Updated: May 23, 2022
Picture this: You walk calmly into your pony's area to clean up some manure and said pony immediately starts racing around the pen. Slipping, falling, bashing into fences, ramming other ponies in the area, cowering in the corner. Not a pretty picture but one that is not that uncommon. Why do some ponies behave this way?
I think the answer is simple. They do not understand one simple thing - Not Everything Is About Them. This is a very simple thing but not an easy thing to help them understand. It's also a very important thing for them to learn so they are not reactive when:
you see a hiker/bike rider on the trail
are shooting guns or hear gun fire when you are out driving
run into a loose dog while out driving
have a herd of deer run past you while out driving or have a bunch of horses RUN up to you, along the fence as you are driving by. Ever had a bunch of alpacas or llamas come running at you? LOL! That is one of the most terrifying things for a horse!
have a plastic bag blow down the road at you
encounter a huge piece of plastic stuck to the fence and you have to go past it
have cars pass you on the road
and so many more. Of course, even if your horse or pony has an understanding that not everything is about them they will often need to stop and look closely at things as they are happening around them. We don't want a dead head! But we want them to look and then decide, "this is not about me" and calmly walk on.
I am hosting two of my best friends ponies this winter, Goldie and Gracie. I'm sure you recognize them from all the many awesome drives we do together. These ponies are total rock stars in cart. They will go ANYWHERE and do pretty much anything we ask them to do with incredible heart and a desire to please. They are amazing and I love them both. (Though I will admit that Goldie is especially cute and totally pulls at my heart strings with her HUGE brown eyes and ability to bat them at me which leads me to immediately empty my pockets of treats, straight into her mouth.)
Gracie actually came from my mom's place, by way of a long time friend of mine. She landed there between my mom's and living with Molly. She hadn't done much before Molly got her but she did live with Mikey. Maybe you remember Mikey from this blog? I wrote a bit about him, from re-training him to drive to dealing with his ulcers. He was the larger pony that simply could not fit in with my ponies due to his extreme aggression towards them. Extreme, in that, I watched him grab Zorro by the top of his neck and shake him like a rag doll from the dinning room window of my house. I also watched him corner Zorro and kick the crap out of him just because he wanted to. No food involved, no other ponies around, plenty of room for everyone to have their own space, but he chased and chased Zorro until he got him in a corner and then pummeled him. Again, I watched from the window of my house, because he never did this when I was out there. Here is a blog I wrote about the effects of bullying.
Anyway, this leads me to wonder if Mikey caused some of this extreme behavior in Gracie. Don't you think if you live with a bully 24/7 it will make you a little crazy after a while? I know it changed Zorro's personality in one short year. I can't imagine what it would do over several years time. This is something most people do not want to admit, that a horse or pony is simply a bully. I see people making excuses for horses and ponies that behave this way. Typically until they gravely injure another horse or pony.
I don't believe they are innately that way, I think different things drive them to that and in Mikey's case I believe it was living with the pain of extreme ulcers for so long. Added to that, the living conditions he was in - before my friends got him - where they would put other ponies and small horses in with him for short periods and then sell them or move them on. His living conditions were constantly fluctuating. We understand that losing friends over and over again is very hard on horses and ponies. But this is something I feel we are really just starting to understand. Why it has taken us so long is a mystery to me!
But I digress...
Back to Gracie - this morning I gave Goldie her meds, fed the two girls and then went and got the wagon so I could chip frozen manure from the ground. I do this EVERY DAY. In this order. Exactly the same way. Usually Gracie will start to run around as soon as I bring the wagon in. She will leave whatever hay pile she is eating and start ram rodding Goldie. (I am wondering if her fear drives her so hard and overwhelms her so much, that she thinks everyone needs to be as afraid as she is? When they don't move she immediately races to them and smashes into them. This is why Goldie and Gracie are separate from my ponies because Gracie was creating such havoc during feed time and when I would clean the track. I was afraid she was going to hurt Oliver.) Because she does this I will typically shut the gate that is between the two feed stations. This creates two smaller pens. Then I go about cleaning and purposely ignoring Gracies antics. Today she ended up in the smaller of the two pens and as I walked to a pile of manure Gracie exploded into action and smashed into the fence, then ran into the shed where she squatted with bent knees and violently shook. I wasn't in there but going about my business so she exploded back out of the shed, nearly knocking myself and the wagon over and then slipped and fell. I was as shocked as she was since I wasn't anywhere near her when she fell as she had made it across the pen by then. I definitely wasn't doing anything that had anything to do with her. My body language wasn't directed at her in any way. I wasn't even looking at her.
It was at that point that I thought I had to do something. She has been here since November and I have been feeding and cleaning the same way EVERY DAY and her behavior has steadily gotten worse. So I simply started to walk around the pen. I would stop and do some jumping jacks here and there, walk into the shed and back out and around and around. I was trying to walk away from where she was but she kept putting herself in front of me and then would frantically turn and face. Then explode away again.
**Side bar here: There are two reasons that I feel round penning ponies isn't always a good idea. When I am talking about round penning I mean; using a round pen to teach a pony to be caught. The method typically used is to have them move and move until they turn and face and then you move away from them, drawing them to follow you, thereafter you can treat them and then halter them. What I have seen happen over and over with ponies is they learn: When the human shows up you run for 15 minutes, then turn and face and get caught. Kind of the opposite of what you were hoping to have happen which is, they happily walk up to you to be haltered. That is reason #1. I have never understood chasing a hard to catch pony away from me to have them learn to like to be caught. The second reason is that very often, with super sensitive ponies, I feel they don't understand what's going on in the round pen. They know they have to turn and face to get the pressure off but they don't STOP feeling the pressure. Even if you quit moving and turn away from them. You just being in the pen is pressure. So making them move and move to learn to stop moving is counter productive. So they will stop and face by rote but without any understanding. It's really more of a freeze reaction. This is what Gracie is doing.
When she would turn and face me I would turn and walk a different way and she would explode into frantic running. She ended up falling twice, both times when I wasn't anywhere near her. This shows exactly how frightened she was. And why was she so scared? Because I was in the pen. Because I had the wagon and the rake and the manure fork. Because in her mind everything I do has something to do with her and she is supposed to REACT in some way but she doesn't know what the answer is.
So I kept walking. And walking and walking. I walked for about 20 minutes, until she stopped. She just stopped and stood, frozen. At that time I immediately backed as far from her as I could and stood with my side to her. I waited for her to breath. It took about 5 minutes but then she blinked, sighed and very slightly, licked her lips. I backed up even further and sat down at the edge of the pen. As I sat there waiting for her to process I thought it would be the perfect time to start a meditation practice that I had been wanting to start! What a great way to use that quiet time to work on feelings of inadequacy and fear. Feelings I think we were both feeling quite strongly at that time. I listened to a guided meditation by Tara Brach called A Practice of RAIN. RAIN stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture. I focused on my feelings of fear and inadequacy, wrapping my heart in warmth and compassion and then reached out my feelings to Gracie's heart as well. The practice took 20 minutes but I think I actually sat there for closer to 45 minutes. I didn't start the meditation right away.
Something so amazing happened though. At the very moment that I finished my meditation Gracie came out of her introvert processing. She breathed a HUGE breath, lowered her head to the ground, licked and chewed over and over, looked around. When I stood up she walked up to me and gave her some pellets from my pocket. I wish there had been a way to get the wagon and tools out of there without her seeing but there simply wasn't so she immediately reverted to her fear state and was reactive as I removed them. But I think there was a little light at the end of the tunnel there. I will continue to calmly walk around her area, while retreating as much as I can whenever she makes the choice to simply stand still. This has NOTHING to do with turning to face me. It has everything to do with her simply standing still. The ideal thing would be if she would just keep eating her hay. We shall see what we can accomplish over the next few weeks. I'm hoping she can come to terms with the idea that when I am in there, it has absolutely NOTHING to do with her at all. There is nothing slow minded about this pony at all. She is smart as whip! So smart that she gets herself into all kinds of tangles. I believe if she can start to have an understanding then she will let some of that fear go. I believe she can do it.
Gracie is a great example of a pony that we try not to upset because of the extreme reactions that occur when she is upset. Except that does her NO good in the long run. We can't tip toe around ponies like this because it's simply easier to not go there with them. As shown here, this usually exacerbates the issue. I know of lots of ponies and horses that are just like Gracie, that people tip toe around until the animal can't take it anymore and explodes, usually resulting in injury to themselves and/or their human.
Sky has been very reactive over the years and Zorro was a little like a crazy ping pong ball. I have spent hours and hours with them helping them understand that most of the time, it's not about them. Oliver is catching on very quickly! It helps that neither Zorro or Sky react when I am cleaning the pen. When Gracie was still with my ponies I could see that Oliver was developing fear about the entire thing. But how could he not when Gracies fear was so overwhelming?
I think we owe it to them to try to work these things out WITH them. Sometimes it's not a beautiful process at first but it can morph into something of beauty. Because a calm confident pony is always more beautiful than a frantic reactive one.