Canner’s Story by Mackenzie Cole
CHAPTER FOUR: RECOVERY
Canner has stayed at Dunrovin, to both of our benefits. The following are some highlights from our work there. Unfortunately, his biggest hurdle remains being a happy loader. Fortunately, I’ve enlisted some new help with that problem and hope that this will be the year Canner learns to love the trailer. You can see some of our work here and then below, when I decided to work more on moving into enclosed spaces. If you’re interested in Canner’s story, be sure to check our calendar regularly for live training sessions. You’ll have to become a member of the Days at Dunrovin community, but your membership will help to keep Canner and I working and sharing his story.
In this footage, Canner was as brave as he’s been. We had a great training session that day. He haltered up for no treats and we practiced loading into Cool Dude’s stall. There were some roofers working on the neighbor’s house, throwing shingles and making noise, and he responded calmly. We had several great loads into Cool Dude’s stall, which was promising for when we go back to working on the trailer–his last true hurdle. He hit his target with me standing outside the stall, which will help with safety when we start on the trailer again!
Why try to save a wild, reckless, potentially dangerous animal, especially in a world where there are plenty of softer, tamer, rideable horses that get put down or sent to the canner?
The moment we let the animals we live with, work with, or survive on be defined solely by their utility, something important in ourselves begins to die. I was taught at a young age that the other animals around me were lesser-than humans. There’s plenty of discourse now on the anthropological and cultural ramifications of this belief, but it’s one that I think poisons us all.
When we imagine the world, we make the world as we imagine. It becomes real in the sense that we make choices to create our surroundings, and we talk to people promoting our idea of the realness of our imagined world, and finally, we perform that imagined life, using it to explain the world around us and to justify our own actions. With animals, when we build our relationship around their use, their utility, we miss so much of what they have to offer and we stop believing they have anything to tell us about the world. After all, they become, in our treatment of them, dumb animals. Once we stop believing they have anything to say, we stop listening and start to teach them there is no point in communication because we are deaf to their thoughts.
In practice, this can look like a lot of different things: the mule that has its pack routinely mis-weighted and begins to bite gets labeled “stubborn” or “aggressive” by the animal-deaf packer. The dog who has gotten older and has developed arthritis and begun to growl when children come around is labeled aggressive and put down by a vet, when really it is just trying to communicate its pain and disinterest in being touched or rough-housed with. But when we start to listen, when we approach animals not as our “lessers,” they start to tell us amazing things.
Canner has given me so much when I have taken the time to listen. He has told me a long story about overcoming fears. He speaks about curiosity, about the joy of running and rolling, about kindness and about bravery. Every time he approaches a new human and teaches them how to ask his consent to be petted, he is also telling a story about forgiveness. He was a horse who was as terrified of humans as any animal I have ever met, and he has come to be more gentle and honest with us than we deserve, having created and participated in a world that would treat him as it has. Because of his willingness to overcome his monsters, to see us as potential friends, he has given me one of the truest gifts in a world of increasing polemics, of impending global disasters due to how we treat it. He has given me a taste of hope.
This is a conversation I have only learned to have by listening to the frightened and hurt animals. In seeing them lash out for things that seem normal to us humans and choosing to ask, how do I be less frightening; what do you want out of this interaction; how can I help?
Many of us humans are suffering the same terrors. When we learn to treat animals for their use, we learn to see them as objects to be used and we learn not to listen. This is a lesson many of us have been taught since we were young. But another danger of this lesson is that we also learn to see one another like we see animals. We learn to talk about the other humans like we talk about our pets or our food. This world of living objects that we have made may not be able to survive our objectification of it. Objects become trash; they are used until they are thrown away. But we do not live in a world that can be tossed when we find it inconvenient, when our mistreatment of it leads to it being difficult to live with.
The world is speaking like Canner has been speaking. We can look at the now global pandemic of specie extinctions as incidental, we can call the increases in wildfires unusual, we can pretend the devastating starvation and global slave trades don’t exist. Or we can begin to acknowledge that this is a world of big and scary problems. We can start to own up to our part in that. We can ask what is needed, what is wanted, and offer what we can when those questions are answered. We can hold back and not lash out when other people act because of their trauma, because of their fears. When we start listening, we can change our own behavior and begin to have a real conversation based around hope.
My mom came out to see Canner recently. Canner and I were showing her how to ask him to be petted by having her offer a hand as she asked “pets?” If Canner wanted to let her pet him, he nudged her hand with his nose. She would pet him for a bit and then offer her hand again, asking “pets?” Nose nudge, repeat. In this way, she started working with the horse from a different perspective than she’d ever approached it before.
It didn’t come naturally to her, just like it hadn’t come naturally to me, having grown up and learned from her how to be around animals. At one point, she offered her hand, said “pets?” and then, when he hadn’t OK’d it, she went to pet him anyway. Canner tolerated this, but he also stopped playing the game with her. He’s learned that people who don’t listen may be dangerous, and so he always asks the question by not engaging, even if he might be ok with being petted. I pointed it out to my mom, and she said that working with him this way was like a conversation and that sort of talking was new to her. To be fair, it’s still new to me, even though it has been here, waiting for us for a long time.
This conversation is not about intimidation. It’s about catching him doing what I like, not what I don’t. He’s always free to say nothing, to walk away. We both offer up possibilities and decide together what the best next step is that we are comfortable taking. Like all good talking, it’s fun, it’s playful, and it doesn’t come by coercion. We attend to what is working. In this way, we work together to shape new behaviors. He has taught me how to do this better than I knew before him and more quietly than I thought I could.
Sometimes when I am working with the horse, I get focused on what I want. I don’t check in with him. Like my mom, I start doing without asking. I’ve been the worst about the trailer, pushing him to try more than he is ready for, not giving him enough opportunities to choose to take a break, and he has struggled with loading in large part due to my own trouble learning to speak this new language as articulately as he does. But as I spend time with him, walking with a hand on his shoulder, spinning circles, working on cues, resting in the shade of the willows, when he has said yes or when I hear him saying no thanks, he has taught me a little more of that way of being—that language of hope, of generosity.
I went through traumatic experiences as a child: my brother’s death, my parent’s divorce, the loss of friends, the abuse from my step-father. Canner has shown me that even if we don’t come all the way back to a life that existed before or without these things, we can recover, we can grow, we can move forward. Those clear cuts in us can be replanted, just as the ones in the mountains can. We can cut back our excesses. We can learn to refrain from our worst impulses. We can listen to our fears but learn to live by our courage. We can listen more and offer what we have when asked.
Fear is an emotion that means we want to live. If you are like Canner and me, if you are afraid of the direction things are going, know that fear is a messenger. It tells us we have something worth fighting for. If we are brave, if we take a moment to breathe, if we are patient, we can make those changes that will alter not only our internal worlds, but the outer one as well.
As I said before, Canner has been there for me just as much as I’ve been there for him. And all of you, the people who have come out to help me rescue him, the ones who hear his story and know it is also your own, you have taught me that despite the news cycle, this world is full of kindness, of caring people, and that together we can undo the bad things that have been done in this world.