Musings on Focus, Destination Addiction and the Benefits of Stress
The video above accompanying the following essay comes from a 45 minute session with me and my horse Willow edited down to about two and a half minutes. At the one minute mark we had a breakthrough. It might not look very exciting on the surface, but I’m not looking for “exciting” I am looking for change, which can come in subtle ways.
Willow is “self-focused,” meaning she is more interested in staying within a personal bubble/shield she has established around herself than in noticing everything that is going on around her in the environment, with other horses and especially with human beings. (This is not the same as “shut down.” Shut down horses have literally shut off their emotions as a result of over desensitization.)
The manifestation of this invisible shield is grazing, which she uses both as a self-soothing activity and a device for tuning out whomever she doesn’t want to interact with, which usually means me, her alleged “leader.”
This aspect of her personality revealed itself to me as an epiphany: she gets a full breakfast of hay every morning, then is turned out with her herd into a nice, big pasture thick with a wide variety of healthy forage. By the time I get to the barn, she’s been eating for hours. She can’t possibly be hungry (in fact you can see in the video she’s kind of chubby) and neither is she living in a situation in which fresh green grass and clover are a rarity with the appeal of candy.
I had to face it: her always wanting to put her head down and graze when with me was the equivalent of someone putting their hands over their ears while you’re talking to them and going “Na na na na na I can’t HEAR you!”
Another result of her lack of interest in the surrounding environment is spookiness. Because if we don’t notice people pushing wheelbarrows, and noisy vehicles, and other horses until they suddenly appear at twenty feet away, it’s as if they just popped up with no warning . . . boo!
So for these last two months of summer, with lots of glorious weather suitable for hanging out with horses, Willow and I have been working on getting her less focused on herself and more willingly involved in all the interesting and fun things going on around the busy boarding stable where she lives.
Note: lots of horse trainers talk about “getting the horse’s focus,” meaning getting the horse to focus on the person, which is a vital part of the equine/human relationship. I have no problems getting Willow to focus on me when I specifically ask her to, using tools like a flag, a halter and lead, or when I’m in the saddle; the reins and my legs.
Here I am using only two tools – my body and the fence that keeps her from going where she wants to go. I am not asking her to focus on me, just to consider the notion that she can expand her focus, it's not that hard and she won’t get hurt.
This is not about what I can get her to DO.
It’s about helping her to change how she FEELS.
Let’s talk about Destination Addiction
Destination Addiction – a preoccupation with the idea that happiness is in the next place, the next job, and with the next partner. Until you give up the idea that happiness is someplace else, it will never be where you are.
Destination addiction is very common in horses. It appears in different forms, under multiple labels, like “gate sour,” “barn sour,” “buddy sour,” “herd bound” “sticky place” and so on. It’s interesting that the word “sour” is used so frequently, because these horses aren’t sour about the gate or their buddy – they’re stressed about what is currently being asked of them and they believe they will feel better if they can just get out of the arena through that gate, or return to the comfort of the herd and their best horse buddy.
I disagree with the common claim that horses seek to go to the gate or back to the herd because they want to “get out of working.” They do it because they believe that getting out the gate and/or back to the herd is going to make life more comfortable.
Just like us, horses have the capacity to enjoying learning and working. We humans need to swallow our egos and realize that it’s not “getting out of work” that horses want, it’s getting out of work with US.
Willow has destination addiction, but in her case, rather than a fixed destination like the gate, hers is portable: anywhere she can stick her head down to eat. Tune me out, tune out the world: that’s the place where she feels better.
When at liberty in the outdoor arena, the entire “pasture end” fence calls to her . . . she has no interest in the other 7/8ths of the arena, even though there are lots of activities going on down there. She only wants to get out of the arena and back to the pasture with her herd, and if she can’t do that, there are as many spots to seek relief as there are places to stick her head under the fence and graze, if she can only just find the right one.
How do we fix this? Sure we can prevent her from eating, and with many horses in different situations that would be the best thing to do – they try to eat while we’re bringing them in from the pasture, we use the halter and rope to pick up their head. But in Willow’s case, how about helping her to feel better about the world so she no longer needs to tune it out in order to feel comfortable.
"You’re going to have to do something to make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy." ~ Ray Hunt
Most horse people know this famous quote from Ray Hunt. The concept is simple, the execution can take a million forms.
In this situation with Willow I decided to “make the wrong thing annoying” by rocking her by the withers every time she stuck her head through the fence to eat. The first time I did it, I honestly thought it wasn’t going to work. There is only so much physical pressure a 130 pound woman can exert against an animal that weighs almost half a ton, and it felt like her legs were rooted in cement. She may have even given up only because she achieved her goal and got the mouthful of grass she wanted.
But the rocking bugged her to the point of doing something about it – that’s all I wanted. She didn’t have to focus on me, she just needed to stop what she was doing and do something else. For half an hour or so, we went up and down the pasture end of the fence, as she searched for places where she could stick her head under and tune me out, and every time she did, I rocked her back and forth until she changed her focus.
When the breakthrough came, it was the proverbial light bulb going off – if horses had any notions about light bulbs. The whole time we were in the arena, there was a work crew digging and raking in our round pen outside the other end. Barn staff were walking back and forth down there. The ATV was delivering the lunch hay to the far pastures. Stuff was happenin’! Let’s go check it out. Anything’s better than continuing to get interrupted by The Annoying Horsewoman.
The Benefits of Stress:
Getting pushed and shoved and rocked every time we tried to do something we want to do would be stressful. But honestly, in this situation - it’s not THAT stressful. On a horse’s sliding scale of stress, say from mountain lion to friendly golden retriever, it’s much closer to the golden retriever end.
Stress is what motivates both horses and humans to learn new things. Without stress, there would be no evolution and we would all still be stuck in the amoeba stage.
Eventually Willow got so fed up with the stress of being rocked back and forth every time she tried to hide her head under the fence that she decided to abandon what she was doing and find something else to do. The wrong thing was difficult/annoying and the right thing - do anything but eat - was SO easy.
By discovering she has the power of choice to relieve stress, Willow becomes less anxious, and as she becomes less anxious, she gives up her need to seek comfort in grazing and destination addiction, and her world expands in a positive way.
Special thanks to innovative horse trainer and documentary film maker Elsa Sinclair, who filmed this session with Willow while coaching me in my timing and pointing out all the things I miss.
See Elsa's extraordinary work on her website www.tamingwild.com
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