Simple Answers

She graciously steered the conversation toward a topic she knew I like, “So, how do you make a horse go?”

I paused, pondering the question and possible responses. Honestly, the question would have been easier to answer a couple of years ago when I knew less about the topic…which meant I was probably overthinking the question.  Should I start with explaining I don’t make a horse do anything, I ask him?  No, she’d think I was just being nit-picky.  Should I talk about differentiating cues for different speeds?  No, she almost certainly meant moving from a standstill to walking and continuing to walk.  Should I start with explaining it depends on the horse’s level of training?  No, she was clearly referring to a well-trained horse.  It was asked as a simple direct question with expectation of a simple direct answer.

Unsure of my reason for hesitating, she reframed the question, “When you’re riding your horse, how do you get him to go?”

I latched onto the specificity of the reframed question, “Well…with my horse I usually just shift my weight slightly forward and maybe lift the reins a little. That’s usually all he needs.  If that doesn’t get a response, then I might nudge him a little with my legs or smooch him.”

It was a simple direct question expecting a simple direct response. My response was as simple and direct as I knew how to make it.  Yet I knew it likely had more qualifiers than she expected.  I also knew was a very incomplete answer…and not very useful.

It was a very incomplete answer...and not very useful. Click To Tweet

I knew the situation she was referring to. I’ve experienced it myself a few times.  A novice rider on a rented or borrowed horse starts out with a group of riders on a trail ride.  The borrowed horse falls behind the group and slows to a gradual halt.  The novice rider clicks, kicks, swats, or in some other way tries to prod the horse to move out.  The horse responds by picking up to a trot for a few strides then drops right back to a slow walk before stopping to browse on grass or leaves.

The answer I gave was a truthful answer, but of absolutely no use to a rider in such a situation. A horse that did not respond to clicks, kicks or swats was unlikely to respond to a shift of weight or a lift of reins.

To inspire a horse to go in such a situation, one must first understand why the horse stopped. Most likely, the horse stopped walking because the rider stopped riding…or maybe never started riding.  However, that answer requires explanation of what riding entails.

Riding a horse is more than being a passenger. Riding is active.  Riding is movement.  Riding is communication.  I don’t just ask my horse to go.  I also ask him to continue going.  I move in rhythm with his movement, then ask him to move with my movement.  If I stop moving, I expect him to also stop moving.

But it’s not just movement.  It’s communication through movement.  It’s relationship, balance, timing, and movement with meaning…where horse and rider have worked out a system of communication where both know the meaning of different cues and the expected response.  And it’s not one way communication.  The rider isn’t just telling the horse what to do, he’s also listening to the horse, feeling what the horse is thinking and noting where his attention is directed.  Ray Hunt described it as, “First you move with your horse.  Then your horse moves with you.  Then you both move together.”

“How do you make a horse go?” Such a simple direct question…deserving of a simple direct answer.  Yet master horsemen have written volumes trying to answer that question, and will tell you they fall short in the telling.

Why is the answer so complicated? Because the answer involves relationship and communication…because a useful answer must first bring the questioner into a paradigm of beginning to understand a little of that relationship…and because every horse and every rider are different.

Pondering these things I am reminded of the many questions we ask about godliness, expecting simple direct answers. Why would we assume simple direct answers could possibly be either complete or useful?  Human relationships are exponentially more complex than horse relationships.  Human communication is much more nuanced and prone to misunderstanding than horse-human communication.  The Bible tells us God’s ways are much higher than our ways and are beyond our understanding.

Yet, we stubbornly persist in asking simple direct questions from incomplete paradigms in expectation of simple direct answers.

Ask ten different theologians, “When is divorce permissible?” and you will likely receive ten different answers.

But that’s not the puzzling part.

The puzzling part is that nine of those ten theologians will likely respond with a simple direct answer…confident they have provided an answer that is both complete and useful…the sum total of what God has to say on the topic.

Human relations are extremely complex. Marital relations are even more complex than most.  Marital relations in a marriage having gone so badly wrong for one or both to be asking about divorce are likely full of complex contradictory emotions and many years of trying and failing to effectively communicate or effect change.

A person asking the question, “When is divorce permissible?” is clearly interested in pleasing God. Otherwise, there would be no need to even ask the question.  Discerning God’s plans and intentions for any person’s life in any given situation is difficult, requiring listening to the Holy Spirit and understanding His cues.  Yet, many pastors and theologians seem to believe they can speak godly wisdom into people’s lives through trite prescribed wooden answers assumed to fit every situation.

And a person asking such a question is likely in very real need of wise godly input. They don’t need a trite rhetorical response.  They need help and understanding.  They need useful input and prayerful suggestions.  An answer that is incomplete and unhelpful is worse than no response at all.  A simple “I don’t know” would be much better than a misleading answer to such a question.

I am a beginner horseman. Yet I know enough to realize there is no simple, direct, useful answer to the question, “How do you make a horse go?”

How could any experienced pastor believe a useful simplistic answer could be given to a question so fraught with complexities and potential pitfalls as “When is divorce permissible?”

Anyone who believes such a question can be usefully answered with a trite canned response is lacking in wisdom and discernment.

It’s just not that simple.

Impossible Lightness

knockout after riding

Knockout after Saturday’s amazing ride!

Saturday morning dawned clear and cool with a light breeze…a welcome respite from our usual hot, humid, sultry August weather in south Arkansas.

I woke early, had a cup of coffee, and headed out to saddle a horse. I had at least a couple of hours before the rest of the family awoke and intended to fully enjoy the morning.

I wanted to ride the woods trails this morning. I’ve avoided the woods the past couple of months, opting instead for arena or gravel roads.  The woods oppressively confine the suffocating heat and stifling humidity, creating an environment rich in biting insects.  This morning’s low temperatures and light breezes carried hope of an enjoyable woods trail ride.

I brought Knockout (our six year old AQHA gelding) up for grooming. I was pleased to see the scrape on his side has healed.  It was just a minor scrape such as horses acquire while running the pasture with other horses.  However, knowing the rub of a saddle pad can interfere with healing of wounds I had refrained from riding him the past week.

Saddling up, it crossed my mind to wonder if we’d have any issues on this ride. Young horse…cool morning…hasn’t been ridden in over a week…taking him to an area he hasn’t been in a few months…thru trails likely overgrown during the summer…a recipe for disaster?  Just as quickly, I put the concerns aside.  Knockout was calm and my confidence in him has grown as I’ve worked with him the last few months.

I mounted, petted him a couple of times, then barely lifted the reins. Knockout eased forward and I just moved with him as he slow-walked down one side of the arena.

As we passed the pasture gate he turned his head right and acted like he wanted to go out. I lightly twitched the left rein and gently rubbed my left calf against his flank.  His attention returned to me and we continued around the arena.  “Good,” I thought, “he wants to go out in the pasture, which is where I already planned to go.”

I pushed Knockout into a trot. As we circled the arena to approach the pasture gate again I slowed my movement and he dropped to a walk.  When we reached the gate, I leaned back and he stopped.  I untied the gate, grasped it in my right hand, lifted my left stirrup away and pressed my right calf near the girth.  He responded with a left counter-arc step…another ask and another step…then a third.  Now the gate was open enough to walk thru.  I cued a left hindquarter turn and Knockout responded by swinging his hindquarters around 180 degrees so we could pass thru the gate as my right hand slid along the top gate rail.  Once Knockout’s tail cleared the gate post, we side-passed left to close the gate.  Easy-peasy…  😉

As I turned and looked down pasture, Knockout moved with me, walking easy in the direction I faced. Knockout started drifting right a bit, headed toward a different route than I had in mind, “Hey, Joe, let’s go this way.”  I moved my left stirrup away, “I’d rather go left, Knockout,” and he came back to center.

Next step, Knockout eased right again. Again, I brought him to center with a lifted left stirrup.  As he started to step right again, I gently brushed his right shoulder with my right calf, “No, really, Knockout, I want to go left toward that tree I’m facing.”  Knockout proceeded on a straight line toward the tree while facing straight ahead, “Hey, Joe, I changed my mind.  I think this direction feels a little more comfortable.”

As we approached our usual creek crossing I noticed the sandy soil had eroded considerably in recent rains, leaving a fairly deep trench with steep sandy sides. Knockout walked to the creek, stopped, then turned his head to look back at me, “Are you sure this is safe?”

This time I agreed with his concern and looked right downstream, “You’re right, Knockout. That looks a little dangerous.  Why don’t you find a safer crossing for us?”  A few yards downstream we crossed at a wider place with no steep sides or deep trenches.

Coming out of the creek crossing, I looked toward a large oak tree at the back fence line and lightly squeezed my legs. Knockout responded with a long trot on a straight line.  Trotting thru the middle of the cattle herd, we both watched the cattle in our peripheral vision, without breaking stride or turning our heads.  We both stayed focused on each other and our ride.

Not far from the back fence line we turned thru an opening in the tree line to cross into the next pasture. What a surprise awaited there!  A huge flock of Canadian geese were scattered across the pasture.  As we trotted straight toward the middle of the flock, about a hundred geese took flight simultaneously.  It was quite a sight!  Yet we never broke stride or turned our heads.  We continued trotting straight toward the next tree I had picked as a direction marker.

Nearing the start of the woods trail, I slowed my movement and Knockout responded by dropping into a walk as we entered the woods. As expected, the trails had overgrown a bit, but we smoothly navigated between tall brush and overhanging branches with the lift of a stirrup here and a brush of a calf there.  Smooth…light…soft…easy…graceful.

It was truly an amazing ride!

On the one hand, no one thing was particularly spectacular. No one thing stood out as something we hadn’t practiced before.  Yet, it was amazing to experience it all coming together in a continuous flow through the entire ride.

I hardly ever moved my reins. I barely even moved my legs.  Yet we communicated beautifully.

Up until a few years ago, I had no idea it was even possible to steer a horse with anything other than the reins. I thought light horsemanship was neck reining instead of plow reining.  Even when I began to learn a little about the possibility of softer cues, I wasn’t very interested…it all sounded rather mystical.  I certainly never thought I could ride with such lightness!  And the idea of training a horse myself would never have even crossed my mind as a possibility.

Yet, here I am riding this amazing creature with incredible lightness! Yes, I realize the next ride will likely not be quite as smooth.  But I also realize there will be more rides that are as smooth.

So…why am I writing this post about a wonderful ride with my horse? Many of my friends and family who aren’t into horses won’t really understand why I would go on and on about how well my horse handles.  Many friends who are accomplished horsemen may think it’s pretty humorous I’m just now learning things they’ve known their whole life.  A few friends who are pursuing horsemanship may appreciate and relate to my experience.

But here’s the thing. The really crazy part of this whole adventure is that I shouldn’t be doing it to begin with…but I am…and I’m loving it!  🙂

February of 2016, I was at the low point in my cancer treatment. I had been diagnosed with cancer the previous December and undergone two surgeries.  Then spanning January to March, I went thru seven weeks of radiation treatment twice a day and chemo treatment once a week.  The surgery took a major nerve to my right shoulder, leaving me with limited movement of my right arm.

The end of January, during the middle of a chemo treatment, our horse trainer called to tell us the 4-yo colt we’d left with him for 60 days was not going to work out. He said the horse was “training resistant” and recommended selling him and buying a better prospect.

Sherri and I left from the chemo treatment and drove 3 hours to the trainer (without returning home in between) to pick up our colt. We got him home to discover he had been mishandled, was injured, and had become very frightened of men.

A couple of weeks later, I told Sherri, “I’m going to learn to rope. I want to rope with Dawson.  I’m going to learn to rope, and I’m going to rope on Knockout.”

Now, think about that for a second.

I was no horseman by any measure. I was a poor rider with little experience and no skill.  I knew nothing about training horses.  I had never roped.  I had very limited motion in my right arm due to a surgically removed major nerve.  I was undergoing chemo and radiation.  I was very weak.  Most days it was all I could do to keep enough calories and fluids down to make it thru the day.

And here I was saying that not only was I going to learn to rope and learn to train horses, but I was going to start with a horse who had been rejected by a professional trainer, who was afraid of men, and I was not only going to train him to ride, but I was also going to train him to be a roping horse.

That’s pretty audacious! Why on earth would I say such a thing, much less work to follow thru on it?

Has God ever asked you to do something that just didn’t make any sense?

Do you remember the story of Naaman who came to the prophet Elisha asking to be healed of leprosy?  Elisha told him to go wash in the Jordan River seven times and he would be cured of the leprosy.

It made no sense! Why should he wash in the Jordan River?  Wasn’t the water he washed with good enough?  He wasn’t even dirty.  Why should he wash?

Yet, despite the instructions making no sense, Naaman followed God’s direction and washed in the Jordan River seven times…and was healed.

That’s what this was like for me. I was supposed to learn to rope?  I was supposed to learn to train horses?  I was supposed to train a young green-broke, tense, energetic, spooky, flighty young horse to be a roping horse?  It made no sense!

I can’t even explain how I knew I was supposed to do this. No prophet told me to.  God did not speak to me in an audible voice.  Yet, somehow, the Holy Spirit made it clear to me this is what I was supposed to do.

Here I am a year and half later.

I have decent mobility in my arm…which my physical therapist attributes directly to my determination and perseverance in working with that young colt…and to practicing roping.

I’m still not great at roping…but I’m steadily improving.

I’m far from mastering horsemanship…but this young horse I’m working with has sure come along well.

We’re not roping calves or steers yet…but I regularly swing a rope from his back and push calves around the pen.

We’re still working on the fundamentals…but we’re getting pretty close to seeing all the pieces come together to try roping.

Eighteen months ago this looked like an impossible task…right now it’s looking pretty achievable.

God sometimes asks us to do things that sound crazy…because all things are possible with God.

Along the way, I’ve found a lot of healing. The horsemanship and roping have aided both physical and emotional healing…for both Knockout and myself.

And I have learned a lot! I have learned to do things that I didn’t even know were possible to do.  I’ve learned a lot about myself.  I’ve learned a lot about relationships and communication.  I’ve even gained a better understanding of God and of His position toward us.

The master horsemen, Ray Hunt, Bill and Tom Dorrance, Buck Brannaman, all wrote about horsemanship as a lifestyle that affected every aspect of their lives. They believed it not only improved their relationship with the horse, but also their relationships with people.

I can see why…and am learning from them…

I still don’t know the full reason God asked me to do this. But I’ve already seen a huge return on the investment…and believe there is even more to come.

God still asks His people to do crazy things…and He still does the impossible.

 

Your thoughts?

A Way Out

knockout round

Our 5-year-old AQHA gelding

I’m still not much of a horseman.

However, in working with our two young horses (a 1-year-old and a 5-year-old) I’ve been doing a lot of reading and watching videos on the topic of horse training.

Although I’ve barely scratched the surface, I am really having a lot of fun learning!

I’ve noticed a common training theme that is frequently repeated in every chapter and/or video. Some call it the principle of pressure-release.  Others call it making the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.  I just finished reading Ray Hunt’s book, Think Harmony with Horses, in which he calls it putting the horse in a bind while always leaving an out.

It is a very simple training principle with a myriad of practical applications. Carson James has a whole library of videos applying this basic principle to different training situations.

In a nutshell, the idea is to set the horse up in a situation where it is easy for him to do what you’re trying to teach (this is the out), but difficult for him to do anything else (this is the bind). Then apply just enough pressure to encourage the horse to find the out (do what you are trying to teach).

The instant the horse makes a try (takes a step, shifts weight, turns head, etc.) in the right direction, release the pressure.  Take a moment to encourage and reward the horse (pet him and talk to him) then do it again.  Repeat until the horse responds smoothly with the desired response.

One benefit to this technique is that rather than trying to force the horse to do what the trainer wants, the trainer is letting the horse figure it out for himself. Rather than trying to over-ride the horse’s free will, the horse is learning to voluntarily adjust his will to submit to the trainer’s will.

Another benefit, as explained in Think Harmony with Horses, is the bond created between man and horse.  Using this technique, the horse learns to consider the trainer as a trusted friend, because the trainer always leaves the horse an out.  Over time, the horse gains confidence in the trainer and in his ability to follow the trainer’s prompts.

The concept is amazingly simple. The application, however, is an art requiring lots of practice.

The first trick is knowing the horse’s personality and training level well enough to know where to start and how much pressure to apply. Difficult tasks often require breaking learning down into smaller steps, so the horse can gain confidence and understand expectations before learning the difficult task.

Also, the trainer must apply just enough pressure to encourage the horse to search for the out, but not so much pressure as to panic the horse.  As training progresses, the trainer should use less and less pressure, so the horse can learn a quick response to a light touch.

The second trick is timing. Pressure must be applied to encourage desired behavior and instantly released at even a tiny try toward desired behavior.  The release is what lets the horse know where the out is, and the out needs to be as easy to find as possible.  However, as the horse progresses in learning the out, the trainer should hold pressure to insist on a more specific try (such as a full step rather than just a head turn or a weight shift) before releasing pressure.

As I contemplated this concept of putting the horse in a bind while always leaving an out, I was reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:13:

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.

God, who intimately knows my personality and training level, sets me up in stressful situations while always leaving me an out. He knows just how much stress to apply to help me find the out without being unduly panicked.  He is my faithful friend throughout…helping me find the right way and helping me learn to follow His prompts.  He never forces me, but helps me learn to voluntarily submit my will to His.

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

What a faithful friend and personal trainer!

 

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 ]