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15 March 2010 @ 12:25 am
Rehab and trainer FAIL?  
As many of you know, my mother and I recently rescued a 16hh Curly mule from slaughter.

'Josie' was used by the Amish to pull farm equipment before being sent to the auction house. She's roughly 9 years old but looks more like twenty. She has scars in different places on her body where harness straps would go.

We've had Josie for about 2 weeks now. We've taken things slow, and just asked for little steps from her. My personal opinion is that with animals that have been abused/neglected/hurt/frightened you focus on whatever little thing they get right and reward that, and do the best you can to focus on that. You don't make a big fuss about negative behavior; you just calmly get on with things and reward the right behavior when it's offered.

So, in the first 10 days we had her, Josie came a long way. When she arrived, just having us stand by her stall had her turning her butt to us and trying to run in the opposite direction. Within a few days she got brave enough to sniff a hand briefly, and by last Friday I was able to (yay!) groom her and pet her a bit and she was happy with that. Touch is a big big thing with her and convincing her that a hand simply placed on her neck is ok...that's been huge. The fact that she let me curry comb her shoulder and some of her neck and then pet her was a big moment.

Twenty minutes later our trainer showed up for our friday lessons. My mom really wanted our trainer to 'assess' Josie so they went in her stall and spent some time with her while I got my horse ready for our lesson.

Now, my trainer admits up front that she knows NOTHING about mules. Neither do I really, but I have been reading books on it and asking questions of anybody I know who has mule experience. In a nutshell, I think mules are smarter than horses and also come to conclusions much much quicker. And, I would add, they seem to have a great deal of self-restraint, but also quite firm opinions. In my interactions with Josie this has translated to me making sure I have a very calm and grounded energy around her, that I make *sure* I listen to her body language, and that I ask quietly and calmly for things that I think are reasonable. And we focus on little steps.

BUT, my trainer is a very experienced horsewoman who's worked with feral herds of Colonial Spanish Horses and other kinds of Mustangs, and she has a ton more experience than me or my mother. I don't always agree with her, but do in general, respect her opinion.

So here's what happened; the trainer pushed some buttons a bit indiscriminately with Josie. Where I have been taking things one step at a time and very much honoring Josie's opinions and negotiating gently from there, the trainer just kinda moved in and did what she was going to do--in the name of 'desensitization' and 'finding out what's under the hood'. They worked with Josie for at least 45 minutes, whereas we've been doing things with her for maaaybe 15. And the one part that my mom really remembers is that our trainer was rubbing Josie's face and Josie was making it clear she wasn't comfortable with that...and our trainer kept right on insisting until Josie tried to bite her twice.

I didn't see that part of the session and didn't really think much about their working with her at all...until the next day (Saturday) when I showed up to visit Josie and she threatened to kick me when I was just standing there. I could tell from her eyes that she was *deeply* unhappy. In just trying to carry her water bucket out to it's normal place she got a bit panicked at seeing me come towards her and very slowly lifted one leg and then very slowly (but with some definite force) kicked out in my general direction. I didn't back up since she wasn't anywhere close to actually getting me, but I did just stop and give her time to think and after a few seconds she figured out how to move out of my space and I was able to go set down her water bucket. Then as I walked back out through her stall she came in and pawed at her door, which is what she does when she wants one of us to take her out for a walk (just like a dog would scratch at the door). I had to go do other things but made sure I came back out later and took her for a walk.

On her last few walks she's done really good at paying attention and halting with us, i.e. following our shoulder and stopping when we stop. And she'll turn her head to kind of check in with us when we stop.

On this walk I felt like I had 1000 lbs of trauma on a rope. I kept Josie on a longer line after she jumped a bit and kicked her HQ in my direction. We did okay and I was able to manage her from a distance but it felt scary. And this is the first time Josie has felt scary to me. The best way I can describe it is that Josie is intrinsically quite a thinker, not a spooker, but that yesterday it seemed she was upset enough to be transported to a 'bad place' in her head. And that being there made it quite a bit harder for her to trust me and pay attention to what I was asking her to do.

I guess the biggest surprise to me is how much she restrained herself during the actual training session...and how VERY upset she was the next day. In a way I'm impressed that something so deeply upsetting happened to her and she still didn't hurt anyone--merely threatened to bite in a such a way that no one was really at all close to getting hurt. This suggests to me that she is *really* trying.

Then, on the other hand, I'm a bit surprised that just rubbing her face could be *so* deeply traumatizing to her. I thought about it some today, and I know that if a stranger touched my hand without permission, that would feel very different than if they stroked my face. I can kind of see where forced touch on her face would upset Josie, especially since she came to us with a completely shaved head--and I'm guessing that wasn't accomplished with kindness and a desensitization session with the clippers. She's got scars on the corners of her mouth too.

I know the look of trauma and she very clearly had it. And I think the best thing to do when she's traumatized is to stay calm, stay out of kicking range, and give her a bit of structure where we can, and then let her rest.

So part of me is pretty upset with our trainer for pushing her like that. I can see how it happened, but given how much care we've put into handling her since she arrived, and how far she's come with me and my mother, it was a little scary to see her look *worse* than she did when we first got her-- as a result of our trainer taking things too fast and not checking it out enough first. I don't think the longer session was a good idea- I think shorter sessions are best right now. AND our trainer suggested we could work with her for as long as we wanted as long as we didn't do any one thing for too long. (SO not the case!!)

More to the point, PUSHING her was not okay. Doing baby steps the way we have been seems to result in much faster progress and less trauma for her.

It is such a difficult balance; you don't want to tiptoe around a traumatized animal so much that you just validate the trauma, like 'oh, poor thing look how scared you are, *I'll* comfort you..." I know that will just reinforce the traumatized behavior because it results in comfort. But I also disagree with our trainer; with mules you don't push, you have to let them make up their own mind. You have to honor them and their opinion and work with that. Like, with her face, I don't plan on never touching her head again because it upsets her, but I don't plan on forcing her through it either. I trust that if I keep her respect and go slow that eventually she'll be okay with me touching her face. It just takes time.

So, I know I'm rambling here, but I guess what this post is really about is sort of--control. I feel like Josie needs to know she's 'in control' in order to feel safe. And so far, as long as what I ask her is reasonable, she offers it incredibly quickly. The way my trainer was doing things with her, I think Josie felt like she was NOT in control and that really freaked her out. Being touched against her will is a big deal for her and heck, it would be for any of us too.

I'm planning on talking to our trainer about this but want to get my thoughts clearer first. She's going to stress the importance of boundaries right from the get-go, and it's not that I disagree with that. But I don't think you just dive right in either. Does anyone else know what I'm getting at here? How exactly do I put this into words? Any thoughts people could share on rehabbing abused horses/mules and/or experiences you've had dealing with that would be helpful in assisting me to sort out my thoughts more.

And I guess I'll just add--so I'm clear--I don't think what I'm doing here is the 100% reward method; where everything gets a cookie, or a click. I still 'reprimand' Josie but I do so quite gently because she listens and responds so quickly to subtle cues. Just changing my tone of voice a bit is enough to get her to change her actions. If I did anything more forceful to reprimand her I would make sure it happened in a way that I gave a gentle correction first, and the less-gentle correction wasn't any stronger than it had to be.

And one other thing; I called to check on her today and see how she was doing and my mother reports that she changed up the herd situation and put Josie out with our mare. Josie is doing great with that and seems okay again today. Pretty quick recovery given how terrible her eyes looked yesterday...
wldhrsjen3wldhrsjen3 on March 15th, 2010 04:58 am (UTC)
I've gone through this with Gypsy. She is very much an alpha mare and was deeply traumatized from both her initial round-up and then the abuse at the hands of her original adopters. She is very much a thinker, and in the moment she can totally disassociate so that it might *look* like she's accepting whatever you're trying to do. But the next day -- after she's had time to come back into her head -- she will react with total defensive aggression. This is why she was passed from one trainer to another before I ended up with her -- they told me she was on "slaughter watch" because no one could handle her.

You know how long I've been working with her and how far we still have to go, but I'll say this: she is not at all the same horse she used to be and we have a really solid partnership. Still, I *cannot* push her past a certain level of resisatnce or she will check out again and Bad Things happen. At the beginning, I never worked with her longer than ten or fifteen minutes because that was all she was emotionally and mentally capable of handling. I never invaded her personal space without asking for permission -- I still don't. I offer my hand first, and when she sniffs it and lowers her head I then proceed to grooming and tacking. IF she doesn't do that, I do some free longing until she's ready. Every time.

Boundaries *are* important, and you don't want to baby a traumatized animal to the point that they're never allowed to heal and move on, you know? It's good to offer clear expectations. But those expectations must be built slowly, and must alwasy be presented with a degree of sensitivity.

I don't pamper Gypsy. She knows that she must respect my space, follow my lead, defer to my judgment, and respond appropriately to my cues. But I've spent A LONG TIME teaching her that I will ALWAYS uphold my end of the deal by respecting her, never asking for more than she feels safe giving, and paying attention when she tries to tell me something.

I think your instincts in this case are right on. But the good thing is animals are pretty resilient, too, and even after a bad reaction they're still willing to try again. (And I also know it's tempting to do too little in the efforts of avoiding drama. There is something to be said for showing a horse or mule that they can panic and still survive -- this was maybe the hardest lesson of all for me and Gypsy.)
Penella22penella22 on March 17th, 2010 01:43 pm (UTC)
But I've spent A LONG TIME teaching her that I will ALWAYS uphold my end of the deal by respecting her, never asking for more than she feels safe giving, and paying attention when she tries to tell me something.

I feel like this is at the heart of what I need to do with Josie too.
glenatronglenatron on March 15th, 2010 09:03 am (UTC)
Very interesting. She's clearly got a lot she'll need to work through for a while and it sounds like she'll need you to go very slow for a some time yet. That isn't to say you won't be able to pick things up but I think you'll know when that starts to happen and you move from the rehab stage towards more of doing jobs together. I think as that goes on there will also be a change from you allowing her to become confident in her world and asking her to follow your lead more- it's like once the glass of confidence is full you can start working on the more practical training but for now that is going to be your sole focus for a while...
fleefloodlefleefloodle on March 15th, 2010 12:56 pm (UTC)
I think you've had good advice from the other two, and I admit that I am lucky enough to be involved with two spectacularly un-traumatised ponies, but I would suggest that you don't leave the trainer with her again (if you want to keep working with the trainer in this case). From what you've said, Josie's behaviour isn't dangerous unless she's pushed well beyond her comfort zone? That's always going to be a good thing because it's more a process of getting her to trust people and realise that you don't mean her any harm without having to train out dangerous behaviour at the same time. Staying constantly within her comfort zone isn't ideal, but at this point I can't see any point in pushing it more than you have to until things are a little more settled. After two weeks she's probably still getting used to the new surroundings so you may simply see some changes once she's settled with you.

She sounds like she is very intelligent and will probably learn fast, but I think that she's probably also similar to young horses where training sessions are kept short and sweet, focussing on one thing at a time and making sure that, as always, the right thing is very easy. Good luck!
z111z111 on March 15th, 2010 09:43 pm (UTC)
Sounds like you were working in a good direction. I'd keep the trainer away from her.

I don't think a positive-only approach would be bad right now. Why do you sound apologetic for the idea?

Behaviorism tells us that's how animals learn fastest. Safety doesn't always make it possible with large equines, but it's still optimal.
Penella22penella22 on March 17th, 2010 01:47 pm (UTC)
I certainly don't mean to sound apologetic about the idea--I just don't personally agree with it 100%. I've been in some training situations with flighty scared horses where bringing out the treats made all the difference in the world. I otoh, own a very thinky food-oriented Curly, and the relationship goes out the window as soon as food as in the picture because he's like a crack addict for apples. Not that I don't still do positive rewards for him like scratching his itchy spots and praising him for a job well-done...but Mr. Thinky is actually at his happiest when I am a bit more of a leader for him and in essence say 'deal!' and then suddenly I have the happiest horse on the planet.

Josie's temperament is not so different from his and I think just as much as she needs positive reinforcement, she also needs to (gently) know where the boundaries are. JUST positive reinforcement doesn't always accomplish this I think. I loe what Karen Pryor has to say in so many ways and use her stuff with my dogs--but I don't always think it's the right fit for my horse/mule.
Penella22penella22 on March 17th, 2010 01:48 pm (UTC)

v key still a tiny bit broken on my keyboard. ;)
z111z111 on March 17th, 2010 02:19 pm (UTC)
That sounds sensible.