Trust the animal to choose

15 06 2015


Since I wrote about trust I’ve been thinking about times when I’ve had to trust my animals to get themselves out of trouble. This is what might be called high-stakes trust, when there are no other options than to submit to assistance. I think many animals are experts at assessing when to trust humans and they need to be, especially when their lives are at stake.

Tinker’s life was not at stake, but she was at risk of severe injury when she got both her front and her back legs caught in fence wire. She had been boxed in around the gateway by her bolshy aunt Bella and had tried to save herself by plunging forward, but in her rush to escape she had got caught between two strands of fence wire and stood wide-eyed wondering what to do next.

The scene from War Horse of Joey trapped in razor wire on the Western Front came into mind. That horse had no chance of escaping without tearing himself to pieces, and now this young Dartmoor pony was in the same predicament. If she lunged forward she would shred her chest and neck and shoulder on barbed wire. If she tried to move backwards there was a danger she would tear her legs all the way up to her quarters.

Her instinct was to push forward and she was breathing hard and straining with her chest trying to force her way through. Fearing that she would pull the fence down, I moved her back and she responded before trying again to free herself. My mouth went dry as I imagined the terrible wounds she could inflict. I saw her fine flesh torn like raw meat. I felt powerless to help her.

Just then the field owner arrived in his truck and my hope soared. I shouted at him to come and help us, but the wind took away my words. He had lost his mobile phone in the field around a year ago and so I couldn’t even call him. Unknowing of the crisis down at the far end of the field, he left with his usual cheerful wave, closing the gate behind him. In that moment I felt the horror of what I was sure was going to be disaster. Fear dried my tears against the back of my eyeballs.

Tinker struggled again, and I could tell that she was getting fed up with the situation. Any minute now she was going to shove her way forward through the fence. I knew that horses could still run with horrific injuries and not feel pain because of the adrenaline. I needed to act quickly to stop her.

Taking a few deep breaths, I explained to her that she was trapped and that pushing was going to cause terrible injury. She quietened and blew on to my hand. I then explained to her that what she needed to do was to help me to find a way to get her out of this situation. She became very still. Her eye was huge and dark and liquid. I wanted to help her, I explained, but I needed her co-operation. I needed her to help me find a way out of trouble.

What happened next was truly amazing. She arched her neck and then very slowly lifted her hoof up to chest height, like a dancer practising stretches. She continued to lift it and together we wiggled it clear of the wire and slowly, very slowly eased it over the top of the fence and down to the ground. Then with the same deliberate, careful movement she lifted her other front foot clear and together we moved that one down to the ground. I had a sense that we were working together as a team, choreographing each move. Eventually we got all her legs free and she sauntered off and began to graze as if nothing of any consequence had happened. By now I was shaking and needed a few whole droppers of Rescue Remedy.

Afterwards I was able to think about how resourcefully the pony had solved this problem. She had tried different ways to free herself and had to overcome her instincts in order to co-operate with me. She had probably never before been in the situation of having to totally rely on a human being to get out her out of trouble, but she was willing to give it a try. I don’t think she realised that it was her only option. I think she was so fed up with waiting that she was open to suggestion.

This is truly remarkable in a semi-feral animal who mostly thinks of survival.  It was fascinating to witness Tinker change from an animal committed to self-preservation to an animal making an informed choice about how she might preserve her being. She worked out how to lift herself out, and that saved her from injury and taught me a profound lesson about trusting the animal to find the best solution to a problem.

Since that incident my relationship with Tinker has strengthened. That day we found a greater understanding and respect for each other. We learned that we could rely on each other when things got difficult and neither of us needed to fight for the upper hand. I realise that this semi-wild mare is even more sensitive, aware and intelligent than I thought. I suspect that she will always be a little wayward and I’m sure there will be plenty more scrapes, but now I know her better I trust that she will work her way through the next problem with confidence.

This illuminating talk by Caroline Ingraham explores some of the reasons why we should give animals choices.



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