane comb didn't change, I didn't change, only his thoughts about the comb changed. This created a different experience for both of us. The world may not change, there will still be potential threats, but I can think about them differently to create the experience I want, just like he did. I really think that DaVinci is actually deciding to choose trust over fear because he truly wants to feel better about his world. What he doesn't realize is that his decisions are affecting mine. He's helping me see that today's fears will be tomorrow's victories and the important thing is to feel good now.

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