Emotions Before Behaviors

My lovely flower Taina and I have been struggling lately. Her world continues to shrink smaller as her fear overcomes her. With her trauma, the concept of new is scary, and right now - everythng is new, even the world changed colors and became so cold. Her fear turns quickly to aggression, she violently defends her safety bubble, her stall. Every day we go through the same terrible cycle when I need to clean her stall. She refuses to go outside, no amount of treats will lure her out, even on a lead she won't go out. Especially now that there is snow - I'm sure now that she's never seen snow before. We spent time playing with snow together, in a bucket I brought to her, she tolerated it to get the treats - but was not interested in going out and actually touching it. It was fun for us both to puzzle through in this small dose of enrichment, but in it's massive size and coldness make it not so fun. So, I need to clean around her. I usually put her soup in her bucket in the corner and clean carefully around her. But whenever the pitchfork comes close to her legs she jumps or kicks, or turns to bite me. We carefully work around that issue, but there is no clean spot in her stall to put her where the pitchfork doesn't have to come close. If I don't give her soup to keep her in one spot, we dance around the stall, me carefully avoiding invading her constantly changing personal space bubble. It's exhausting for us both. We had one bad day the other day where I was cleaning in the back of her stall, well away from her, and she turned and lunged a bite towards me. I don't know exactly what happened, there was some drama with people outside the stall which may have been the trigger. Unfortunately her teeth hit the pitchfork and she became overwhelmed with fear for a few minutes. She started stomping and biting in my direction, but not touching me - I could tell this took great restraint on her part to not actually kill me. I carefully slid down the wall of her stall and out her door. A half an hour later she was totally fine with me retrieving my tools and finishing the job. We have been spending the last few days working on things like touch acceptance and trying to push the boundaries of her comfort zone - this all together obviously stimulus stacked just too much over the passing days.

This wasn't the same day, but a clip I had gotten to show what her rage looks like when she really gets upset.

While behaviorally she does well here, you can see how conflicted she is about handling this situation.


I sat crying outside her stall wondering what the hell I was doing wrong and what more I could possibly do for her. I'm overwhelmed by the need for her to be a horse again, I want to do whatever I must to break her out of her fear and get her into real life! But she is not ready. I called my dearest friend (Janneke Koehkhoven) and I told her the story. She reminded me kindly that Taina needs to feel safe and comfortable, and if that means staying in a stall and not being touched for right now, that's ok, so long as it remains a choice she can change later. She also reminded me that Taina is a trained horse (of course she was trained quite cruelly), she knows how to lead, how to pick her feet up, how to be brushed, she knows how to be turned out or socialize with other horses, she knows how to do all of these things. The problem is not her knowledge, the problem is that her anxiety, her fear has overcome her ability to actually do these things. So while she knows what I'm asking and wants to comply, her fear is what prevents her. So training her is not actually going to fix anything. Training her to pick her feet up, or tolerate brushing, or to lead outside, all of these things which are of great conflict for her, are not what she needs...

Behavior isn't the problem, emotions are.  Taina needs her emotional state changed as a whole. So how do we do this? I need to make sure - at very least, every time she's with me is spent feeling good. So, I switched which stall she was in, because she isn't going to use the indoor/outdoor, someone who will can have that stall. Her new stall looks into the mini paddock so she can watch our blind mini, the sheep, and our donkeys playing in the day. The new stall is much brighter and a bit bigger, and her favorite part is it's the closest stall to the feed room! Now while the other horses are out I will lead her with treats only into another stall so I can clean her stall without her in it. First and foremost this removes the one big aversive I add to her life - the pitchfork. It also ensures I spend at least a bit of the day playing with her in a positive way. This is also helping her get accustomed to the clutter and chaos of the barn. We make sure if anyone walks by her while she's training they give her a treat (the person walking by always gives her something high value like our delicious horse treats).

We have also trained our training goals completely. We've stopped working on anything that is important. Our focus has been on training anything and everything, fun and silly, anything she wants to play with and work on. Our goal has been her calm and happy the entire time. It doesn't matter what we train, so long as she feels good about it. We worked a few sessions on just standing facing forward while I overfed every click and kept my movements boring and easy. You could see the tension in her face begin to fade, she quietly zoned out. This was a good place to be, just softly digesting, not worrying or overthinking, no sense of conflict or confusion. Just peacefully eating while I moved around her. From there we stepped it up to adding some simple behaviors. She's not really afraid of most objects unless they are stick-like and held by a person. So we played with lots of new toys, targeting, anything to keep her interested and curious, but not crossing the line to conflict or stress.

 

Taina watching me work

This is progressing very well! Emotionally she is doing GREAT! She is changing rapidly, becoming much more tolerant and comfortable with us around her and in her space. Today was funny, I was leading her to the other stall she stood outside the stall and really didn't want to go in - she really wanted to check things out in the aisle. So I figured since she's definitely not going to go outside, so I might as well just let her explore. So while we little busy bees cleaned the barn she explored, watched us, playing with items, knocked things down, and just made it all her own. As we all went about our day we'd sneak her a treat as we went by and she enjoyed watching us work. She cleaned every stray treat off the floor too! Then we did our training session, we just played with the mats, but this time with many people around (which is usually a BIG trigger for her, just 2 people she was familiar with was too much 2 weeks ago). We had a great session just playing and hanging out together. She only got confused once about her head down cue (I used the wrong hand) but she handled it great! I'm so relieved. I feel we have a really solid future ahead of us. Just got to keep focused on the positive.

Our goal from this day on is to make sure every minute we are together is happy. My only missions is to make her as happy as possible. With that the behaviors just happen. When we have her in a stable and functioning emotional state we can begin to clean up and retrain old behaviors - but not until she is emotionally able to handle a little conflict, being a little unsure, not always having the answer right away. When she is emotionally well, the behaviors will be easy.