Fay and I walked out of the training pen, leaving an enthusiastic horse confused about our sudden departure. I headed to the porch to wait it out. Fay headed to the little gray car where a gray-haired woman was getting out. The woman had driven across the parking lot and into the field beside the mare pens. We have yet to figure out why people take the prerogative of driving onto the field, but it gets my hackles up every time.
I am basically a very misanthropic person. I don’t like or trust humans as a species. Push me and I get snarly like a dog who’s been kicked by its owner too many times. If I had approached her, I would have just walked up and asked the lady what makes her think it’s okay to drive onto my field without asking. I wouldn’t have been yelling, but the woman would have left in a huff.
Fay is a very nice person in contrast. She tries to handle all the visitor interactions for me. Her fresh 17-year old face and happy demeanor is charming. She asks if she can help the lady. The woman says she was driving I-40 and wanted to pull off and sit and watch the horses while she ate lunch. She gave Fay control of the conversation though when she added, “I hope it’s not bothering you.” Fay apologized but conceded that it was indeed bothering us. The woman left in a huff anyway. I walked out to the driveway and closed the gate behind the gray car. It was nice to not have to be the mean one.
I am the blunt person who will say exactly what I think. If I don’t like something, it’s no secret. You know exactly where you sit with me. I identify problems to fix and I don’t harbor grudges when things are over. I forget things ever happened. I was probably that way before I ever became an animal trainer, but the tendency has been solidified and polished by the experience. Grudges don’t get you anywhere as a trainer.
The other day Fay and I were working with Lefty to get him ready for hoof trimming. He is a very emotional gelding from the Jarita Mesa herd in the Carson National Forest. Mustang Camp first trained him in the winter of 2012 and he was adopted to an extreme cowboy character (and movie extra). In 2017, the cowboy died in his sleep and the estate asked us to take back his three mustangs. The other two got a home near Abiquiu and we thought Lefty would live out his life in our permanent herd of mentally fragile equines. But Lefty, also known as Dakota in his cowboy years, had an admirer, Sonja, who found out we still had him and arranged to adopt him. I wanted to trim his hooves first since I knew Lefty was going to object vehemently.
Over the course of a few weeks, Fay and I carefully tried to keep Lefty from becoming overstimulated as we increased the amount of time we could handle the feet. We found out that it was too much for him to be handed a bite of alfalfa while his foot was being held, so instead, we had to hold the foot for a countdown of five, set it down, and give him five bites of alfalfa for him to stay under threshold. Still, every once in a while, out of the blue, his leg seemed to have a spasm that made his hoof slam to the ground, tip first. Then he would snort and run away if he wasn’t on a halter and lead. We could not identify the antecedents sparking this behavior.
I was cleaning his right front foot, standing a bit too close when one of these paroxysms occurred. His hoof tip smashed the toe of my boot with all of his weight. I howled in pain. The pain was overwhelming and I cried out loud and fell to the ground.
Fay did not know what to do. She said she would go get John, but I said, “No, just leave me alone for a moment,” even though I continued to weep. She stood watching in helpless horror, but eventually, I got up, dried my tears, straightened my glasses, and hobbled over to catch the horse. True enough, I felt like smacking the horse, but I knew better. I led him back over to the fence where we had been working. We went right back to training. I finished cleaning the hoof between Fay’s delivery of five bites. The toe is black and blue, the nail will fall off, but nothing is broken. Lefty’s hooves are now trimmed.
Early in the spring, another student and I were trying to move a frightened mustang, Apache, into his own pen. He wanted to run back down the alley which we were blocking. He was panicky. The student’s dog came into the alley on the far side of the horse near the gate that we wanted the horse to go through. The dog started barking at Apache. The student’s instincts were to block the horse, so she was almost run over when the horses came barreling back down the alley. My instinct was to teach the dog to leave the pen area on verbal command, so I yelled at the dog and chased it out of the alley. The student could not allow that level of aggression toward her dog, so she quit. I was sorry to lose a set of helping hands. Soul searching following aggressive responses and termination of relationships is my normal, I’ve done it so many times.
I have run people off many, many times. When you boil it all down, it’s almost always that they have violated my sense of predictability and control and raised my anxiety level. That combined with a little caffeine is the gateway to the danger zone. It’s my own vulnerability to adrenaline and I own the responsibility for it.
Having thirty recently-gelded stallions in rows of pens gives Fay and me the opportunity to see a model of aggression in action. Almost every gelding we are training occasionally gets a bit frustrated with our expectations and frequency of food delivery, so he rushes to attack his nearest neighbor. The geldings never attack us, but attacking the neighbor horse happens in almost every session. Sometimes we ignore it and continue, and sometimes we use it as an excuse to terminate the session. Terminating the session doesn’t really help a horse. Limiting the opportunity for attacks by having the horse on a lead rope is a better solution once the horse is able to be led. Things get better when opportunities for attack are limited.
In some sense, I might be like a frustrated gelding with pointless inconsequential displays of misplaced aggression. More soul searching….
The thing is: the people that volunteer their time to help the mustangs are good people. They show up out of concern and compassion. They are trying to do the right thing in their own eccentric ways. They just might be awkward about social coordination, defiant about the right to personal free-will, forgetful, or slow to learn. I might expect too much. I need to cultivate compassion for them, the same compassion I have for the horses.
I listen to Podcasts while I muck pens. Hannah Branigan was talking to a podcast guest about the way of framing a problem to get perspective. This idea has been called the Will-It-Matter-In-Five-Years rule. It goes like this: When a problem comes up, ask yourself, “Will this matter in five minutes?” If it will, ask yourself if it will matter in five hours, then five days, then five weeks, five months, and then five years. If it won’t matter in five minutes, let it go. Most things go right there. I am trying to hold my boundary for getting pissed-off at five weeks. It’s helping.
I didn’t have the driveway gate closed a few days ago and suddenly there were a pair of Native Americans at the training gate, wanting to look at the horses. John wasn’t around to handle potential adopters, so I agreed to show them the geldings. By the second horse, I realized that they were totally inebriated. This, by the way, was the first time since we have been here that we had drunks show up. Fay came scurrying from where she had been filling water troughs, but within half a minute, she realized that she did not want to take these guys off my hands, so she scurried back to the water. The drunkest one asked if we had any mares, so I took the opportunity to escort them out of the pen system and around to the mare pen, which was close to their truck. When we got there, I told them that they needed to go and come back when they were sober. The drunkest one immediate walked to his truck, where a third fellow was passed out in the passenger seat. The less drunk one lingered by the pinto mare and foal. He reached in to try to touch them. She snapped at his hand with the full intention of biting him. She has bitten Fay and she has bitten me. Her teeth are sharp. I hurried back to urge him on before the horse drew blood. I was prepared to get fierce, but he realized it was time to go. No one got hurt.
7 thoughts on “Struggles with Aggression”
Your posts are a pleasure and bring a smile to my heart. To your credit, you have not changed since working on Cirsium all those many years ago.
I have my own little Yewa, a 21 year old mustang mare.
Thank you for all you do,
Aggression is something I’ve had to learn how to use. It’s a tool, neither good nor bad in and of itself. The “good” or “bad” depends on the person using the aggression and what they’re using it for.
I am a lot like you. I am blunt (read “honest”) to the point of rudeness. I am an oldest child (bossy) and an Aries…no excuses there but…I am 57 years old and trying to think before I speak, think of how my words affect others first…it is a long slow haul but I am working on it. Your work is important to the horses first. It is nice to have volunteers, and adopters but your loyalty is to the animal. I get it. Hopefully others will as well. I love your blogs.
We oldest children have more responsibility on our heads. We are often forced to be bossy.
Where are you now with the mustangs? I’m not clear if you are in Tucumcari yet. Thank you, Susan
Check out the rest of the posts. The answer to your question is part of the story.
I find both your words and writing style refreshing. Why isn’t being blunt just who you are and hence okay. If you are blunt in the way of being plain-spoken, without anger or meanness, it is time-saving. Horses certainly understand and appreciate plainspokenness. If people want to hang out and learn with you, they need to be okay with this.
And delegating tasks that require diplomacy and tact is good too.
Hugs to you and John and the ponies.