Finding our way in the dark

Photo © 2021 Sasha Hoffman ~ edited with Prisma app

Chapter 15

Fall was transitioning into winter, and Raven was growing in a thick winter coat. Her ribs had started filling in, and she was looking healthier. She had just settled into her big new pen a few days prior with her buddy Ryker in the next pen, and she had acquired another new friend: a lone hen named Ruby who had free range of the farm but tended to stay at the end of the barn aisle, where Raven’s paddock was the last in the row. She was a cheeky red hen that would roost in the hay window and wait for me to place Raven’s supplement pellets in her rubber feed tub on the floor of her shelter, then run over and start helping herself to it. Ruby made cold, early mornings at the barn more interesting!

Ruby the cheeky chicken © 2021 Sasha Hoffman ~ edited with Prisma app

The afternoons had grown darker, and after work one day I went to the barn to try something new with Raven. I wanted to bring her down to the barn by ourselves and work with her. As I walked past her hay window, I had a start – there was a dark shape sticking out of it. It was just Ruby! I haltered Raven in her shelter; she was still trying to back away and back out of the halter to avoid being caught, even though we’d been working a little on that before she moved to her permanent paddock.

I led her through the dark aisle between the horses’ shelters that led to the main barn and indoor arena. It was pitch black except for a couple of overhead lights near the barn; before going to catch Raven, I had turned on the lights in the barn and arena for us. Ryker whinnied for Raven for our entire walk down to the barn, and she to him, but she allowed me to lead her into the barn. She was nervous and moved around a lot, pushing into my space and staying close. She would sniff at things around the barn aisle when I led her up to them, but was very antsy and wanted to leave. Instead of cross-tying her in the barn aisle to groom her like I’d planned, I took my carrot stick and went with her into the arena. I would try to get her mind back to me with a little work.

She was calling for Ryker every few minutes, and I did some Friendly Game with her (giving her a rub with the stick or with my hands), and led her around the whole arena to let her explore the corners and sniff everything. She was both curious and nervous, alert but not panicking. I tried some Porcupine Game with her, asking her to back up or move from gradual pressure. She was responsive but kept wanting to come back into my space and crowding me. I tried to use some body blocks, to little effect. She wasn’t running me over or pushing me, but she just kept coming close and moving nervously around me. I absorbed her anxiousness and felt a little scared myself, having a powerful flight animal in a heightened emotional state at the end of my lead line. I was trying to calm her and stay in control, while trying to control my own building panic.

Looking back, I see that I was excited to spend some time working with her, but I hadn’t set us up for success. It was dark and she had never been introduced slowly and calmly to the barn, arena, or even anywhere else on the farm except for her quarantine pen and the walk to her new pen. I realized it was unfair for me to expect her to just calmly accept what I exposed her to without being afraid or upset. In fact, it was a testament to her good nature and the little bit of trust she had in me that she didn’t completely panic, pull free, and run away, as she easily could have.

I felt it was a lesson in respect – for me to learn. She started listening a bit more when we tried some Driving Game, asking her to move her head away from me while leading or disengaging her hindquarters. I had gone in assuming that she would be okay with everything since we did a little work in her quarantine pen before moving to her regular pen. But in that paddock she had been comfortable and established. In this scenario I brought her out of her comfort zone, away from her herd mate Ryker, in the dark, to a building she had never been exposed to in the daylight. I was able to reach her with playing some of the basic games in the arena, but she still held some nervousness.

Eventually I took her back to the barn aisle to tie her and groom her. She was so antsy, pooping several times (horses poop when they’re nervous), and pawing. She wouldn’t stand still for me to groom her. I brushed her a little and tried to soothe her, but she had escalated her nervousness again and I didn’t feel that she would go much longer without exploding – she seemed to be at her limit. I felt a bit out of my element in dealing with her, but every time I wanted to retaliate or respond in anger or frustration to her behavior, I took a breath and did my best to remain calm. It was fucking hard to do, since acting big and responding in anger with something like a smack or jerking on her lead line would have been easy to do out of fear and years of being trained to dominate “disobedient” horses. Instead, I tried to deflect or channel her emotion, but it was time to quit for the night; she’d had enough. I led her back down the dark aisle to her paddock, and she couldn’t wait to escape out of the halter while I untied it, but I wouldn’t let go until she stood still.

I felt pretty deflated walking back to the barn. I felt like it had been a scary mess, and I had failed her by bringing her into a completely new realm without a slow, fair transition. I had elevated the gradual phases of pressure during the games in the arena out of my own fear of not getting her under control, and held tight to her lead rope at times instead of being a calm, relaxed leader with energy and intention. I didn’t know what I was doing and she felt it. The tension had flowed between us until we were both in a state of anxiety, despite my trying to push down my feelings to be able to keep her calm. I was almost too busy reacting or trying to counteract her movements and behavior. But I had done my best, and calmed myself when I started to get frustrated, and quit before it became a disaster.

I went back to the empty barn, cleaned up all the piles of poop she had deposited in her fear frenzy, and went home. I hadn’t had my magical moment this time; it was a tough first lesson. I summed it up in my journal:

In my haste, I did not give her the respect of patience and threw her into an agenda I had that set us up for failure. It was a learning experience, and I need to listen to her but also focus my energy and do things the right way, not the way I want to do them, right now.

Tomorrow I’ll try again, and try to do better this time.

That’s all we can do when faced with a new experience and when things don’t go to plan, especially with horses. I was going to need to take it slow and really work on my patience. I would also need a little help.

Raven’s poo crime scene of nervousness.

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