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Nonjudgmental --- Not Hardly!

Posted by vwkoch, in horse handling thoughts 30 July 2012 · 375 views

People often say that animals make good companions because they are nonjudgmental. For example, the English novelist George Eliot said “Animals are such agreeable friends. They ask no questions and pass no criticisms.” Personally, I think anyone who considers animals to be nonjudgmental does not know animals very well.

People tend to be pretty blind when it comes to body language, and body language is the primary language of most animals. Animals cannot verbally express their criticisms, so many people are blind to those criticisms. However, just because you don’t notice them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Animals are just as judgmental as people are --- whether some people know it or not.

Some examples are obvious. The dog that refuses to come to the family member who beats it, but comes willingly to the family member who feeds it, is clearly expressing its judgment of both people --- one is bad, and the other is good. Similarly, the horse that refuses to allow itself to be caught is expressing a judgment --- either “I don’t like you” or “I don’t like you when you’re coming to catch me.” Certainly, these behaviors are learned behaviors based on experience, but those experiences cause the animal to develop a negative opinion about a person, which it expresses by its behavior, and isn’t “being judgmental” defined by expressing a negative opinion about someone?

Sometimes, animals might be believed to be nonjudgmental because they’re not ALLOWED to express their opinions. For example, my current pet horse doesn’t like to be groomed. When I groom her, she snaps at me. She has no intention whatsoever of actually connecting, so I let her express her opinion whenever she wants. Many people would punish their horse for such behavior, and the behavior would probably stop. The horse would still not like being groomed, but it wouldn’t be allowed to express its opinion of the process.

If my horse were a child, she’d be saying “I hate you, Mommy” whenever I groomed her. Most people would consider that statement to be pretty judgmental, but because my horse can’t say it out loud, many people miss the communication altogether, so they don’t realize she’s being judgmental. If she quit snapping because I punished her, she would still be judgmental, because she’d still hate what I was doing, but there’d be no way to tell how she felt.

Being groomed is good for her, so I have no intention of stopping. The annoyance it causes her is actually pretty minor, and I don’t believe it affects our relationship. Certainly, there are things she does that annoy me, but I don’t love her any less because she sometimes annoys me. No relationship is perfect, and true love (or even friendship) includes putting up with some things that annoy you. However, when you express your annoyance, you’re being judgmental, and animals are said to be nonjudgmental. I think they clearly ARE judgmental if you just understand them well enough to be able to know what they’re “saying.”

Sometimes, it’s good that people DON’T know what animals are saying, though. Animals have proven to be useful in helping children who have trouble developing relationships with other people, for example. It is believed that these kids can relate to animals because animals are “nonjudgmental.” Whether or not the animals are REALLY nonjudgmental doesn’t matter in such cases. As long as the kid BELIEVES the animal is nonjudgmental, a relationship can develop and perhaps set the stage for future relationships with people. It is not the reality but the perception that matters, and if the perception is helpful to the child, who am I to burst that bubble?

The one thing that is probably true about animals is that they give unconditional love. I say “probably” because we can never say for sure that animals love, but some of them certainly show all the signs of loving their owners. When they show such signs, they tend to show them even if the owner isn’t perfect, and unconditional love means that you love someone in spite of bad behaviors that might cause others to end the relationship.

Parents tend to love their children unconditionally. They might have endless fights with them, but they usually never stop loving them, no matter how bad it gets. As I noted previously, true love (or even friendship) includes putting up with some things that annoy you. If you continue loving in spite of EVERYTHING that you hate about someone, you are giving unconditional love, and if animals do love, they tend to do it unconditionally.

So, don’t be fooled by all the people who say animals are nonjudgmental. Your animal judges you just as much as any human does --- it just can’t express its opinions in words. However, even though it might be judging you, it can still provide you with unconditional love, and that kind of relationship is priceless. If your animal loves you, love it back, and show that love by being as kind as you can be.

If you try to live up to being worthy of receiving unconditional love, you will be a better person. As a well-known quote goes: “My goal in life is to be as good of a person as my dog already thinks I am.” As for me, I’m trying to live up to being worthy of my horse. She would say that I am failing, but she loves me anyway. In the end, her love is what really matters to me. I love her, too.

Dealing With Change

Posted by vwkoch, in horse stories 16 July 2012 · 971 views

My poor horse has been doing a lot of moving around recently. For the last ten years, she’d been in one stall in one stable. Then, she had to move out of that stall temporarily because the roof of her side of the barn was being repaired. Shortly after she moved back, a new trainer brought a lot of horses to the stable, and my horse was moved to a different stall without anyone notifying me. When I complained about such treatment, I was kicked out of the stable (see http://forums.horsecity.com/index.php?app=blog&blogid=80&showentry=2093). So, recently, we made a permanent move to another stable. I’ll do a post later on the effects of the move to a different stable, because they were profound, but this post is about the very first move. At the time, I had no idea that this move was just the beginning of a series of moves, which would be so devastating for my horse.

The first move was a pretty simple one. Because the roof of the barn was being repaired, all the horses from our side were moved to the other side for what turned out to be a total of nine days. For most horses, such a move would probably not be a big deal, but poor Tori was NOT happy. She does NOT like change.

She’d only been put in another stall once before in her ten years at this stable. That time, it was only for a few days, and the new stall was just across the aisle and a few stalls down from her home stall. This time, we were in an entirely different place (in her opinion), and her entire routine was disrupted.

When I first put her in the new stall, she made it clear that I had put her in the wrong place and she wanted to go home. I stayed with her until she relaxed enough to start eating the food I’d given her, and by that evening, some friends reported that she seemed pretty settled. However, she continued to make it clear that this stall was not HER stall and she wanted to go home.

The routine that was the most disrupted was the one that occurred after I rode. I would first leave her in her “grooming station” while I cleaned the stall, then I would turn her loose to go back to her stall, and when I opened the stall door, she would back in, earning her final treat. Usually, I would leave her untied in her grooming station, but she was no longer dependable when I did so on the new side of the barn. She was not convinced that the new grooming station was safe.

The first day that we changed sides, I tied her in the new grooming station just to be sure she’d stay put while I cleaned her stall. I thought she’d adjust to the new routine quickly, but it was not to be. Things are never that easy with my Chicken Little horse.

Tori’s usual “grooming station” was just a place in the aisle near the tack room, where she was used to being groomed and waiting for me to clean her stall. There’s a REAL grooming station on the other side of the barn. It’s a stall-sized area between two stalls (so she was out of the aisle) and covered with rubber mats. There used to be an area with a rubber mat on our side of the barn that I used as a grooming station, so Tori was used to the idea of staying on a mat while I clean her stall (plus, she knows what “stay” means). I thought having the rubber mat would be enough to get her quickly into the new routine, but I reckoned without one thing.

The real grooming station has a window in the back. At first, I thought the window was a good thing, because Tori seemed to love it. When I’d put her into the grooming area, she’d go to the window and stand there peering out for several minutes, before she’d turn around to face the aisle. However, when I left her to go clean the stall, she was not nearly so brave.

I noticed that, when I checked on her while I was cleaning the stall, she was sometimes in the grooming area and sometimes in the aisle. (She couldn’t go anywhere else because she was tied.) Finally, one time when I looked out of the stall to check on her, I saw what was actually happening. She’d see something behind her outside the window, and it would make her nervous, so she’d move into the aisle and turn around so she was facing the window. Then, when the scary thing went away, she’d go back into the grooming area and turn to face the aisle, because she knew that she was supposed to stay the way I left her. She was going back and forth every time something happened outside the window. I don’t know if she would have left the area entirely if I’d left her untied, but I usually tied her, because I didn’t think she was dependable. I did leave her loose one day when we were alone and the barn doors were closed, and she did stay in the grooming area, but I never trusted her enough to leave her loose when the barn was busy.

The other part of our routine was that, after I groomed her, I would turn her loose to go back to her stall while I put up the grooming stuff. Then, I would open her stall door, and she would back in while grabbing that last treat. I knew that having a new stall would disrupt the routine, but I didn’t know how much.

The first day, I led her to the stall, then turned her loose and opened the door. She promptly went to the stall that was in the same position as her old stall (the other side of the aisle and three stalls up), took a peek inside, and turned away when she determined it wasn’t HER stall. Then, she checked out every other stall on that side of the aisle. Even though she’d spent 24 hours in the new stall at that point, she didn’t come to that stall until I called her, and when she did, she showed no inclination to turn around and back into her new home. Finally, I positioned her with her rear end pointed at the stall door, and she went ahead and backed in, although she did it as if there were something behind her that might bite her, not with her usual aplomb. (You can see her backing into her usual stall on You Tube. Search for "Tori Horse Backing.")

It took four days before she finally backed into her new stall without coaxing, and even then, she’d only do it if I stood on her right side (the side I usually stood on when she was in the old stall). It took seven days before she voluntarily backed in when I was on her left side. In the meantime, she made it clear that she still wanted to go back to HER stall. If the barn door was open when I turned her loose, she would go out the door (something she did NOT do on the other side), and I’d find her standing next to her old stall. We made progress on that front, too, though. After eight days, she went out the barn door then came back in on her own, so maybe she’d finally learned that her FOOD was in the new stall.

On the ninth day, we moved back to her old stall, so she never REALLY adapted to the new routine. I guess, after ten years in the same stall, she was entitled to be upset when her routine was disrupted, but I wish she didn’t get upset so easily. Being anxious is a part of her personality, though. She just can’t help it!

As I mentioned above, not long after she returned to her old stall, a new trainer moved to the stable, and the next day, I came out to find she’d been moved again. She was not happy about that move, either, but neither was I. Then, we moved yet again, to another (better managed) stable this time. At this point, I know she’s convinced she’s being abused, but I’ve tried to make it as easy on her as possible.

At the new stable, I’ve been promised that her stall IS her stall, and she’ll get to stay there --- failing any emergencies. Emergencies I can handle, although Tori can’t seem to tell the difference. As far as she’s concerned, she should NEVER be moved from HER stall, even when I’m assuring her it’s okay. She’s not only anxious --- she’s also very opinionated. I can’t complain, though. There are those who claim that I have same failing….

July 2012


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