October 20, 2011

My twenty year old mare has a melanoma tumor on the right upper eyelid. It causes her to blink a lot, and I believe it is a constant, if mild, irritation. It started as a very small blimple that looked like just a bit of a skin tag. This spring I asked a vet to come out and assess it. He thought it did not look so very much like a definite melanoma. The biopsy was not so dark as might be expected. But, it was one.

It could have been removed earlier, but cutting into a melanoma can irritate it, and perhaps cause it to become more virulent. So I tried other strategies first. But, it continued to grow and could eventually cause her to lose her eye. So I reluctantly asked the vet to come to remove it. And here I learned a painful truth. I am absolutely full of fear. I am afraid of losing my horse in the surgery. The office said that the vet would need to lie her down with anesthesia, and I kept thinking about the famous race horse who might have made a nearly miraculous healing, except he trashed around when coming out of anesthesia, and shattered his leg. He was immediately euthanized.

My horse is not my riding device. I need the exercise more than she does, and carry myself where we walk. She is my walking partner. We traipse through the woods surrounding the stables where she lives. She is also my collaborator. We have been testing training and communication techniques, and she has been sharing her time and talent with me, for 17 years now. She is a phenomenal dancer. She can tell me the name of the hunter crossing her field at dusk. She has met this hunter and easily sorts his name from those of all the other humans she has met.

She is my protector. Once, I read in a Pat Parelli article, that sleeping in the presence of your horse will change your relationship. Hmmm….. So I tried it – kind of. After a collaboration session, I took her back to her paddock area. It was a balmy summer night. I found a dry place covered with clean straw. I lay down. She was about thirty feet away, grazing. I closed my eyes for a few minutes, as if I were truly asleep. I wanted to see what she and the other horses would do. I was not worried about them stepping on me as I lay there. They constantly showed how acutely aware they were of their body placement, and they were very responsible and kind toward me and the other humans I had seen them with. So, thinking to fool my horse just a bit, to see what she would do if I fell asleep in her presence, apparently, I fell asleep. At least, when I next opened my eyes, I was a bit stiff and disoriented – wondering what I was doing lying on dirt and straw.

I opened my eyes, to see my mare standing with her feet right next to my shoulders, her back to the shed wall and her face pointed toward the rest of the world. She vigilantly monitored all that passed. She looked down and saw that I was awake. She gave a little nicker. She stayed perfectly still while I turned onto my knees and rose to her shoulder. She was guarding me. She was making sure that I was not trampled or molested in my silliness. I was humbled. I hugged her neck and mumbled thanks and sheepish acknowledgement into her cheek. She rubbed my cheek back.

Most of all, my horse is one of my closest, most treasured, most constant friends. Being with her is healing for me. If I am upset, and I visit her, soon the upset is over and I am lost in our just being together. Unlike my human friends, she usually has plenty of time to just be together. To just experience life in the company of one another. And, when I am with her, I can feel, or hear, her feelings. I can sense her little mild waves of irritation when I ask her to go in her unfavorite direction. I know when she is frustrated at one of my requests. There is a constant, quiet niggling when she wants to show me something or do something differently than we are doing. Sometimes she offers ideas on different ways to do things – like the time she suggested moving backwards with high steps. Wow! I never thought of that!

Sometimes she shares a joke. Her jokes are quiet, subtle, and gentle – and all the more surprising for this. Once, we worked on taking a bit in the mouth. She knows about traditional bits and riding conventions, but I don’t use them. But, I want her to know all about these things. So, I asked her to take a bit in her mouth. She did, for about 3 microseconds. “Please take the bit” I asked again. She briefly took it and dropped it. “You have to HOLD the bit”. She demurred, turning away as if I had made an impolite suggestion.

In our work, she is cooperative at least 97% of the time. And when she is not cooperative, I have learned that she often has a good reason. So, I tabled the session. We would work more on that later, after a rest.

The next day, I saw her again, and this time I was working on teaching her exactly how I would like her to place her head. The position of my hands, one offered at her muzzle, and one offered at her poll – targets to show her where I wanted each of these body parts – was very much like the position of my hands when I put a bridle with a bit on her.

And suddenly, she gently rubbed her teeth on my open palm. Without thought, I flashed my hand, bumping her muzzle. “You know you NEVER put your teeth on anyone!” But, she NEVER had, before this instant. With her head still lowered from targeting my hand, and without making direct eye contact, she just stood very quietly. It really bothered me, because deep down, I did not believe she was being careless with her mouthing – or taking advantage of me. But, I also train exotic animals, and I have conditioned myself to not allow an animal to even touch me, unless invited. My reaction was automatic.

I said to her, “Why would you do that. You NEVER do that. I am sorry I slapped you, but I can’t let that go… ”

Still, I was deeply bothered.

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My mother had come walking with us and was videotaping the session. So there is a record of this event. In the video, you see realization wash over my face. Suddenly it dawned on me. She was trying to show me something. She had been thinking about the bit work we were doing yesterday.

“Ohhhhh! I know what you are thinking! but, we aren’t working on that today!” But then I thought, how bad is that – she works on something and I don’t even want to see it. “But I don’t even have a bit or a bridle with me today!”

I felt frustration and a mild undercurrent of gentle insistence. “Okay, okay, okay. I have an idea. I have something we can use to work on that.”

In my bucket, I found a spare lead rope. I extended it toward her, holding it approximately like I would a bit, and offered it to her. She took it beautifully. Wow! It was a clear, clean, full taking of the ‘bit’. But she dropped it before I asked for it again. “You need to hold it longer.”

I offered it again and she took it again, for a fleetingly longer moment. “That’s better, but you still dropped it. You need to hold it until I ask for it. ” And I offered the rope ‘bit’ again.

She shot me a wry look and took the dadblame rope in her mouth. She lifted it free of my fingers, raising her head until her muzzle was over my head. Looking me squarely in the eye, she shook the rope from side to side, as if to say, “Look, I am holding it. Now are you happy???” “Great! Release!” And she did. The animated rope of an instant ago, dropped a dead weight into my outstretched palm. I could feel her merriment and amusement. I smiled. I started to laugh. I was a bit stunned. I just kept saying “I get it, I get it! I get the joke. Look what they gave you to work with – me! Maybe you goofed up in your last life…”

Later when I saw the video, the humor was not so pervasive and obvious as it had felt in the moment. In the moment, I was swept away by the humor. In the video tape, the whole interchange looked like less than it really was. But in the moment, with her, I was absolutely awash in her gentle, dry humor.

I believe that it is animals who teach us the joy and treasure of unconditional love, which, if we study hard, we can gift back to them, and to each other. My horse forgave me for fwapping her muzzle. She seems to forgive me just about anything. I work hard to give her forgiveness skills a rest. But over and over again, I see her exercise patience, forgiveness, effort, thought and responsibility, in my behalf. I hope to be worthy of her investment.