girl standing next to horse

The Importance Of Connection

A note on connection…

Since we separated Punk and Marshmallow from Oro a few years ago, Oro has continued to digress emotionally. When he arrived here at less than a year old he was sweet and happy and loved his new family of Punk and Marshmallow. But he soon outgrew them and his play got too rough for them. They had enough and we had to separate them. At the same time the human who had been working with him had moved on to other parts of her life. His only known connections, his only family, was gone.

Of course, we never let him be alone, he was consistently trained by others who volunteer here. But as his anxiety increased his behavior became increasingly unsafe, meaning fewer people could work with him. We also made sure he always had a turn out partner, we tried all our draft mares with him. But they wanted no part in his baby antics. They only had a kick or bite for him if he tried to engage with them. They were not a comfort to him, they just took his things, stressing his resource guarding stress he developed in holding with the other stallions. He loved playing with uncle Blitz, our silly belgian who thinks he’s a 3 year old! Unfortunately he’s 33 and not able to keep up with the young one anymore.

At the same time as his family was changed up we were working on teaching him injections. We were under the idea that his behavior was getting worse because of this injection training. I overlooked what was happening to him emotionally, what amounts to very real trauma. His anxiety sky-rocketed and his behavior got worse. Soon he became a chronic biter, he was only safe to train in Protected Contact, he was over-threshold just existing. His world was broken.

If he were a human child and we watched this emotional and behavioral change, we would know exactly what he needs, comfort.

He needs safety in his relationships, he needs the comfort of a peer, the love of a family. He needs an emotional connection. This sense of belonging, reassurance of who he is, of comfort and security lives within the CARE system, which negates the PANIC/GRIEF system. We can take an educated guess in saying, he is spending most of his days living deeply stuck in the PANIC/GRIEF system. No amount of behavioral modification will change his emotions, he needs a lifestyle modification. He needs his emotional needs to be met.

To do this, we got a bit lucky, while usually we only take in hospice care drafts, we got a surprise other young male horse joined our herd, Zephyr! Our hope from when we knew we’d be getting Z was that they would become fast friends and be a comfort to one another. As Zephyr is undergoing a major life change also, he’s separated from his horse mom for the first time, and his human mother passed away (she was my horse mom too which makes him my brother!). We were hopeful they would quickly be able to fill the void in one another’s hearts. Unfortunately with Zephyr’s illness we have not been able to try putting them together yet – but just by being next to one another, over fences and over doors, they have developed a wonderful relationship already! We are eager for the day they can “move in” together as their own little bachelor herd. Hopefully they will be able to spend their lives together. We are very eager to see his CARE system soothe his broken heart. It’s already beginning…

In the meantime, on the human side, I’ve been spending an awful lot of time with him. I sit with him very often just outside of his reach so he can’t bite me (to try to get me to play with him) 😉 I engage in much safe play with him, rubbing his lips and massaging his gums, playing keep away with ropes… We have begun to really enjoy each other’s company, but I’m not horse, and protected contact has limited our ability to develop connection through touch. We have been building his behavioral skills to the point where he is now safe to train in full contact, so long as things are set up for success. Sharing space, playing safe games, training positively, and snuggling when possible has helped him progress a great deal.

While great progress is beginning, I am anxious and eager for the future. I always want the best for our animals, appropriate management is key to healthy living and successful training. But some things, like which horses we have at the rescue, and how our fences are set up are just not that quick to fix. It’s been a difficult period for this sweet baby, but it is looking up.

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