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.
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.
Resistance is thought transformed into feeling. Change the thought that creates the resistance, and there is no more resistance. – Robert Conklin
If you were to give your instant impressions about the photo above, what would they be? Would the word resistance come up?
This way of thinking isn’t uncommon. Many of us started learning or grew up hearing horses spoken about as if they were spiteful people with body hair. Add our tendency to focus on the negative to this species nearsightedness and working with horses can feel like one long battle for supremacy.
For many of us though, this me-against-them perspective hasn’t ever felt right. Battling horses is neither a logical nor a smart choice but we get away with it because of their willing nature.
When we say “my horse is being resistant,” it lets us off the hook. We are self-absolved of the responsibility to listen further or learn more. On the flip side, we also have the ability to educate ourselves and choose different ways of thinking that can short-circuit the downward spiral into fighting with our horse. Here’s an example, as shown in the photos above and below.
In the above photo, Mark is working with Lily. She was returning to work from an injury after almost a year off. We decided to start with longeing to help her get back into the swing of things; this photo was taken at the beginning of the session.
While it may appear that Lily is resisting the rope (or Mark), another perspective to consider is that by giving Lily time and support, she can sort out how to use her body in a small circle. Mark’s posture is balanced and he is supporting Lily, as opposed to pulling on her. She hasn’t had to bend her body in a while so giving her time to loosen up can help her start traveling in a balanced way.
Compare this with the photo below, where Lily has been moving in a circle for about five minutes. She has found how to relax her body and move more in balance than the first photo. While there is a connection, there isn’t any pull.
Horses can only pull if you pull back. A tug on the lead rope, a hoof that won’t be picked up, or a horse who dives into the bit can, faster than we are comfortable admitting, send us straight to one of two places: resignation or frustration. Teaching yourself to maintain a relaxed and balanced structure when you feel a tug is a valuable skill because our bodies are hardwired to push or pull when pushed or pulled upon. Horses aren’t any different; unless we show them another option, the only skills they have to fall back on when they can’t get away or don’t understand is to push, pull or not respond.
I’ve often heard that this is an exercise in semantics but I don’t believe so. I have seen and felt the difference in horses when we approach them with understanding and a positive perspective, versus giving in to frustration and tension.
The first place any change takes place is in our heads and hearts. Without that change, everything else is mechanics and horses know it. When we interact with horses with the knowledge that physical issues or lack of understanding can contribute to what they are doing and how they are doing it, we create an atmosphere of lower pressure. And though some humans may seem to thrive on pressure, I also know many of us who don’t; horses absolutely don’t.
“Acceptance means events can make it through you without resistance”
― Michael Singer, An Untethered Soul
Horses are communication, embodied. How you see them behaving is how they are feeling. Why would we then choose to see or what they are doing in a negative light? We love horses for many reasons, and it seems contradictory to accept only the things that are easy about them, and negatively label or ignore those things we don’t understand.
Pressure, resistance, discomfort; we aren’t seeking to eliminate these experiences, but rather develop a response that returns us to inner equilibrium. Being with horses is about building a relationship of such solidity that they feel safe to express the full range of who they are while in connection with us. The distance between resistance and relaxation is a change of thought away. The depth of connection between us and our horse lies within this change of thought.
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.”
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.
Whip: I’m —
Us: Stand still.
Whip: But if I could just—
Us: You’ll feel better if you would just. Calm. Down!
Whip: I NEED TO—
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.