Step by Step

When we first brought Knockout home 3 1/2 years ago, he was a bit hesitant about trailer loading.  So, trailer loading was one of the very first things we worked on.  It did not take long for him to become confident and even eager to load up.  For the last three years, he has been a super easy loader with no issues.

Until lately…

Across this winter, Knockout has become increasingly hesitant about loading.  It started as a small thing…just a slight hesitation at the trailer door on a dark night.  I started going in front of him to lead the way and bolster his confidence, which seemed to help.  However, as time passed, he started hesitating even with me leading…and the hesitation became much more than momentary.  I was always able to get him to load, but it sometimes took several minutes.

Now, I am usually quick to address issues as they arise.  Far better to deal with minor issues than to wait and let them become major issues.  However, with the protracted rain and cold through the winter months that just hasn’t happened.  Most of the winter trailer loading was to visit the farrier, usually in the dark, cold, and wet…usually running behind schedule for our after-work appointment.  So, I would make a mental note that we needed to spend some time addressing the issue within the next few days…but the time never came…because the rain and cold virtually never let up.

So, last week when I unloaded Knockout at a local roping practice, I took the time to work with him a little.

I asked Knockout to back a couple of steps, stop, then come forward a step.  Then back one step, stop, and come forward two steps.  We did several minutes of simply going back and forth, one step at a time, inside the trailer.  Initially, when Knockout backed, he wanted to turn his head to look behind him, but I asked him to face forward and look at me, instead.

Finally, I backed Knockout to the very edge of the trailer and signaled him to step his hind hooves down.  He responded by going all the way out of the trailer…which is not what I asked for.  So, I asked him to load back in the trailer.  We went back and forth, one step at a time, a few times, then I again backed him to the very edge of the trailer, where I again signaled him to step his hind hooves down.  He stepped off and I signaled a stop.  Knockout stood still with his hind hooves on the ground and his front hooves in the trailer while I petted and praised him.

Next, I asked Knockout to step his hind hooves back in the trailer.  He did so without moving his front hooves forward, so he was just sort of teetering on the edge.  I praised him then asked him to step his hind hooves off again.

We repeated that a few times, then I asked him to go ahead and back all the way off.  Then we loaded just his front hooves on and backed off again.  Then we loaded him all the way on, walked to the front of the trailer, backed all the way to the edge, unloaded his hind hooves, paused, then unloaded his front hooves, backed out of my way so I could get off the trailer, and called it good for one lesson.  We saddled up and enjoyed the practice.

Later that evening, when we got home, we repeated the same lessons at home before feeding and turning out to pasture.

So…why did I handle the lesson this way?  What was the point of the step-by-step back and forth both on the trailer and at the trailer edge?  Why did I ask him to face forward and not look behind himself while backing?

To understand the reason we have to understand the source of the issue.  Knockout’s refusal to load was not stubbornness or defiance.  He was not being disrespectful or willfully disobedient.  Knockout’s issue was a lack of confidence.  He felt unsure of going inside that dark trailer, and the longer I let his fears go unaddressed the more fearful he became.

The solution to overcoming his fear was to build his confidence in me, in regard to moving inside the trailer.  I asked for the fine control of one step at a time, because that requires Knockout to really focus and pay attention to me.  When he’s paying attention to me, he has more confidence in me, and his fear of circumstances just sort of dissolves.

Likewise, I asked him to face forward and not look back while unloading, because I want him to place his total trust in me and learn he can trust me to direct his feet and to let him know when to step down.  So long as he is looking back, he is relying on his own instincts…including his instinct that the trailer is a scary place.  To move past his fear, we needed him to place his total trust in me and to focus his attention on listening to me one step at a time.

See, the solution to overcoming Knockout’s fear is to replace his fear with faith in me.  And the best way to help him increase his faith in me is to let him practice trusting me and finding me faithful by putting him in a situation where he has to trust me to guide him one step at a time.

Looking at it from Knockout’s perspective, I was asking him to remain in the scary circumstances much longer than necessary.  I could easily have simply let him unload from the trailer and gone about our business.  However, if I had done that we would have missed a really good learning opportunity.  He would have been out of the trailer quicker…but would not have learned to trust me to direct his steps…and the next trailer loading would have been a much more stressful and lengthy process than necessary.

Whether Knockout realizes it or not, staying longer in the trailer and working through his trust and confidence issues was for his own good.  He has become a braver, calmer, more trusting horse through that process.

Isn’t this similar to how our Heavenly Father teaches us to trust Him?

I can think of numerous situations in which I asked God to address a difficult situation.  In nearly every case, God allowed me to remain in that situation much longer than I would have liked.  However, through that situation He was faithful to remain with me and direct my steps.

Most of the major learning experiences of my Christian walk have been things I have learned during these difficult situations.

Walking thru a divorce, single parenting, and child custody battles…walking thru the closing of a company where I had been employed over 20 years…walking thru cancer diagnosis and treatment…

Each of these was a very trying situation and in every one Jesus proved Himself as my faithful friend…not by removing me from the situation…but by walking with me thru the situation…guiding me one step at a time…teaching me to trust him…helping me learn new perspectives…

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

Your word is a lamp to my feet
And a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105)

The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord: and he delighteth in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down: for the Lord upholdeth him with his hand. (Psalm 37:23-24 KJV)

God is such a faithful friend!

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.

Limitless Power – Limited Control

Traveling south on Highway 29 thru Hope, Arkansas, the intersection at South Main Street marks the end of the four-lane bypass. Four lanes of traffic (two each direction) navigate the traffic light, but about a hundred yards south of Main Street the right lane is forced to merge and Highway 29 continues south as a two-lane road.  Knowing this, I usually make a point of entering the intersection in the left lane.  Otherwise, I would have to battle the left lane traffic to merge before the right lane disappears.

Approaching the intersection yesterday morning, I observed three cars awaiting the light change in the left lane while the right lane was empty. So, I moved to the right lane while gently applying the brake.  I carefully timed the deceleration so my car was still slowly moving when the light changed to green.  I promptly accelerated past the motionless line of cars in the left lane and merged back over.

Timing…pressure…release…finesse…deceleration…acceleration…smooth control of power feels good!  🙂

As I accelerated back to speed, I felt the initial forward surge of power smoothly taper off as I gently reduced pressure on the accelerator.

I smiled, thinking of canter departures.

Canter departures…so similar yet so different from accelerating a car through a traffic light…

The familiar surge of power in response to applied pressure…the deceleration as the intended cruising speed is approached…timing…pressure…release…finesse…acceleration…deceleration…smooth control of power feels good!  🙂

That is…it feels good when it is smooth…and under control.  Power can feel pretty awkward…even frightening…and not at all smooth…when out of control.

With the car, my mind works in concert with my body to operate the mechanical controls on the car. Unless the car is broken, it responds the same way every time.  There is only one mind and one will involved in the speed control process.

With a horse it’s different. Asking Knockout for a canter departure, I gently squeeze my legs applying pressure similar to the pressure applied to an automobile accelerator.  If Knockout is alert and ready for the cue, he promptly responds with a forward surge of power.  And, similar to accelerating a car, I have to gauge the acceleration against my desired speed to smoothly transition.

Riding a horse, though, involves another mind and will…requiring another level of communication. It’s not just mechanical linkage.  I have to communicate to Knockout what I want him to do, and Knockout has to figure out what I want in order to respond appropriately.

Sometimes, Knockout isn’t paying close attention. Sometimes, we’re plodding along in a relaxed state and my cue to canter sort of catches Knockout by surprise.  So, there’s this brief hesitation as Knockout realizes I’ve asked him to change gaits.  So, after the momentary delay we get this forward surge of power…but Knockout doesn’t yet know what speed we’re aiming for.  Do I want a trot, a lope, a canter, or a gallop?  Because, I use pretty much the same cue for all of them…the only difference is level of pressure and how long the pressure is held.  So, Knockout is surging forward in response to pressure from my legs…but because of the brief hesitation I have already applied more pressure longer awaiting his response…so now my timing is off.  If I drop pressure too quick I’ll get a trot…hold it too long and I’ll get an all-out gallop.  So, I try to time it right to drop into an easy lope…and sometimes we miss.  Sometimes, we drop into a trot and I ask for more.  Sometimes, we spring into a full gallop and I ask him to back off.  Sometimes, it is not at all smooth…sometimes I experience a moment of alarm wondering how fast a speed we’re headed for and whether I can ride it.

See, riding a horse is really more like back-seat-driving rather than driving a car. I don’t directly control the horse’s feet.  I communicate with the horse and the horse controls his feet.  The control is one step removed and we are always only one potential miscommunication away from an error.  It’s a bit like teaching a beginner driver…instructing their stops, starts and turns…while hoping they fully understand and promptly do what you ask…and knowing it will rarely be as smooth as you’ve envisioned.

I try to imagine navigating that South Main intersection around a stopped line of cars in the left lane with a student driver. I try to think thru how I might try to time my verbal instructions to start slowing early as though stopping…but try to go slow enough that we don’t have to actually stop…to watch the traffic light to time it so we reach the intersection just as the light changes…to accelerate past the line of stopped cars before they get moving…to accelerate smoothly without punching the gas…yet quickly enough to get ahead of the line of cars…to gently ease off the accelerator while simultaneously merging over before the lane ends.

I simply cannot imagine attempting that maneuver with a student driver.  It just requires too high a level of clear communication with precise timing.  With a student driver in that situation, I would simply instruct him to stop at the traffic light in the left lane.

Then I consider what it would be like trying that maneuver as a student driver…trying to time everything just right when I don’t even know what the next step is or what goal we are shooting for. I try to imagine relying completely on a driving instructor’s step-by-step verbal direction to manage that maneuver with smooth precision.  No way!

Yet, this is what I ask of my horse on a regular basis.

This is both the thrill and the terror of riding a horse. It’s more about clear communication than it is about control…because I am never truly in control.

I see riding a horse with confidence as a combination of striving to communicate clearly, while embracing the lack of control, yet confidently trusting the partnership. I have to realize that miscommunications and mistakes will happen.  I have to accept that things will not always go as planned.  Yet, I have to trust that Knockout and I will get it worked out.  When we make mistakes, we will adjust, make corrections, and improve.

Over the years, I’ve come to view life from a similar perspective.

There was a time I saw life as more direct cause and effect. If I made good decisions then good things would result.  If I did things God’s way, God would bless my life.  Follow the rules and good things would follow.  When bad things threatened to happen, I would double-down to figure out what I was doing wrong and correct it…or I would work harder to do things right so the issue would be resolved.

Of course, this view is really just a way of trying to establish control. It assumes I can keep bad things from happening if I just do the right things.

It is a legalistic mindset that assumes control of outcome can be governed by following a rigid set of rules.  The back side of that assumption is that anyone experiencing bad things must be assumed to have not done the right things well enough.  Because, if they did all the right things and still experienced a bad outcome…then the same could happen to me…which means I would have no control at all…which is (for many people…including myself at one time) simply too scary to even contemplate.

As an example, look how many books, sermons, and videos are available on the topic of how to divorce proof your marriage or how to raise successful children.  People want to believe they can control the outcome by simply doing all the right things.

The problem is it’s not true. No matter how well one follows the rules, bad things can still happen.  We simply do not have that much control.  In fact, we are never truly in control.  At any moment some major life-changing event could happen that is completely unrelated to anything I did or did not do.

I now view life more like how I view riding a horse. I strive to communicate clearly, while embracing the lack of control, yet confidently trusting the partnership.  I strive to actively listen to The Holy Spirit while clearly voicing my concerns and needs.  I realize I won’t do everything right…that mistakes will happen.  I also realize bad things will happen that have nothing to do with anything I did or did not do.  Yet, I trust God’s faithfulness as He works His will and purpose for my good.  I trust Him to work with me thru the many miscommunications, folding my mistakes right into His plan.  I trust God’s power to be far greater than my mistakes or any evil that may befall me.

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

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. (Romans 8:26-28)

Thank you, Father, for your faithfulness!

Trusting thru Concerns

Riding the back fence line at Lazy Colt Ranch

The first Sunday afternoon in November, I loaded Knockout in our 3-horse trailer and carried him to a friend’s ranch.

Since we mostly ride on our own farm or down the gravel roads near our farm, I wanted to carry Knockout somewhere else to expose him to riding in different locations.

I was pleased to see Knockout was calm and relaxed as we unloaded from the trailer and saddled up. I swung into the saddle and set out to follow my friend’s instructions to explore and have fun.

We left the yard at an easy trot, headed toward the back pasture. Passing thru the open gate, Knockout acted a little concerned, but I just asked him to keep going and he did.  He eyed the sorting pens warily as we rode past.  He pushed thru my seat cue to step left and avoid a scary looking mud puddle…so I turned him to ride back thru it.  The third time around, we calmly rode straight thru the puddle.

We passed a big black bull on the left…no different than the bulls in our own pasture. Bulls in other people’s pastures look scarier, apparently.  Knockout tensed a little and kept a wary eye on the bull until we were past.

The first fifteen minutes of the ride went like that. Water troughs, gates, salt blocks, even trees were cause for extra wariness.

Knockout never panicked…never spooked…never balked or bolted. He was just concerned about everything.  Everyday objects no different than what we see every ride somehow looked more ominous when seen in unfamiliar surroundings.  Yet he still trusted me through it all and continued to respect my cues.

When we reached the back fence line, we stopped to do a few exercises intended to help Knockout focus on me. We did some backing on light cues, practiced turns both directions on fore and hind, side-passed and counter-arced.  Then we rode into a strip of woods where we wound a path between trees, circled trees both directions, and backed circles around trees.

By the time we rode out of the woods, Knockout was relaxed and focused. The wariness had all disappeared as he focused on listening to me.

Tuesday, I had a PET-Scan. There was no specific concern other than it had been two years since my last scan.  Although all checkups were going well, my doctors felt it would be prudent to do another scan just to be sure.

I was surprised to realize I was concerned. For over two years I’ve been going to doctors’ appointments every couple of months for checkups and scopes.  I’ve never been concerned by any of it.  It’s just another checkup with expectations of a good report.

For some reason, the upcoming PET-Scan was more concerning to me. It was a break from the usual routine.  It felt less familiar and a little more intimidating.  I didn’t expect any issues…but then that is what the scan is for…to see if there are any issues.

Much like Knockout riding in an unfamiliar pasture, ordinary things are just a little more concerning in unfamiliar circumstances.

Wednesday, a nurse from the ENT doctor’s office called to tell me the PET-Scan showed a small uptake at the base of my tongue and they were going to schedule a CT-Scan to investigate further.

I’ve had CT-Scan’s before…but not recently. And what about that small uptake?  I knew it was quite likely a false positive…but it was enough of a concern for my ENT to order a CT-Scan.

My level of concern was elevated. Much like Knockout, I was still trusting the one who directs my paths.  I was not panicked.  But I was concerned and a little wary.

Friday, I kept my appointment with my Oncologist, who reviewed the PET-Scan, scoped my throat, and performed a thorough examination of my mouth, throat and neck. All looks good!  He believes the small uptake was reflective of a minor throat infection.

I’m still keeping the CT-Scan appointment just to verify. But you know what?  I no longer feel the elevated concern.  I feel relaxed and confident…focused on listening to The One who directs my paths.

Jesus is such a good horseman to me!  He is my friend who will never leave me.

 

Your thoughts?

 

Hot Wire Authority

Knockout and I finished checking cows, then swung around at a lope toward the corner of the pasture to check fences. Slowing to a brisk walk, we entered the woods trail paralleling the back fence line.  At the corner, we turned north, continuing our ride through the woods until we crossed the creek to ride through the gate to the front pasture.

Coming out of the woods, we recrossed the creek, then picked up into a trot along the west fence line. Seeing a small tree branch on the hotwire, I cued a stop and dismounted.  Dropping the reins to ground-tie Knockout, I walked over and tossed the limb into the woods on the other side of the fence.  Knockout stood quietly as I gathered the reins and remounted.  Uncharacteristically, he started moving before I was settled in the saddle.  So, I cued a stop, backed him, and asked him to stand quietly a moment before continuing our ride.

Two fence posts further along, the wire was off an insulator. Again, we stopped and Knockout stood ground-tied as I inspected the fence.  Since the wire was not sparking against the steel post, I knew it was safe to touch the wire…and something was wrong with the charging unit.  I replaced the wire in the insulator and reminded myself to check the battery and connectors.  This time, Knockout stood quietly as I remounted, and he awaited my signal before moving on.

Next we dropped down a steep bank for our third creek crossing. This crossing is my favorite and Knockout’s least favorite.  The creek bottom lies about ten feet below pasture level with steep banks on each side.  A few weeks ago, Knockout avoided this crossing, but now he takes the steep decline in stride.

Just on the other side of the creek, we stopped again to replace the wire on another insulator and to check the charging unit. The battery was dead, which explains the fence condition.  I made a mental note to make sure we replace the battery before dark, then remounted to continue the inspection.

Riding through a pine thicket, I noticed the top wire was sagging low between several posts. So we continued to the end of the electric fence where I again dismounted and left Knockout standing ground-tied.  Walking over to the corner post, I started untwisting the end of the wire as Knockout calmly nibbled a clump of grass pushing through the thick carpet of pine needles.

Once the wire end was free, I started pulling it tight. As there was quite a bit of slack going down several fence posts, it took a bit of tugging to get it pulled tight.  About the time I got the slack out I caught movement from the corner of my eye.  Turning my head, I saw Knockout eyeing the fence as he sidestepped away.  Glancing back, I realized this section of fence had several long strands of bright flagging that were now bouncing and waving wildly around as I tugged and pulled on the wire.

“Whoa, Knockout!” I called as I took a quick turn of the wire to hold it in place.

Knockout turned tail and continued his retreat in his best quarter-horse imitation of a saddle-bred’s quick gaited walk. To his credit, he did not panic and run.  However, he was clearly uncomfortable with that wire bouncing around flapping all the mysterious flagging…and was distancing himself from the source of his discomfort.

I had to move fast to catch up! Fortunately, Knockout stopped and let me scoop up the reins.  I backed him vigorously a few steps just to remind him he wasn’t supposed to walk off while ground-tied.  Then we returned to finish the fence repair.

I stuffed the end of the rein in my hip pocket, leaving both hands free to work while still keeping the rein close in case Knockout walked off again.  This required Knockout to approach closer to the fence than before…which he was pretty hesitant to do.  I just hung in there asking until he stepped close enough for me to work.

I finished securing the fence wire without further incident.

With the fence repair completed I turned back to Knockout. “Now, let’s talk about this wire and flagging that got you so distressed.”  Holding his rein in my left hand, I gave the wire a vigorous shake with my right hand.  Knockout backed to the end of the rein and braced as I continued shaking the wire.  After a couple of seconds, Knockout softened and took one step forward.  I responded by immediately stilling the movement of the wire.  I praised Knockout, then did it again.  We did that a few more times until Knockout would stand calmly before stepping toward the wire while I vigorously shook it.

Then we had a little talk.

“Knockout, you have every reason to fear that wire when I’m not with you. Yes, you know from experience that touching an electric fence results in a very unpleasant sensation.  I’m glad you know that.  I’m glad you know to stay away from the fence when I’m not with you.”

“When I’m with you, though, it’s a completely different deal. That fence won’t hurt you when you’re with me.  I have authority over that wire.  It only carries a charge when I tell it to carry a charge.  When you’re with me, you can trust me to know whether or not the fence is charged.”

I remounted and we rode home.

As we rode, my words to Knockout echoed through my mind…except different…in a still small voice…

“Joe, you don’t need to worry about everything going on in the world. Yes, American politics is going crazy.  Yes, the country is increasingly divided.  Yes, the number of mass shootings is escalating.  Yes, terrorist acts are increasing.  These are all reasonable things to be concerned about.”

“When you’re with Me, though, it’s a completely different deal. I have authority over all these things.  I have authority over sin and death.  Nothing can harm you without My permission.  When you’re with Me, you can trust Me to care for you.”

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (Matthew 28:18)

And He placed His right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.” (Revelation 1:17-18)

Yes, Jesus!  You have authority. Thank you, Lord!

Divine Will

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah; and they said to him, “Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing was displeasing in the sight of Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them. Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this day—in that they have forsaken Me and served other gods—so they are doing to you also. Now then, listen to their voice; however, you shall solemnly warn them and tell them of the procedure of the king who will reign over them.” (1 Samuel 8:4-9)

What’s the deal with this passage? Although God spoke as though Israel was opposing His will in asking for a king, He told Samuel to listen to their voice and do what they asked.  Samuel then warned the people of how a king would mistreat them, yet the elders still insisted they wanted a king.

This is an interesting passage. The elders of Israel seemed to be going against the Lord’s will in asking for a king.  Yet, they were also seeking God’s will in the selection of a king.  They didn’t just go out and anoint their own king.  They asked the prophet, Samuel, to appoint a king over them.

Samuel complied, and based on God’s guidance anointed Saul to be king over Israel. Later, Saul disobeyed God, and God subsequently rejected Saul as king and had Samuel anoint David as king in place of Saul.

What’s going on here? If the elders of Israel are rejecting God in asking for a king, then why are they asking for God’s selection for a king?

Why did God first indicate He didn’t want Israel to have a king…then anoint Saul as king…then reject Saul as king…then anoint David as king? Does God really have that much trouble making up His own mind?  Does God not know His own will?  If it wasn’t God’s will for Israel to have a king, why did God tell Samuel to appoint a king?

In an attempt to make sense out of these apparent contradictions, some people explain this passage in terms of God’s divine will versus God’s permissive will.  The general idea is that God has a perfect divine will He wants us to follow, but also has an imperfect permissive will he allows us to follow.  So, they would say it was God’s divine will for Israel to not have a king, but in His permissive will God allowed them to have a king…and to suffer the consequences of their bad choice.

The whole divine will versus permissive will explanation doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me, though.

This perspective sets us up to try to view God as having multiple wills. Rather than helping us better understand the passage, I think it just makes it more confusing.  How could God have a divided will when everything about Him is perfect?  God knows all things and can clearly foresee future events before they happen.  He is not constrained by time and space as we are.  So how could He have a divided will, or how could He change is mind?

“God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? (Numbers 23:19)

two year old colt

Archie – Our 2-year-old AQHA stud colt

Reading this passage reminds me of the evening I decided to train Archie, our young stud colt, to tail lead.

What I mean by the term tail lead, is simply that if I lightly pull a horse’s tail to the right, I would like him to step his hindquarters right. If I lightly pull his tail to the left, I would like him to step his hindquarters left.  This is not usually considered a super important horse training lesson.  A vast majority of horses go their entire lives without ever learning to tail lead and it doesn’t cause their owners any concern.

I’ve come to like teaching a horse to tail lead, mostly because it is useful when handling, grooming, maneuvering tight spots, etc. Most horses know how to step away from pressure applied by the handler.  Sometimes, it is more convenient to ask the horse to step his hindquarters toward me (rather than away from me) and tail leading allows me to effectively communicate that intent.

Also, tail lead training is a good lesson in building communication between horse and handler. It’s just one of many…but the many small things add up over time to result in big changes for the horse.

On this particular day, I had Archie at our farrier’s barn along with several other horses. While our farrier was trimming and shoeing other horses, I decided to use my time to train Archie.  The timing was intentional on my part.  By teaching Archie something new while in an unfamiliar location, I was also helping him learn to focus on me and respond to my cues no matter where we are.

Holding Archie’s lead line in my left hand, I grasped his tail with my right hand. Then I firmly tugged on his tail.  As expected, Archie promptly stepped his hindquarters right, away from me.  I simply held the same tail pressure and moved with him.

Now, at this point, anyone watching me (like my farrier maybe?) might have questioned what I was doing and why. They might have wondered about my intent…my will for Archie’s behavior.  I set out to teach Archie to step toward me when I lightly pulled his tail.  Instead he was strongly resisting the pressure and continually stepping away from me…while I simply went with him.

After a few minutes of moving around in circles, Archie paused…and I promptly dropped his tail. I petted and praised him like he’d just won the Kentucky Derby!  All he had actually done was stop moving away from me.  Anyone watching me at this point might have wondered if that was my intent…for Archie to simply stand still when I tugged on his tail.  I certainly praised him plenty for simply standing still for a moment!

Still holding the lead line in my left hand, I once again grasped Archie’s tail in my right hand and tugged. Again, he stepped his hindquarters right, away from me.  Again, I simply went with him and waited until he paused moving.  Again I promptly dropped his tail and praised him.

We did this several more times with the same results. Except, with each repetition it took him less time to stop moving.  Each time he acted a little less bothered and was a little quicker to stop moving away from me.

Then, one time Archie only started to move away, before deciding to stand still. I simply held the same tail pressure.  Again, he shifted his weight away and moved one hind hoof away…then he moved the hoof back to his left and I immediately dropped his tail and praised him.

Next time, Archie braced right without actually moving right. After a few seconds, he softened and tentatively stepped left.  I promptly dropped his tail and praised him.

After a few more minutes practice, Archie got to where he would move left toward me fairly quickly when I tugged his tail.

Then I switched things up. I moved to Archie’s right side and repeated everything again, from the right side.  We went through the same process from the right side, and after a few minutes Archie would step right to a right tail-pull.

Then I move back to Archie’s left side…and Archie was totally confused!

At that point he was totally lost on which way I wanted him to step when.  He understood I wanted a step and he was willing to do what I asked, but he was very confused on the proper response to a cue from left or right.

So, we kept working on first one side and then the other until Archie was able to tell the difference between a left cue and a right cue…and the proper response to each.

At that point, Archie understood what I wanted and responded fairly well. However, his first response was to brace against the tug, before deciding to soften and go with me.

So, we continued to work on it with lighter and lighter cues.

By the time we quit for the night, I could stand to Archie’s left and lift his tail. Before I even applied any pressure, Archie would softly shift his weight left.  Then when I actually started drawing his tail toward me, Archie would smoothly step over before any real pressure was even applied.  And he responded just as softly and promptly working from his right side.

It was a really fun training session in which we accomplished all I had hoped for!

If anyone had been watching the entire training session, by the end it would have been pretty obvious Archie and I had accomplished what I had planned from the start.

Early on, that would not have been as obvious. The first time I tugged Archie’s tail, he stepped away from me and I simply went with him.  At that stage, it didn’t look like I was teaching Archie to tail lead.  It looked more like I was just letting Archie drag me around by his tail.

Then when Archie paused his movement for just a moment, I dropped his tail and profusely praised him, as though he had done exactly what I wanted…even though it wasn’t anything close to what I really wanted. If we paused the scene at that one spot, it would have looked as though I didn’t know my own mind and was doing a poor job of communicating my intent to Archie.

In actuality, I had a specific intent for that training session, and the entire session went according to my plan. Archie exercised his free will in accordance with his instincts throughout the whole training session.  Yet I had anticipated his choices in advance and had already planned for them.  Even as I allowed Archie to do what felt comfortable to him, I was working out my plan to bring about my will and purpose for Archie.

Furthermore, at no time in that training session was Archie rebellious toward me. Archie simply followed his natural instincts to respond to my cues in the way that felt most comfortable to him.  Archie was not intentionally subverting my will.  In fact, he seemed perfectly willing to do what I asked once he came to understand my intent and was allowed time to become confident doing what I asked.

The training session was never about punishing Archie or forcing him to conform to my will, nor was I ever angry with Archie. From start to finish, I worked with Archie in what was comfortable to him, even as I taught him to understand my desired response and helped him become comfortable doing what I asked.  I broke the task into small training segments that Archie could understand and helped him learn one stage at a time until he had accomplished all I wanted for that training session.

I am a novice amateur horseman. Yet I was able to plan well enough to incrementally work out my will and purpose through my horse’s imperfect choices, to bring about my will in his life.

God is creator of heaven and earth…the great I Am…the one who is, who was, and who is to come. How much more can God incrementally work out His will and purpose through our imperfect choices, to bring about His perfect will in our lives!

Throughout the Old Testament narrative, a primary objective of God’s will was to bring a Savior into the world. The first messianic prophecy was given in the third chapter of Genesis, right after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, when God foretold the seed of woman would crush the serpent’s head.  From there, God continued to unfold further revelations of His plans for the coming Messiah (Christ).  Among those revelations are several prophecies that Messiah would be a descendant of King David, that He would inherit David’s throne, and that He would rule over all the earth.

This was God’s divine plan from the beginning.

God always wanted Israel to have a king. That King is Jesus Christ, direct descendant of King David and heir to David’s throne.  What we see in 1 Samuel is the incremental unfolding of God’s divine plan being worked out through the imperfect choices of His people.

Samuel was offended the people wanted a king to take care of them. God simply went with them as they sought comfort in a king, much as I went with Archie as he initially moved away from me when I tugged his tail.

God personally selected a king based on what the elders were looking for. They wanted a strong domineering king who would build up an army by force and defeat Israel’s enemies in battle.  God responded by giving them Saul, who was all they asked for.

Several years later, the people came to realize they wanted more from a king than what Saul offered. After Saul died in battle, they wanted a godly king…a king who pursued God’s heart…a king who acted justly and loved mercy.  They were ready to covenant with David to be king.  And, eventually, Jesus became heir to David’s throne.

God was not being double minded nor was He changing his mind. God simply worked with the elders of Israel from their perspective at that time, to bring about His perfect will in their lives, through their imperfect choices.

This is what God does. This is what God still does, today, in the lives of His children.

God works thru the imperfect choices of His children to bring about His perfect will. Click To Tweet

Perhaps someone reading this post is in an abusive relationship. Perhaps you have been living in quiet despair, believing you must have taken a wrong turn and made choices outside God’s will for your life.  Perhaps you have stopped believing God’s best plan for your life is even a possibility and have simply been hoping for some measure of God’s mercy in trying to live out a second-best life in God’s “permissive” will.  Perhaps you have even started to believe maybe you deserve the abuse as punishment for your wrong choices.

If that’s the case…if you are in a situation similar to what I have described…then let me assure you God’s perfect plan for your life is not off track. Nothing you have done has taken God by surprise.  He has known His plan for you from the beginning and is continuing to bring about His purpose for you through your imperfect choices.  Just as I worked with Archie from where he was, God is working with you from where you are.  If you belong to Christ, you can trust Him to bring about His perfect plan for your life.  And God’s perfect plan includes your walking in liberty in Christ, free of any abusive covenants of bondage.

God established Saul as king over Israel based on their imperfect choices. Yet, when the time was right, God removed Saul from the throne and established David as king…with the ultimate goal of establishing Jesus as king.

You can trust God to do the same for you. God is faithful!

Divine Direction

Divine direction is a difficult concept to discuss or explain. We talk about relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We sing worship songs asking Jesus, “Help me, I pray.  Show me the way, one day at a time.”  Yet, we struggle to really explain what that means lived out in real life.

I can say, based on my own personal experience, there have been times in my life when I felt God very personally guiding me one step at a time. Usually, this was during particularly stressful times in my life and the step-by-step guidance felt a little scary…because I really wanted to see the whole path mapped out in advance.  Yet God asked me to simply trust Him and do what He asked at each step…and God proved Himself faithful.

One such example was when my employer of over 20 years decided to close the business. That was a pretty stressful time.  I felt I needed to take action, but was not at all sure what direction I should take.  During that time, God frequently comforted and assured me He was in control, and asked me to simply wait and trust Him.  In the end, I was employed by another company in the same industry who decided to open a facility in the same town.

Another example was a couple of years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer.  Throughout that whole ordeal I very much faced life one day at a time, relying on God every step of the way.  Sometimes, it was simply one meal at a time, “Please, God, help me to swallow this meal down and keep it down.  Lord, help me get the nourishment my body needs, today.”  Once again, God proved Himself faithful.

Most of the time, living under divine direction is a lot more fluid. I don’t usually ask God for direction on what to eat each meal.  I don’t wait for the Holy Spirit to tell me when I should bathe or wash my hands.  God generally expects me to use the good sense and experience He gave me to make these decisions myself.

Nor do I rely on God to directly intervene and tell me to love others. He already told us that numerous times in the Bible.  Jesus modeled what love looks like.  However, the Holy Spirit does sometimes prompt me to lovingly take a specific action toward a specific person.

So, it is not all one or all the other…it is a blending and mixing of cognitive decision making and relying on divine direction.

The steps of a man are established by the Lord, And He delights in his way. (Psalm 37:23)

The mind of man plans his way, But the Lord directs his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)

Man’s steps are ordained by the Lord, How then can man understand his way? (Proverbs 20:24)

I know, O Lord, that a man’s way is not in himself, Nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps. (Jeremiah 10:23)

But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. (John 16:13)

Riding my horse, Knockout, last weekend, I realized the timing of direction I give Knockout is similar to the timing of direction God gives me.

Riding off-trail through the woods, picking our way through trees and brush, we travel at a walk with me literally directing the placement of every foot. In those situations, I have to plan a viable path in advance.  We must avoid low hanging branches that could knock me out of the saddle.  We must avoid rubbing against trees that could injure me.  We must avoid deadfalls with entangling branches and vines that could snag and trip Knockout.  We must avoid holes that could injure a horse’s leg.  So, I step-by-step direct Knockout’s path and Knockout responds accordingly, as we weave our way through the obstacles.  Knockout does not know what path I have planned, so he must await my direction on every step.

Riding off-trail through woods reminds me of how God guides me step-by-step through difficult life situations, much as I guide Knockout.  Since I cannot see the path, I must rely on God’s guidance for each step…and He is faithful.

Riding the gravel roads is a completely different situation. With no tripping hazards and a clear path, I don’t pay much attention to exact placement of Knockout’s feet, and we often travel at a trot or canter.  I have a destination in mind and a preferred gait and speed I want to travel, and I expect Knockout to respond accordingly.  With the clearly marked road, Knockout does not require frequent input from me.  He also does not have much need to make decisions.  Knockout’s task is to simply follow the road at the speed I set until I ask for a change.

Traveling gravel roads reminds me of God’s direction during my normal daily living, where I pretty much know what He expects and don’t need to constantly ask.  Like Knockout, my job is to keep following the path He has laid out for me until He asks for a change.

Trotting or loping across our pasture presents yet another set of challenges. Our pastures are not perfectly smooth or groomed.  We have lots of little patches of brush a horse can trip on.  We also have lots of dips and mounds that can act as tripping hazards.  While trotting or loping in the pasture I tend to focus on the end goal…the point at the other end of the pasture we are traveling toward…and I hold Knockout pretty much to that path.  However, I allow a lot of flexibility in the exact route.  Knockout must watch for potential tripping hazards and navigate around them.  So long as he returns pretty quickly to the intended direction of travel, I expect him to make minor navigation decisions on his own.  And when Knockout stumbles, I use the reins to lift him up and urge him on.

Trotting or loping across the pasture reminds me of how God guides me through temptations and difficulties during normal daily living.  He sets the long goal with clear direction, but gives me the responsibility of watching for issues and adjusting course accordingly…as He continually brings me back to focus on the goal of loving others as I am conformed to His image.  And when I stumble, God lifts me up and urges me on.

Similarly, when crossing creeks with steep muddy banks, I allow Knockout some discretion on moving a couple of feet to the left or right, as he sees fit. After all, he is the one who has to find secure footing for our crossing.

Crossing creeks with steep banks reminds me of the many times I have sought God’s direction on a specific decision and God pretty much told me it was my choice…that neither path was inherently right or wrong…and He would be with me whatever I chose.

When we track a cow, Knockout’s discretionary decision-making ratchets up a notch, as I actively ask him to make some of his own decisions. I want him to learn to track and read a cow with minimal input from me.  So, once we’re trailing the cow, I stop giving much guidance as long as Knockout generally continues to follow.  I mostly try to stay out of his way and let him do his thing, unless it looks like he needs a little help.  Knockout must pay close attention to the cow while also being always prepared to respond to a cue from me.

Tracking cows reminds me of the seasons of learning when God has pushed me outside my comfort zone and prompted me to pursue a passion…as He provides additional guidance as needed.

Sometimes, the Holy Spirit guides me one step at a time. Other times, His guidance is more general with a lot of decisions being left to my discretion.  Always, He is faithful!

He is faithful to walk with me and guide me.  He is faithful to always guide me back to the Paths of Righteousness.  He is faithful to continually complete the good work He has begun of conforming me to His image.

He is my faithful horseman!

Purpose

The last few months, Knockout (my 7-yo AQHA quarter horse gelding) and I have been spending a lot of time checking cows and checking fence. Most weekday evenings we do a quick check before dark.  Most weekend mornings we do a more relaxed and thorough check, spending a little more time getting acquainted with each cow.

It would sound a lot cooler if I said we’ve been working cows…but that might be a bit misleading.  We’re not out there roping, branding, or doctoring cows.  In general, we’re not even moving cows…though we have started playing with gathering and pushing a little bit just to get a feel for it.  We even pushed a few calves back into the pasture after they got out, the other day.  Most of the time, we just ride around making sure all the cows look healthy and sound, read ear tag numbers to check off my list, and count the calves to make sure everyone is accounted for.  Then we ride the fence to make sure it’s in good repair…and ride by the electric fence chargers to make sure they’re clicking and flashing like they’re supposed to be.

It’s pretty simple stuff. I suspect this is the sort of stuff that once made up the lifestyle of a historical cow-boy.  Before the dangerous Texas cattle drives through Indian Territory added the sense of adventure, and before the dime novels romanticized the western cowboy lifestyle, a cow-boy was simply a boy who took care of the cows…much like a shepherd takes care of sheep.

That’s what Knockout and I have been doing the last few months. We check cows.

I’ve been amazed at how checking cows has changed the dynamic of our rides. We used to ride the same pastures and woods trails we’re riding now.  Previously, though, the focus was on us and our teamwork.

Sure, I enjoyed the beauty of nature as we went, and we would sometimes stop to watch the calves play. However, my main focus was on Knockout.  Was Knockout responding promptly to my cues?  Was Knockout keeping his attention on me?  Was Knockout responsive to my body language?  Was Knockout tense or was he relaxed as we rode?  Was Knockout compliant or resistant?  Was Knockout traveling in straight lines at constant rates of speed?

Then there was also a lot of focus on myself. Were my hands light on the reins?  Did I have plenty of slack in the reins?  Was I practicing good rein management?  Were my cues light?  Was my timing good?  Was I carrying an independent seat?  Was I dropping all pressure when headed in the desired direction?  Was my body positioned facing the direction I wanted to go and eyes focused on a distant goal point?

Similarly, Knockout’s main focus was on me and my cues…except when he was focused on where he wanted to go…like back home. Or when he was focused on what he could startle at…like my helmet brushing a branch as we rode under it.  When these things happened, my focus became making sure Knockout’s focus returned to me.

Now, none of these are bad things. For the stage we were at, they were necessary areas of focus.  Furthermore, they have never stopped being necessary.  I still pay attention to these things…but now they’re more in the background…not subconscious but not at the forefront of my focus, either.

Now my primary focus is on the cows and fencing. Where is the herd?  Is the herd together or scattered?  What is my best approach to make sure I check each cow?  What is my best route thru the herd as I check ear tags?  Which ear tags can I check off from a distance just by knowing the markings of individual cows?  What is my best approach to each cow, to get a good look at her ear tag without spooking her into turning away from me or walking off?  Are any cows hidden behind that wall of brush near the back fence line?  Are any cows lying down in the shade of the woods?  Why am I coming up one cow short in my count?  Where is the missing cow hidden…or did I just overlook her as I rode through the herd?

Likewise while checking fence, I’m focused on seeing a thin wire. Is it tight or sagging?  If it is sagging, where’s the break?  Is the wire on each post insulator?  If not, I need to dismount to put the wire back in place at each fence post.  Is anything shorting the fence out?  Does that fallen branch need to be moved?  Why isn’t the electric fence charger ticking?  Is the battery connection loose?  When did we last charge the battery?

Now, behind all that, I’m still riding. I’m still doing rein management and hopefully using appropriate pressure with good timing.  But that is no longer in the forefront of my thoughts.

And you know what? As my focus has changed, Knockout’s focus has begun to change, too.  He’s no longer looking for a chance to go back home.  We’re riding through rougher terrain with more high brush and low branches than we ever did before, yet Knockout rarely startles at anything.  Like myself, Knockout is focused on the cows.  As I leave one cow and turn to head toward another, Knockout is already looking to see which cow we’re approaching next.  As we approach a cow, Knockout is eagerly waiting to see if we’re going to direct the cow somewhere or just read an ear tag and ride on.

Knockout loves directing cows! We’re not very good at it, yet, but he sure loves doing it.

As we work together, Knockout and I are both learning to plan approach angles and speed. We’re learning to adjust our speed to intercept a moving cow without spooking her.  When pushing a cow, we’re learning to be aware of speed, flight zone, and balance point.  We’re learning to trust each other to do our jobs even as we learn together and fill in for each other.

While checking fence, Knockout has begun to keep one eye on the wire just as I am. He knows to stay near the fence line without getting too close.  He is beginning to learn when something is wrong with the fence wire we are going to stop for me to dismount and correct the issue.  And he has learned to stand patiently ground-tied while I fix the fence.

I’ve also noticed I have less tendency to micromanage than before. When we’re tracking a cow, I’m likely to just let Knockout go, confident he knows what to do.  When we’re checking fence, if I can see Knockout is paying attention to tracking beside the fence, I’m likely to just let him go, confident he knows to follow the wire.  When fixing fence, I just drop the reins on the ground and go about my business, trusting Knockout to stay put until I come back.  When crossing a creek, I’m likely to let him move over a couple of steps if he chooses…after all he’s the one who has to maintain his footing as we cross.

Tending cows is becoming a common goal we both work on together. Rather than focusing on our teamwork, we are beginning to work together as a team for a common purpose.  Rather than practicing transitions, we frequently transition speed and gait as part of the job.  Rather than practicing turns and laterals, we turn and move as needed to get the job done.

It’s sort of like the difference between a football practice and a football game. Yes, the practice is important and necessary, but the game is where the team really comes together toward a common goal.

Working together on necessary tasks has given our rides a sense of purpose. Knockout and I have both embraced that purpose, resulting in a closer sense of partnership.  We don’t work against each other as much, because we’re busy working together toward a common goal.

Isn’t that what God does with us?

When Jesus discipled the twelve apostles, they didn’t just sit around soaking up Jesus’ teaching and enjoying the fellowship. Jesus sent them out to minister to others.  He gave them very explicit instructions on how they were to conduct themselves, and told them:

“And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:7-8)

Jesus didn’t just minister to the disciples. Rather He asked them to join Him in ministry.  He entrusted them with an important job.  Jesus gave clear and explicit directions without micromanaging.  He called the apostles to a mission with purpose.

Jesus calls us to the same purposeful mission:

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Notice we are not alone in this mission. Jesus is with us.  We’re working together toward a common goal.

At His last supper with the disciples, Jesus gave them further instructions:

“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 our mission, our purposeful common goal. Go make disciples and love one another.

This is how Christ draws us into closer relationship with Him…by inviting us to join Him in working toward these common goals.

Are you working with Christ to accomplish these necessary tasks?

In Him

Horses are social creatures. They like being around other horses.  In many ways, they are very dependent on other horses.

In a herd, horses depend on each other to watch and warn of danger. So, when one horse takes off running, the rest of the herd runs too.

It goes beyond flight, though. Horses tend to be very attuned to the emotional state of other horses.  If one horse acts nervous, other horses are likely to pick up on it and start acting anxious themselves.  Likewise, if a horse is unsure about crossing a stream, they will often do better following another horse across.

In working with Knockout (my 7-yo gelding) the last couple of years, we have done a lot of solo riding with no other horses around…and we had to work through minor issues with him not wanting to leave the rest of the herd.

We’ve ridden with other horses…and we have had to work through minor issues with Knockout taking his cues from the other horses rather than from me.

One evening last week, I decided it was time to trim the oak branches hanging low over our driveway.

Rather than climbing up and down a step ladder, moving it a foot at a time, I decided to just do it from horseback…using Knockout as a living scaffold of sorts.

We’ve done basically the same thing trimming our woods trails, so I didn’t expect any issues.

The first tree went pretty much as expected. Knockout let me know it wasn’t his favorite thing to do. But when I insisted he willingly complied.

Knockout stood patiently as I reached, clipped, and tugged at branches. He didn’t complain as twigs fell on his head and hung in his mane and bridle. Even when I shook the reins to free a large twig he stood patiently, apparently understanding that’s what was needed.

Then we moved to the next tree which happens to be adjacent to our horse pasture.

No sooner did we start on the second tree than five of Knockout’s pasture mates ran up to investigate from the other side of the electric fence.

Knockout didn’t even look at the other horses, so I just kept trimming as they milled about, reaching for leaves to eat.

At one point I stood in the stirrups grasping a branch in my left hand to pull it into reach of the clippers in my right hand. Yes…that’s a very vulnerable position…apparently I trust my horse…

At that moment, one of the horses on the other side of the electric fence must have touched the hot-wire. They all spun and dashed off in a panicked flurry of hooves. I tightened my grip on the limb in anticipation of being left hanging.

But Knockout never moved…never flinched…never twitched a muscle or even acted interested.

So I just kept right on clipping branches.

I am so proud of this young horse!

It is sometimes hard to believe this is the same horse as the green-broke, spooky, flighty, prone-to-bolt young colt I started working with a couple of years ago.

In that moment when I was most vulnerable and relying completely on Knockout, Knockout chose to rely on me. He ignored the other horses.  He completely disregarded their drama and panic.  In that moment, Knockout chose to simply rest in my assuring presence.

Isn’t that what Christ calls us to do?

When all around, people are swept up in drama and fear…when angry voices cry out for attention…when arrogant voices ridicule and mock…when self-righteous voices condemn…can I calmly trust in Jesus?

Can I rest in Christ like Knockout rested in the assurance of my presence?

Lord, teach me to abide in you!

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. (John 15:4)

Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. (John 15:9-10)

By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. (1 John 4:13)

 

Your thoughts?

Peaches and Ferdinand

I believe it was July of 2011 when I came home from work one afternoon to discover my 10-year-old stepson, Dawson, had convinced his grandparents to let him pen a heifer to show in the county fair.

She was a pretty little 1-year-old heifer, peach colored with a white face.  Since she was the color of peaches and cream, we called her Peaches.

Dawson was super excited about her and could not be deterred from wanting to show her.  We all explained that it was much too late in the year for training a show cow.  With the county fair just two months away, there was simply no way she could possibly be ready to show by September.  If he wanted to show her we should have started working with her way back in January or February.

Dawson’s enthusiasm remained steadfast.  He was convinced he could have her ready and was determined to show her at the fair.

So, I determined to help him all I could.

Every day, he and I spent time with Peaches, getting her used to us.  We got her to eat out of our hands and let us pet her.  We taught her to stand tied without too much fuss.  We made a lot of progress with her, but we never did get her to halter lead.

I spent many hours in the pen with Peaches on a calf halter, trying to lead her.  The more I pulled the more she resisted.  She just locked up and refused to budge.

I tried pulling to the side so she had less balance to resist.  She would take one step to the side and go right back into lock-up resistance mode.

We talked to friends who raised show cows asking for advice.  The prevailing advice was to teach her that resistance was futile.  She had to learn that following was her only option.  They advised hooking her to a tractor and pulling her very slowly to teach her to stop resisting and follow the lead.

So, we did that.  I spent many hours slowly driving the tractor around in circles pulling peaches one resistant step after another.  She actually got to where she would half-way follow the tractor, but only with substantial tension in the rope.  With me trying to lead on the ground, she was more resistant than ever.

With final fair entry dates rapidly approaching, Peaches was no closer to being halter trained than the day we started.  We did the only thing we could do…we turned Peaches back out in the pasture with the other cows.

I honestly think I took it harder than Dawson did.  Even though I knew it had been an impossible task from the start, I had gone all-in trying to help him train her, and had failed.

Fast forward to June of 2018…

Sherri’s parents had penned a nice looking 2-year-old bull to keep the older (much larger) bulls from injuring him before he got big enough to protect himself.  With Dad recuperating from surgery I started feeding the bull twice daily.

The bull was super skittish.  When I entered the pen, he fled to the other end.  When I poured his feed, he watched until I left the pen before approaching to eat.  When I tried approaching to pet him while he ate, he fled before I came within two feet.

In July, the bull became covered up with flies, constantly swishing his tail and tossing his head trying to halt their torment.  The poor guy looked absolutely miserable and became even more unapproachable.

I started planning a means of helping him get some relief from the flies.  The best approach would be to fly-spray him, but that would require getting him to stand still long enough to be sprayed.

The last couple of years I’ve been learning a little about horsemanship and I decided to try desensitizing the bull to a spray bottle just as I would a horse.  I filled a spray bottle with water, walked up as close as he would allow, turned my back to him and started squirting water away from him.  He was disturbed and started moving away, so I moved with him, still facing away and still squirting water.  When he stopped, I stopped squirting.  After a few minutes, he would stand still while I squirted water away from him.

Then I started squirting in an arc that got water closer to him, while still facing away from him, and we repeated the same thing until he accepted that.  Then I turned to face him and did the same thing all over again.

At the end of about twenty minutes, he would stand still for spraying.  So I switched bottles and fly-sprayed.

With relief from the flies, he became a much calmer bull.  A few days later he let me pet him while he ate.  A couple of weeks later he started coming to me for treats.  By the end of the month, he was positively friendly.

I started calling him Ferdinand (after the gentle bull in the children’s story) and bought a halter for him.  Using the same pressure and release technique I would use on a horse, I had him following a lead line pretty quickly.  By rewarding the smallest try with instant release, Ferdinand quickly learned what I wanted and followed willingly.

I wouldn’t call him completely halter broke yet, but he leads really well and backs okay when not too distracted.  He and I are having a lot of fun, together!

I keep thinking about these two experiences with cattle training and their completely different outcomes.

With Peaches, I set out specifically to halter train her, spent many hours working with her, and completely failed.  With Ferdinand, I just tried to gain his trust to help alleviate his fly misery…and almost effortlessly halter trained him in just a few minutes a day.

Two drastically different outcomes…based on different approaches.

With Peaches, I set out to make her learn.  We had a very tight time table and needed to progress rapidly.  I viewed her as being stubborn and acted accordingly trying to show her resistance was futile.  It was a fast-paced conquer-by-force approach that did not work well at all.

With Ferdinand, I set out to gain his trust in order to help him.  I used timing of pressure and release to teach him a little at a time, only giving him as much as he was prepared to accept…and it worked incredibly well.

Isn’t it the same way with people?  We set out to make somebody do something or to prove somebody wrong and our headstrong approach is met with nothing but resistance.  If we, instead, set out to gain someone’s trust in order to help them see things a little differently, we may see drastically improved results.

I’m sure glad God uses a gentle approach with us!

“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)

P.S.  Oh…about Peaches…  Peaches is still part of the herd and is a good mama-cow.  All that time spent with her was not wasted.  She is the calmest, gentlest cow in the herd.  Lately, I’ve been using her to help train my horse, Knockout, to move cattle.  She is super easy to guide from one end of the pasture to the other.  She makes Knockout and me look really good, providing good practice and confidence building.

Your thoughts?