At the end of March, Simone and I asked the barn owners if we could move Ryker to another pen. We needed to be able to work with our horses without the separation anxiety they experienced when one or the other was taken out of their paddock. It was time for each of them to bond to us instead of with each other.
Ryker was moved to a paddock a few pens closer to the barn while Raven stayed in her pen farthest from the barn. She would have other horses move into the pen next to her over time, but she never really became attached to them as she had with Ryker. When I got her out I would have to walk Raven past Ryker’s pen, and they still nickered to each other and were a little difficult to walk by without some distress at first, but it got easier.
A few days later it was vet day at the barn. Raven was going to get her regular vaccinations in the barn, so I brought her down to brush her and wait for the vet. She stood pretty well for her shots and it was over quickly. I began walking her back to her pen. There was another horse owner out near the open area by the parked horse trailers with her horse, which we would need to pass to get to the aisle that led to her pen. The owner had her little kids there and a wheelbarrow to pick up manure. We came around the corner and I stopped her to let her look at the situation and noise. She was getting amped up and I responded with an automatically defensive posture, getting a closer hold on her lead rope, anticipating an explosion. She honked and spooked and I did my best just to try to calm down and walk her down the aisle to her pen. She was upset and pushing into me, and I got her down to her paddock and turned her loose. I felt so self-conscious, the girl with the fire-breathing dragon mare, out of control, spooking at everything all the time.
I was frustrated. She had been so good down at the barn for the vet with no issues, and when we encounter some slightly different situation on the way back, she freaked out. I walked into the pen and swung the lead rope to get her moving. Her Arab tail went up like a flag in the way they’re known for, and she honked and galloped around her pen. I wanted to make her work, to get her to pay attention, but what I was really doing was acting out my frustration on her and “punishing” her for getting me anxious and being out of control over something I thought was stupid. Once again, it was like one step forward, two steps back. Yet I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by her as she moved around the pen with her gracefully arched neck and pretty floating trot. Underneath the emotion of the moment, I still appreciated her beauty and energy. I had wanted a spirited horse, and that’s what I got–as they say, be careful what you wish for!
As was becoming a normal occurrence, I went home and settled down and thought about the situation. I looked for strategies to bring her into a routine of going down to the barn and not being scared (both her and me). So instead of bringing her daily vitamin supplement pellets to her pen, I decided to bring her down to the barn, tie her at the rail, and feed her there. I wanted to place positive associations with coming down to the barn to overcome her anxiousness. She did pretty well with that; she’s very food-motivated, and I wanted her to get more exposure to being outside the pen with just me and not another horse to rely on for confidence or safety. But I found that she did not like to stand tied to the rail. She would move all over the place and swing her hindquarters around, back and forth, fidgeting and pawing. The more I did with her, the more I found things that we needed to work on. I couldn’t take anything for granted with Raven the way I had with my other horses that had training and experience; she didn’t know how to do it, and I was slowly learning that I had to teach her the basics. I had never had to do that with my horses before.
I also began taking her to the big grassy field outside the pens, in the area where she had first spent her quarantine. Getting her out more would get her used to her surroundings and she would get the positive association of munching some green grass to entice her. After only a week, the separation anxiety between her with Ryker had evaporated. She would pass his paddock with me and would notice him as he ran up to say hi, but she was no longer worried about staying behind with him or leaving him. In fact, when I would get her out, her new gelding neighbor would get upset and call for her, and then we would walk by Ryker’s pen and he would call for her, but she didn’t seem bothered by either of them. She seemed to be bonding more with me and it made things a little easier.
I had been working on myself, too. I knew I had to put effort into calming myself and not anticipating anxiety or spooks or being afraid of what might happen. I was having to fight down my own insecurities and lifelong struggle with anxiety, even though I was on medication for it. Raven’s anxiousness was of course partly because she couldn’t feel confident in someone who wasn’t that confident or calm herself. It was tough work, but the more I was able to breathe and practice creating calm energy, she would become less reactive and go along with me. She had even starting coming up to me when I came to her paddock. My mantra for our work together was “little by little”, and though sometimes it was hard to see in the midst of the ups and downs, there were small glimpses of sunshine behind the clouds.