I went to a day long retreat recently. An opportunity to chat with one of the speakers came up, so I approached him and introduced myself, letting him know how much I appreciated his work. We got to talking about the words people use to describe his work, and him. His easy laughter and chagrin at some of the terms was plain. We both shared thoughts about how such labels, while on one level helpful, could also be limiting. Toward the end of our conversation I remarked, “We have to use labels, because it certainly isn’t enough to just be a human being!”
I’ve rolled that around in my head for a couple of months now, this idea that we enforce on ourselves (and perhaps by proxy, all others who come into contact with us) the idea is that being human is not enough. We have to be this person with that talent doing this incredible thing while striving to stay ahead of what ever curve it is we measure ourselves by. This can extend to our horses too: they are not just horses, they are breeds, disciplines, trophy, money and award winners, therapists, best friends, teachers. The way I see it, labels are neither bad nor good. I think sometimes that they are also like driving on ice: one quick turn of the wheel and we are in the ditch.
Of course it is fun to do things with horses! Of course we like challenges and improving our skills with horses. Of course they can be our friends, teachers and confidants. All of that and more! At the end of the day though, they are horses, just as we are humans. In my personal experience, the letting go of labels (in as much as we can) brings a certain quality to our interactions with others and our horses. Striving to see things as they are by its very nature depressurizes most situations. It can mean the difference between fighting with a “stubborn” or “resistant” or “lazy” horse, and clearly communicating what we’d like to a horse who is otherwise unclear about our request. Once we see things as they are, we can interact with them in a way that is not about seeing things as we wish them to be.
I’ve seen Thoroughbred racehorses who didn’t like to run. Warmbloods who were happier out on the trail than in an arena. Quarter horses who loved to jump, Arabians who excelled at working cattle. I’ve seen gaited horses who were talented pacers, and child-sized ponies who could jump higher than many taller horses. My point is that despite our labeling a horse as anything, they are so much more than that. Sometimes we recognize this, and sometimes it takes a horse (or several, in my case) to jar us out of our tight-fisted, white-knuckled grip on a label.
Horses are many things to many people. By no means have I seen it all when it comes to horse/human interactions, but I’ve seen enough to say with confidence that when we can treat our horses as they are, things usually go pretty well.
Many years ago now, I was helping out at one of Mark’s clinics and I said to him with no small amount of frustration how the horse I had brought with me was 15 years old and he should know how to be bridled by now. Mark paused and remarked, “Maybe if you treat him like he doesn’t know, instead of treating him like he’s fifteen it might go better.” That was the beginning of my grip starting to loosen, because sure enough, once I calmed down and helped my horse understand, we stopped fighting and things got easy. Lesson: confusion doesn’t know how old you are.
I guess in a way it’s like traveling back to when I was twelve. Grooming a horse or riding a horse – any horse – felt the same to me. Joyful. As I got older, I did my share of competing (whether I was in a show or not), my share of pressuring a horse to be something different from what they were. My share of agonizing over and struggling with how to get my horse to do something I felt was very important. Perhaps it is a by-product of getting older and working so closely with them, but these days I feel as though I’m still that pig-tailed girl, who is giddy just hanging around a horse.
(Below: a torn out page from my journal when I was twelve. It says, “I cantered.” )