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?

 

Overcoming Fear

In working with my current ‘project’ horse, one of my primary goals is helping him overcome fear.

Horses are prey animals. They’re designed to be alert for danger and run away.  That’s how they survive.

So, when a horse spooks at a puddle, bolts from a plastic bag, or balks at a creek crossing, he’s not just being cantankerous and troublesome. From the horse’s perspective it is a life and death situation in which he is doing what he must to survive.

Picture yourself riding horseback along a forest path. Everything is going fine.  You’re riding with loose swinging reins and the horse is stepping out with a long walking stride.  The sun is shining.  There’s a light breeze whispering the leaves.  You’re smiling, relaxed, enjoying nature’s serenity.

Then a deer jumps out! Your horse starts to bolt and you grab the reins.  He bucks you off and runs 30 yards down the trail before stopping.

From your perspective everything was going fine until your horse decided to act like an idiot over a harmless deer. From the horse’s perspective, he was running to save his life…you tried to stop him…so he did what he had to do to flee the mortal danger.

This is what we face when we decide to mount and ride. The horse’s perspective is very different from ours.  So, how do we get the horse to a point where he’s not running off every time the wind blows?

We help him overcome his fears.

We do it for our own sake, because this partnership can’t work if he’s always looking for a reason to run off. But we also do it for the horse’s sake…to help him become a better horse…to help him become a braver horse who isn’t afraid of his own shadow…to help him become a horse a rider can trust.

We want to help the horse become the best horse he can be.

So, how do we do that?

I actually began helping Knockout overcome his fears the first time I interacted with him. By simply greeting him in a friendly manner, I helped him overcome his fear of me.  Then I began teaching him to respect me and pay attention.  I began developing a means of communicating with him and started getting very particular about how he responds to my cues.

As Knockout learns to respect and trust me…as he learns to pay attention to me…as he learns to respond quickly to a soft cue…his confidence grows and he becomes less afraid.

The key to helping a horse overcome his fear is to gain his trust and hold his attention. If my horse trusts me, pays attention to me, and knows how to respond to my cues, he will be less afraid.

However, it can be very difficult to keep his attention when he faces new surroundings or encounters something he hasn’t seen before.

So I expose him to more stimuli. I take him places he hasn’t been before.  I introduce him to objects he hasn’t seen before.  I ask him to do new things he hasn’t done before.

I keep pushing him outside his comfort zone.

I don’t push him to make him bothered or afraid. Quite the opposite!  I do it to help him overcome his fear…to help him learn to be brave.  It’s a big world out there and he needs to learn to deal with it…to be confident and responsive in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

I’m not setting him up for failure. I’m setting him up for success.  I’m not creating new environments just to bother him.  I’m gradually exposing him to existing environments he hasn’t seen before…environments beyond the little pasture he lives in.

And slowly, over time, with consistency and patience, Knockout is learning to have faith in me. We are progressing toward a point where it won’t matter that he is in a new and unfamiliar situation so long as I am present….he doesn’t know the unfamiliar surroundings, but he knows me…and that is enough…because he trusts me.

I want Knockout to learn, in unfamiliar situations, rather than being nervous and unsure what to do, to simply look to me for direction…to pay attention to me…to focus on what I’m telling him…and to trust me to guide him safely.

Does it sometimes seem like God is continually pushing you outside your comfort zone? Does it feel like you’re facing one catastrophe after another?  Do you ever wonder why?  Why, God, what did I do to deserve this?

I know I’ve sometimes felt this way…sometimes asked these questions…

I’m learning God doesn’t allow catastrophe and discomfort into my life to punish me or make me afraid.

He does it to help me learn to be brave. He does it to help me become a better person.  He wants me to be the best person I can be…to fulfill the destiny He preordained for me before the foundation of the world…to be conformed to the image of Christ.  He wants me to become who He created me to be…the image of God.

God is not setting me up for failure. He’s setting me up for success.  God is not creating toxic environments just to bother me.  He’s gradually exposing me to existing environments I haven’t experienced before.

Do you realize how many times the Bible tells us to fear not…to not be afraid…to be strong and courageous…to not be discouraged or dismayed? Over and over and over.  These are some of the most repeated phrases throughout scripture.

God is very interested in helping us overcome our fear. Why?  Because it’s a big world out there and we need to be able to handle it…to hear His voice and respond no matter what the circumstances.

How do we do that? Pretty similar to how a horse does it.

We spend time with the Master. We learn to communicate with Him.  We learn to listen and respond to His cues.  We learn to trust Him.  We learn to pay attention to Him…to keep our focus on Him even when we’re scared.

And slowly, over time, with consistency and patience, we learn that His presence is enough. No matter what the circumstances, we don’t have to be afraid, so long as He is with us…because we’ve learned to trust Him.

“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…” (Isaiah 43:1-3)

God wants me to learn, in unfamiliar situations, rather than being nervous and unsure what to do, to simply look to Him for direction…to pay attention to Him…to focus on what He’s telling me…and to trust Him to guide me safely.

And He wants the same for you!

 

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

 

Worse than Death

I slowly walked through the Holocaust Museum, taking time to read each placard, look at each picture and watch each video. I was familiar with the historical period.  I grew up hearing my father talk about his time as a soldier in Europe during WWII…and reading books such as The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom.  I’d seen the pictures of emaciated men from concentration camps.

Although I was very interested in the museum, I didn’t really expect to learn anything new.

Then, about halfway through, I saw the pictures of the mass graves in Poland filled with naked corpses of women and children. That did me in!

I was horrified…and a bit surprised at myself…and a bit ashamed that I was more horrified by this picture than by others. I had read about the mass graves with women and children…it wasn’t anything I hadn’t known.  And I had seen pictures of the emaciated prisoners…as well as pictures of the gas chambers and ovens.  And, yes, that was horrible.  But something about seeing the naked bodies of perfectly healthy women and children piled in a mass grave made it more real…more personal.  For the first time, I could picture my own wife and children in the picture…and I was horrified.

Even more horrifying was the realization that most of them were there through the treachery of their neighbors…neighbors who passively chose not to get involved…and neighbors who actively turned them in…for the crime of being Jewish.

This was a repeated message throughout the museum.  The Holocaust was largely made possible through the involvement (and noninvolvement) of citizens. The Nazis relied on people turning in their neighbors.  They relied on fear, preservation instincts, and familial protection to be stronger than love or duty toward people of a different nationality and religion.

Without treachery by neighbors (both active and passive), nowhere near as many Jews would have been rounded up and murdered before the end of the war.

I pondered these truths on the flight home. Then I sat down with my family and told them about it.

I told them I believed this sort of genocide would probably happen again at some time in the future…maybe in our country…maybe in their lifetime. I told them, If it does, whatever you do, stand up for the oppressed! Do not let anyone rule you out of fear.  Do what is right, no matter what.  It is better to die for doing the right thing than to survive by becoming complicit in murder.  It is better to watch your family be killed for doing the right thing than to see them survive by turning against their neighbor.

I told them, I love you and I would do anything for you. But I want you to understand, I love you too much to want you to survive through an innocent neighbor’s betrayal.  And I ask you, please do not let anyone use me to cause you to betray a neighbor.  Better that you see me die or that you die, yourself, than to betray an innocent neighbor.  I know where I’m going when I leave this world, and I know where you’re going.  When we see each other on the other side, let it be with clean hands, a pure heart, and a clear conscience, knowing we stood up for the oppressed.

That was about twenty years ago. My children are all grown now.  I’m proud and thankful they have each matured into adults who care deeply for other people…who stand up for the marginalized and oppressed…who are not afraid to take a strong stand on unpopular positions.

Reflecting on this experience, I realized this is one of the differences between my perspective and that of many of my friends.

I understand the dangers of the world and how important it is to stand against wickedness and evil. I understand the need for border security and vetting of refugees.  I’m all for providing necessary tools and personnel to the military and police departments.  We should take appropriate and reasonable precautions against the many forms of terrorism.

However, I also live with a constant realization of how very little control we really have. Ramping up security may help, but it can never guarantee prevention of terrorist attacks.  Tightening vetting procedures may reduce risk, but it can never eliminate risk.

This fallen world we now live in is, by nature, a risky place filled with much danger, sorrow and wickedness. We cannot completely shut that out thru military might nor thru closing immigration.

And I live with a constant awareness of the much greater danger…the danger of becoming the very thing we fear.

What if our fear causes us to betray our neighbor? Click To Tweet

What if we become participants in abusing and neglecting the marginalized and oppressed out of fear of terrorism?

What if our fear of tyranny causes us to become tyrants? Click To Tweet

We cannot always prevent evil men from doing evil things.  May God protect us from the danger of aiding them in their wickedness…from allowing ourselves to be ruled by fear…

That would be a thing much worse than death.

“Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.” (Luke 10:36-37)

Your thoughts?

 

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

 

Dark Scary Places

Sonny and KnockoutI absolutely love spending time with our horses learning horsemanship!

I’m still not much of a horseman, but am constantly learning. I’m at a stage now where I get a big kick out of small changes.  Sometimes it’s a small improvement in an area we’ve worked on…other times it’s a problem that crops up and is handled using newly learned tools.

Last night, I trailered three of our horses to the farrier for hoof trims and shoeing. All three horses are accustomed to trailers and load very easily…until last night.

For some reason, when loading to leave the farrier, each horse hesitated at the trailer door refusing to go in. I’m not sure why…maybe the unusually bright moonlight made the trailer interior look darker and therefore scarier.  Whatever the reason, each horse balked at the trailer door, and no amount of coaxing could persuade them to step inside.

If this had happened two years ago, I would not have known what to do. Facing the same event two years ago, I would probably have tugged and pulled trying to force the horse into the trailer while asking someone else to apply pressure from the back end.  And who knows…I might fall into that same pattern next week…this horsemanship gig is a tortuous journey full of surprising twists and turns for both me and the horses.  It’s a lot like parenting.

Last night, though, was different. Last night, when the first horse refused to load I realized this was neither about lack of understanding nor lack of willingness.  It wasn’t even about loading or not loading.  In fact, it wasn’t really even about the trailer.

The issue to be addressed was lack of confidence.

For whatever reason, that particular horse on that particular evening was not confident about loading in that dark scary-looking trailer. His confidence had been replaced with fear…and it was up to me to regain his confidence.

Now, here is where it gets interesting.

His fear was rooted in the trailer and his lack of confidence was rooted in self. It had nothing to do with me, really.  He was not afraid of me, nor was he challenging me.  He lacked confidence in himself out of fear of the scary-looking trailer.

The solution, however, had nothing to do with the trailer and everything to do with me. I needed to get his focus off the trailer and onto me.  I needed to boost his confidence in me.  His lack of self-confidence needed to be replaced with confidence in me.

We took a few steps away from the trailer and spent about two minutes doing a few basic exercises: step back, step forward, right shoulder turn, right hind-quarter turn, left shoulder turn, left hind-quarter turn, back two steps, forward two steps, back one step, forward one step.

Then I led him into the trailer. No fuss, no bother, no fear…just confidently following me into the trailer to stand quietly while I closed the stall separator.

Then I did the exact same thing with the other two horses, with the same results.

It was wonderful!  🙂

I love when things work out so well.  More importantly, I love when I am able to read a situation well enough to know the solution.  And I love knowing my horses have enough confidence in me to follow my lead.

This morning I realized there are a few life lessons in last night’s events.

Lesson 1: When I am scared, the issue is whatever I fear combined with lack of confidence.  The solution is to move my focus off what I fear and onto Jesus.  With my focus on Jesus, lack of self-confidence is replaced by confidence in Him.

Lesson 2: Placing my focus and confidence in Jesus is best accomplished by simply obeying Him in small things…by following His lead in little things that have nothing to do with the big scary thing.

How does that play out in real life? Lots of ways, but let’s take one current event.

I think most of us are a little (or a lot) concerned about what’s going on politically in the United States, right now. Whomever any of us may have voted for and whatever outcome we hoped for, right now we have a lot of uncertainty as to how exactly things will pan out post-election.  There are a lot of unknowns, and it is natural to fear the unknown (just as it is natural for a horse to fear a dark trailer interior).

The solution is to move my focus off the uncertainties and onto Jesus. I do that by spending time alone with Him and by following His command to “Love one another.”  I do that in daily little things…by treating others with love, respect, and understanding.

As I follow Christ’s lead in these little daily things, my confidence in Him builds and my fear of uncertainty is replaced by confidence in Him.

Your thoughts?

 

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

 

Balk Bolt Buck

knockout round

A very relaxed horse at the end of the ride

The last few weeks, I’ve been working with our five-year-old gelding to relax, slow down, and smooth gait transitions. Knockout is a sweet-natured young horse with good confirmation and an excellent pedigree. However, he tends to be tense during rides which can lead to issues.

Last weekend, following a stormy Friday night, our arena was too muddy for riding. So I decided to take Knockout on a trail ride through our back pasture and woods.

In general, Knockout tends to be skittish with woodland trails and water crossings. I assume his west Texas raising didn’t provide much opportunity for either.

Saturday morning we started out. The 8-inch rainstorm left creeks swollen and trees dripping. Needless to say, Knockout had ample opportunity to feel stressed…and I had ample opportunity to ask him to relax.

Knockout tends to respond the same to each stressful obstacle, whether a fast-flowing creek, a low-hanging branch, or a tall vine. First, he balks. He looks for an out…an alternate path. He may try to turn aside, or he may try to turn around. At this stage, his goal is to simply avoid the stressful situation.

As I continue to hold him to the course and nudge him forward, Knockout’s next strategy is to bolt. Basically, he concludes that if the obstacle cannot be avoided, then the next best thing is to get past it as quickly as possible.

Initially, I allow some level of controlled bolting. While I won’t allow him to totally flee the scene, I don’t mind him picking up to a trot past a ‘spook’ then dropping back to a walk. Over time, however, I expect him to take these things in stride without the need to change speed.

Since he was particularly nervous this morning, I decided it was a good time to work past some of his fears.

I picked out one short stretch of trail that he was especially stressed about and looped back over it, working on relaxing and walking calmly. After several cycles, he was calmer, but still had specific trail sections he tried to rush past. So, I began stopping and backing him up each time he broke into a trot. I backed him up to the location he spooked, and dropped the reins. When he tried to step away, I interfered then dropped the reins.

The first time I brought him to a full stop beside a ‘spook’ Knockout responded with an attempted buck. It wasn’t anything malicious, just a natural response to the situation. He was nervous and frustrated, seeking release for pent-up energy, and it came out in a buck. Fortunately, I was ready and caught it quickly. I interrupted the buck then dropped the reins.

Once Knockout relaxed in the full-stop and ceased trying to buck or step away, I prompted him to continue down the path. Before long, he learned what I wanted and relaxed quicker.

By the time we’d circled through the same path about twenty times, Knockout was able to calmly walk the full path. I could literally feel him relax and cease resisting. We continued a very relaxed ride back home and ended on a good note.

As I thought about Knockout’s lesson that day, I realized he saw three possible responses to a tense situation. As he saw it, he could either balk, bolt, or buck…and if the first didn’t work he’d try the next.

My task is to teach him another option…to believe…to simply relax and trust me. That’s not an easy thing. When his fight-or-flight instincts tell him to balk, bolt, or buck, it’s not easy to trust me enough to simply relax.

Now I’m wondering.

How often do I respond to stressful situations with balk, bolt or buck, while God is asking me to believe…to trust? Click To Tweet

How often does the Holy Spirit whisper, “Fear not. Peace, be still. Have faith. Trust in Me,“ as I frantically look for an out or throw a fit?

And how many times do we circle back around to repeat a lesson I haven’t yet internalized?

Lord, please continue to be patient with me. Help me learn to face stressful situations, not with fear, but with confidence in you.

 

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

 

 

Trust Me

Gallery

This gallery contains 1 photo.

“Come on Mac,” I urge, leading the gelding out of the paddock. “Hold up, Halo,” I direct the mare attempting to squeeze out the gate by following close on Mac’s heels. I lead Mac in front of the barn to strip … Continue reading

Fear Not

Gallery

This gallery contains 1 photo.

Although I am not a horseman, we do own several horses and I do enjoy working with them.  Do not assume this means I know much about horses…I don’t…but I enjoy learning.  🙂 One of our horses is a little … Continue reading