Of Horses and People

Photo: Stefan Angele

In what seems a different lifetime, I once told a therapist that horses felt safe to me. She, not being familiar with horses, raised her eyebrows and peered at me over her glasses to see if I was joking or not.

Definitely not.

After answering yes to questions of had I been injured by a horse, had I fallen off, etc, she asked if I “equated being hurt with being safe?”  The look that was exchanged between us was identical, and I almost saw cartoon bubbles over each of our heads that contained the words “Poor thing. She just doesn’t understand.” After a few moments, I answered that I feel safe with horses because they are honest. The fact that I got hurt was because the horse was being a horse, not a horse deliberately out to hurt me.

This is still true.  Another truth I’ve come to understand is that we’ll only get so far in our skills and relationship with horses if we don’t work on building skills and relationships with people.

I’ve heard many people say some version of  “I love animals. People not so much.” Those of us who have suffered at the hands of people (which, sadly, is probably all of us) understandably reroute our trust to animals, and keep people at a distance.

I get that people do horrible things. Many of us–myself included–have been prey to human predators and we do everything in our power to not repeat or revisit that experience. Humans are unpredictable, can be cruel, and often appear to have their own best interest in mind no matter the consequence to others.

Add to this living in an age where too much information is available and if we aren’t careful we can become mired in feeling overwhelmed by the sadness of it all. If we aren’t careful,  we will live and see other people and animals through the dark and cloudy lenses of suffering. It’s the state I found myself slipping into when I began to teach.

Loving horses while disliking people sometimes left me feeling bitter and angry. Something had to shift. I’d had teachers–not just horseback riding instructors–and some of them taught as though they were furious. At first, it was confusing. As I got older, I thought I was the cause of it. Now I’m almost certain it had nothing to do with me.

When I began teaching, I was in my early twenties and started with children. That was fun and it wasn’t difficult. I’d had the pleasure of bringing kids and horses together for years. Adults? At that time, the cartoon bubble over my head would have read: “Clueless and Intimidated.”

I began by remembering how I didn’t want to teach (based on some of my grumpier teachers) and doing something different.  It wasn’t too difficult; I imitated the teachers who were most helpful for me. I began to use the same principles teaching adults that I operated by when working with horses: maintaining a positive state of mind, using as little pressure as possible, and working as slowly as needed.

Photo: Mike DeCanio

It’s been my experience that putting the same amount of effort into getting along with people as helping their horse, has helped grow me as a person. The less internal baggage I carry into a session with a horse and rider, the more I can practice being a better listener. When you listen at a certain level, all kinds of unspoken information is available, whether it is from the person or the horse.

Thousands of people later (and just as many mistakes), there are times when I feel that believing in people is a radical notion. There are days I don’t want to. Those days are far outnumbered by the days when the words catch in my throat because I’ve just heard or seen or been a part of some incredibly generous act.

For an immovable introvert with almost zero people skills, connecting with people wasn’t a small task for me. Thirty years later, it still doesn’t come easily, but I have the good fortune to know some amazing and inspiring folks. They are teaching me that there is a lot more good out there if we just open our eyes to see it.  I find inspiration from people that adds a richness to teaching. It has become less about me knowing more than my client, and far more about what we can all learn from one other. And the fact that I go to work and my day is spent in the company of people and horses (mules too)? It’s a gift I am deeply grateful for.

Crissi, Augustus, and Leslie.              Photo: Bo Reich

Postscript: This is a big Thank You to those of you whom I’ve had the good fortune to meet in person, through this blog, or at a clinic. Your presence and trust with your horse (or mule) has grown me as an instructor and person. 

44 responses to “Of Horses and People”

  1. Thank-you for this wonderful sharing.

    1. You’re most welcome. 🙂

  2. Crissi,
    Absolutly beautiful. As a fellow introvert, your words struck home. I’m slowly learning the same lessons. Horses are safe and people can be not so safe. Yet there is good in us all. I’m finally learning that most of the “bad” in folks comes from their own demons. If we can understand this, the “bad” will lead to compassion rather than more bad. I first learned this about horses. Now it’s the humans turn.
    Thank you for your always wonderful insight.

    1. Thank you Matt. It’s helpful for me to read about your own journey around this. Horses have indeed helped me be better with people. Thank you for your kind feedback!

  3. What a great and thoughtful article. You should send this to a horse magazine, as it relates to a lot of people. I still like animals more than most humans….but not all. Steve in Indiana

    1. Thank you, buddy. That means a lot to me. 🙂 Animals are indeed very very likeable.

  4. Perhaps you don’t remember Crissi ,but the first time I met u for a lesson was when you and Mark were newlyweds! I was delighted to add your input to my lesson with Mark and it went very well. But in future years, I sensed there had been a shift within you that was present both in my lessons and simply in general. This shift brought me an even greater teacher and wonderful human being. Not being privy to your private thoughts, I was never sure what precipated this positive shift but I felt it as a warmth and kindness with an openness that had grown from when I had my first lesson.
    We all have life lessons that sometimes are filled with mighty pain and for me they have been my biggest times of growth. I so appreciate your sharing such intimate thoughts as they help all of us to validate our own fragile parts. You are meant to be a teacher for sure. And some of us are so lucky to have shared your wisdom so that our horses and ourselves can live in a kinder space.

    1. Thank you, Janie. It’s a bit like time travel to see through someone else’s eyes, and I am honored to be seen so kindly through yours. xoxo

  5. Crissi~ Great article~! I totally “get” this. it is so refreshing to know we are not alone. I have been told that i am a people person. My response is usually “NO, it is work!”(polite verson). Going to clinics and working with horses &/or dogs has always been a more safe & comfortable place to learn about myself. I have always considered these clinics “my human resourse training”. Looking for the good… YOU ROCK~! thank you thank you thank you…

    1. Tina! I’ve been told the same thing. It must mean that we have some serious extrovert skills. 😉 YOU rock! xoxo

  6. As always, my friend, I so much appreciate your insights. I rarely get to read your entries when I get the notice in my email, because I want to be able to savor each sentence – so I need to find that perfect time when I actually have five or ten uninterrupted minutes! And it may take a day or two, but it’s so worth the wait! Like saving a decadently rich Godiva chocolate for a “special” moment 😉

    1. Thank you, so very much, Andrea. Every time I write a blog, I picture you reading it during your treadmill time. 😉

      And being compared to a Godiva chocolate?! Wow-you made my day!

  7. Thank you for another wonderful article. You put into words what so many of us feel.
    Thank you for the reminder that working on our skills and relationships with people is directly related to our skills and relationships without horses. So, alas, we don’t get to hide in the barn lol.
    All the best

    1. Thank you Shelley! I’ve tried hiding in the barn too, and while that time is delicious, sharing it with another person is doubly so. I hope you and your horse are doing great!

  8. Hi Crissi, this is a wonderful article and I can sense how honest and open you have been. Sharing such stuff could easily leave one feeling vulnerable. And that’s one reason that I wanted to leave this message for you. I want to applaud your bravery and your dedication to developing something that didn’t come naturally to you.

    I know that the study of horses and especially the desire to deepen our relationship with them leads, at some point, inevitably, to us having to address our own short-comings, but not everyone accepts, welcomes or willingly takes up this challenge. Whilst the rewards of doing so are plentiful, many avoid the issue entirely. So I wanted to tell you how much I, and clearly many, many others, continue to be inspired by your journey and your ability and willingness to openly share it. You do honour to yourself, and us, by doing so.

    And it was a really great piece of writing too! 🙂

    1. Wow! Thank you so much for that encouragement. I wasn’t too sure about this blog (my brain told me it was about the topic), but I kept at it because it wanted to be said. I think you’re correct: the deeper reason may be that it is vulnerable. We humans are such puzzles! I know there are all kinds of ways to be a human, and yet I wouldn’t pick any other way than self-reflection. It sucks sometimes, but the fruit of those labors can be sweet too.

      You’ve done me a great honor by taking the time to let me know how you feel. Thank you.

  9. Fabulous article, thank you. I will send this to my adult daughter, who is currently struggling with these issues (as I have). Do you think your younger self would have taken a lot from this post, or do we all just have to tread the painfully slow path of realisation? With many thanks, Jane.

    1. Hi Jane-well, I’ve noticed that many younger people are further ahead about knowing who they are than I was at their age. Send it on and if she gets something out of it, that’s great. Maybe it will be a seed that grows into her own understanding down the road.

  10. Thanks for bringing up this important topic. Beautifully written.

    1. Thank you Anya!

  11. Hmmm, guess I have some work to do! I love horses too much NOT to listen.
    How in Heaven’s name have you become so wise?

    1. Trial by fire, mostly.

      Maybe the BA in Philosophy started me on this road? Who knows, but I appreciate your kind words!

  12. This was beautiful Crissi. Thank you. <3

    1. Thank you, Jean.

  13. I am not a ‘people’ person in the sense of being a social butterfly. But I do believe that we all have the ability to do good or bad in the world and it’s not an entire species. I have seen and experienced both kindness and cruelty that has left me breathless. I think approaching teaching and not liking the people sitting on the horse does a disservice to both the person and the horse.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree.

  14. Super good article. I have always been the one who said animals rock and people …well…you know. Horses are so amazing and they actually make me strive to be a better human everyday. When we try and see things from others perspectives and understand that we all have and do walk a different path I think it can help us all be more compassionate. You never know what someone is going through so judging them does not help it only limits. Again very brave article we just have to keep looking for the good in all situations. But for me ….Horses help a lot & are the windows to our souls. ✌🏼️❤️🐴

    1. Thank you, Michelle. Very well said, and I feel much the same way. 🙂

  15. Validation for what I have been thinking and feeling lately. Thank you!

    1. Thank you, Gwen! It’s so good to hear that others are on this same track too. We aren’t the easiest species to get along with. 🙂

  16. This is beautiful, horses really can bring out the best in anyone

    1. That is a beautiful truth.

  17. Dearest Crissi, It is also your honesty that creates such sacred safety with those of us who, like me, have the honor and privilege of knowing and loving you. What a wonder-filled blog post. Thank you from my whole heart.

    1. Thank you from my whole heart too! What beautiful words and I am so grateful to hear them from a you, you beautiful soul. 💜

  18. wow that was a really good article! it made me think a lot A.E

    1. Hi Amelie – wonderful! Thank you for writing and letting me know. 🙂

  19. Very timely post for me! Thanks so much for sharing Crissi 🙂

    1. Thanks Jaye! 😃

  20. Thank you for this beautiful writing. I fully relate to all you have shared. Xo Sheri

    1. Thank you, Sheri!

  21. What a wonderful read and I completely understand the “I’d rather be around my horse as I feel safer!” rings so true for me as well. I was so shy growing up and have always felt a bit socially awkward and I was an avid competitor in my youth riding hunter/jumpers. I now own two trail horses, work a full time job, busy with family and just getting into blogging. I’m so enjoying writing and reading and you’ve given me hope that maybe someday I could teach as I feel I have a lot to offer except the human factor always stops me. I love your insight. Thank you for sharing! Diana

    1. Thank you Diana! You’re a step ahead of me – I was so shy that even competing could nearly put me into a faint! 😉 I’m still socially awkward (but our horses don’t care) and as I get older I find this less objectionable. I’m quite sure that you will someday find yourself teaching in addition to all the greatness that your life sounds like it holds. Congratulations on pondering that next step!

  22. Beautiful post, thank you for sharing! I live honest, down to earth writing 🙂

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