Thank you for spending the precious commodity of time reading my blogs. This one is longer than the others, but I hope you stick with it to the end to learn how my interactions with Rudy translate into my human relationships.
I adore Rudy. For that matter, I love all animals. When it rains, and the nightcrawlers get stranded on the driveway, I put on a glove, gently pick them up, and place them on the lawn. I can't bear them dying due to our artificial world.
The impulse to touch domestic animals is nearly irresistible for me. Seven years into the relationship with Rudy, I'm still smitten. My desire to stroke his silky hair when I greeted him after being away had overridden the clear communication that he did not want to be immediately touched by me.
I repeatedly noticed his reaction when I reached out, yet I continued to pat his neck when we came together. I rationalized that it was okay while confronted with clear physical evidence he was not comfortable. He'd tighten his neck, raise his head, and shift backward.
I don't know what made me finally decide this was no longer okay. I suppose the desire to continue to improve our relationship. I realized that my needs and preferences should not override Rudy's.
I stopped touching him at first greeting earlier this year. Instead, I focused on greeting him mindfully. I had already started doing this but became more deliberate in connecting with my presence versus touch. As I approached, I quieted my mind and smiled. Researchers have proven horses prefer a happy face over a neutral or grumpy expression.
Once I'm near him, I stand at an angle instead of head-on and greet him with my breath. I take several long and slow inhalations and exhalations. Rudy typically has his head hanging over the fence with his muzzle near my face. I can feel and hear his breath.
After a short period of connecting this way, I offer to nostril breathe with him. He takes me up on this ritual frequently. Rudy is usually the one that signals he's ready to move on. He is generally anxious to get out of the paddock. I believe this is because I typically prioritize his desires once he's out.
Except when there are feet of snow on the ground or the weather is terrible, I start our time together by allowing him to graze. I drape the lead rope over his back and groom him while he nibbles on the grass. He usually gets a minimum of thirty minutes to eat before we start working together.
Rudy has rewarded me for this change in approach. After a few minutes of munching, he leans his head toward my leg, effectively presenting his neck for a pat. I'm delighted to oblige. He usually does this several times.
Since I changed our greeting routine, he is more willing to leave the grass when I ask. He walks to the barn with less resistance which I equate to stopping one or more times en route.
It is important to note that he has done this the whole time I've had him. He doesn't just do this to me either. He does it to almost everyone that leads him. Sometimes he stops multiple times on the way to the arena, the barn, the paddock, etc.
Aside from greeting him differently, I continue to practice changes in my way of being with Rudy. A Trust Technique practitioner advised me I needed to be "Rudy's rock."
One of the ways to do this is to note where he is on the "worry" scale of one to ten. When he exhibits anxious behavior, I note the number on the scale and pretend it's "Every other Tuesday," meaning everything is fine.
While he's focused on whatever concerns him, I slow my breathing, soften my body, and direct my attention away from him. I say to myself, "What a lovely day," or "I'm so lucky to be here." During this time, I say and do nothing to Rudy. No reassurance, no petting.
When Rudy inevitably calms down, I verbally praise him. If he releases completely, letting out a big sigh and dropping his head, I verbally praise and pat him.
I've used this approach for a year and a half. Slowly, it's changed us both for the better. Rudy is learning how to self-soothe. I am learning not to react. Instead, I offer a steady, calming presence no matter what is going on.
He's faster in returning to an average alert level since I started this practice. I've noticed that I seldomly climb escalate with him anymore. It takes something very out of the ordinary, an event that highly agitates him and gets him to an eight or above, for me to feel my calm waver.
Rudy still locks on to things and becomes concerned. But more often than not, I can bring him back by focusing on myself.
I cannot help but relate the lessons I learned with Rudy to my human interactions. If we slowed down, tuned in, and heeded subtle cues so we could respond more appropriately, our relationships would be healthier and more connected.
Think about your close relationships. Are you doing the equivalent of what I was doing to Rudy to anyone in your life? Are you choosing to ignore communication that they are uncomfortable or bothered by something you do, yet you tell yourself that they should adapt to your behavior?
Do you have people in your life whose needs always seem to come before your own? When you speak to them, they dive into their stuff without checking to see if you have time or if you are in a place to receive what they have to share.
When the person says they can't talk, do you ignore their communication and say, "This will only take a few minutes. I have to get this off my chest." After ten, fifteen minutes, or longer, are you still absorbed in your story?
Have you ever been so intent on telling someone something you blow by all of their subtle and not-so-subtle signs that they don't have the time or have lost interest? I'm sure we've all been this person, and I'm positive we've all been on the receiving end.
Do you have someone in your life that doesn't welcome physical contact, and yet you insist on giving them a bear hug every time you see them? Meanwhile, the person's arms hang by their sides as they stand stiff as a board?
I'm sure you mean well. You love the person dearly and want to express your feelings physically even though you know this makes them uncomfortable. You rationalize that it's okay because you're simply trying to show your love for them.
Have you tried to set a boundary with someone only to have it met with anger and hurt? Boundaries can feel like rejection, and sometimes we cleverly devise ways to go around or through them. I had been doing this with Rudy.
Similar to me giving Rudy what he wants before asking him to do something for me, what if we did more of this with people close to us?
Everyone wants things to be about them. We are consumed with our own experiences, ideas, and emotions. We can hardly wait to chime in with our stories and perspectives. One of the greatest gifts we can give another is our time and ear.
The Trust Technique has shown me the power of slowing down. By tuning into Rudy's emotional state, I can tune into my own. How often do we pour gasoline on the emotional fire of someone that's triggered? And what are the consequences of escalating the interaction?
If we avoid triggering the primitive brain—the part of the brain responsible for fight or flight, we will be more successful in our exchanges. We don't realize how often our amygdala hijacks our prefrontal cortex. You might think this response is reserved for when your physical well-being is at risk, but that is not true.
A charged conversation can produce the same reaction in our brain, and when this occurs, we are incapable of responding rationally. Instead, we go into defense mode, which usually involves blame, criticism, contempt, and stonewalling. Stonewalling was one of my go-to behaviors for years. Stonewalling equals withdrawal, making ourselves unavailable.
I rationalized that it was better to shut down and no longer engage. However, each defensive behavior comes at a cost, no matter the stories we tell ourselves about why we are using them.
I believe humans and horses want similar things from their relationships. Above all else, horses want to be safe. Humans desire safety as much as horses.
We also want to feel loved, respected, and heard and thrive when we have meaningful, long-lasting connections. While these things are secondary for horses, I believe domestic horses are happiest when they are present.
Non-horse people don't understand us, crazy horse people. They don't understand the attraction. They think we are nuts for taking the risk, for spending the money, and they don't readily see the reward for the effort.
But I know everyone in my life benefits from my relationship with Rudy. He's patient, forgiving, and relentless with his lessons. He sticks with the message until I get it and richly rewards me when I wake up.
*Sharon Wilsie Horse Speak: Horse Speak-The Equine-Human Translation Guide, Essential Horse Speak-Continuing the Conversation, Horses In Translation; https://sharonwilsie.com