Although I had been informed ahead of time that the white Egyptian Arabian mare we were working with for our Natural Lifemanship Intensive Training had some facial deformities and neurological issues, I was surprised by the strength of my visceral response when I actually saw her in person for the first time. She snorted through one working nostril perched on a jaw that veered off to the left, leaving her tongue dangling with seemingly no place to rest. Her face just looked so . . .wrong. I felt a variety of emotions: pity, sadness, alarm, revulsion and a desire to turn away, layered with shame and self-condemnation for my instinct to do so. I was both amused and repelled by her name: Dollface. It seemed to draw attention to her deformity without dignifying it any way. The training participants gave a collective gasp as they approached her pen, and began murmuring among themselves. I knew working with Dollface would challenge all of us in interesting ways. I was curious how her physical appearance would influence how both the horses and humans involved in the training responded to her. Over the course of the training I observed the following:
Over-compensation for a perceived disability
Many people were afraid to approach Dollface or make relational requests. They felt pity for her and didn’t want to make her uncomfortable or challenge her. “Her life is already hard enough,” was a prevailing sentiment. Giving Dollface a pass on taking responsibility for herself had led to a series of behaviors that were damaging her relationships. She was pushy, demanding, and reactive when approached or touched. She clearly wanted to engage but did not know how to do so in an appropriate manner. This left her without the friendships she desired, both from horses and humans. Research shows that people with disabilities or special needs likewise experience false assumptions being made about their intelligence or capacity to interact “normally.”
Lack of acknowledgement
In an effort to not treat Dollface differently, some people went to the other extreme of acting as though she was the same as the rest of the horses. This set up an emotional incongruence that felt unsafe and confusing for Dollface. She different. Her appearance did take getting used to. Horses are prey animals, and experience an incongruence between our inner emotional state and our exterior presentation as unsafe and possibly predatory. Acknowledging the reality of the situation and any discomfort we might have about it is an important first step to proceeding in a way that is healthy for the relationship. We first have to deal with and accept our own prejudices and preconceived notions before we can work on changing them.
Dollface had experienced some early trauma besides being born with a facial deformity. She was removed from her home after a murder-suicide by a rescue organization that cared well for her physical needs but perhaps coddled her and expected little from her in terms of appropriate behavior due to her history and disability. Because little was expected, little was required, resulting in what you would expect from a spoiled child: selfish behavior. Although this might look like kindness on the surface, horses and humans who are entitled and selfish do not have mutually satisfying relationships. They are tolerated rather than enjoyed. At first I heard a lot of reasons why Dollface shouldn’t be asked to do much relational work in the round pen due to being tired, overwhelmed, or uncomfortable. When people stopped making excuses for Dollface and began asking her in a predictable, consistent, patient manner to stop squealing, biting and being aggressive, she became more regulated and able to connect relationally in delightful ways.
Differences in acceptance between horses and humans
Initially I wondered how the horses might react to having Dollface in their midst. Only one of them had been with Dollface prior to the training. For the rest of them, she was a newcomer, so I was curious if they might perceive her birth defect as a threat to the safety of the herd. Horses depend on every member of their herd to be appropriately in control of themselves and aware of potential predators and other threats so that collectively they can maintain safety. None of the horses seemed to notice that Dollface was a bit different from them. Other than a bit of interest from one of the geldings when he discovered Dollface was in heat, they treated her exactly as they did each other. They expected her to behave like an appropriate herd member, and let her know when she did not.
Differences in self-acceptance
Apparently no one ever told Dollface she was different. She saw herself as a completely normal and functional horse. She did not hide herself from either the people or other horses at the training. In fact, her behaviors involved attention seeking; she was not shy about demanding that we spend time with her. She had learned to eat, drink water, breathe and move with her twisted jaw and now that she was learning some relationship skills was also learning to make friends and have mutually satisfying connections.
By the end of the training, we had overcome our reservations about working with Dollface. Our prejudices and fears had been challenged by her self-confidence and insistence that we treat her like a normal horse. One of the participant’s re-named her Hope. That seemed much more fitting for this spunky, endearing, feisty survivor.