Romeo paints No. 19

Original art painted by a horse.

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The Diary of DaVinci
© 2006-2007 by Cheryl Ward

Installment 10: Moving Forward
December 13, 2007

Watch the video for Installment 10

This month marks my one-year anniversary with DaVinci. This year ends every bit as dramatically and emotionally as it began.

Hind Sight
The pot of emotions begins to boil when DaVinci decides he prefers the rich, rain-induced grass over his dry hay. The sugar-filled, wet grass leaves his body as soupy and wet as it enters, leaving his high, white, hind-socks looking like they belong to a little league player who's slid into home a few too many times.

I need to clean him off. The hose would be the tool of choice, but he's still petrified of the sound of water, not to mention the serpentine aspects of the hose, even with all of our work trying to make friends with the snake that spits water from its mouth.

I feel like his diarrhea-drenched legs could cause some kind of scalding or burning so I place this in the category of "Needing immediate medical attention." I could have restrained him somehow, but anytime any situation has even a hint of confinement, DaVinci's defenses kick in and he's ready to protect himself.

I try a middle-of-the-road approach with a bucket of warm water and a sponge. Sam is at DaVinci's head, clicking and treating. I quickly find he's 'hiny shy' (DaVinci, not Sam) and has no desire for me to get anywhere near his crusty crack. I'm a bit surprised, as every day we play the game of letting me groom him all over. Even under his tail. But the wet sponge, a dreaded object in my hand, is way too much stimuli.

For 11 months with DaVinci, my goal has been to work with him unhaltered and without pressure. I now feel the only way I can give his condition the attention it needs is through restraint. My heart sinks just contemplating it.

I do know how to restrain a horse. I know how to 'Be the boss,' the dominant member. But I never liked it. This is why I like positive reinforcement training. I no longer need to be the boss or have fancy moves or know where to stand or wave my arms at the right moment. I just have to make sense and horses seem to thrive in an environment of logic. If what I'm asking a horse is logical in their mind, they happily do as I ask. It's what they want to do also.

In this case, I'm having difficulty trying to explain to him that he wants to get squirted with the hose. He wants to have water in his sensitive places. I'm feeling like I'm failing with my communication.

Ready, Set, Hose
I take a deep breath, fit him with his halter and a 12-foot lead and hold my target stick. I turn on the hose and let him target his way to the running water. Even though he's attached to me via a lead, I want to give him as much liberty within this constraint. I encourage him to paw at the pooling puddle of water.

I lift the hose. As soon as he hears the water hit the ground, he tries to run. He quickly comes to the end of the lead. I immediately ask him to target the end of his stick. I find that if I place my thumb over the hose, causing the water to spray lightly, he's much less afraid. There's something about the more forceful sound of the water hitting in a solid stream that really gets to him.

With another deep breath I begin to wet him with the lightly spraying hose. He tries to run again and comes to the end of the lead. The moment he stops and looks as if he's slightly calm, I stop spraying. I click and treat. I repeat this routine until he understands that when he stands still, the hose stops spraying.

After a few times, I can almost see his expression change from pure fright and avoidance to "Hey, this is kind of fun. Especially on this really hot day." I spray him lightly on his chest. He reaches forward and steps into the spray. He parts his lips to feel the water hit his teeth. I start to laugh. He's playing! So we play and have fun with the hose at his front, but I really need to hose his other end.

I step to his side and attempt to wet his shoulders and possibly his hips. But that's a big no-go. We've had such a great intro to the hose that I know it could quickly turn sour. I go back to what he likes, sticking his face in the spray. I see that if I squat in front of him and aim the water up I can rinse his hind legs.

So. Here I am squatting directly in front of him while he does a little Elvis jig. Much to my delight, I see his hind legs return to their natural white color. Mission accomplished.

Sort of. I'm relieved that his legs are partially cleaned, but very discouraged that I had to restrain him to do it. I put him in a situation that was not his choice to remain standing. I made him stand and I did something to him. He doesn't appear to be any worse for wear, but I feel like I violated my covenant with him that gives him the freedom to choose to stay with me.

It's my deepest joy to be able to appeal to his mind and allow him to make the decision to stand with me. I feel like I failed having to resort to force. Ugg.

DaVinci and his Kindred Spirit
I hear the phone ring. It's my friend who's a positive reinforcement dog trainer. I cry on her shoulder a bit and she suggests that if they can train Killer Whales to present their tail flukes to have blood drawn, there's got to be a way for DaVinci to present himself for a bath. It just may take more time.

So I pour over the internet, desperately searching for "how to train a Killer Whale," not a very common search term. Somehow I end up on Cathy Toft's website that tells her story of her rescue Collie named Babe. Here are the first two paragraphs I read:

"When my last rescue Collie died, I had to fill the void that Trouper left. I got on the internet and emailed all of my friends in collie rescue. I explained, send me the worst of your worst. I don’t want a dog, I want a project. Don’t waste a normal dog on me, one that you can get someone else to foster and then adopt out to a normal home. I want a dog so abused, no one can deal with him and everyone has given up on him. I want a dog that would be euthanized if a person like me were not available to adopt him. I added, don’t hurry! Take your time. Wait for just the right dog.

Immediately, my friend Lisa King who runs Colorado Collie Rescue emailed me back. She said she had just such a dog in her kennel right now. The dog had been with Lisa for 8 months and was one of the most abused collies Lisa had ever encountered, and that was saying something because a couple of years earlier, Lisa busted a big collie puppy mill. In these months, this dog had recovered from her physical abuse, but her mental condition was unreachable."

I am hooked. Her story sounds so similar to mine. A year ago when asked Sam what would happen if we took a horse that was least likely to paint, the least likely to do anything, we found DaVinci. In the same way that Cathy Toft described Babe as a creature whose mental condition was unreachable, I feel the same about DaVinci. I pour over The Babe Chronicles with a box of tissue at my side. I cry both tears of joy and of resonance feeling such a similarity between Babe and DaVinci.

Holy Grail
The message of Cathy's website becomes a healing salve for my discouraged heart. Her words are like reading a sacred text or prophecy, holding my hand as to what I can do next with DaVinci. She writes with life-saving clarity about all of the things I awkwardly try to put into words and onto video.

I immediately email Cathy. She not only emails me back, but shares even more amazing concepts and insights about her journey with Babe. She then tells me that Babe just passed away a few months ago.

The thought enters my mind that perhaps somehow I was 'led' by unseen forces to this information that is shaping my next step with DaVinci. I almost feel like Babe could be reaching out to both DaVinci and I saying, "Cathy never gave up on me and look what we did!" It's also incredibly ironic that my first wonderful experience with dogs was with my Grandparents giant, rough-coated Collie whose self appointed job was to keep small children from toddling into the lake.

My gargantuan realization, derived from hours of reading and sniffling and contemplating, is that these traumatized creatures respond best in a 'hands-off', force free environment. No leashes to pop them into place, no chain shanks across their nose to get their attention.

Meeting of the Minds
The communication between human and four-legged becomes one not based on control, restraint or unwanted consequences from the wrong behavior, but one where the animal is mentally attracted and engaged. Nothing physical is holding these two beings together. It's simply desire. The handler wants to make meaningful contact and the animal wants to enter into that communication.

At this moment I realize something huge. I don't think I've ever felt anything more beautiful than to see and experience two beings from different worlds saying these words:

I see you. I hear you. I want to be with you.

I ask myself, what is at the core of anyone's existence? I think we all want to be wanted. We want to matter. We want to be noticed. We want to share. We want to make a difference somehow. Babe's example shines light into an unseen, universal vein of glimmering gold.

These damaged creatures are so shut down that only the purist of energies can release them from their tortured existence. I believe that energy, that vein of gold, is simply positive reinforcement.

The Beautiful Jim Key
"Trained by a self-taught veterinarian 'Dr.' William Key with only kindness and patience, Jim was an educated horse whose abilities to read, spell, do math and more made him more valuable than any racehorse of his time. Together with Doc Key, an ex-slave, Civil War veteran, horse whisperer, entrepreneur and perhaps the most famous African-American of his day, Jim became the number one box office star in the nation and energized the worldwide animal welfare movement, making the phrase 'Be kind to animals' a household ideal."

So Jim was trained with only kindness and patience. Hmmm. I have a sneaking suspicion that Dr. Key was savvy to positive reinforcement decades before B.F. Skinner gave it a scientific name.

To read more about the horse Jim Key, visit To order a copy of the book visit (scroll down the page a bit).

I pause to imagine what life would be like if we treated ourselves and each other with only kindness and patience. If we look at the journey of Babe and her psychic twin DaVinci, it has the effect of raising the dead into a brand new life full of things to look forward to.

Life Assist
On a potentially sappy-sounding personal note, these past few months have unraveled some detrimental life-long issues I've clung to. For some reason I've always felt that I'm alone in this world, that when the going gets tough, I get trampled. It seemed in my past whenever I needed help or a hand or attention, I'd have to be lying in a pool of blood to get it. But even when there was lots of blood, if was still iffy. I ended up with the idea that life was really hard and I had to work hard to prove my worth.

In this particular chapter in my life, however, the instant I begin to falter, a phone call from a friend led me to the story of Babe, and then to amazing support and encouragement from Cathy. Even Sam and my daughter Audra sensed I was in a bit of a funk (and I noticed this because the kitchen was extra clean). This time when the going got tough, I wasn't trampled. I was lifted up, reinforced and loved.

This first year with DaVinci closes in a way that means more to me than I can relate. He lets me hose him while he's unhaltered (yes, we did it). He lies down at my feet. He lets me kneel at his side. In this moment, I swear I can hear him saying to me, "I see you. I hear you. I want to be with you."

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