Relative Comfort

I’m not an expert horse trainer. I am, at best, a novice horseman…maybe more of a wannabe horseman…which is okay, too.  My only horse experience has been working with our own horses.  So, take my observations with a grain of salt…I have a fairly narrow experience spectrum in regard to horse behavior.

However, the more I work with horses the more I find myself thinking of them as natural comfort magnets. Horses naturally move toward what feels comfortable and they naturally move away from what feels uncomfortable.  Their level of comfort or discomfort can be either physical or emotional…it often seems largely intuitive…which makes sense for prey animals.  It’s important to avoid anything intuitively perceived as uncomfortable…potentially dangerous.  It is equally important to gravitate toward comfort…food, water, shelter, safety.

I have begun to think of horsemanship as largely a matter of managing a horse’s comfort levels and comfort zones. Horsemen talk a lot about pressure and release.  Pressure is basically mild discomfort applied to solicit a response.  The release is basically comfort applied as positive reinforcement of desired behavior.  So, pressure and release are basically just using comfort and discomfort as training aids.

Horsemen also talk a lot about desensitizing…training a horse to be comfortable with something that has previously made him anxious. Basically this is a matter of incrementally expanding the horse’s comfort zone.  To desensitize my horse to an object, I expose him to it in small doses, letting him become comfortable with it first at a distance, then close up, then very close, then touching, then rubbing all over his body.  I incrementally step him from terrified to comfortable by gradually expanding his comfort zone to include the object of concern.

The tricky part comes in knowing when to apply comfort, when to apply discomfort, and to what degree.

For example, let’s say a horse has been taught to load in a trailer and normally has no issue loading. But one day I go to load that horse and he balks.  He backs away from the trailer door and doesn’t want anything to do with it.  Now, a lot of horse owners at this point will say, “I hate when a horse knows what to do and refuses.  He’s just being stubborn and defiant.”  Acting on that basis, they will then firm up and apply increasing pressure (discomfort) outside the trailer with the intent of getting the horse to load in the trailer.

Sometimes that works. Sometimes that is exactly what the horse needs in order to find the confidence to go ahead and load in the trailer.

But sometimes that doesn’t work. Sometimes the horse will respond by more actively avoiding the trailer door.  And here is where it gets tricky…

If I respond to my horse’s reluctance to load by firming up and assuming he is being defiant, my natural response to increased resistance will likely be to become even firmer and more aggressive. That can quickly escalate into a contest of wills which I cannot win…the horse is too much bigger and stronger than I.  More significantly, by battling out a contest of wills right at the trailer door, I am turning the trailer door into a high pressure zone…a place of discomfort and suspicion…which is the opposite of what I want.  A horse who loads easily is a horse who feels comfortable and confident both around the trailer door and inside the trailer.

Now, here’s where the comfort management comes in.

For whatever reason, the horse was initially uncomfortable with the trailer door on this particular day. My escalation of pressure didn’t work and resulted, instead in making him even more suspicious of the trailer door.  I’m increasing pressure outside the trailer with the intent of getting him to move through the trailer door to escape the discomfort I’m creating.  However, the situation is rapidly devolving to trap the horse between two escalating sources of discomfort.  Most likely, the horse will attempt to escape both sources of discomfort by moving completely out of the area.  He will probably try to flee the area, even if he has to buck or rear to do it.

At that point it’s probably best to walk away and try a different approach…maybe one that focuses more on comfort and less on discomfort. Successful trailer loading begins with the horse feeling very comfortable in and around the trailer.

Where the comfort management gets really fun is in realizing the horse is also sensitive to different levels of comfort and will tend to gravitate toward the more comfortable. If I’m going down the road and want my horse to move toward the left side, one way to cue that is to press with my right leg so my horse will move left, away from the pressure.  I haven’t really caused any discomfort.  I’ve just set up a situation of relative discomfort.  I’ve made the right side feel a little less comfortable than the left side so the horse will move left, away from the less comfortable.

Once I started experimenting with relative comfort I wanted to see how light a cue my horse would respond to. Before long, I could get him to step left with just a light brush of my right leg.  Then I decided to take it one step further.  What if, instead of creating relative discomfort I created relative comfort.  Rather than pressing with my right leg, I lifted my left stirrup away and my horse stepped left.  The lifted stirrup created a lower pressure zone of increased relative comfort which the horse gravitated toward.

Rather than using mild leg pressure to push the horse the desired direction, the lifted stirrup sets up a mild comfort differential to invite the horse to step the desired direction. It’s the difference between leading versus pushing…the difference between inviting versus compelling.  The really cool thing about this approach is I never did anything to cause discomfort under saddle.  Instead, I invited him from a place of comfort to a place of greater comfort.

Comfort under saddle is important because my long-term goal for my horse is for me to be his greatest source of comfort.  I want the place beneath my saddle and between my legs to be his greatest comfort zone.  When we’re riding and encounter something he views as scary, I want him looking to me for direction, confidence and comfort rather than running scared.

Disclaimer: Lest I give the impression I’m a better horseman than I am, let me clarify that not every ride is as smooth and light as I have described here.  Some rides are a bit rougher.  Even most good rides require a couple of times using enough pressure to “give the horse a reason to respond to the light cue” as Carson James likes to say.  However, some rides really are that light and smooth…and with practice those light rides are becoming more frequent.

Reflecting on the response of these horses to varying levels of comfort, I realize I’m not so different from a horse. I too am drawn toward comfort and repelled by discomfort.  I also tend to gravitate toward the more comfortable.  In tense or fearful situations, I too look for a source of comfort.

No wonder Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as the Comforter!

But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. (John 14:26)

Like my horse, in stressful situations I tend to flee to a place of comfort. There may be any number of comfort sources I may turn to…and there may be nothing wrong with many of them.  However, sin can be addicting for the very reason that it provides temporary comfort…and any comfort source (other than Christ) raised to a high level of priority can become sinful.

Much like my goals for my horse, God’s goal for me is for the Holy Spirit to be my greatest source of comfort. My greatest comfort zone should be abiding in Him.

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. (John 15:5)

When I’m scared or stressed, I need to learn to run to Father for comfort and direction.

Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

What a wonderful Savior, who leads us from comfort to comfort with light gentle cues!

Your thoughts?

 

A Light Ask

Sonny and KnockoutHalter in hand, I walk through the pasture gate and approach my horse. He looks up from grazing, facing me, expectantly.  As I approach, I walk toward his shoulder rather than his face…horses sometimes seem intimidated by a direct face-to-face approach…and I want my approach to be welcomed.  They’re prey animals…programmed by the Creator to be sensitive to such things.

I extend my hand in greeting for him to sniff and catch his eye. It’s always polite to say hello before asking favors from others.  Once welcomed into his sphere, I gently pet his shoulder and neck.  Then I step back to pet his face and show him the halter, “May I put a halter on you?”

After slipping the halter on and fastening it, I take up the lead line and start to lead off, “Would you please follow me?”

I lead slightly to the side. Horses tend to be naturally less resistant to a side-tug than to a head-on tug.  It has to do with directional strength and balance.

He may follow right away. Often, though, he’ll hesitate.  He’s not being stubborn.  He just feels the pull of the pasture’s comfort, knowing I may ask him to work.

As I feel the lead line straighten and resistance start to build, I pause without looking back. I’m not yet pulling.  There’s just enough tension in the rope for him to feel it, but not anything to brace against.  I am asking him to follow.  I am not demanding that he follow.

I feel a little slack as he shifts his weight forward, “Okay, I’m coming,” and respond by giving more slack back, “Thank you.” Then more slack is added as he steps toward me.

I take a step, feel the rope lift, then feel it go slack again as he steps with me…and I give slack back, “Thank you!”

Now, we’re moving together in synchronized step. He times his steps to match mine…as we both feel our connection through the lead line.

This is it! 🙂

This is the start of a good ride.

It starts right here, with a light ask…a soft response…a well-timed release…leading to synchronized movement.

Isn’t that how God leads us?

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake. (Psalm 23: 1-3)

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; (John 10:27)

As the cattle which go down into the valley, The Spirit of the Lord gave them rest. So You led Your people, To make for Yourself a glorious name. (Isaiah 63:14)

For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. (Romans 8:14)

Shouldn’t this be how we interact with other people?

What would happen if, rather than demanding our rights or trying to force others to see things our way, we, instead, gave a light ask, then responded to the slightest change by dropping all pressure? Might that work better?  Might that more closely resemble how God approaches us?

What do you think?

Faith thru Fear

horseback riding on gravel roads

Riding Gravel Roads

It finally happened!

That nagging worry at the back of my mind found fulfillment. My worst fear became reality.

…and it was okay…

I’ve been riding Knockout over a year, now. Sometimes I’m able to ride as often as three or four times in one week.  Other times I go as long as three weeks between rides.  I figure I’ve averaged about one ride per week…which means I have about 60 rides on him

We have made amazing progress in 60 rides!

Knockout has matured from a green-broke, frightened, spooky, flighty colt to a pretty reliable young horse.

My progress has been no less remarkable in my own way. I began riding Knockout as I was recovering from cancer treatment and my physical strength has returned as we worked together.  I have learned a lot about horsemanship and relationships.  I have learned a lot about myself.  I have faced a few fears and overcome a few insecurities.

The first time I rode Knockout I was scared. Cancer treatment was quite an ordeal, and to be honest I was feeling pretty fragile.  I didn’t trust my own lack of strength or my ability to recuperate.  But I was determined to ride him.  So, I thoroughly disked the arena to a nice smooth carpet of thick soft dirt, and climbed in the saddle.

That first ride started out pleasant enough. We walked around the arena both directions a few times with no mishaps.  I asked for a trot and Knockout sprang into a gallop.  Startled, I pulled back…and Knockout promptly bucked me off.

I stood up, dusted myself off, realized I wasn’t hurt…smiled…and remounted.

That buck-off was the best thing for my confidence. It showed me I wasn’t as fragile as I’d come to believe.  I could still take a fall from 14 hands into soft arena dirt without doing any damage.

Knockout and I have done around 60 rides since then. We’ve come a long way in learning to relax under saddle.  We’ve done a lot of work on transitions from walking to trotting to loping to stopping to backing…and every combination thereof.  And we’ve developed a relationship based on clear communication, mutual respect, and mutual trust.

There’s a limit to that trust, though. Knockout is still a prey animal and prey animals are prone to flight.  That first ride was not his last time to bolt or buck…nor was it my last time to panic and mishandle a situation.  We’ve had several opportunities to practice the one-rein stop.  We’ve also had plenty of opportunities for me to practice relaxing and going with him when he startles.

The startles are now much less frequent. They’re much more controlled when they do happen.  And I respond much more calmly than I did previously.

Overall, at this stage, I consider Knockout to be a pretty solid young horse…and us to be a pretty solid team.

Yet, I’ve still retained this nagging concern at the back of my consciousness. What if Knockout bolts in thick woods?  How would we deal with an all-out runaway situation through thick trees and low-hanging branches?

It’s not a pretty picture…and no matter how much I tried to plan for it I had trouble envisioning a happy ending to that particular scenario. Out in the open, I have time to respond and room to maneuver.  I have options like turning a big circle or performing a one-reined stop.  On a narrow trail through thick forest, there is neither room nor time for any of that.

So I dealt with it the best I could…by trying to minimize the risk of it happening. Riding the gravel roads, we practiced transitions over and over, going from a walk to a canter…from a canter to a full stop with backing…from backing straight back to a canter.  We practiced over and over, building muscle memory…building confidence…so we were both more comfortable with speed and with sudden application of the bit at speed.

Yet the nagging doubt at the fringe of my consciousness still nagged…because I knew practice while we’re both relaxed and focused is not the same thing as a real life bolt on a terrified horse who believes he is fleeing for his life.

Yesterday morning we had a really nice ride down the gravel roads. Knockout wanted to turn up a trail running through a pine thicket and I decided to go with him.  We rode about a quarter mile or so down the trail and all was good until we came to a place where the trail runs between two large oak trees with low hanging branches covered in dense foliage.

I reached my right hand out to move a branch aside and Knockout startled at the sudden movement of the leaf-laden branch. Normally, this would not be a big deal…normally I would lightly check him and that would be the end of it.  This time, though, Knockout’s startle carried us deeper into the thick foliage, moving and rustling the entire branch.  To Knockout, it must have seemed as if the whole forest had suddenly lunged toward him in an attack.  My light check was ignored and Knockout plunged forward…crashing us both thru the pair of low-hanging heavily-leaved oak branches…with lots of added movement and added rustling.

As Knockout leaped into a run, I thought, “This is it! This is that runaway ride on a terrified horse through dense forest!”

My next thought was, “Keep your seat! Keep your seat, stay calm, and ride it!”  Which was followed by, “We really need to stop!  Now!”

Firmly grasping the reins in both hands, I took a deep seat in the saddle and pulled back to ask for an immediate stop, “Whoa!”

For a split second, Knockout sat back on his hindquarters. For just a split second, he responded to my cue to stop.  But in that split second I felt his energy gathering for another leap forward.  Experience told me that next leap would either be a terrified bolt through the bit or a bucking fit to escape the pressure of the bit from the front combined with that terrifying ‘predator’ chasing from behind.  In that split second, I realized Knockout was trapped between a rock and a hard place with adrenaline-fueled energy that was going to release somewhere.

In that split second, I dropped all pressure from the bit and gave Knockout plenty of slack in the reins.

Knockout leaped forward again…as he landed and brought his hind hooves under himself, I took another deep seat in the saddle, leaned back, and drew the reins in, “Whoa!”

Again, Knockout sat back on his hind quarters. Again I released pressure, putting plenty of slack in the reins.

And we walked off.

That was it. Three leaps…two whoas…and it was over.  The catastrophe was averted and we were once again calmly walking down the path through the pine thicket.

I smiled, leaned forward, petted Knockout’s neck and told him what a brave horse he is for trusting me enough to follow my direction even when he is terrified.

As we continued the ride home, my smile grew as I realized my worst fear had become reality…and together we had handled it just fine.

Yesterday, my confidence grew just a bit. I believe Knockout’s confidence also grew.  We were both scared, yet we both chose to listen to each other and to trust each other…and we learned that together we can handle tense situations just fine.

Sometimes, we have to experience our worst fear becoming reality in order to take the next step in building confidence.

Sometimes, we have to experience our worst fear becoming reality to take the next step in building confidence. Click To Tweet

I’ve had plenty of life experiences that seemed catastrophic at the time. Loss of loved ones…a failed marriage and subsequent divorce…child custody battles…a 20 year employer closing their doors…cancer diagnosis…

And you know what? Through every one of those situations, God has proven Himself faithful.  He has been my constant friend and companion thru every difficulty.  Through those difficulties, my faith in Him has grown and our relationship has deepened.

When our worst fears become reality is when the relationship is given a chance to be tested and proven.

 

How about you? In what areas has your confidence grown through seeing your fears become reality?

 

Closed Womb

I usually restrict my blog topics to areas in which I have some level of personal experience. In this post, I am venturing way outside my comfort zone to a topic on which I have no personal experience…and very limited medical knowledge.

In my last post I talked about closed paths.  I shared a story of my horse, Knockout, searching for alternate paths home because he didn’t realize the opener and closer of paths was right there with him.  Knockout didn’t need to find an alternate path home.  He simply needed to wait on my timing and follow my direction.

I used that story as an analogy to show how we sometimes do the same thing with God. Sometimes, I try to help God out by searching alternate paths to my goals, when what I really need to do is remember the opener and closer of paths is right there with me.  I don’t need to search out alternate paths.  I simply need to follow His direction and wait on His timing.

In that post, I did not give any specific examples (either personal or biblical). The biblical example that came to mind was the story of Abraham and Sarah wanting a child…an heir.  They had gone out from the land of their people on a promise that God would give them numerous descendants and a vast land for their heritage.

Years passed without those promises coming to fruition. They remained childless nomads, wandering homeless in a land populated by foreigners.

So, they decided to help God out by finding an alternate path to their goal. First, Abraham made plans to leave everything to his servant, Eliezer, as his heir.  But God told him Eliezer would not be his heir and promised Abraham a son.

As more years passed with no child, Sarah gave Abraham her maid servant, Hagar, as a concubine…a slave wife…a surrogate mother of sorts. Hagar conceived and bore a son named Ishmael…which led to strife between Sarah and Hagar.

Eventually, the promised child was born to Sarah…long after menopause…long after she had given up hope of ever bearing a child.

And that vast land promised to Abraham and his heirs? Never in their lifetime did they ever own any land other than a plot purchased for use as a family cemetery.  Yet, God’s promises were fulfilled many years later when the descendants of Abraham’s grandson, Israel, were led out of Egypt to conquer the promised land of Canaan.

You and I come into this story as well.

The fullness of God’s promises to Abraham and his seed was realized in Abraham’s descendant, Jesus Christ.  Through covenant relationship with Jesus Christ, you and I are invited to become heirs of the covenant God cut with Abraham.

God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah were much broader and deeper than they could have imagined. His plans for their lives were much fuller than their own limited vision.  While they were stressed over a child not being born soon enough, God was already working out the redemption of the human race through the faith of Abraham and Sarah.  Although their faith sometimes looks pretty fragile and limited from our perspective, God used it for His glory and to work His purposes through their lives.

This morning, I am reading a book titled, “The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules,” by Carolyn Custis James.  Thus far, it is a very well written book in which Carolyn James does an excellent job of lifting the veneer of theology through which we tend to view this familiar Bible story, to help us see the depth of human tragedy…the grievous loss and sorrow through which God works out His story in the lives of ordinary people.

This morning, I read these words, “Medical charts of barren women in the Bible bore this cryptic notation, ‘The LORD had closed her womb.’”

As the import of those words registered, my mind flashed to my previous post about God being the opener and closer of our paths, and the need to follow His direction and await His timing. Simultaneously, I was reminded of the story of Abraham and Sarah…and the fact that their story of infertility was the beginning of a much broader and deeper purpose than they could have imagined.

I have never personally experienced infertility. I have wept with and prayed for friends who were experiencing this sorrow.  I have seen God perform mighty miracles.  I have watched as children born to couples on the verge of giving up have grown to adulthood as godly men and women.  I have witnessed bureaucratic red tape miraculously resolving for adoptions to go through.  And I have witnessed couples finding contentment in a life with no children of their own.

Every story is deeply personal…and every story is unique.

If you are facing infertility, my message for you, today, is simply that God knows. God knows your pain.  God knows your sorrow and frustration.  God knows your hopes.  God knows the deep desires of your heart…and God knows His plans for bringing the fulfillment of those desires to fruition in your life.

For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11)

God knows…

Closed Paths

Knockout greets our grandsons

In my previous blog post, I wrote about working with Knockout’s issue of continually trying to turn around and go home. To address this issue, I let him turn around but put him to working trotting circles at the end of the driveway.

I’m pleased to report this approach seems to have been effective and we have since enjoyed several relaxed rides together on a loose rein with light prompts.

In this post, though, I want to share the story of our first ride after my previous post. Sometimes these animals are truly hilarious, and this was one of those times.

We started out of the driveway, turning right down the gravel road. As we passed the mailbox, Knockout dodged left and I let him turn back toward the driveway, where I pushed him into a trot circling the same pattern as before.

As before, each time we hit the short stretch heading south down the road, I dropped the reins and looked down the road, offering Knockout the good deal of a relaxed ride. And each time he chose, instead, to turn right up the drive, initiating another loop around the small circle.

Unlike the previous ride, Knockout was pretty quick to realize the futility of turning up the driveway. After about five minutes of circling he took me up on the good deal of going straight down the gravel road.

He surprised me, though, by holding a fast trot and crowding the right side of the road. He was literally trotting down the ditch, over small mounds of gravel and pine straw, brushing tree limbs along the way.  I thought he would tire of that pretty quick, but I wound up asking him to move to the left a little.  He complied with a left side-pass, but continued to focus intently on the right side of the road.

When he suddenly turned right I went with him, expecting yet another turn back to the driveway. Instead, he crossed the ditch to stand quietly at a gap gate, looking out into our back pasture.  We sat there for a few minutes while I asked if he liked the view.  Then I backed him across the ditch and we continued our ride.

When our road intersected another gravel road, Knockout pulled right and I decided to let him go. He promptly tried to turn another right into our neighbor’s pasture.  When I blocked his turn, he continued trotting up the road.  At the other end of our neighbor’s pasture, he tried again to turn into another open gate, which I blocked.  Further on, he tried to turn right up a path through a pine thicket leading to the back corner of our pasture…again I blocked him.

After about two miles I turned him around to head home…and he acted reluctant. After a few steps he tried to turn around again, which made me laugh.  “Really?  After all these weeks of you trying to turn around and head home, now you’re acting reluctant to go home?”

As we continued home, the closer we got the slower Knockout walked. Usually, he’s super light heading home.  This ride he got slower and slower.  The last stretch before our driveway, I had to push him just to keep moving.

When we finally got to our driveway, Knockout walked on the far side of the road, looking straight ahead. When I prompted him to turn, he very gingerly turned and walked very precisely up the center of the driveway like he was nervous about making a wrong move.

I literally laughed out loud as I finally realized what he had been thinking that whole ride.

From the time we started up the road, Knockout’s focus had been on finding an alternate route home. Realizing the driveway was somehow blocked to prevent passage, he was diligently seeking another way home.  He had adopted the position of, “Don’t worry, Joe.  I’ll get us home.  I know there’s another way to get there.  Just stick with me and I’ll find another route.”

When he stopped at the first pasture gate, it was in hope I would open the gate for him to pass. Then all those other attempted right turns were an effort to find another way home.  When I turned to go back, he was reluctant to give up his search, because he had already confirmed the driveway was closed.

I give Knockout full credit for logical conclusions based on his understanding. After persistently trying to go up the driveway and failing, he decided the appropriate action was to find another route…and set out to do exactly that.

He failed to understand the driveway was only closed because I intentionally blocked it…and the driveway would be open as soon as I chose to allow it. Getting home was not an issue of needing to find the right path.  Rather it was an issue of needing to wait on my timing.

Knockout made his plans failing to recognize that the opener and closer of paths was right there with him the whole time.

How often have I been right there in Knockout’s shoes?

How many times have I persistently tried to do what I thought was the best thing, just to fail over and over? How many times have I concluded that door was closed and set out to find another path to achieve my goal?  And how many of those times was God simply waiting on me to stop trying so He could direct my path in His timing?

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Lord, thank you for your patient good humor as I try to show you where we should go.   Thank you for continuing to teach me to wait on you and follow your direction.

Your thoughts?

 

 

Transformation

knockout round

Our 5-year-old AQHA gelding

I’ve been riding Knockout for about a year now. When we first started, Knockout was an energetic, spooky, young, green-broke horse who seemed to always be looking for an excuse to bolt.

We’ve come a long way across the past year!

Knockout is now much more confident and relaxed under saddle. Just in the last three months I’ve begun viewing Knockout as becoming a pretty solid horse.

Across the last month, I’ve felt the balance start to tip the other direction. Knockout has gone from generally being a little on the spooky end of the scale to generally being a little on the lazy end of the scale.  While going down the road at a fast trot, he is more likely to want to slow to a walk than to want to pick up to a lope.

I feel I have really gained his trust to the point he has begun to feel comfortable expressing his preferences. Considering where we started, this is a welcome phase to work through!

One preference that has surfaced is a preference to stay home rather than going out for a ride down the road. I can’t say I blame him much.  Eating grass in the pasture with the other horses is bound to seem a more enjoyable pastime than carrying me down the road.

It has become an issue, though, because of his persistence. Initially, he would avoid starting down the road, but once started he would do fine.  Then he got to where he would keep trying longer to turn around.  So, for maybe the first quarter mile he would keep looking for an excuse to turn back, before finally settling into the ride.

We would start straight down the road, then Knockout would start to turn right as though hoping I would let him turn around and head home. When I first felt him start to step right, I would interfere with a light touch of either rein or leg to let him know he was to keep going straight.  But Knockout would push through the light cue persistently trying to turn.  So, I would come in with a heavier cue to let him know, “No, I really meant what I said!  Keep going straight.”  Knockout would then respond to the heavier cue with an exaggerated response of going too far left…which would require my correction from the left side…to which he would over-respond back to the right.  So, for the first quarter mile or so we sort of zig-zagged down the road until Knockout finally settled into the ride and responded well to light cues.

That was a little annoying, but not terrible. I figured it was just a phase that would work itself out with a few more rides.  Except it didn’t…in fact it got worse.  Gradually, across a few weeks, that quarter mile of reluctance turned into a half mile…then a mile…then two miles.  It got to the point we were riding further and further from home just because I was determined not to turn around until after he had relaxed into the ride.  I didn’t want Knockout to get the idea that his persistence had paid off.

I finally decided it was time to try a different approach.

Since Knockout seemed determined to head for home, I decided to just let him go…but to make sure it was more work than going on a ride.

Our next ride, as we left the driveway to start up the road, Knockout dodged left and I just went with him. I gave him his head and let him start back for the driveway while pushing him up into a fast trot.  But I never let him go past the gate at the end of the drive.  I just turned him and put him into trotting circles at the end of the driveway.

Initially, we just trotted random circles and figure-eights. Then we settled into an oblong loop with a long side running along the road in the direction I wanted to go.  While in the straight stretch, I dropped all pressure, put plenty of slack in the reins, and looked down the road.  When Knockout turned right to start up the drive, I let him go but came in asking for a fast trot and turning him back into the oblong circle again.

So, once within each loop I offered Knockout the good deal of going on a nice relaxed ride up the road. When he chose to turn for the drive, I put him back to work trotting circles.

We did that for a while…a long while…like over an hour. I didn’t make it any more difficult, but I also didn’t let it become any easier.  When he tried to shorten the loop by cutting off a corner, I didn’t let him.  When he got sloppy following prompts around the circle, we worked on smooth turns and collected cadence.  I adopted the attitude of, “Hey, I’ve got all day.  We can either go for a ride down the road or we can stay right here trotting circles and working on cadence.  It doesn’t matter to me.  We’ll do whichever you want.”

Finally, Knockout decided to take the good deal and go straight under a loose rein! For about four paces…then he turned back.  So, we fast trotted back to the end of the drive and went right back to trotting circles again.  And we repeated that scenario a few times…

In the end, Knockout decided maybe going for a ride was a pretty good idea after all, and we finished with about a two-mile ride on a loose rein at a relaxed walk on light cues. It was great!  😊

So, why did I change tactics? What caused me to switch from being persistent in my prompts to letting Knockout choose where to go?  That’s a fairly major change of strategy!

Two things, really. Primarily, I changed because my initial approach was no longer working.  It didn’t make sense to keep trying the same approach when that approach wasn’t yielding the desired results.

Secondly, I changed because I realized Knockout was becoming increasingly resentful of our rides. His persistence in trying to turn back was being met by my persistence in directing forward.  So, the rides were becoming a huge contest of wills with me persistently preventing Knockout from doing what he wanted.

I had to reassess my approach because that was not my goal. My goal is not to keep Knockout from doing what he wants.  No, my goal for Knockout goes much deeper.

My goal is to transform Knockout’s thinking so much that what he wants most is to be with me following my cues.

I don’t want to subvert Knockout’s will to obey mine. Rather, I want to transform his will to follow mine.  I want Knockout’s greatest confidence to be in me.  I want his greatest comfort to be abiding in that quiet rest beneath my saddle and between my legs awaiting my next cue.

I don't want to subvert my horse's will to obey mine. Rather, I want to transform his will to follow mine. Click To Tweet

Given a free choice between following my light cue or doing anything else, I want Knockout’s preference to become following my prompt.

Isn’t that similar to how the Bible describes God’s goals for us?

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

Notice how these two passages emphasize the need to present ourselves ready for service…prepared to cooperate with His transforming work in our lives. Also notice the emphasis on our liberty in Christ…superimposed with our being transformed to “prove what the will of God is.”

Much like my goal for Knockout, God’s goal for me is not to subvert my will to obey Him. Rather, His goal for me is to transform my will to follow Him.

God's will for me is not to subvert my will to obey Him. Rather, it is to transform my will to follow Him. Click To Tweet

This is why legalistic religion focused on finding and following ‘biblical’ rules and exceptions can never attain righteousness before God. God’s goal isn’t about us knowing and following rules…it is about our being transformed through spending time with Him.

Just as Knockout does not know from one ride to the next where I may want him to go or what I may ask him to do, in the same way we do not know from one life circumstance to the next where God may lead us or what He may ask us to do.

I don’t hand Knockout a road map and say “Here follow this…over the same route…every ride.” Rather, I go with Knockout and direct each step of his path to go where I want him to go and do what I want him to do on that particular ride.  My goal for Knockout isn’t to get him from point A to point B by a specific route.  Rather it is to have a relationship with him that is characterized by his being so in tune with me that he simply goes wherever I ask.  My focus with Knockout’s training is on developing the relationship such that responding to my prompts is not a burdensome thing but a natural overflow of his confidence in me as his leader.

In much the same way, God’s goals for me focus on developing our relationship such that I can hear His voice and respond to His prompts as a natural overflow of my confidence in Him.

Of course, God’s goals for me go much deeper than my goals for Knockout. I am seeking to transform Knockout’s mind, whereas God has promised to transform my heart, through the power of The Holy Spirit, to be conformed to the image of Christ.

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)

Knowing this, I can face the unknowns of the future, not with fear and trepidation, but rather with joyful anticipation, fully confident of His loving care for me and His promise to transform me.

Knowing this, I should not be focused on trying to define and defend all the rules and exceptions…nor on adding more rules on top of rules to avoid even “the appearance of evil.”  Rather, I should be focused on spending time with God, learning to hear His voice and respond.

Your thoughts?

Softness

two year old colt

Archie – Our 2-year-old AQHA stud colt

Friday evening I spent a little time working with Archie, our 2-year-old stud colt.

I was asking Archie to yield to tail pressure. If I tugged his tail to the left, I wanted him to step his hindquarters left.  If I tugged his tail to the right, I wanted him to step right.  It sounds simple, but there’s actually a lot going on in this learning exercise.

We had to overcome a horse’s natural instinct to escape entrapment. Natural instinct tells a horse when his tail is tugged left he should move away by stepping right…the opposite of what I was asking.

We had to develop understanding. When I first started tugging on Archie’s tail, he had absolutely no idea what I wanted him to do.  The cue had no meaning to him, so he simply followed his instincts.

We also had to develop discernment. Archie had to learn to distinguish between a tug to the left versus a tug to the right, and the different response expected for each.

So we started working on the left side. I tugged left and Archie stepped right.  As he moved away from me, I increased the pressure.  He took another step right.  I moved with him holding the pressure as he took a couple more steps to the right.  Then he tried moving forward.  I stayed with him, holding pressure until he ran out of room to move forward.  Finally, he took just a little half step to the left and I instantly let go of his tail.

Then we repeated the process over and over as Archie learned to understand a tug to the left meant I wanted a step to the left.

Once we had the left side working halfway decent we started working on the right side. His resistance on the right side was initially much worse than on the left side.  He had just learned that a tail tug meant step left and he was determined to do what he had just learned.  He had no understanding that a tug to the right was a different cue from a tug to the left.  So we practiced the right side until he understood the expectation then went back to the left side…which was now confused by work on the right side.

With patience and consistency we got it sorted out. Archie learned to distinguish between a left tug and a right tug as well as the expected response to each.

At one point in our training session, I would lift his tail while standing on his right, and he would instantly shift his weight left, bracing against the tug he knew was coming. I would give a light tug and he would resist.  I would hold the pressure with a soft firmness and after a few seconds he would relax and step right.

We practiced that a few more times.

Then we finally reached a point where I lifted his tail while standing on his right, and he shifted his weight to the right, ready to respond to the tug he knew was coming. I softly tugged and he just gave to the cue by stepping over…smooth…soft…light…fluid.

There it is! There’s that softness Ray Hunt (and other great horsemen) wrote about!

When we started, it felt like trying to drag a rope tied to a 500 lb weight! Actually…that’s exactly what it was…dragging a 500 lb horse around by the tail.

By the time we finished, it was no more effort than dragging a newspaper across a smooth counter.

Archie was soft to my feel. He was light.  He anticipated my ask by preparing to respond rather than by preparing to resist.

That’s exactly what we’re working toward…a soft response to a soft ask…

But to get there required a lot of firmness…a lot of consistent persistence…a lot of understanding…a lot of trust…and a lot of respect.

Contemplating that softness this morning, I am reminded of the words of the psalmist:

I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart. (Psalm 40:8)

Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law And keep it with all my heart. (Psalm 119:34)

This is what it means to be soft-hearted…that when I feel the Holy Spirit’s prompt I relax into His will ready to respond as soon as I understand His ask.

The prophet Zechariah provides a contrast showing what it means to be hard-hearted…to respond to God’s prompt by bracing to resist His will:

They made their hearts like flint so that they could not hear the law and the words which the Lord of hosts had sent by His Spirit through the former prophets; therefore great wrath came from the Lord of hosts. (Zechariah 7:12)

And Jeremiah prophesied the coming of the New Covenant which was enacted by Jesus Christ. Rather than laws carved in stone rigidly followed out of fear, the Holy Spirit teaches us softness…a soft response to a soft ask:

“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” (Jeremiah 31:33)

What a gentle master! He calls us to a relationship of willing response based on trust and respect as we learn to rely on His goodness and faithfulness.

Early in that training session, we had to work past Archie’s confusion over different prompts.  It took him a little while to discern the difference between a tug to the left and a tug to the right, as well as the proper response to each.  He knew the tug meant something, but his confusion and natural instincts interfered with clear communication.  He stepped wrong as often as right, and always with a good deal of resistance…of first bracing against the tug before eventually giving to it.

I think a lot of Christians reside mostly in that place…sort of stuck early in the training.  They haven’t figured out the soft cues and soft responses of the New Covenant.  They see rigid laws to be fearfully and woodenly obeyed.  Their confusion and natural instincts interfere with clear communication, so they miss the nuances of the Holy Spirit’s prompts.  Seeing a fellow believer being tugged left they scream, “Step right!  Step right!  A tail tug always means step right!”

Blind guides…misapplying rigid laws…while completely missing the Holy Spirit’s soft prompts…

Lord, please continue to be patient with us!  Teach us to respond to you, not out of fear in response to laws carved in stone, but out of trust and respect as we learn to respond softly and fluidly to your soft prompts.

Unplanned Blessings

Last week we learned Heritage Academy, a Christian school in Hagerstown, Maryland, is refusing to allow graduating senior Maddi Runkles to walk in their commencement ceremony because she is pregnant and unwed.

Washington Post (May 24, 2017) reports, “…Heritage Academy in Hagerstown says that senior Maddi Runkles broke the school’s rules by engaging in intimate sexual activity. In a letter to parents Tuesday evening, school principal David R. Hobbs said that Runkles is being disciplined, ‘not because she is pregnant but because she was immoral. … The best way to love her right now is to hold her accountable for her morality that began this situation.’”

The referenced article reports that when the school was first informed of her pregnancy, in February, “Initially the school told Runkles that she would be suspended and removed from her role as student council president and would have to finish the rest of the school year at home.” On appeal, they decided she could remain in school, but could not walk with her class in commencement ceremonies.  I expect they see themselves as being very gracious and understanding in having made this concession.

The school’s position is wrong in so many ways, I find it difficult knowing where to start. It’s not just a wrong course of action, it is an action chosen based on a very unchristlike paradigm…a legalistic paradigm all too common among Christian churches.

Let’s start with the principal’s statement that Maddi is being disciplined, “not because she is pregnant but because she was immoral.” What a load of malarkey!  If principal Hobbs believes his own statement, he is the only person blind enough to be fooled by it.  Hobbs’ statement is both dishonest and disingenuous.

If Maddi were not pregnant the school would never have even learned of her sexual activity and there would have been no disciplinary action.

Let’s imagine for a moment a completely different scenario. Let’s imagine a boy from Maddi’s graduating class had privately approached the principal and confessed in confidence that he had sexual intercourse with an 18-year-old girl who was out of high school and had never attended Heritage Academy.  No pregnancy, STD or other consequence had occurred as a result of the unwed sexual intercourse, but he was very sorry for his misconduct, begged forgiveness, and prayed he would have the strength to resist future temptations.

What action might we expect the principal to take in such a scenario? Would he have threatened to kick the young man out of school?  Would he have forbidden him to walk in commencement ceremonies?  Not likely!

I expect in such a scenario, no official school disciplinary action would have been taken against the penitent young man. In fact, I expect the principal would have had some very encouraging words for the young man.  He likely would have used the boy as an anonymous example of godly behavior at the next school assembly…an example to be followed by any other students with unconfessed sin.

So, yes, make no mistake about it, Maddi Runkles was singled out for ostracizing punishment, not because of her sexual activity, but because of her pregnancy.

Moreover, the nature of the punishment chosen clearly indicates the school was much more concerned about their own embarrassment than about what was best for Maddi. The ostracization was not inspired by a need to ensure Maddi understood the gravity of her mistake…I don’t believe anyone doubts Maddi’s pregnancy more than suffices to ensure she understands sexual intercourse is serious business that should not be approached casually.  Nor was Maddi’s punishment inspired by a perceived need to ensure other students understand the gravity of sexual intercourse…in fact Maddi’s pregnancy in itself provides a compelling example of the serious nature of sexual intercourse.

To the objective observer, it is very clear Principal Hobbs’ decision to keep Maddi out of the school commencement program is motivated by a sense of embarrassment in regard to the school’s reputation. This decision is not about what’s best for Maddi nor what is best for the rest of the student body.  It is about the school’s reputation…about the potential embarrassment of having an unwed pregnant student participating in the graduation ceremony.

And Hobbs’ sense of embarrassment is, itself, based on a false paradigm…a belief that an unwed pregnancy is cause for shame…an undesirable consequence of sinful behavior.

The Bible provides a drastically different perspective:

Behold, children are a gift of the Lord,

The fruit of the womb is a reward.

Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,

So are the children of one’s youth.

How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them;

They will not be ashamed

When they speak with their enemies in the gate. (Psalm 127:3-50)

Children are a gift of the Lord…a blessing…a reward…not a source of shame.

Pregnancy is not a sin nor should it be a source of shame. Children are a blessing from the Lord.  Therefore, pregnancy is a blessing from the Lord.

If unwed pregnancy were a sin, Jesus would have been conceived in sin. Let’s be very clear on this point.  Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, God incarnate, Immanuel, God with us, our Redeemer and Deliverer, was conceived and born of an unwed mother.

Obviously, God considers unwed pregnancy to be neither a cause of shame nor a state of uncleanness, since he chose it as the means of bringing Christ into our world.

We all understand the science of fertility. We understand that in most cases there is a cause and effect relationship between sexual intercourse and pregnancy.  Certainly, not every occurrence of sexual intercourse results in a pregnancy.  Nor is every pregnancy the result of sexual intercourse…the Christian faith celebrates at least one notable exception.  But, yes, in the vast majority of cases pregnancy is preceded by sexual intercourse.  So, it is understandable for people to view an unwed pregnancy as substantive evidence of unwed sexual intercourse.  Fine…in most cases the pregnant woman is unlikely to deny sexual intercourse took place.  That intercourse may or may not have involved sin on her part…date rape is all too common in our society.  So, in many cases a woman may be shamed for something beyond her control that did not involve any sinful behavior on her part.

But…even more important…even in the instances where the unborn child was conceived through unwed consensual sexual intercourse…it would be wrong to view the pregnancy as an undesirable consequence of sin.

Behold, children are a gift of the Lord,

The fruit of the womb is a reward.

Children are always a gift of the Lord…always a blessing. In the biblical context, it is not at all unusual for God to bring great blessing out of very imperfect circumstances.  In fact, the biblical narrative is filled with examples of God bringing great blessing out of very imperfect circumstances.

A pregnancy in which the mother wants the child and plans to carry the child full term should always be treated as cause for celebration! That child is a gift of the Lord!  No exceptions.

If any readers of this post are pregnant with a child conceived out of wedlock, be encouraged in knowing your child is a gift of the Lord. Any readers who are parents or grandparents of a child conceived out of wedlock, be encouraged that our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, was also conceived out of wedlock.  The single greatest blessing of the Christian faith was a child conceived out of wedlock…and God says all children are a gift from Him…a reward…a cause to not be ashamed.

Maddi Runkles, I don’t expect you’re likely to read this post. But if you do, I want you to know I’m proud of you and rejoice with you in this wonderful gift the Lord has bestowed on you!

Blessings to you and your family!

Ground Hitched

This picture of Knockout was taken several months ago, on the day we first worked on ground hitching. I love this picture because Knockout is so very obviously completely relaxed and at ease while obediently standing still for me.

I first started ground hitching on a whim. At a local cattle drive we participated in last October, I was impressed by a horse who stood ground hitched while a host of people, horses and cattle circulated nearby.  I thought that was a pretty cool trick that might come in handy, sometimes.

A few days later, I was working with Knockout on quick response to light cues to advance and back on a lead line. We were paying special attention to being particular about number of steps.  If I asked for one step forward I wanted one step and one step only.

The exercise requires both horse and rider to pay close attention to each other and work together on timing, like a carefully 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…

As we practiced this choreographed dance together, it occurred to me that between each move was a tiny rest. Between each step a tiny rest existed in which the horse awaited my next cue, ready to move either forward or back at my request…or to simply stand.  The rest is, in fact, the natural default position…rest is the no pressure moment in which I am neither asking for an advance nor a retreat, but in which the horse stands attentively relaxed ready to do either.

On a whim, I asked for a step back and as Knockout completed the step I dropped the rope and took a step back myself. Knockout shifted his weight forward in anticipation and I held my hand up in a pushing motion, “Whoa! Stay!”  And Knockout complied.  He simply stood at rest…the equestrian equivalent of a soldier standing at ease…relaxed and ready…restful and attentive.

Ground hitching has now become a natural part of our daily interaction. When I bring Knockout up from pasture, he stands ground hitched as I groom him.  I fly-spray, comb tail and mane, pick hooves, and brush his coat as Knockout stands quietly at ease, tethered in place by a lead line dropped on the ground.  Then I step into the tack room and come back out carrying a saddle and saddle pad.  Knockout continues to stand at ease as I throw the pad in place, settle the saddle into position, walk around him to make sure the various pieces are hanging properly, and cinch up the girths.

I step out again, shaking a loop from a coiled rope. I swing the loop a few times and fling it over Knockout’s back, flick it a few times until it drops to the ground, then drag it around his hooves as I neatly recoil and strap it securely to the saddle horn…all while Knockout calmly stands tethered to the ground.

Except he’s not really tethered is he?

The end of the rope is not attached to anything. Knockout could walk away or run off anytime he chose to.

It’s neither a trick nor a deception. I’m not fooling Knockout into thinking he’s securely tied when he’s not.  He and I both know he can walk off anytime he wants.

In fact, he occasionally will walk off. Just yesterday, I stepped out of the tack room with the saddle to glimpse Knockout stepping around the corner.  For a moment I thought he was avoiding saddling.  Then I realized my teenage son was tying his horse and Knockout stepped around the corner to greet his pasture mate.  I simply walked over, picked up the lead line, walked Knockout back to his original position by the tack room door, dropped the lead line, and said “Whoa!” as I resumed saddling up.  No big deal!  No fuss, no bother…just a quiet correction…followed by business as usual.

No, the ground hitch doesn’t fool anybody. Knockout knows the rope is not secured to anything.  He knows he can walk off anytime he wants.  So why doesn’t he?

Why doesn’t he simply ignore the ground hitch and wander at will, wherever he pleases? Why does he stand patiently at ease as I walk around him, grooming and saddling?  If the rope doesn’t hold him in place, what does?

Respect and trust.

Knockout stands still, not because he is unable to move, but because he understands I want him to stand. He trusts my guidance and respects my leadership.  So he stands…calmly relaxed…at ease…relaxed and ready…restfully attentive.

Knockout is tethered in place, not by the rope, but rather by his confidence in me.

A ground hitched horse is tethered in place, not by the rope, but rather by his confidence in the rider. Click To Tweet

I have come to really like ground hitching. To me, ground hitching has come to symbolize much of what I strive for in my pursuit of horsemanship.  Rather than making Knockout stand, I’m asking him to stand.  He complies with my request out of his confidence in me rather than being forced to.  I show Knockout respect by asking rather than forcing.  Knockout shows me respect by voluntarily complying with my request.

We are both more relaxed…both trusting each other. Knockout isn’t bothered by unnecessary restraints and I’m not worried about him breaking any restraints.

While ground hitched, Knockout and I are both abiding in the rest…that default position of being relaxed and attentive between cues. And that’s where I want us to be.  While riding, I want to carry that rest with us.  Between cues, I want Knockout to be relaxed and attentive…at ease and responsive.

While traveling straight at a trot, I want Knockout to hold that sense of rest as he continues trotting in a straight line…not trying to second guess the next move…not worried about what’s going on around us…not tensely anticipating what comes next…just calmly relaxed…confident he will feel my next cue and will know how to respond when asked.

I think this is the sort of rest Jesus was talking about when He said,

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

This the sort of abiding Jesus spoke of when He said,

“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)

Ground hitching reminds me of the words of the third verse of that beloved old hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing:

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it;
Seal it for Thy courts above.

Yes, Lord! Bind my wandering heart to you.  Teach me to rest in you…to confidently relax trusting your goodness…at ease and responsive…relaxed and attentive…not worried about the future…just attentively abiding as I await your next prompt.

Thou Art Mine!

knockout round

Our 5-year-old AQHA gelding

This is a picture of Knockout, my 6-yo AQHA gelding.

Knockout is my horse.

He is my horse because I bought and paid for him.  Just as importantly, he is my horse because he has chosen to trust me and I have committed to train him.

What does it mean to be my horse? It means he is different from other horses.  He behaves very differently from a wild untamed horse, especially when I’m near.

When I approach Knockout in the pasture, he steps toward me rather than fleeing. He lets me halter and lead him wherever I want him to go.  Knockout stands still while I groom and saddle him.  He loves treats, belly rubs, and soothing talk!  He lets me ride on his back and agrees to carry me wherever I ask.  We have worked out a nonverbal system of communication that allows me to tell Knockout what direction I want him to go at what speed…and he responds to my ask.  He has good manners, respects my personal space, backs or advances on a light touch, trailers well, and stands for the farrier.

Knockout and I have developed a relationship based on mutual respect and mutual trust. He is my horse and I am his master.  And I’m pretty proud of him!  🙂

Our relationship wasn’t always as trusting as it is now. He had some previous bad experiences with humans and wasn’t very trusting.  We’ve both had insecurities to overcome.  The first time I rode Knockout, he tried to bolt then bucked me off when I checked him.  We’ve gone through phases where he acted like he didn’t want anything to do with me.  And we’ve gone through phases where I wasn’t sure I could ever learn to trust him or earn his trust.

But even then, he was my horse…because I bought and paid for him…and because he chose to be willing to learn to trust me.

The more time we spend together, the more he acts like my horse. Over time, his behavior has changed to make it obvious he is my partner, not just some wild horse running around our pasture.

Now, those changes have required work…and they are still ongoing. He’s still far from finished out.  But we’ve come a long ways from where we started.  He acts more like he belongs to me today than he did a year ago…and a year from now he’ll act even more like he belongs to me.

This training and learning is hard work for both of us. Knockout consistently shows up ready to work and ready to give me his best effort.  If he wasn’t willing to work so hard, we could not have progressed as well as we have.

However, Knockout is completely incapable of learning to become a saddle horse through his own effort.

Suppose I had told him on the first day, “Knockout I want you to learn to be a saddle horse, and I need you to study and work real hard at it.  Some of those other horses in your pasture are trained saddle horses, and I want you to watch them and do what they do.  Work hard and learn how you must behave to truly be my horse.”

How do you think that would have worked out?  Not too well, right?  No amount of his watching the other horses or running around the pasture trying to learn reining skills would have taken him even one step closer to the goal.  He would never have managed to gain even the foggiest notion of what he was supposed to be doing.

See, Knockout is really only responsible for being willing to learn to trust me. The rest is up to me.

Knockout has absolutely no idea what he needs to learn. It is up to me to teach him in a way he can learn to understand.

I challenge him a lot!  I take him places he has never been.  I ask him to go places he’s uncomfortable going.  I ask him to learn to do new things, then I ask him to do those things better and faster.

I ask a lot of Knockout and he gives me a lot.  But the end result is up to me.  He’s not responsible for learning to become a finished out saddle horse.  That’s my responsibility.  His only responsibility is to be willing to trust me…to learn to pay attention to me…to learn to respond to my cues.  The rest is up to me.

Knockout is a really smart horse, and sometimes he tries to anticipate what he thinks I want him to do before I ask. That generally does not work out well.  I don’t want him to work for me.  I want him to work with me…in response to my cues.  I don’t need him to work hard at becoming the horse I want him to be.  He just needs to be willing to trust me and pay attention to me…the rest is up to me.

As a Christian, it is easy to start thinking my job is to go out and work for Christ…or to wage war against sin…or to study hard to become more Christ-like…to make my calling and election sure by becoming more righteous. And certainly a healthy Christian life does include plenty of hard work, study, effort, and self-discipline.

But the thing is, I am no more capable of making myself a child of God than Knockout is of making himself a finished out saddle horse. No amount of effort on my part can move me one inch closer to godliness…unless that effort is directed by the Holy Spirit.

No amount of effort on my part can move me one inch closer to godliness. Click To Tweet

Jesus already bought and paid for me. I have already chosen to place my trust in HimI am His and He is mine.  Sometimes I don’t act much like I belong to Him…but I act more like His now than I did previously…and I will learn to act more like His than I do now…as I spend time with Him…as I abide in Him…as I rest in Him.

We tend to fall into the trap of dual-phase thinking…of thinking we must choose one of two paths…of choosing between apathy and hard work and believing hard work is the godly choice. Viewed from this perspective, we are concerned about folks we see who claim to be Christians yet show no fruit in their lives…and we wonder do they really belong to Christ?  So, in an effort to ensure we don’t make the same mistake, we resolve to work hard to become more godly.

But the dual-phase paradigm completely misses the reality of being conformed to the image of Christ by simply resting in Him…and this is the only way to become godly.

Resting in Christ is not a passive apathetic rest.  It is an attentive intentional rest.  It is staying focused on Him ready to respond to His cue, while trusting Him completely with the results.

Knockout cannot become a finished out saddle horse by just running around the pasture as though I did not exist. Neither could he make any progress on his own through hard work and determination.  Rather, he must simply trust me…and leave the rest up to me.

Likewise, my job is to simply trust God and spend time with him…to seek His will and learn to know His voice…to learn to respond to His cues. The rest is up to Him.  He has promised to complete the good work He has begun in me.  He has promised to conform me to His image.  He has already redeemed me from sin and He promises to also deliver me from sin.  He has promised to bring about in my life the destiny which He predestined for me before the foundations of the world.

He is faithful! And I can trust Him.

I am His…and He is mine!

 

Your thoughts?