When a ‘problem horse’ isn’t the problem

Here’s Rosie on her recent 40-mile walk, with horse and human companions, from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to her home barn in Angola. Those are makeshift (diapers and duct tape) hoof boots on her front feet.

I was one of many professionals, volunteers and friends who worked with Rosie when, in July, she wouldn’t get on the trailer to go home. When I communicated with her about it, she showed me she wanted to go home, but the image I kept getting was one of a seriously stuck gear. The way a 12-15 year old rescue horse’s “gear” gets stuck is probably about the same way any of our gears get stuck: trauma, illness and factors only God knows.

If you can’t unstick a gear by the usual means, you have to figure something else out … maybe even something better. Rosie’s human was determined to find not only a fear-free, force-free solution but the larger lesson. As a therapy horse, Rosie has encountered humans with their own stuck gears. Like her, they’ve struggled with seemingly ordinary tasks and taken on the frustration and judgment of others.

To prepare Rosie, I continued our regular Reiki sessions, sharing a healing space with no expectation. Then I told her what was going to happen, visualizing the horses and humans and country roads, complete with rustling autumn leaves, and the barn and her friends back home.  

Though I wasn’t on the walk itself, I followed the live video updates on social media. As the group drew closer to home, a weary Rosie’s ears perked up and she ever so slightly picked up the pace. She knew where she was.

Was this the easiest solution? Of course not.

But aren’t we all, as Ram Dass said, just walking each other home?

Finding the try with horses and other animals

Four attentive horses
A thoroughbred, two Haflingers and a mustang walk into a bar … and chances are, Emmie (second from right) would get everyone home safely.

Reading the second, revised and updated edition of Mark Rashid’s Horses Never Lie: The Heart of Passive Leadership immediately brought Emmie to mind. This unassuming Haflinger stepped up — as she does for so many other duties as a therapy horse — as herd matriarch after the much-loved Lola passed three years ago. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Emmie and many of her herd mates for several years as an animal communicator and Let Animals Lead® animal Reiki practitioner.

Though she has her moments, Emmie is not one to nip, kick, shove, or use other aggressive tactics. Leading by example and not force is what makes her effective. Once I watched her stand quietly with Geronimo (at far right in the photo) after Geronimo’s behavior got him grounded, so to speak. I didn’t get the feeling Emmie was conveying either reproach or sympathy. Just standing nose to nose with him in the pasture helped him calm down and see how not to mess up.

Rashid, over years working at a ranch, discovered that mimicking just this sort of lead horse helped the humans gain the horses’ trust. “A horse that is extremely dependable and confident, one that the vast majority of horses will not only willingly choose to follow, but that they actually seek out,” he wrote in the introduction.

Key to this leadership is “finding the try,” which Rashid discovered as a youth working for an unnamed “old man” who turned out to be one of his greatest (human) teachers. After Rashid repeatedly tried and failed to teach a horse to back up, the old man taught him to notice the subtle ways the horse was actually trying to do what he wanted, and to respond in kind.

“There was a little brace here, a little give there, a slight jiggle of the bit, a tipping of her nose, a little bending at the poll — all within a few seconds,” Rashid recalled. Responding to these with released pressure, a pet on the neck or even just a pause led to more tries, and soon the horse was backing up with ease.

Fight with a horse and the horse will fight back, the old man advised, but “even during those fights, the horse is still trying to figure out what you want. The sad part is, because you’re so busy fighting with them, you’ll never feel those tries.”

It made me wonder how many times I’ve failed to notice someone trying to meet me halfway. Any of us can get so caught up in our own efforts that we don’t see how the other person, or animal, is actually trying to work with us.

It’s worth pausing and getting quiet enough to listen to the subtleties.

In his second-edition notes, Rashid wrote: “In the years since writing this book, and in particular this chapter, I have come to understand that a horse’s ‘try’ is very often even smaller than what I understood it to be back then!”

Changing your flooring? Paws and explain

Dog lying on carpet looking concerned

Simple animal communication techniques can help your pet adjust to new flooring. (Image by Fran__ from Pixabay)

Once the noise is over, animals generally adapt to home improvements.

Unless you’ve changed the floors. Then, as Ricky Ricardo would say, you’ve got some splainin’ to do.

Animal communication can help you do the splainin’ up front and preserve everyone’s peace of mind.

Here’s an example of why it matters:

A friend’s cat developed raw bald spots from over-grooming and retreated to a back bedroom instead of snuggling or playing the way she usually did. My friend couldn’t figure out why. As it turned out, she and her husband had just replaced most of the flooring in their house.

Flooring changes can be traumatic because cats and dogs navigate the world through their feet in a way we do not. Your pet knows your carpet, tile, or hardwood intimately — its contours, textures, smells, and squeaks — and has left his scent with his paws. He knows how to walk on it so his feet don’t skid.

So when you rip out that carpet with years’ worth of daily debris, you’re removing part of what he knows as home. Whatever you replace it with might look and feel tons better to you, but to him it’s strange, smelly, maybe even hazardous.

Some distant Reiki, reassurance, and one-on-one time soon had my friend’s feline purring and playing again, and her fur growing back.

But what if we could make these home improvement projects easier on our pets from the start?

This was on my mind when my spouse and I swapped out carpet and linoleum for vinyl planking on most of the main floor. The planks were delivered ahead of time, so our dog and two cats had a chance to check the new stuff out. A day or two before the install, I told them the carpet and linoleum would be going away and the planks would go down in their place.

As I spoke, I pictured the new look and texture, and how much happier the overall feel of the house would be. (A happier atmosphere, with happier humans, is a selling point for even seemingly aloof cats.)

Our animals know and love Sam, the remodeler we work with, as well as his crew. So I pictured them when I told the animals who would be coming in to do the work. During this time, the cats would be kept in an upstairs room with water, litter box, and a view of the front of the house so they could monitor all comings and goings. I let the dog know she’d be allowed to say hello to the guys, and then she and I would keep out of the way in my home office behind a baby gate. I told all three there would be noise and strange smells, but they would be safe.

During the two-and-a-half-day install, there were a few meows of protest from behind the closed door. The dog got tired of the confinement but refrained (mostly) from barking.

As soon as the crew left for the day, I let everyone out to inspect what had been done so far. While they did so, I pictured all the furniture back where it was on the new floor, and them getting used to the new surface under their paws. Even when fully informed, animals are skeptical about change — but they went with it.

Once the work was done and everything back in place, they walked gingerly, especially in the rooms that previously had carpet and therefore better traction. Within a day or two, our older cat acted as if nothing had changed, and what were the other two edgy about? The younger cat soon discovered that skidding around corners just added to the fun of thundering through the house. For about a week, the dog stayed on area rugs as much as possible to avoid the new surface. Gradually, she figured out how to sit, lie down, and stand up on it without her feet skidding out from under her.

Still: no loss of hair, no behavior changes, and no pee-mail. The new floor did in fact improve the energy of the house. I call that a win.

If you plan on making changes to your flooring or floor covering, here are a few quick tips to help all family members keep their feet on the ground:

1. Buy pet-friendly flooring

It’s worth doing this right. Invest in eco-friendly, pet-friendly materials that wear well and clean up easily. Get information from unbiased sources (Consumer Reports is a time-tested one) and work with a contractor you trust.

2. Brief the troops

Using words and mental pictures, tell the animals what will change in which area(s) of the house, where they will be while the work is being done, about how long it will take, and that there may be some noise and new smells. If you have the new material or even a sample, let them sniff it. Hold a positive picture in mind of how much nicer the house will feel once it’s done, and assure them you will keep them safe. You may still face some resistance just on principle, but keeping them informed eases the overall process.

3. Create a safe space

Animals should be kept where they will not be in the way, get hurt, or get outside, and they should have access to water, a litter box, and maybe a blanket or favorite toy. I try to sequester the cats before the crew arrives and resist the temptation to open the door even a sliver to check on them. Paws can get injured in doors, and entire kitty bodies can slither through and be someplace they shouldn’t in the blink of a well-intentioned eye. For dogs, baby gates generally work better, as they don’t feel as shut off. Offer reassurance along the way.

Animals absorb and understand far more than we think, so it’s important to keep your own energy calm and positive — even as you’re corralling them for the day’s work.

Progress of any sort can be messy, but you and your animal friends can help one another through it.