Slowing Down

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Shortly after a horse accident in 2014, I had to walk with a cane. The design between its black handle and its black rubber tip was pink roses.

That should have been the first clue that my brain injury had rewired my preferences; before the wreck, I didn’t like pink. Or roses. But as I looked at the other canes – somber in their black and navy blueness – this one stood out. Pink roses seemed to defy injury.

The pink rose cane gave other people a clue that I couldn’t move like they could, but often I felt like a rock in a stream; people would eddy and rush past me much like the local rivers do in Spring when the runoff from the Rocky’s is melting.

There were many clues that things in my body and mind were changing; one of the biggest ones was that I was relishing walking slowly. Before the accident, I rarely strolled. Power walking was my gait of choice. Walking slowly and liking it was a new sensation. I felt like a different person.

This wasn’t just because of the pain in my crushed right thigh. It was also because I could see everything in great detail. I found out each blade of grass, though green, was a different shade. Some were darker at the tips. I saw tiny flowers and felt the variations of the ground underneath my left foot. I began studying hoof prints to see where a horse was carrying their weight when the hoof landed on the ground.

I also noticed how fast everything was. Cars were fast; most people were faster.  It wasn’t just their speech that I could barely follow (though this might’ve had something to do with the brain injury), or that their actions were sped up. It was as though these things were the by-product of how they felt on the inside. I often wondered if this is how we feel to horses; unintelligible and edgy.

 

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Photo: Mark Rashid

When it came to working with horses, I thought I went slowly. It wasn’t until after I was forced to slow down that I realized that even my version of slow was probably still too fast to a horse. After the accident, because I was physically and mentally slower  I could feel how the world around me was sped up.

I’ve been revisiting this time in my life because since the holidays I have felt as though I am on fast forward. I’ve been metaphorically power walking past many of the routines that help foster going slowly. Yesterday my horse Banjo let me know this; he’s a master (as are all horses) at reflecting how I am interacting with him. If I’m quick and jerky, so is he. He showed me how speedy I am. Time for less power walking and more strolling.

We miss a lot of good things when we go too quickly. And I’ve discovered we miss a lot of communication when we rush through our time with horses. We get so focused on what we want to do and the time we have allotted to do it in, that we forget horses are creatures of Being. And Being, to be savored, is about depth and exploration. These are qualities that require us to slow down, and the rewards are endless.

 

 

 

 

It’s Not Resistance.

Our horses aren’t resistant. Our thoughts about them, however, may be.

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Horse, Interrupted.

 

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Photo: Crissi McDonald

On a warm spring day, I walked into an arena to help Dave with his sorrel gelding, Whip.  Wide-eyed and snorting, Whip was flinging his head in every direction, and Dave was doing his best to hang on to Whip’s halter.

“Hi, Dave. Why don’t we let Whip move around a bit? Do you have a longer lead rope or a longe line?” I asked.

Dave turned to see if I was serious or not.  His disbelief was punctuated by dodging Whip’s head. He gave the halter another tug and bent down to pick up his hat from the dirt before answering me.

“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea right now,” he said between breaths exhaled in short huffs.

“I think I’d rather just help him get settled down. He doesn’t do real good in any new place, but sometimes if I can make him stand still, I can get on and we can go to work.”

“How has that worked out in the past?” I watched as Dave was lifted off his feet by Whip throwing his head so high that I wasn’t sure if it was going to stay attached to his body.

“Well, it’s hit or miss,” Dave said, once his feet were back on the ground. He then added, “mostly miss, if I’m being honest.”

“Tell you what, let’s let him move a bit and if it doesn’t seem to be working, we can try something else. Deal?”

Dave released the halter, handing the lead rope to me with a small smile of relief and said, “Deal.”

 

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Photo: Crissi McDonald

 

When you ask people if they consider themselves good listeners, most will answer that they are, usually after having either finished your question for you or answered before you were done talking.

We don’t need to look far to witness this kind of behavior; tune into any radio or TV show and you will hear raised voices competing to be heard. Interrupting has become a form of social dialogue and whoever talks loudest and fastest often gets the most attention. We seem to interpret this behavior we see as acceptable because when we go out into the world, we feel it is ok to not let the person we are chatting with finish–or even have–any say of their own. 

The recurring situation that’s got me thinking about how to return to the art of conversation is that I’ve been noticing when I meet someone for the first time, they will almost always blurt out a question in a kind of machine gun barrage of words. I used to reply the same way.  There’s always been a nagging suspicion that neither I nor the person who sought an answer felt good about the interaction, so I’ve begun to change my response. Instead of answering the question, I’ll reply with “Hello,” or “Good morning.” Ask how they’re doing, and what their name is. When they ask the question again, it is often more coherent and slower.

I find myself slipping into the ease of interrupting as much as anyone else; not a day goes by that I don’t catch myself. Perhaps it’s our current Culture of Me, or social media, or the rapid-fire chaotic events that surround us these days, but engaging in a polite, coherent conversation seems to be far less sexy than having our say no matter what. And having our say no matter what, if we aren’t careful, will get applied to our time with our horse. 

Whether they are doing their best to let us know about a physical problem, or that they don’t understand what we are teaching, or poorly fitting tack, horses communicate all the time. Their behavior usually escalates because we don’t know how to guide them to what we want (sometimes we don’t even know what we want), or we aren’t listening because we label them “spooky,” “stubborn,” or “cranky,” and the label relieves us of the responsibility of finding out what is driving their behavior.

After we got a longer rope for Whip, and let him take off just under the speed of sound, two things happened: he was able to start breathing (which helped him calm down) and we let him have a beginning, a middle, and an end to what he was communicating. 

In other words, instead of interrupting him, which could sound something like this:

Whip: I’m —

Us: Stand still.

Whip: But if I could just—

Us: Behave!

Whip: I—

Us: You’ll feel better if you would just. Calm. Down!

Whip: I NEED TO—

We did this:

Whip: I’m worried! I need to move!

Us: Ok. We are going to stay in a circle in this part of the arena and you can move as much as you want.

Whip grew calmer and quieter throughout the lesson, which confirmed that we were headed in a good direction.  The next two days he and Dave made great progress as we practiced listening to what Whip had to say, and the ways to answer that helped both of them feel better. 

It occurs to me that we are often so busy talking, and we think what we have to say is so important, that we forget the other person also feels the same way about what they have to say. And though a practice of communicating better with our fellow humans can certainly be difficult, I am convinced that it will yield fuller, richer and deeper communication with our friend the horse.

Horse Moments

 

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Photo: Crissi McDonald

 

I wrote one sentence for this month’s  blog, and it felt hollow. Two sentences in, and my inner Chicken Little was running around, feathers flying and wings upraised in panicked supplication screaming “The sky is falling and you’re writing a blog?!” It occurred to me that I may be feeling overwhelmed by what is happening in our world.  

How do we cope with these times? With any time that is gargantuan in its chaos? This is a huge question, with a much bigger answer than I am able to find for myself most days. 

There are many answers that offer comfort, answers that once I put my focus on them, alleviate the nail-biting anxiety that the sky will, indeed, fall as soon as I stop watching it. I guess you could call this mindfulness. But to be very honest “mindfulness,” to the degree and seriousness of which it’s talked about lately, ties my knotted brain in even tighter knots. 

Not that mindfulness is bad; most of the time I enjoy its practice. When overwhelm throws its grappling hooks into my heart though, I need answers with more horsepower than focusing on scrubbing dishes, or eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie.

Aren’t we lucky there are horses? I adore watching them carefully lower themselves to the ground and roll in grunting, leg waving pleasure. I like to watch and hear them eat. It calms me to walk into the paddock and groom each of them. Touch their satin muzzles. Stand close and listen to them breathe.

I believe when we have horses in our lives, all of us are in on a secret. For each of us, that secret is different. It’s made up of moments of trust, and moments when we swear they read our minds and hearts. Moments of flying manes and waving flagged tails, summer grass breath, warm furry coats and large kind eyes. Moments that exist outside of what they can do for us, and instead light us up because of their singular and unique existence. 

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Last week when my husband and I were at a clinic venue, we walked out to gather our herd of five from a large pasture. They were grazing at the far end. As the yellowing grasses crunched under our feet,  I called to them: “Hooooors-ezz!” My horse Rusty picked his head up, ears forward, eyes shining and galloped straight to me, skidding to a stop and lowering his head. I stood beside him, not wanting to put the halter on and end a moment that was magic in its surprise.  The joy of Rusty’s gallop toward me got me thinking that in those ten seconds, such a brief moment, all felt right with the world. My heart rested even as his leaped to power his gallop. 

Because moments like these are what we have, aren’t they? Heart-bursting moments, scary moments, sad until your nose runs moments, wishing we were in control of it all moments; they are part and parcel of this being human thing. 

I’d been letting world events get me so panicked that the very things that could banish it became invisible. I forgot the secrets I share with our horses. I’d been lost in the fog of what was happening, what could happen, and OMG please don’t let that happen. When I saw the beauty of Rusty’s gallop, it was brighter than any dark fog of worry.  That moment reminded me to start paying attention to other moments;  how it feels when a horse breathes into my ear. The warmth of their coats on a sunny day. Or the sound of a nicker when I bring them something good to eat. Those moments made shadows of my worry.

 

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Does any of this change the world? No, maybe not. Does it change how you interact with the world? It can. What I do know is that in the moments I feel as though my feet are frozen in place, when I pay attention around horses, there is a thawing that happens. I can think again and breathe again and take the next step without bolting for the nearest hiding place.  Paying attention with horses may not make what is happening in our world any better, but it sure does make our internal world brighter. And we have our horses to thank for that.  

 

“There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” Seneca

 

 

Of Horses and People

We will only get so far in our skills and relationship with horses if we don’t work on building skills and relationships with people.

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