Shillin' Out with Warwick Schiller
Last year, while I was holding a few clinics in Australia, I had dinner with one of my clients. This client, named Liz, is a doctor who had always had a strong bias against vaccines.
Over a leisurely dinner, Liz told me a story about an incident with a regular, elderly patient of hers that changed her vaccine perspective forever.
One day, the patient, a Ms. Mary Brown, came in and brought with her a photograph from her childhood. The photo showed four children, Ms. Brown and her 3 siblings, all very close in age, sitting on a wall.
“Where are they now?” asked Dr. Liz.
“Oh, they are all dead,” Ms. Brown replied matter-of-factly, “they died the week after that photo was taken.”
“Oh really,” the doctor said, “was it an accident?”
“No,” said Ms. Brown, “they died of polio.”
Liz told me she that calls that her “Mary Brown Moment,” when one thing changes your whole outlook on things. Liz said that not ever having actually seen polio, or anyone infected with polio, it was very easy to jump to the conclusion that it’s not important to have unnecessary vaccinations for it. Liz now keeps a copy of that photo in a frame on her desk, to remind her that just when you think you have all the answers, that may completely change.
I had my own Mary Brown Moment recently at a clinic in Texas. A horse training epiphany. One that will change the way I interact with every horse from here on out. One of those things that, once you see it, you can’t “un-see” it.
As epiphanies go, this one was quite a long time in coming. My search for new answers started about a year and a half ago when we purchased a reining horse for my wife. This horse was very talented, but very weird. Very introverted.
We found he could do the hard reining maneuvers easily and well, but was always holding a lot of worry inside him. We bought him because I help people with these types of horses at clinics all the time, all around the World. I thought I had the answers with which to solve his issues. And, as the saying goes, it’s what you learn after you think you know it all that’s important.
I began to work on this horse with my supposed answers only to find that this horse completely stumped me. It was like doing a country line dance, three steps forward, two steps back. I had come to the end of my knowledge and still not made much progress with this horse.
Help came a few months later from a surprising venue. Through my Facebook group, I received a piece of advice from a Finnish girl whom I had gotten to know when she attended several of my European and UK clinics in 2015. She doesn’t have a lot of horse experience, but is very keen on the subject of horsemanship and horse behavior. When I first met her, she looked me in the eye and said “I am autistic. If you are talking to me, and I start crying, it’s nothing you did or said. I just do that. Don’t do anything, don’t try to console me, but don’t leave, just wait.” OK, I thought, good to know.
In an online discussion about worried horses, like my wife’s new reiner, this Finnish girl said we should “…just stand there and do nothing, and just wait. Don’t try to help them, influence them, just wait.” She said she knows this because she feels the worry horses feel, similar to Temple Grandin seeing things from a cow’s point of view.
Her advice struck a chord with me and led me back to an article I’d read online written by a blogger named Anna Blake on a thing called “calming signals”. (Look it up, it’s fascinating.)
So, in Texas last weekend, there was a 9-year old Mustang who had been out of the wild since he was 3, and, despite a lot of good training, still kinda bolted out of nowhere under saddle. I approached working with him at the clinic a little differently than I might have before, the words of my Finnish friend and the article’s insights at the front of my mind. After about half an hour, I handed him back to his owner and said “Just let him stand there a bit” and I went on to helping someone else. There was a gasp from the audience, and I turned around to see that the Mustang had laid down and fallen asleep. Passed out. He lay there about 20 minutes on his belly, his legs folded under him, his nostrils snoring out dust clouds in the dirt.
Then the Mustang got up, lay down, again, rolled, and fell asleep again. His owner said that her horse never rolled, especially in her presence, and had never let a human near him when laying down. While he was down on the ground, I had her approach him, scratch him on the withers, and sit on him and give him a hug. It was quite the moment. The next day of the clinic, I told her just leave him alone and see what happens. He lay down and did it again. Unconscious. K.O.-ed. In talking with his owner, we realized that this poor horse had probably not had a completely relaxed moment in the past 6 years.
I came home from that clinic energized and excited to apply some of the same techniques to my wife’s reining horse. In doing so, I saw an expression on his face that I had never seen before. His eyes lit up, his ears became active, and he licked, chewed, and yawned like I’ve never seen him, and actually wanted to engage me. It was like a new horse.
Yes, I had my own Mary Brown Moment. And it came from a young autistic girl from Finland, with very little horse experience. And I will be forever grateful for it.
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