A Montana Ranching Adventure

While planning our trip to the TX Ranch, in Montana, I experienced difficulty explaining it to other people.  Part of the problem was I had never actually visited the TX Ranch, myself.  My expectations were based on second-hand information through friends and websites.  The bigger problem, though, was in trying to explain the unique experience offered by the TX Ranch.

“Dawson and I are planning a trip to a cattle ranch in Montana, where we will spend a full week working cattle from horseback,” I would say.

This was typically met with a response such as, “Oh, like the movie, City Slickers!”

“Well… sort of…  except hopefully a bit less touristy and a bit more real commercial working cattle ranch.”

“So, like a dude ranch?”

“No, not really.  I mean, yeah, it is a ranch with paying guests.  However, dude ranch usually means sleeping in air-conditioned cabins and going on guided trail rides.  That’s not what this ranch is about.”

So… having just experienced my first visit to the TX Ranch, I will try to describe what it is like.

The TX Ranch is located deep in the Pryor Mountains of southern Montana and northern Wyoming.  I had understood it to be located about a two-hour drive south of Billings.  I did not realize a full hour of that drive is off paved roads, mostly on pasture tracks winding back through the mountain meadows, up and down steep grades, crossing creeks in deep gullies, and stopping every mile or so to open and close gates.

The scenery is stunning.  Each curve and hill reveals yet another scenic panorama of soaring mountains slashed by deep ravines and steep valleys.  The spectacular Pryor Mountain scenery is a continual backdrop to every activity at the ranch.

The camp accommodations are quite rustic.  We slept on cots in tents.  We had no electricity or internet access.  Our only water supply was from a nearby mountain spring with a gravity-fed water line directing water into a plastic tank for our use.  Toilets consisted of outhouses.  Showers were accomplished via camp shower bags, whose temperature depended on the amount of sunshine on a given day.

The kitchen and dining hall are in a log cabin lighted by Coleman lanterns.  Meals are prepared on a gas stove fueled by propane bottles of an appropriate size to haul in the back of a pickup truck.

Overall, the accommodations are what one might expect at a working cow camp… which is exactly what this is.  That should be the first clue as to what the week was like.

We all signed on to spend a week experiencing the life of a historic western cowboy and the TX Ranch did not disappoint.  The owner, Hip, treated us like the latest group of newly hired employees.  Each morning after breakfast and saddling horses, Hip discussed the plans for the day.  Then we would split into smaller groups assigned to different areas and ride out to gather cattle.

The first day, we gathered cattle out near the horse pasture and pushed them to a hilltop where they were easy to hold.  There we roped, ear tagged, castrated, and inoculated the calves.

The second day, we wrangled horses across a 15 mile drive through rugged country to the Deadman Camp in preparation for the following day.

The third day, we were dropped off at Deadman, where we each saddled a fresh horse (because our first horse had been ridden hard for two days in a row).  We then proceeded to gather cows from the Deadman area to drive back to a pasture closer to our camp at Lone Wolf.  That was a long, hard, dusty workday.  We worked 12 hours, with 11 hours in the saddle, gathering cows in mountainous terrain with dense brush filling the draws and creek banks.

On the ride back, we paused at each gate to cut the herd, making sure only TX-owned cattle passed through the gate.  I really enjoyed watching Hip and his daughter Des cut the herd.  They were amazing!  They each sized up at a glance which cows belonged.  Then, with a subtle side-step of their horse to leave an opening while applying light pressure, they would signal three or four cows to abandon the herd and walk away.  A slight shift the other direction and another cow walked off.  It was truly poetry in motion watching the two of them work together to cut out all cattle not belonging to the TX herd.

The fourth day, we made another gather of cattle near Star Hill, including those we brought back from Deadman the previous day.  Then we roped, branded, ear-tagged, castrated, and inoculated the calves.

The fifth day, we gathered cows near the Lone Wolf Camp and nearby pastures and creeks.  We used the Lone Wolf corrals to sort out all the calves, then cut the calves to only those who were not ear tagged.  Then we worked the calves in the corral, which allowed everyone who wanted an opportunity to rope calves from the ground, without the added stress of managing reins and handling a horse while dallying to the saddle horn.

The sixth day was another gather, followed by working the calves, followed by moving the herd north to another pasture.

In six days, I rode four different horses.  Each horse was a solid mount willing to ride up steep hills, down into deep ravines, and through thick brush to flush out cattle.  Each horse worked hard all day, with enough energy to finish out the day pushing, holding or roping cattle.

Some days included a lot of dismounting and remounting to stoop down walking thru the thick brush to flush cows out.  I learned to always position the horse with the off side downhill for easier dismounting and remounting.  All the horses ground-tied fairly well.  My preferred mount, 773, stayed exactly where I dropped his reins, while I ran yelling thru the brush to flush cows. He then stood patiently while I returned to remount and ride off through thick brush to push the cattle into the growing herd.

I learned to ride with split reins… something I previously never felt comfortable doing.  A week of riding with split reins taught me they are no big deal.  Plus, they come in pretty handy for swatting a contrary cow on the rump.

The first day, when Hip asked for volunteers to rope, I volunteered.  As a result, I was part of the roping team for the remainder of the week.  Although I was not very proficient, I did manage to rope about fifteen calves across the week.

Those of you who have been tracking my personal story will recall learning to rope has been a goal of mine for a few years, now… since before cancer surgery took a major nerve in my right shoulder… limiting both strength and motion in that shoulder… as well as loss of muscle memory.  So… bear with me as I do my happy dance for a moment.

I roped calves!!!  Live calves… from horseback!!!   🙂

Dawson also roped… much more proficiently than I did.  In fact, Dawson was pretty much our top roper.  His experience competitively roping in the arena definitely proved useful.  However, he learned roping in the middle of a herd is a lot different from competitive arena roping.

I also gained confidence trotting, loping, and galloping across all sorts of rough terrain.  While gathering cattle, it was easy to forget to worry about my balance or the horse’s response, as both the horse and I focused on getting the job done.

Perhaps the best (and least expected) part of the trip was the people.  Both the TX crew and our fellow guests were wonderful!  Everyone worked hard, joked, teased, laughed, helped, and had a good time.  There is something about spending hours working hard together, backing each other up, followed by relaxing, eating and laughing together, that helps develop a close-knit team.

Thinking back across the week, several humorous moments stand out… mostly having to do with my lack of understanding.

For example, there was the long, hard, dusty day we brought cattle back from Deadman.  We were pushing the cattle along a trail with a poorly maintained barb-wire fence on the right side.  Several cows kept making a run to escape through holes in the fence and I was working hard to keep them going down the trail with the rest of the herd.  Suddenly two cows and a calf made a run for a spot where the fence was lying on the ground.  I pushed my horse into a lope, trying to reach the hole in time to turn them back, but they made it through the fence.  I tried to pursue them, but my horse hesitated at crossing the fence.  When I pushed him, he tentatively started to cross the low wire, then pulled back, momentarily snagging a front shoe on a wire.  By the time I got my horse settled and extracted from the fence wire, the cows were long gone into the brush along the creek.

Frustrated, I glanced toward Hip for direction.  “Why don’t you ride ahead to the next gate and make sure the cows go through the gate?” Hip suggested.

I rode ahead with Des following.  About 100 yards down the trail, we came to an unobstructed gap at a fence corner.  “Is this the gate Hip was talking about?” I asked Des.

“Yeah, just make sure the cows don’t wander off down that trail to the left,” Des responded.

“Do you mean we’re pushing the cows through a gate into the very pasture I’ve been working so hard to keep them out of?”

“Yep!” Des quipped, with a wry grin and a nod.

“Dang!  I was working my butt off keeping them on this side of that fence!” I exclaimed.

“Yes, you were!” laughed Des.

Later that evening, after dinner, I told Hip, “I’m confident I gave you 110% effort all day today.  However, I only had about 40% understanding what I was supposed to be doing.  Which means I was only about 44% effective and about 66% counterproductive.”

“That’s great!” Hip responded, “Joe, if I had a half-dozen riders all 44% effective, we could get a lot done in a day.”

I fell asleep pondering these events.  As I drifted off to sleep, Ray Hunt’s words regarding horsemanship came to mind, “Set it up and let it happen.”  Ray’s approach to horsemanship centered around setting the horse up for success, then letting him figure it out for himself.

As the week progressed, I realized Hip and Des seem to follow this model in pretty much everything they do.  Hip gave us only a bare minimum of verbal direction on what we were to do each day.  Then he left us to figure out the rest through a combination of watching and doing.

The best part of this approach is the freedom allowed each of us to try new things.

When I set out to gather a couple of cows spotted on a mountaintop, nobody called me back.  Nobody told me I would never be able to gather those cows and get them back in the herd on my own.  I was allowed to explore, try, and figure things out for myself.  As a result, I grew confident trying new things and riding rough trails… trusting my horse to go where I asked then get me safely back.

Sometimes it worked out as planned and sometimes it didn’t.  Either way, I had fun trying!

Isn’t that similar to the approach God uses in directing our steps?  He tends to give us a bare minimum of direction, then grant us the freedom to enjoy figuring out the specifics for ourselves.

When God told Abraham to leave his home in Ur of the Chaldeans and travel to the land of Canaan, He didn’t provide a whole lot of specifics.  Abraham spent the rest of his life wandering around Canaan, trying to figure what he was to do next, while trusting God to fulfill His promises and provide what was needed.  Sometimes Abraham made wise choices and sometimes he didn’t.  Either way, he gained a deeper relationship with God based on a higher level of trust.

When God told Moses to go ask Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, He did not provide many specifics.  Moses had to act in faith with a bare minimum of understanding of the plan.  Then God provided further direction as needed.  By the end of his life, Moses had led the people of Israel out of Egypt, through 40 years of living in the desert, and had gained a much deeper relationship with God and a greater reliance on God’s trustworthiness.

I see God working in our lives today in much the same manner.  God tends to give us a bare minimum of details in asking us to step out in faith.  Many times the details are left for us to figure out for ourselves.  Sometimes we make wise choices and sometimes we don’t.  Either way, we can trust God to work through our meager faith to work His will and purpose in our lives while drawing us into deeper relationship with Himself.

Listening in Distress

The Morning View from My Front Porch

It is a beautiful mid-July Saturday morning in south Arkansas!  The sun is bright.  The grass is green. The dew is still on the grass. A cool refreshing breeze stirs the leaf-covered tree limbs, and the oppressive heat has not yet set in for the day.

This week has been a series of peaceful early morning rides before work. Knockout and I have ridden out in the cool dawn hours to check cows before the sweltering daily heat sets in…and before I have to leave for work.

Knockout has been super calm and responsive with everything I’ve asked of him.  The cattle have all been calm and sleepily serene.  All has been quiet and peaceful.

This morning was different, though…

This morning, Knockout was reluctant and distracted from the start.   He balked as I led him out of the pasture, so we took a few minutes to regain his attention.

Coming through the pasture gate, Knockout was distracted and spooky. So we spent a few more minutes focusing attention.

Then our dog started barking and Knockout totally spooked sideways at what turned out to be a stray cat hiding in our fence line.

As I groomed, saddled and mounted, Knockout seemed calm. We rode out to check cattle and all was going peacefully until a group of calves spooked and loudly ran up into the middle of the herd. That caused Knockout some concern, but I convinced him to calmly continue walking forward as the calves rushed around and past us.

We checked all the cows in the back pasture, but were missing a few that I saw over in the front pasture. As we headed toward the open gate to the front pasture, something spooked the whole herd and they all started bawling and running toward the front pasture.

With a bawling running herd of cattle on our heels, Knockout was quite nervous, but we walked (on a loose rein) through the gate and down to the nearby creek. As we crossed the creek, cows surged up behind us from both sides, and Knockout bounded up the creek bank just ahead of them.  Safely across the creek, I guided Knockout to the side, where I turned him to stand and watch the cattle file past us, as they slowed to a single-file procession and began grazing.

Once all the cattle were accounted for, we checked fence and repaired a loose wire before returning to the arena, where we walked a couple of barrel patterns on a loose rein before calling it good for the day.

It was a good ride!  🙂

As I unsaddled, I realized how my expectations in a horse have changed.  I used to think the perfect horse was one that would never spook at anything and would remain calm no matter what happened.

Now, I expect a horse to sometimes get disturbed at stuff. What I want is for him to still listen to me even when he’s disturbed.

This morning’s ride was every bit as enjoyable to me as the preceding uneventful rides.  Knockout’s distress at unexpected events was not a setback.  It was just an event to be handled…and he handled it well…listening to me and following my cues.

Isn’t that how our relationship should be with God?

Throughout scripture, angels, prophets, and apostles frequently encourage God’s people to not be afraid.  Jesus, Himself, told us:

For this reason I say to you, do not worry about your life, as to what you will eat; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap; they have no storeroom nor barn, and yet God feeds them; how much more valuable you are than the birds! And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life’s span? If then you cannot do even a very little thing, why do you worry about other matters? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass in the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, how much more will He clothe you? You men of little faith! And do not seek what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not keep worrying. For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things. But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:22-32)

I’ve heard some people label worry and fear as sinful… an obvious lack of faith.  I’ve heard people label as commandments the many scriptural calls to not be afraid.  I have even heard pastors preach against using anxiety medications, saying people just need to trust God and have faith.

I don’t read these passages that way at all!

I see these calls to not be afraid, not as commandments, but rather as encouragement… much as I tell Knockout, “easy boy” when he acts distressed.  I don’t get angry with Knockout for being afraid.  Rather I seek to encourage and comfort him in his fear.

I comfort Knockout in his distress by calmly giving him something to do.  I may ask him to calmly walk forward.  I may ask him to turn and stop.  I may ask him to walk a small circle.

See, what I’m doing is helping Knockout remember to listen to me in the midst of his distress… and as he listens to me and responds to my cues, he becomes less distressed.

I don’t look at Knockout’s fear as a failure on his part.  I look at it as an opportunity for us to work on clear communication and direction during his distress.

I believe the same is true of my relationship with God.  He doesn’t expect me to never be distressed.  He simply wants me to listen to Him and follow His prompts in the midst of my distress.

After all, He is the Master Horseman!

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.

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 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?

Empathy

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

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

Here is a quote from the final chapter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationship versus Rules

Saturday morning, Knockout and I started out on a relaxing pasture ride.

We rode through the arena, out into the back pasture, where we checked the cattle. We crossed the creek and headed toward the back corner, where we entered the woods.  We meandered thru several loops of woods trails, crossing creeks as we went.

It was one of those wonderfully light rides where everything feels effortless. My cues were light and Knockout was soft and responsive.

Yes, I was directing Knockout, but not in an overbearing way. It was more of a conversation, where I politely asked and Knockout willingly responded.  Sometimes, Knockout anticipated before I asked and I just went with him.  Other times, Knockout suggested a turn and I said no…but even the no was light and Knockout’s response was soft.

It was wonderful!

Then we turned up toward the gate to the front pasture.

At first, Knockout willingly complied…but then he started drifting right toward the arena. I brought him back toward the pasture gate…and he promptly drifted right, again.  We did that several times, then Knockout tried going left.  I brought him back to center and he over-responded going too far right.

Knockout’s intent was clear. He didn’t want to ride in the front pasture.  He was ready to go back to the arena and unsaddle.  Knockout was ready for the ride to be over.

I’ve dealt with this sort of dodgy behavior before, so it was not a big deal. I gathered the reins in both hands, holding them wide, low, and forward with just a small amount of slack.  This left Knockout with restricted freedom between left-and-right rein pressures.  So long as he stayed in the middle there was no pressure, but if he turned his head to either side he ran into pressure.

At the same time, I reinforced the rein pressure with leg pressure, holding my body firmly forward so that any turns to left or right were countered with simultaneous rein and leg pressure.

That is how we rode thru the pasture gate…with Knockout trying to dodge left or right while I held him firmly to a forward path.

Once thru the gate, Knockout settled a bit and we continued our ride without further incident.

Do you see what happened, there?

The whole first half of our ride was smooth and light…enjoying each other’s presence…attentively listening to each other…respecting each other’s input. The whole first half of our ride, Knockout was actively seeking and following my will.  I was polite and soft with my direction and Knockout was willingly responsive.  I barely touched the reins, because there was simply no need.  My seat, legs and reins were used for communication, rather than for forcing my will on Knockout.

But when I pointed Knockout toward the pasture gate, that all changed.

Knockout was not disobedient or disrespectful. He still followed my cues.  Knockout still went where I told him to.  But he stopped seeking my will.  He stopped seeking to please me.

Rather than willingly responding to a light cue, he started ignoring the light cues…as though he hadn’t heard my ask.

When I reinforced the light cue with a firmer cue, rather than appropriately responding, Knockout over-responded. I asked for a step right, and he took three steps right.

Knockout was still following my rules…but he was no longer seeking my will. Knockout stopped using my soft cues as a communication tool to understand and do my will.  Instead, he began over-responding to my firmer cues in an attempt to use my cues to accomplish his will.

At that point, Knockout reverted to legalism.

For that stretch between the end of one woods trail to the front pasture gate, Knockout was rigidly following firm rules with no regard for my will. For that short stretch, our relationship ceased to be about understanding…and reverted to rigid rules-following.  Knockout responded to my cues, not by seeking my will, but by swinging too far one way, then too far the other.

This is what we do when we attempt to use the Bible to replace the work of the Holy Spirit. We start seeing scripture, not as a revelation to draw us into relationship with Christ, but rather as a mystical rule book filled with rigid rules of behavior complete with exception clauses and loop holes to be broadly enforced in all life circumstances.  The more we focus on ‘the rules’ the less attention we pay to pursuing God’s heart…because we assume we’re abiding in His will by following ‘the rules.’

Much like Knockout obeyed my cues while ignoring my will, we attempt to follow God’s rules while completely missing God’s heart.

Scripture is not intended to tell us what to do in all of life’s circumstances. Scripture is intended to lead us into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.  The written word is intended to be just one of multiple means of communication between us and God.

Yes, scripture is important…very important…much as my reins are important while riding. When the relationship is working well, the reins are a communication tool to help telegraph my body language, rather than an enforcement tool to impose my will.

Trying to live a life pleasing to God by simply following scripture, without listening to the Holy Spirit, would be like Knockout following my prompts without trying to discern my will. Yes, we eventually got thru the pasture gate…but it was a lot harder than necessary and not very enjoyable for either of us.

Rigid rules and inflexible edicts are a form of communication…but they tend to lead toward resistance rather than understanding.

Jesus came to show us the Father’s heart…and He sent the Holy Spirit to lead us in understanding.

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. (John 5:39-40)

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. (John 3:16-17)

Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9)

These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. (John 14:25-26)

So, how can we know when we’ve gravitated toward legalism rather than relationship?

Scripture provides a good measuring stick:

He has told you,
O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

When defending doctrinal position leads us to focus on arrogantly telling people how they should behave, rather than on justice and kindness, it’s a sure sign we have let legalistic rules blind us to God’s heart.

Jesus said it even more succinctly:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. (John 13:34)

Love others as Christ loves us. This is our commission.  This is our calling.  This is what it means to be a follower of Christ.