I’ll tell you what, the first time I stepped into one of those arenas, I was fairly certain the rails were closing in on me and I kind of blew up. Well, truth be told, it was more than just the first time. I was naughty and full of energy and sometimes got so scared that mule mama wouldn’t let my girl handle me for fear she’d get severely injured. Those turned into some really long longing sessions to get me focused enough to do any sort of productive ground work. We had to figure out how to put a stop to that, so we all came into agreement that I had to get into an arena with a crowd of people around and all of their noise and smells and distractions or I’d never overcome any of my fears.
The basics of desensitization have never stopped with me and mule mama – she is a firm believer that there is always something more to learn from that and ground work. The next step was to observe as many shows as possible and take note of every possible obstacle and distraction I may ever be exposed to, then expose me to it. When did she decide this as the next step, you ask? Right after my girl and I were in a trail-in-hand class and I reared up at the bridge because, well, I’d just never seen one of those contraptions before! I wouldn’t cross it, wouldn’t put my foot on it or even anywhere near it. But you know what I would do? Touch it with my nose, thanks to mule mama and her makeshift clicker training! Once I made contact with the bridge, my girl was excused to the next obstacle and we did the same thing when I encountered the ground poles. And so a new expose-Z-to-everything-we-can-find training course was laid out and implemented immediately.
I did not mind being dressed up in rain coats or asked to trot across a bright blue tarp or to stick my nose inside an open mailbox. But doing all of this with a "sounds from the carnival" CD blaring nearby and mule mama screaming "I've got cotton candy!" at the top of her lungs and my girl darting across the yard straight at me, well, let's just say that was a bit off-putting and downright strange. But it seems to have done the trick. Mule mama wasn't joking - she will never do anything to deliberately hurt me. She WILL, however, do things to make me feel awkward and uncomfortable sometimes, but she always comforts me and lets me know I'm safe.
Since that first bad experience with the bridge, I have also had a bad encounter with a herd of miniature donkeys. I soon learned to love minis – they aren’t such scary little creatures after all! I could’ve sworn once that a giant yellow wheelbarrow was going to climb the fence and attack me. So I learned to help my girl with wheelbarrow chores. Those are handy pieces of equipment that sometimes carry food! Bridges, I'll cross 'em. Traffic cones, not frightening. Flags, noisy but not terribly hateful. Helmets, protection for mule mama and my girl. Now that I’ve got these things under control, I have to stay on my toes for what these crazy ladies might throw at me next!