Fear of Fear

My first horse – Modelo

A few years ago, my wife bought me my first horse, a young bay thoroughbred/quarter-horse cross, named Modelo. I was like a kid with a new pony…in more ways than I even realized.  I loved having my own horse and rode at every opportunity.  However, I knew almost nothing about riding or horsemanship and it didn’t take long for Modelo and me to start developing bad habits.

The very first time I mounted Modelo, he side-stepped a little as I swung into the saddle. Sherri commented, “Oh, we’re going to have to watch that.”  Not understanding the importance, I shrugged and we continued our ride.

The next time I mounted, Modelo sidestepped again. Sherri told me, “You need to stop him from doing that.  It could get to be a bad habit.”

Now, at this point I was not very concerned about the side-stepping. It just did not seem to me like a big deal.  More than that, though, I had absolutely no idea how to correct it.  Since I wasn’t telling Modelo to move, I had absolutely no idea how to tell him to not move, especially while I was in the middle of swinging myself into the saddle.

I asked Sherri, “What do you mean? How am I supposed to stop him?”

I honestly don’t recall exactly what Sherri told me at that point. I just remember her response seemed very vague and not very helpful.  I pressed for specifics and the response seemed to become even vaguer.   Finally, she said I should probably ask a friend of ours who was a professional horse trainer.

As a side-note, I should point out that over time I have learned vague sounding responses from experienced horsemen are quite common. Many of the best horsemen learned experientially from their horse and have difficulty explaining the concepts to a beginner.  Ray Hunt is widely acclaimed as one of the best western horsemen of all time, yet reading his books for the first time left me feeling more puzzled than helped.  The problem is in finding a way to convey finely developed sensual experiences to a novice with no understanding or experience.

So, faced with a seemingly minor issue which I had no idea how to correct, I simply ignored it and kept riding. Why make mountains out of molehills?  Right?

Except the issue did not remain minor. Over the next few months, it gradually got worse.  Although I didn’t fully realize it at the time (remember I was a beginner) the side-stepping started looking a whole lot more like startling.  Since I was mostly solo riding, the escalation went largely unnoticed.

My solution was to simply try to mount faster. Mounting felt vulnerable to me, but once I was seated in the saddle with reins in my hand, I felt more in control.  So, I started rushing my mount to get securely in the seat quicker.  I even bought a pair of pointy-toed cowboy boots so I could find the off-side stirrup easier and gain a secure seat quicker.

For a while, this strategy seemed to work. Sure, Modelo still seemed a bit energetic during mounting.  However, I learned to mount quickly to gain control, then all was good for the rest of the ride.

Until, one morning, Modelo was faster than me. The instant I began putting weight in the stirrup, he erupted into a wide-open full-gallop bolt!

From there, things spiraled from bad to worse for a while.

We eventually got it figured out. With a lot of input from others and a few weeks of going back to the start and teaching Modelo to simply stand still and relaxed for mounting, we got it figured out.  I learned how to mount without putting so much torque on the saddle and horse.  I learned to correct movement while mounting.  I learned to go slow and not rush mounting.  I learned a lot of things.  Little did I know, I had just taken my first step on the journey of horsemanship, by learning to recognize I was the one who needed to improve before the horse could improve.

For several years, I have viewed this experience as an example of the importance of consistently addressing little things before they become major issues. I have thought of it as personal evidence that in every interaction with a horse we are teaching him something, whether we realize it or not.  If we are not intentionally teaching him something desirable, then we are likely unintentionally teaching him something undesirable.  And that is all true.

Lately, though, I have been contemplating this whole experience from an emotional perspective.

The first time I mounted Modelo, I’m sure I was clumsy and awkward. I can only imagine how much I must have pulled Modelo off balance.

Modelo responded with a side-step…a quite reasonable response to maintain his balance during my awkward mounting. So far so good.

Except I never got any better at mounting. Not realizing I was causing an issue, I simply continued mounting the same way.  Which meant I continued pulling Modelo off balance each time I mounted.  Plus, to make matters worse, I failed to do anything to address Modelo’s inappropriate movement.

Consequently, Modelo learned to anticipate discomfort during mounting, and he learned (because I unintentionally taught him) the appropriate response to that discomfort was to move his feet.

As things escalated, Modelo digressed from responding to discomfort to responding to fear of discomfort, and his sidestep turned into a startle. He began startling in anticipation before he ever felt discomfort.

For my part, I responded by trying to get in the saddle quicker. Why?  So I could control Modelo.  While mounting, I felt vulnerable…out of control…scared.  So I learned to try to mount as quickly as possible to try to regain control.  My response to a scary situation that left me feeling vulnerable was to pursue a higher level of control.

My response to a scary situation that left me feeling vulnerable was to pursue a higher level of control. Click To Tweet

I didn’t realize at the time that my rushed mounting was only making things worse. It was a bit like sneaking…it was quite similar to a predator’s behavior…and it caused Modelo to become tenser rather than calmer.  Consequently, things escalated to the point Modelo started reacting out of fear of fear.  As soon as I started putting any weight in the stirrup…long before he could have felt any discomfort…Modelo reacted by bolting in terror.  He had learned mounting was something to be feared and the appropriate response to fear was to move his feet.  So he ran.

Based on my understanding at the time, the fundamental issue was my lack of control. So, I responded by trying to gain control quickly.  The more things spun out of control the more right it felt to pursue control.  It was a scary situation that needed to be brought under control, quickly.

The real issue, though, was Modelo’s fear and discomfort. The true solution was found not in trying to gain control as quickly as possible, but rather in addressing Modelo’s fear and discomfort.

As long as I viewed the situation as a need for control, the problems continued to escalate from bad to worse, with each of us escalating our behavior in response to the other. When I finally let go of my felt need to quickly seize control, I was finally able to begin seeing things from Modelo’s perspective and start addressing his fears.  That was the beginning of starting to work together to address root issues and find real solutions in a relationship based on mutual trust and understanding.

Looking at the American political scene over the past several years, I see a similar escalation of fearful responses.

During the Obama administration combined with a liberal-leaning Supreme Court, our country saw several changes intended to help people who felt marginalized and mistreated.

We saw the end of the don’t-ask-don’t tell military policy toward homosexuality. We saw the end of legal barriers to homosexual marriage.  We saw policies implemented to address transsexual bathroom privacy concerns.  We saw religious diversity inhibition concerns addressed through prohibition of public Ten Commandments displays on government property.  We saw a heightened awareness of religious and cultural sensitivity in public expressions of “Merry Christmas” often being replaced with the more generic “Happy Holidays.”  We saw a heightened awareness of unintentional racial profiling and resulting use of lethal force.

We saw all these changes and more in a relatively short period of time.

These changes were welcomed by those who were positively impacted. Many felt they had been marginalized by society for decades.  These folks embraced the change and felt empowered to speak out in favor of more change.

For other folks, however, all these changes on multiple fronts within a relatively short time period felt very uncomfortable. Change always feels a bit uncomfortable.  Change perceived as being forced on us by others feels very uncomfortable…scary even.

Many people felt attacked. Perspectives they had taken for granted their whole lives were suddenly being challenged and overturned.  They feared what more changes might be coming.  Would pastors be legally required to perform marriages that conflicted with their religious convictions?  Would bathroom privacy cease to exist?  Would Christians start to experience legalized persecution for our religious beliefs?

We saw a rise in talk about “war on Christians,” “war on Christmas,” “war on marriage,” “war on traditional family values,” “war on law and order,” etc. We saw state legislatures introduce bills to ensure pastors continued to have legal right to exercise personal religious discretion in which marriages they agree to officiate.  We saw bills introduced to forbid men using a women’s restroom.  We saw state legislatures act to specifically permit public Ten Commandments displays on state government property.  We saw legal battles over county clerks refusing to process marriage licenses.

Why? Because people felt threatened.  People felt as though we were losing our national identity in all these changes being enforced by powers outside their local jurisdiction.  People felt attacked and responded defensively.  Facing a scary situation, people felt vulnerable and responded by trying to quickly regain control.

Facing a scary situation, people felt vulnerable and responded by trying to quickly regain control. Click To Tweet

Fast forward a few years to the present. Donald Trump has been President for the past two years.  For those first two years, both Congressional houses were majority Republican.  Two conservative justices have been appointed to the Supreme Court.

Last week, we saw video of an encounter between a group of high school kids from Kentucky, a group calling themselves Black Israelites, and a group of Native Americans. There was a lot of early misinformation, conflicting accounts, conflicting first impressions, and conflicting final impressions.  Fortunately, the altercation ended without violence.  The ensuing discussion has clearly illustrated that for a high percentage of Americans, the simple act of wearing a red hat bearing the words “Make America Great Again” is now viewed as an openly antagonistic display of racism.

Why?   Because of the racist undertones of rhetoric associated with the political group currently in power…because of the openly white supremacist organizations who have publicly supported that political group…because of the racially motivated violence and threats that seem to have been emboldened or inspired by the rhetoric…because of fear of what more might be coming.

Also last week, the state of New York passed a new abortion law. The new law has been celebrated by its advocates as a great victory for women’s rights and women’s health.  The new law has been denounced by its opponents as a horrible travesty against innocent unborn babies.  When I read information on the new law, I was puzzled.  So far as I can tell, the new law sparking all this controversy does absolutely nothing.  It simply conforms to the Supreme Court status quo on the topic of abortion.  It neither expands nor reduces legalization of abortion in New York.

So why bother passing such a law at all? Because of fear of change.  With two new conservative Supreme Court justices, people are concerned women’s health and privacy rights could be reduced.  So, they made a pre-emptive move to try to preserve their existing rights as state statutory law.  Much like the bathroom laws and the Ten Commandments laws of a few years ago, this new abortion law is simply a reaction to change combined with fear of further change.  Facing a scary situation, people felt vulnerable and responded by trying to quickly regain control.

I find myself thinking of a horse named Modelo and the lessons we have learned together.

As long as we view the situation as a need for control, the problems continue to escalate from bad to worse. Each group escalates their behavior in response to the other, in an attempt to retain control.

We need to let go of our felt need to seize control, begin trying to see things from each other’s perspective, and start addressing each other’s fears.  Only then can we start working together to address root issues and find real solutions based on mutual trust and understanding.

We need to let go of our felt need to seize control and begin trying to understand each other’s perspective. Click To Tweet

I realize I am grossly over-simplifying things in my horsemanship metaphor. Yet I still believe the comparison is apt.

Fear begets fear. Both parties react to fear by trying to seize control.  Attempts to seize control beget more fear.  We are becoming more divided and more fearful and the situation continues to escalate to the point we are no longer even reacting to each other’s actions.  Rather, we are reacting to our fears of what the other party’s actions might become…or to theoretical “slippery slopes” of consequences.  We have begun reacting out of fear of our own fears.

As Americans, we need to come together and try to understand each other’s perspectives and concerns.

As Christians, we need to trust God.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are Mine!
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they will not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched,
Nor will the flame burn you.
For I am the Lord your God,
The Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:1-3)

I encourage you to find someone this week with a political position that opposes your own and try to understand their perspective.  Ask questions without judgment, debate, or argument.  Just try to see things from their perspective.  Try to understand their concerns.  You don’t have to agree…but don’t express your disagreement.  It’s not about who is right or proving a point.  Just ask questions, listen, and try to understand.  Maybe start the conversation with, “Can you help me understand…?”

Listening to understanding is the beginning of releasing fear and the felt need to control.

Empathy

I just finished reading another of Mark Rashid’s books, titled “Considering the Horse.”  Like most of Mark’s books, it is a series of autobiographical short stories intended to each illustrate some aspect of horsemanship.

This particular book has an overarching theme Mark continually returns to, using the final chapters to bring it all together and drive home his primary point.  That main theme is the importance of really trying to understand the horse’s perspective.

Here is a quote from the final chapter:

The way I see it, just about the only time we ever do any communication to the horse at all is when we’re trying to show him how to respond properly to us.  On the other hand, when the horse communicates to us, he’s usually trying to show us what he’s thinking or feeling.  In a sense, he’s trying to teach us about himself and how to communicate on his level.  We just never take the time to put ourselves in the role of the student and learn from what he’s trying to teach.

Mark didn’t use the word empathy, but that’s what he is talking about.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference. (Wikipedia)

Throughout the book, Mark does a great job of illustrating why this is so important.  Training a horse is all about communication, and if we want to communicate we need to understand how the horse feels about what we’re doing.  Moreover, a horse learns best when he’s relaxed and paying attention.  Much like us, when a horse is in fight-or-flight mode he’s not real open to learning new concepts.

In this book Mark calls the reader to a deeper level of empathy.  He illustrates how horses sometimes work hard at trying to communicate something that’s really important to them…and we tend to overlook it because it doesn’t seem important to us.  If it is important enough to the horse to work hard at communicating…and if the horse is important to us…maybe we should work harder at trying to understand.

I was reminded of an incident a few weeks ago.  I was working with our 3 year old colt, Archie.  I had groomed and saddled Archie, then left him tied while I walked back in the house to grab my riding helmet.  When I came back out, I walked straight to the front girth and cinched it snug.  Archie looked straight at me, then turned his head to point his nose at the girth.  Then he repeated the gesture, each time looking me straight in the eye.

“What is it, Archie?  Is something wrong with your girth?” I asked.

I loosened the cinch, felt around for any obstructions, smoothed everything out, and snugged it up again.

Archie repeated the same signals, letting me know he wanted the girth loosened.  So, I loosened it again, talked to him for a couple of minutes, and tightened it one notch…talked to him some more…then tightened it another notch.  Then I loosened it again and repeated.

We took about ten minutes to just discuss the girth, how Archie felt about the girth, and what we could do to help Archie feel confident with the girth snugged for riding.  I never did find anything wrong with the girth, but we took the time to make sure Archie was okay with the pressure.

Now, I could easily have ignored Archie’s communication and simply mounted up.  The odds are good that everything would have been fine.  Archie is usually a pretty calm fellow and he trusts me, so he likely would have been fine.  However, since the girth was enough of an issue for him to work hard at communicating his concern, it seemed prudent to at least check things out and let him know his feelings are a priority to me.

Thinking about these things, I’m reminded how seldom we really listen to our fellow humans.  Too often, my communication is all about trying to get my point across or trying to explain why my point is so important.  It’s easy to neglect taking the time to try to understand the other person’s perspective.

Yet, it is in acknowledging the validity of the other person’s perspective that we show respect for them as an individual.  It is also how we learn how they feel and what is important to them.  In a sense, by sharing their perspective with us, they are teaching us how to effectively communicate with them.

Furthermore, much like horses, when we are in defense mode it is very difficult for us to learn new concepts.  By taking the time to try to understand and acknowledge the other person’s perspective, I allow them to move out of defense mode…which makes it easier for them to listen to my perspective.

Those are some of the practical reasons for learning to listen empathetically.  But there are a plethora of other reasons having to do with respect for the dignity of the individual…recognizing we are all created in the image of God…building relationships based on mutual respect…treating others as we like to be treated…celebrating our humanity…

For the Christian, there is yet another reason.  It is how we express our love for Christ.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:12-13)

Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me. (Matthew 25:40)

Loving others as Jesus loves us is the vow…the new commandment…of our new covenant with Christ.  As Christians, we are called to wholeheartedly live out that covenant vow.

A friend recently asked how we love our neighbor.  That’s not an easy question to answer…and the answer may be as unique as each individual.  However, I think empathy…listening with the intent of trying to understand the other person’s perspective…is a key component.

Moreover, this is an aspect of love we can employ even in social media.  Want to make a difference for the Kingdom of God on social media?  Try setting aside your political agenda or your doctrinal defense long enough to really explore, understand, and acknowledge the other person’s perspective.

Isn’t that what Jesus did?  Isn’t that what He calls us to do?

Rules of Relationship

Knockout sporting his new headstall

Saturday morning, I opted for a leisurely ride with Knockout before the rest of the family awoke.

I had a quick cup of coffee, took care of a few chores, grabbed a halter, and headed for the pasture. I greeted Knockout and talked about the beautiful weather as I slipped the halter on him.  Knockout seemed happy to see me and willingly followed my lead.  We exited the pasture gate and headed for the tack room, where I promptly dropped the lead line on the ground and opened the door.

Some folks say to never drop a lead line on the ground. The horse is liable to run off.  He may freak when the lead moves as he moves.  Or, he may step on the lead, trap his own head, startle, and throw a fit.  People and horses have been injured doing this.  It’s a really bad idea.

I reached inside the tack room to grab a handful of treats. I gave two treats to Knockout and shoved the rest in my pocket.  I handed out the rest of the treats at intervals during the grooming session.  Knockout made sort of a game of politely asking for a treat as I completed different stages of grooming.  Of course, I laughed and obliged him.

Some folks say to never give horses treats. Giving horses treats causes them to become disrespectful and pushy, always trying to grab treats from pockets.  Some people have been bitten or run over doing this.  It’s a really bad idea.

I fly-sprayed Knockout, then sprayed conditioner on his mane and tail, before combing out the tangles. I picked his hooves then thoroughly brushed him, working front-to-back down his left side, around his hind-quarters, then up the right side.

Some folks say to never walk directly behind a horse. You could get kicked.  People have been seriously injured doing this.  It’s a really bad idea.

As I groomed, Knockout stood calmly relaxed. Occasionally, he would drop his head to grab a mouthful of grass.  Sometimes, he would take a step to grab a particularly tempting clump of grass.  I simply applied soft pressure to guide him back to the original spot and went right back to grooming.

Some folks say to never let a horse eat grass while he has a halter and lead line on. The horse could form a bad habit of constantly stopping to eat instead of paying attention to the rider.  It is a hard habit to break and incredibly annoying.  It shows disrespect.  It is a really bad idea.

Next I stepped inside the tack room for the saddle pad and saddle, placing each on Knockout before flopping the stirrups and straps into place and tightening the girths and breast collar.

Some folks say to never saddle a horse without having the lead line secured. The horse could spook and run.  If the saddle gets knocked off he could panic and learn to fear the saddle.  It is a really bad idea.

Then I took Knockout’s halter off, set it aside, and slipped his bridle on.

Some folks say to always latch the halter strap around the horse’s neck while putting the bridle on. Otherwise, you have no way to control the horse if something happens.  The horse could run off and cause all sorts of problems.  It is a really bad idea.

I gathered the reins and mounted. Knockout stood still as I got situated and petted him.  Then he calmly walked off.

Normally, I’m pretty insistent on requiring a horse to stand still until I cue him to move. This time was interesting, though, as I was just ready to cue when he started moving.  It seemed like Knockout knew what I was going to ask before I asked it, and acted accordingly.

Some folks say to never let a horse walk off without a cue from the rider. It teaches the horse to do what he wants instead of following the rider’s cues.  It is very disrespectful, leads to bad habits, and can get dangerous.  It is a really bad idea.

Since Knockout started walking before I actually cued him, I decided to wait and see where he went. I planned to ride thru the arena gate, out the other side of the arena, and into the pasture.  But I was interested to see what Knockout had in mind.

Knockout walked calmly to the arena gate, turned to align his body with the gate, and stopped with the latch beside my stirrup. I reached down, unlatched the gate, swung it open, and we rode into the arena.  Then I prompted Knockout to turn, back up, and side-pass as I closed the gate.

I don’t know if Knockout somehow knew my plans through some subtle signal I unintentionally gave, or if we just lucked out with him wanting to do what I already planned to do. Either way, it was pretty cool!  I wonder if this is what Ray Hunt was talking about when he wrote, “Let your idea become the horse’s idea.”

Some folks say to never let a horse decide where to go. The horse should always follow the rider’s prompts.  If you start letting the horse make his own decisions under saddle, he could start ignoring the rider and just doing whatever he wants.  It is a really bad idea.

As we headed out of the arena toward the back pasture, Knockout walked toward the path we usually take. However, the cattle herd was on the east side of the pasture and I wanted to check on the young calves.  So, I gently asked Knockout to head that direction.  He promptly turned where I asked…then just as promptly started swinging back toward the familiar route.  So, I repeated the soft cue.  Again he promptly responded then started swinging back to familiar paths.

On the third prompt, Knockout stayed with the direction I asked for and simultaneously picked up into a trot. I’m not sure why he increased his gait.  Maybe he saw the cows and thought we were going to drive them…he enjoys pushing cows out of the arena.  Or, maybe he was just enjoying the nice cool morning and felt like trotting.  Either way, I decided to just go with him and let him set the pace.  Then, as we neared the herd, I slowed him to a walk so we wouldn’t startle the cows.

Some folks say to never let the horse change gaits without a prompt from the rider. The horse may start thinking he can do what he wants.  That leads to bad habits and you will soon have a horse who bolts uncontrolled.  The rider must always be firmly in control.

The young calves and the mama cows all looked healthy. I pulled out my cell phone and snapped a few pictures before we continued on.  As we left the herd, Knockout again picked up into a nice smooth trot which we continued all the way around the back of the pasture until I slowed him to a walk as we entered the woods.

Other than a pesky swarm of a gnats, we both enjoyed the freshly trimmed woods trail. Not far from the entrance, Knockout sort of half-stepped to the right toward a little cut-thru trail.  He wasn’t pushy or demanding about it…more of a tentative request, “Shall I turn here?”  I lifted my left stirrup to let him know I didn’t want the right turn.  As we continued on, I petted Knockout and told him I appreciated him paying attention and asking politely.  “We’ll take that path another time.”

As we neared a big mud hole I started looking to see the water level. If it is full of water, I usually ask Knockout to go ahead and walk thru it.  However, if it is just yucky, sticky mud I usually prompt him to cut thru the woods to the left.

This time, the mud hole was a sticky, muddy mess. But before I could prompt Knockout to turn, he made the decision himself, confidently turning left thru the woods.  I just went with him.  Why correct a horse when he’s making good decisions?  Yay, Knockout! 🙂

We stopped to trim a few vines from the cut-thru trail. Vines tend to dangle and swing with nothing to brace against.  So, I wound up dropping the reins in front of the saddle to stand in the stirrups, grasping the vine with my left hand while trimming with my right hand.

Some folks say to never drop the reins. The horse could spook and run.  The reins could fall over his head and tangle in his hooves, causing him to panic and resulting in an accident.  Horses have been injured doing this.  It is a really bad idea.

All went well and Knockout was calm throughout…except the time a leafy branch landed square on his head and hung on his ears, refusing to drop to the ground even with vigorous head-shaking combined with a little side-stepping. I laughed, leaned forward, grabbed the branch, and dropped it to the ground.

As we approached the creek crossing, I was looking at two possible routes, trying to gage which was better since the last rain. Before I decided, Knockout confidently turned to the nearest of the two and hopped across.  Hey…that looked like as good a decision as any…and he is the one who has to make the crossing after all.  Why correct a good decision?

The whole ride sort of went that way. I gave Knockout more liberty than usual, trusting him to do the right thing.  Knockout responded by becoming more confident in his decisions.  So long as he was going pretty much where I wanted, I let him decide.  If we needed to make adjustments, I let him know that, too.

My cell phone rang…summoning me back to the house.

I prompted a canter departure and Knockout responded with a nice smooth lope across the back pasture. As we approached the pond levy, I slowed him and we walked across and back to the arena.

Some folks say to never canter on the way home. The horse is liable to run away in over-eagerness to get back home.  It is a really bad idea.

As we entered the arena gate, Knockout turned right, walked past the roping chute into the roping box, turned around, and backed into the corner. “Dude, you have got this down!” I laughed, as he calmly waited for me to dismount, loosen the cinch, and lead him back to the tack room.

It was a pretty awesome ride…one I hope to build on as we grow in trusting each other and listening to each other in this partnership.

Did you notice how many times I disregarded various rules I’ve heard?

People have a lot of rules for handling horses. Most of them are good rules.  They’re important.  Most of these rules have been learned and passed on by people who have personal experience with just how quickly and how badly things can go wrong when working with horses.

Reading this post, you might get the impression I don’t have much use for rules. You might even think I recklessly flaunt rule violations.

That would be a false impression.

I’m actually quite safety conscious. I’m the only male western rider I know who regularly wears a riding helmet, for example.

Every rule I listed is a rule I have followed in the past. And I’m pretty sure I have passed most of those rules on to children, grandchildren, and guests who have visited our horses.  If I was handling a strange horse I didn’t know, I would carefully follow these same rules, at least until I got to know him better.  In fact, with our own horses who I interact with daily, I follow these rules to varying degrees, depending on what I’m doing with which horse.

As I see it, these rules have a time and place. They are important, but not as important as a relationship built on trust and mutual respect.

While working with horses, one must always be safety-conscious. Horses are big, powerful, fast animals with natural flight instincts.  We humans are quite fragile by comparison, and easily injured.  Those rules I mentioned are wisdom handed down to help keep riders safe.

The rules are an attempt to keep the rider in control, so as to be as safe as possible. The only problem is, the longer I work with horses the more aware I become that I am never truly in control.  The horse is so much bigger, faster and more powerful than me, I can never really control him.  I can ask all I want, but I can never really make him do anything.  I’m much too puny compared to his awesome strength.

To safely guide a horse, I need the horse to trust me. I want him to look to me as a leader he will willingly follow.  And when he is startled or frightened, I want him to look to me for guidance.  Otherwise, he will blindly follow his instincts to balk, bolt, or buck.

In other words, my ongoing safety in working with a horse is dependent on our building a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. And following the rules too rigidly interferes with the building of that relationship.  Following the rules too rigidly for too long can actually make the situation less safe by not letting the relationship of trust develop.

Rules are based on trying to control. Relationship is based on trust that doesn’t require rigid control.

The rules are important…but they have a time and place. The rules are important…but should not be rigidly applied to all situations with all horses all the time.

And the more the relationship develops into mutual trust and respect with clear communication, the less helpful the rules become.

In the beginning the rules are important, and things are more black and white. But once mutual trust and respect blossom thru consistency and clear communication, the rules have sort of served their purpose and become less important than the relationship.

The same is true in my relationship with God.

The Bible says “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” As Christians we have all seen respected leaders fall to the sin of adultery.  We have multiple examples in scripture of spiritual leaders such as Samson or King David committing adultery.  So, we create safety rules such as never be alone with someone of the opposite sex…even in a public setting.

The Bible admonishes to whole-heartedly live out covenant vows and to not treat a covenant partner treacherously. So, we create safety rules that divorce should always be avoided…no matter what.

The Bible admonishes against habitual drunkenness. We have all known folks who were addicted to alcohol and have seen the destruction it can lead to.  So, we create safety rules that prohibit drinking alcohol..ever..for any reason.

The list goes on and on. The Bible exhorts us to modesty…so we create rigid dress codes.  The Bible exhorts us to not neglect gathering together…so we set specific dates and times.  And the more a given group stresses the need to rigidly live by the rules, the more rules they come up with.  Every infraction is dealt with by adding a new rule to attempt to minimize temptation or maximize righteousness.

Much like the horse safety rules, these rules of Christian living are generally good rules based on wisdom someone gained through experience and passed on to others. They are intended to keep people safe.

The only problem is, trying to live by rules can never keep us safe.

Our safety can only be assured through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, based on trust and respect, built on clear communication in the Holy Spirit. Trying to live by the rules actually interferes with the development of that relationship.

Rules are based on trying to control. Relationship is based on trust that doesn’t require rigid control.

In the beginning the rules are important, and things are more black and white. But once mutual trust and respect blossom thru consistency and clear communication, the rules have sort of served their purpose and become less important than the relationship.

Speaking to religious leaders who were experts in biblical rules, Jesus said,

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. (John 5:39)

Paul reinforced this principle in his letter to the Galation believers who were becoming focused on rigidly following rules,

But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. (Galations 3:23-26)

The rules are important…but they have a time and place. The rules are important…but should not be rigidly applied to all situations for all Christians all the time.

The rules are wisdom to help keep us safe as we develop relationship. Once the relationship begins to blossom in trust through clear communication, the rules are no longer necessary and become a liability, interfering with relationship building.

 

Your thoughts?

Listen

I have learned “Listen to your horse” is a common phrase among many horsemen…almost a mantra of sorts…the catch-all solution to horse-human relationship issues.

Got bucked off?  Learn to listen to your horse.

Your horse won’t trailer load today?  Listen to your horse.

Can’t catch your horse?  Listen to your horse.

I’m being a little facetious.  There’s a lot more to problem solving than just throwing out a catch phrase.  Horsemen are not generally prone to over-simplifying issues.  We’re all looking for concrete solutions to real world problems.

However, “Listen to your horse” does come up a lot.  It’s a big part of solving issues and improving relationships.  It is through listening that minor issues can be appropriately addressed through small changes, before they become major problems.

But what does “Listen to your horse” even mean?  With the possible exception of Mr. Ed, horses are not talkative creatures.  Not only do they lack human speech, but aside from an occasional whinny they rarely verbalize anything.

Yet, horses do communicate.  They are very social animals and interact with other horses almost constantly.

Horses communicate through movement and body language.  The tilt of a head…the arch of a neck…the position of ears…the fluidity or choppiness of a gait…the attitude displayed in an approach…muscle tension…and so much more.

So, listening to a horse doesn’t have much to do with audible speech or use of one’s ears.  It has to do with paying attention with intentionality.  It has to do with an awareness of the horse’s movement and body language.  It has to do with being able to feel a change in muscle tension or fluidity of gait.  It has to do with being in the moment with intentional awareness.

Ray Hunt wrote about “take a feel of your horse” then “feel for your horse.”

Ray refused to even define what he meant by feel, timing and balance.  He said these were terms each horseman had to learn for himself…and that the definitions change over time.

Frankly, I was a bit uncomfortable with that.  It all sounds a bit mystical…a bit too horse-whisperer…too abstract…

I wasn’t looking for a spiritual connection with four-legged animals.  I just wanted to learn a little about training horses.

But listening is one of the most practical things a horseman can learn.  Yes, it is a bit abstract.  Yes, it is more art than science.  No, I’m not very good at it…but I’m a lot better than I used to be.

It is through listening that my interaction with a horse becomes a conversation rather than a demand.  It is through listening that my timing improves.  It is through listening that my horse and I learn to communicate with better responsiveness to lighter cues.  And it is through listening that I am able to address minor concerns before they become major problems.

It is through listening to my horse that my horse learns to listen to me.

It is through listening to my horse that my horse learns to listen to me. Click To Tweet

I’m also learning that this intentional awareness listening extends beyond horses.

It’s just as important with people.  With fellow humans, we tend to get a little lazy.  We’re so accustomed to communicating complex concepts through words that we forget to pay attention to subtler communication of body language and emotions.  We’re so distracted by making our point, or by external distractions such as smart phones, that we neglect to be in the moment with intentional awareness of the other person’s nonverbal communication.

And this intentional awareness listening also applies to prayer.

God has never yet directly spoken to me in an audible voice.  But He does speak to me.

If it makes you more comfortable, call it a prompting of the spirit…or a nudging…or a calling to mind of a scripture.  Preachers often talk about God’s call to ministry.  Whatever words are used we’re talking about God communicating directly with us, as individual believers, through the Holy Spirit.

Yes, He does that.  Jesus said He would.  The apostles said He would.  And He does.

The Holy Spirit speaks to me in ways similar to how my horse speaks to me…except different.  Much like my horse, God has thus far refrained from directly speaking to me in an audible voice.  However, God speaks to me in other ways.

He speaks to me through our animals.  Just read back through some of my blog posts and you’ll see it’s true.

He speaks to me through recalling scripture to mind.

He speaks to me through other people.

He speaks to me in difficult circumstances.

He speaks to me in my fear.

He speaks to me through things as simple as an empty gas tank.

He speaks directly to my spirit whispering words of comfort, love, and wisdom.

He sometimes gives me direction…a course of action I am to take.

He has, at least one time, spoken to me through angels…which I still feel a little weird about saying…but am convinced it is true.

Listening to God is similar to listening to my horse.  It requires intentional awareness and being in the moment.

God speaks to me all the time.  Sometimes, I’m paying enough attention to hear Him.

God speaks to me all the time. Sometimes, I'm paying enough attention to hear Him. Click To Tweet

I’m not big on New Years resolutions.  I’ve never done the Word of the Year blogging thing.

But one thing I for sure want to do better in the coming year is to listen.

 

Fundamentals

texas sunset

Sunset over Texas Hill Country

The horsemanship clinic began with the clinician asking us to lead our horse around the arena while requiring the horse to remain at the end of the lead line.  If the horse started creeping up on us, we were to prompt him back to the end of the lead line again.

Once that was going well, he asked us to work on stopping and expecting the horse to instantly freeze in his tracks when we stopped.

After that, we spent some time backing the horse to the end of the lead line…then reeling him in…then backing him up…then reeling him in…all while working toward a smoother response on a lighter touch. Then we got even more particular, asking for exactly two steps forward followed by exactly two steps back…then one step forward followed by one step back.

Altogether, we spent over an hour just working on having the horse go forward or back on the lead line, in one form or another. After that, we started working on shoulder turns and hindquarter turns…being very particular about making sure the horse really reached out with his hoof…and very particular about separating front laterals from hind laterals.

We didn’t actually mount and ride until late morning.

If I had known in advance we were going to spend the first few hours of the clinic just doing groundwork, I probably wouldn’t have been very impressed. Frankly, I thought my horse already did fine on the lead line and wasn’t much in need of training in that area.

I was wrong in that assumption.  Like so many areas in life, we don’t know what we don’t know until we learn better.

joe on knockout

By the end of the clinic, Knockout was relaxed while I swung a rope from the saddle

Later that afternoon, I realized my horse was more relaxed and more responsive than he had ever been under saddle.

In the weeks since the clinic, I have been amazed at how much difference those simple lead-line exercises have improved my relationship with each of our horses.

The exercises require both the horse and rider to really pay attention to each other…to really listen to each other’s body language and relative position…and to develop precise timing of response. It requires the horse to walk in sync with the rider, moving as the rider moves.  And it builds confidence.  The horse gains confidence in the rider’s leadership, as well as in his own ability to properly respond to the rider’s cues.  The rider also becomes more confident as a leader and in the horse’s response.

Going forward and back on a lead line sounds a little dull. The idea of making it part of a regular routine sounds a bit stifled and unspontaneous.  Most people acquire horses for the adventure of riding, not to move the horse back and forth on a lead line.  Frankly, it could be dull and not very helpful if approached with a poor attitude.  If the rider treated it as some mindless routine to drudge through, or some requirement to rush past, it would probably yield little benefit.

Done well, though, it is an incredible communication tool! Lead line training provides an opportunity for the rider and horse to work together on really listening to each other, to work on improving timing and balance, and to sync their movements.  The movements are simple enough to allow both horse and rider to remain relaxed…to make it a lighthearted low-pressure game.  It provides a relaxed environment of open communication for building mutual respect and trust…for building muscle memory of cues, responses and timing.  Like a choreographed dance, the rider cues…the horse responds…the rider releases…the horse completes the move…the rider cues…the horse responds…the rider releases…the horse completes the move…

I think similar tools can be applied to other relationships.

I love engaging my family in humorous banter.  I notice a potential word play on something said in conversation and feign misunderstanding.  Sherri starts to correct then glances up to see my smile and catch the humor.  She, in turn, plays off of my joke to escalate the nonsensical tangent…and we both crack up laughing.

It’s just playful silliness that may appear pointless.  But it requires paying close attention to each other…to really listen to what the other is saying…to watch body language to realize it’s a jest…to catch the double-meaning of the word play…and to respond in kind.  It is lighthearted playfulness that sets the mood for improved communication and building mutual trust and understanding.

I also value my daily quiet time with God for how it helps build relationship.

Similar to the lead line work, a daily quiet time can sound stifled and unspontaneous.  There have been times in my life when the discipline of a daily quiet time became something of a dry, legalistic chore.  I understand why some may struggle with such a commitment.

Like the lead line training, though, it is all a matter of attitude.  I now view Our quiet time as a time of intentional communication, where I practice listening and responding to the Holy Spirit’s cues…a time of getting in sync with His movement…and a time of building my confidence in Him and in my ability to hear His voice.

Good communication requires intentional focused listening…and important relationships are worth investing the time and effort to improve communication.

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3)

Your thoughts?

 

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Wild Flowers, Redeemed Life, Tell His Story ]

 

Over-Trying

The trainer called him training-resistant…said he forgot everything he’d been taught from one day to the next…said he advised selling him and buying a better prospect.

I decided not to sell him.

There was just something about him.

Partly, it was his excellent pedigree.  Largely, it was his sweet nature…his soft eye…the way he acted like he genuinely enjoyed human interaction.  Mostly, it was recalling how when we first brought him home it was obvious he had never been lead-line lunged, yet it took only a few minutes to have him walking and trotting smooth circles around me.

In short, I didn’t believe what the trainer told us, despite his credentials.  The trainer’s professional testimony didn’t match my own personal experience with this particular horse.

So I decided to take on his training, myself.

Now, after six months working with him, I feel I have the right to my own opinions of this horse’s sweet nature.

He’s definitely not resistant to training. In fact, he’s super smart and very eager to please.

In theory, that should make him really easy to train. However, he still manages to challenge my very amateur training skills.  I have no doubt he’s a great horse…I often question whether I can become a good leader.

We occasionally have days where everything seems to click and I find myself riding this wonderfully responsive majestic creature. Those days I truly feel I’m holding his feet in my hands as we smoothly transition from side-passes to counter-arcs and back again with a 2″ slide of my calf forward and back.  Those days, we transition up from a walk to and trot or from a trot to a lope on nothing more than an inhale of breath…then transition back down on an exhale and relaxing into the saddle…all on a loose rein.  Those days, it feels like the sky is the limit…like I’m only one ride away from teaching this horse to do anything I want him to do.  Those days are amazing!

And those days are usually followed by a day that seems a bit disappointing in comparison…where nothing seems to click quite right…where communication is a struggle…where transitions are jerky…where I have to over-cue to get the desired response…where it seems we’ve forgotten everything we learned from the last ride. On those days, the trainer’s words come back to haunt me as seeds of doubt sprig up.

Then I listen to my horse…really pay attention to his responses…and I realize. The issue is neither stubbornness nor stupidity.  The issue is a really smart horse working really hard to please…whose expectations don’t quite match my own.  He wants so much to please that he tries to anticipate what I want before I ever ask.

Yesterday we backed thru turns after stops…so today he follows every stop by immediately starting to pivot inward. When I block the turn, he starts to pivot the other direction.  When I block the outward turn, he tries to back up.  When I block the back, he side-passes to the fence to stop and relax…because yesterday we finished out the ride learning to relax standing parallel to the gate.

He’s not being resistant. On the contrary, his every move is an attempt to do what he thinks I want…before I have a chance to ask for it.

He definitely remembers yesterday’s lesson!

This is not a poor memory issue.  This is an issue of miscommunication and mismatched expectations.  He remembers enjoying the smoothness of yesterday’s ride as well as I do.  And after thinking about it overnight, he has resolved to do even better today, by doing what I want before I even ask for it.  But what I really want is for him to respond promptly and smoothly when I asknot before I ask.

At this point, I have a choice. I can get frustrated at his seemingly erratic behavior, tense up, and try to straighten him out by over-cuing everything.  He, in turn, will likely respond with confusion and frustration of his own.  He will become tense, making learning more difficult, and we’ll wind up finishing the ride on a bad note, both baffled by the other’s behavior.

Or, I can laugh! I can lighten up, recognize his attempts to anticipate for what they are, laugh at the miscommunication, and appreciate this wonderful animal for his good-natured willingness to try to please.  I can set the mood for lightheartedness and joy…and he’ll respond with softness and grace.  The ride may not be perfect, but the relationship deepens with increased trust and improved communication.

And that’s a lesson I can carry into other relationships.

When frustration mounts, I can choose, instead, to laugh! I can lighten up, recognize the miscommunications for what they are, and appreciate the other person for who they are.  The moment may not be perfect, but the relationship deepens with increased trust and improved communication.

And I suspect my Heavenly Father often laughs at my miscues just as I laugh at my horse’s misguided anticipated moves. How often do I persist in doing what I think will please Him when all He really wants is for us to enjoy time together as I learn to listen and respond to His ask?  How often does He choose to lighten up and laugh at my miscues, while appreciating my willingness to try and my desire to please?

How blessed are the people who know the joyful sound!
O Lord, they walk in the light of Your countenance.
In Your name they rejoice all the day,
And by Your righteousness they are exalted.
For You are the glory of their strength,
And by Your favor our horn is exalted. (Psalm 89:15-17)

Your thoughts?

 

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Wild Flowers, Redeemed Life, Tell His Story ]

 

First Impressions

Gallery

This gallery contains 1 photo.

A convenience store I frequent recently hired a new employee.  She looks to be in her early twenties…around the age of my daughters.  She has multiple face piercings and a purple punked-out hairdo. The first time she waited on me, … Continue reading