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.
“We like horses because they are smart, but we train them like they’re stupid.”
During a dressage lesson many years ago, my instructor had me put my horse Caleb in a double bridle (which has both a curb bit and a small snaffle called a bridoon), fasten the cavesson around his jaw as tight as it would go, and tighten the curb chain. She was frustrated that my horse wouldn’t “collect.” So we were going to make him collect.
After I got back on him, gathered up all four reins as he arched his neck stiffly, my instructor smiled for the first time that hour, said “Now we are getting somewhere! Make him walk.”
To Caleb’s credit, he didn’t do anything. He was an excellent bucker when he got out of sorts, but for reasons only known to him, he stood, tense and unmoving.
That’s the point where the instructor’s wisdom–“Kick him harder! Hit him with the crop!” –faded into background noise and I agreed with my horse: no more.
I dismounted, unbuckled both the curb strap and cavesson and took off the bridle. I paid for my lesson and hauled Caleb home, crying the whole time.
Over the following months, all the gear I’d collected gathered a thick layer of dust in the tack room. The various bits for various purposes showed signs of rust. The leather of the German martingales, draw reins and figure eight nosebands, which I once kept polished and supple, now went into a trunk. The lessons stopped.
I had heard of an equine massage therapist (in those days, a rare breed), and an acupuncturist for horses (even rarer) and had them out to work on Caleb. In the evenings I’d ride him at a leisurely walk, bareback with a halter and lead rope. His head was down, his back relaxed and swinging and I knew in those moments that what I was looking for was something much different than what I had grown up with.
That search took awhile, but in the end, I was both upset and elated when I heard Mark say the words above. Because if I had been (very unintentionally) training my horse like he was stupid, that meant I could change and treat him like he was smart.
What I know now is that horses have survived millions of years being tuned into their environment and their herd. They are masters of subtlety. Their timing and control of their bodies is nothing short of breathtaking, and this is all coupled with a tolerant nature. Their intelligence expresses itself differently than ours, but that makes it no less potent.
It doesn’t take a million mindless repetitions for a horse to “get it.” Most horses understand what we are looking for within minutes. It is our clarity, patience, and self-control that are effective teachers. What we do on the outside merely supports how we are on the inside.
I’m not saying that training tools are bad; years later, I took lessons on a fourth level dressage horse with a teacher who taught me how to use the double bridle with subtlety. The work we did together still shines in my memory. As with anything else, it’s how the horse feels about what you are doing that determines whether or not the tools are helpful.
Those two years with a dressage instructor were primarily focused on how to balance my body (which was valuable), even when on the inside I was frustrated, seething, and feeling defeated. What I am learning now, is how to remain in a balanced state of mind, and use external cues secondary to my intent.
Horses are able to learn some pretty fancy stuff in spite of us. Think how much further we could go if we are willing to put the time into learning how to ask for it in a way that both involves the inside of us (intent and focus), and at the same time, honors their intelligence. It often occurs to me that the art of horsemanship is a lot about staying out of a horse’s way. And staying out of the way shows faith in who horses are.
Every horse we touch is the recipient of the knowledge we have at the time. I made my fair share of mistakes with Caleb; he still went on to have a great life as my trail riding buddy and when he was older, a kind and quiet lesson horse. He taught me many valuable lessons, but none so valuable as the importance of listening to the horse.
Have you ever watched someone do something with their horse and thought, “That will never be me.” Or, even worse, had a trainer, experienced horse person or complete stranger (as they say in Texas “Bless their heart.”) tell you, in so many words, the same thing?
After the last blog, I got some feedback (more like a personal attack on a Facebook thread) from a stranger that felt like I’d been gut-punched. It made public a very private fear that we all carry, horses or not. “I’m a fraud.”
I can handle differences of opinion. Criticism even. But in a few sentences, this person crossed that line and made it personal.
I know it got under my skin because when I thought about writing this month’s blog, I felt as though I’d swallowed a bowling ball. I’m familiar with that weight since I used to carry it around like an expensive handbag because of a horse accident that left me hospitalized.
However, I also belong to an amazing writer’s group. I’ve never met most of them, but we all know what it’s like to write either publicly or privately. We all know the swallowed-a-bowling ball-I’m-a-fraud fear.
When I went to them with the feedback I’d received, looking for ways to stand back up after the punch in the gut, in return I got an outpouring of support. And humor. By the end of the day, I was laughing about it. My husband (who is also a writer) reassured and stood up for me. I went back and read all the comments I get from people who enjoy the blog. I re-read my writer’s group comments. I spent the next days only focusing on what was working and felt good, especially when that shady ol’ devil voice showed up inside my head and said: “You’re a fraud, and now everyone knows it.”
After several days, that voice had gotten almost non-existent. And yet, I was relieved that it was another month before I would sit down and write again. Here we are, a month later, my handbag of fear clutched beside me. What better way to exorcise this demon than writing anyway, about the very thing that the small, rolled up in a hole part of me wishes to keep silent about.
When it comes to anything we feel passion for (horses, climbing trees, baking, etc), when we share it we hope to share that passion for it too. Doing anything in front of people is nerve wracking because we know what it’s like to be human. As well as amazing kindness and goodness, we also have the capacity to be unkind, thoughtless, critical and mean.
Sharing your talent and your passion is an act of courage and extreme optimism. We are saying we won’t bow before criticism (bless its heart), we won’t yield to another’s judgment (or sometimes even our own), and we certainly won’t stop what we are doing and crawl back into our little hole.
So if you see another horse and rider, and you feel the need to say “That will never be me,” celebrate that. Because it won’t ever be you. YOU can be you, and your expression of horsemanship is uniquely between you and your horse. You know yourself, and your horse best. You know what feels right and good, and what doesn’t. I think where a lot of us get hung up is trusting ourselves. At some point, there comes a time when trusting who we are is the only choice we’ve got.
When and if the thought “That will never be me,” arises, try this. If you hear or think something that stings, find five more things that don’t. (Or conversely, remember my favorite bumper sticker: “Don’t believe everything you think.”) Talk to your friends – I bet they have a lot of ways to move beyond hurt feelings. Look at your horse’s soft and kind eye; there isn’t anything there but an appreciation of who you are. Every time that shady devil shows up to whisper in your ear, go back to the good stuff. Go back to your horse.
“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Oscar Wilde