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.

Rules of Relationship

Knockout sporting his new headstall

Saturday morning, I opted for a leisurely ride with Knockout before the rest of the family awoke.

I had a quick cup of coffee, took care of a few chores, grabbed a halter, and headed for the pasture. I greeted Knockout and talked about the beautiful weather as I slipped the halter on him.  Knockout seemed happy to see me and willingly followed my lead.  We exited the pasture gate and headed for the tack room, where I promptly dropped the lead line on the ground and opened the door.

Some folks say to never drop a lead line on the ground. The horse is liable to run off.  He may freak when the lead moves as he moves.  Or, he may step on the lead, trap his own head, startle, and throw a fit.  People and horses have been injured doing this.  It’s a really bad idea.

I reached inside the tack room to grab a handful of treats. I gave two treats to Knockout and shoved the rest in my pocket.  I handed out the rest of the treats at intervals during the grooming session.  Knockout made sort of a game of politely asking for a treat as I completed different stages of grooming.  Of course, I laughed and obliged him.

Some folks say to never give horses treats. Giving horses treats causes them to become disrespectful and pushy, always trying to grab treats from pockets.  Some people have been bitten or run over doing this.  It’s a really bad idea.

I fly-sprayed Knockout, then sprayed conditioner on his mane and tail, before combing out the tangles. I picked his hooves then thoroughly brushed him, working front-to-back down his left side, around his hind-quarters, then up the right side.

Some folks say to never walk directly behind a horse. You could get kicked.  People have been seriously injured doing this.  It’s a really bad idea.

As I groomed, Knockout stood calmly relaxed. Occasionally, he would drop his head to grab a mouthful of grass.  Sometimes, he would take a step to grab a particularly tempting clump of grass.  I simply applied soft pressure to guide him back to the original spot and went right back to grooming.

Some folks say to never let a horse eat grass while he has a halter and lead line on. The horse could form a bad habit of constantly stopping to eat instead of paying attention to the rider.  It is a hard habit to break and incredibly annoying.  It shows disrespect.  It is a really bad idea.

Next I stepped inside the tack room for the saddle pad and saddle, placing each on Knockout before flopping the stirrups and straps into place and tightening the girths and breast collar.

Some folks say to never saddle a horse without having the lead line secured. The horse could spook and run.  If the saddle gets knocked off he could panic and learn to fear the saddle.  It is a really bad idea.

Then I took Knockout’s halter off, set it aside, and slipped his bridle on.

Some folks say to always latch the halter strap around the horse’s neck while putting the bridle on. Otherwise, you have no way to control the horse if something happens.  The horse could run off and cause all sorts of problems.  It is a really bad idea.

I gathered the reins and mounted. Knockout stood still as I got situated and petted him.  Then he calmly walked off.

Normally, I’m pretty insistent on requiring a horse to stand still until I cue him to move. This time was interesting, though, as I was just ready to cue when he started moving.  It seemed like Knockout knew what I was going to ask before I asked it, and acted accordingly.

Some folks say to never let a horse walk off without a cue from the rider. It teaches the horse to do what he wants instead of following the rider’s cues.  It is very disrespectful, leads to bad habits, and can get dangerous.  It is a really bad idea.

Since Knockout started walking before I actually cued him, I decided to wait and see where he went. I planned to ride thru the arena gate, out the other side of the arena, and into the pasture.  But I was interested to see what Knockout had in mind.

Knockout walked calmly to the arena gate, turned to align his body with the gate, and stopped with the latch beside my stirrup. I reached down, unlatched the gate, swung it open, and we rode into the arena.  Then I prompted Knockout to turn, back up, and side-pass as I closed the gate.

I don’t know if Knockout somehow knew my plans through some subtle signal I unintentionally gave, or if we just lucked out with him wanting to do what I already planned to do. Either way, it was pretty cool!  I wonder if this is what Ray Hunt was talking about when he wrote, “Let your idea become the horse’s idea.”

Some folks say to never let a horse decide where to go. The horse should always follow the rider’s prompts.  If you start letting the horse make his own decisions under saddle, he could start ignoring the rider and just doing whatever he wants.  It is a really bad idea.

As we headed out of the arena toward the back pasture, Knockout walked toward the path we usually take. However, the cattle herd was on the east side of the pasture and I wanted to check on the young calves.  So, I gently asked Knockout to head that direction.  He promptly turned where I asked…then just as promptly started swinging back toward the familiar route.  So, I repeated the soft cue.  Again he promptly responded then started swinging back to familiar paths.

On the third prompt, Knockout stayed with the direction I asked for and simultaneously picked up into a trot. I’m not sure why he increased his gait.  Maybe he saw the cows and thought we were going to drive them…he enjoys pushing cows out of the arena.  Or, maybe he was just enjoying the nice cool morning and felt like trotting.  Either way, I decided to just go with him and let him set the pace.  Then, as we neared the herd, I slowed him to a walk so we wouldn’t startle the cows.

Some folks say to never let the horse change gaits without a prompt from the rider. The horse may start thinking he can do what he wants.  That leads to bad habits and you will soon have a horse who bolts uncontrolled.  The rider must always be firmly in control.

The young calves and the mama cows all looked healthy. I pulled out my cell phone and snapped a few pictures before we continued on.  As we left the herd, Knockout again picked up into a nice smooth trot which we continued all the way around the back of the pasture until I slowed him to a walk as we entered the woods.

Other than a pesky swarm of a gnats, we both enjoyed the freshly trimmed woods trail. Not far from the entrance, Knockout sort of half-stepped to the right toward a little cut-thru trail.  He wasn’t pushy or demanding about it…more of a tentative request, “Shall I turn here?”  I lifted my left stirrup to let him know I didn’t want the right turn.  As we continued on, I petted Knockout and told him I appreciated him paying attention and asking politely.  “We’ll take that path another time.”

As we neared a big mud hole I started looking to see the water level. If it is full of water, I usually ask Knockout to go ahead and walk thru it.  However, if it is just yucky, sticky mud I usually prompt him to cut thru the woods to the left.

This time, the mud hole was a sticky, muddy mess. But before I could prompt Knockout to turn, he made the decision himself, confidently turning left thru the woods.  I just went with him.  Why correct a horse when he’s making good decisions?  Yay, Knockout! 🙂

We stopped to trim a few vines from the cut-thru trail. Vines tend to dangle and swing with nothing to brace against.  So, I wound up dropping the reins in front of the saddle to stand in the stirrups, grasping the vine with my left hand while trimming with my right hand.

Some folks say to never drop the reins. The horse could spook and run.  The reins could fall over his head and tangle in his hooves, causing him to panic and resulting in an accident.  Horses have been injured doing this.  It is a really bad idea.

All went well and Knockout was calm throughout…except the time a leafy branch landed square on his head and hung on his ears, refusing to drop to the ground even with vigorous head-shaking combined with a little side-stepping. I laughed, leaned forward, grabbed the branch, and dropped it to the ground.

As we approached the creek crossing, I was looking at two possible routes, trying to gage which was better since the last rain. Before I decided, Knockout confidently turned to the nearest of the two and hopped across.  Hey…that looked like as good a decision as any…and he is the one who has to make the crossing after all.  Why correct a good decision?

The whole ride sort of went that way. I gave Knockout more liberty than usual, trusting him to do the right thing.  Knockout responded by becoming more confident in his decisions.  So long as he was going pretty much where I wanted, I let him decide.  If we needed to make adjustments, I let him know that, too.

My cell phone rang…summoning me back to the house.

I prompted a canter departure and Knockout responded with a nice smooth lope across the back pasture. As we approached the pond levy, I slowed him and we walked across and back to the arena.

Some folks say to never canter on the way home. The horse is liable to run away in over-eagerness to get back home.  It is a really bad idea.

As we entered the arena gate, Knockout turned right, walked past the roping chute into the roping box, turned around, and backed into the corner. “Dude, you have got this down!” I laughed, as he calmly waited for me to dismount, loosen the cinch, and lead him back to the tack room.

It was a pretty awesome ride…one I hope to build on as we grow in trusting each other and listening to each other in this partnership.

Did you notice how many times I disregarded various rules I’ve heard?

People have a lot of rules for handling horses. Most of them are good rules.  They’re important.  Most of these rules have been learned and passed on by people who have personal experience with just how quickly and how badly things can go wrong when working with horses.

Reading this post, you might get the impression I don’t have much use for rules. You might even think I recklessly flaunt rule violations.

That would be a false impression.

I’m actually quite safety conscious. I’m the only male western rider I know who regularly wears a riding helmet, for example.

Every rule I listed is a rule I have followed in the past. And I’m pretty sure I have passed most of those rules on to children, grandchildren, and guests who have visited our horses.  If I was handling a strange horse I didn’t know, I would carefully follow these same rules, at least until I got to know him better.  In fact, with our own horses who I interact with daily, I follow these rules to varying degrees, depending on what I’m doing with which horse.

As I see it, these rules have a time and place. They are important, but not as important as a relationship built on trust and mutual respect.

While working with horses, one must always be safety-conscious. Horses are big, powerful, fast animals with natural flight instincts.  We humans are quite fragile by comparison, and easily injured.  Those rules I mentioned are wisdom handed down to help keep riders safe.

The rules are an attempt to keep the rider in control, so as to be as safe as possible. The only problem is, the longer I work with horses the more aware I become that I am never truly in control.  The horse is so much bigger, faster and more powerful than me, I can never really control him.  I can ask all I want, but I can never really make him do anything.  I’m much too puny compared to his awesome strength.

To safely guide a horse, I need the horse to trust me. I want him to look to me as a leader he will willingly follow.  And when he is startled or frightened, I want him to look to me for guidance.  Otherwise, he will blindly follow his instincts to balk, bolt, or buck.

In other words, my ongoing safety in working with a horse is dependent on our building a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. And following the rules too rigidly interferes with the building of that relationship.  Following the rules too rigidly for too long can actually make the situation less safe by not letting the relationship of trust develop.

Rules are based on trying to control. Relationship is based on trust that doesn’t require rigid control.

The rules are important…but they have a time and place. The rules are important…but should not be rigidly applied to all situations with all horses all the time.

And the more the relationship develops into mutual trust and respect with clear communication, the less helpful the rules become.

In the beginning the rules are important, and things are more black and white. But once mutual trust and respect blossom thru consistency and clear communication, the rules have sort of served their purpose and become less important than the relationship.

The same is true in my relationship with God.

The Bible says “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” As Christians we have all seen respected leaders fall to the sin of adultery.  We have multiple examples in scripture of spiritual leaders such as Samson or King David committing adultery.  So, we create safety rules such as never be alone with someone of the opposite sex…even in a public setting.

The Bible admonishes to whole-heartedly live out covenant vows and to not treat a covenant partner treacherously. So, we create safety rules that divorce should always be avoided…no matter what.

The Bible admonishes against habitual drunkenness. We have all known folks who were addicted to alcohol and have seen the destruction it can lead to.  So, we create safety rules that prohibit drinking alcohol..ever..for any reason.

The list goes on and on. The Bible exhorts us to modesty…so we create rigid dress codes.  The Bible exhorts us to not neglect gathering together…so we set specific dates and times.  And the more a given group stresses the need to rigidly live by the rules, the more rules they come up with.  Every infraction is dealt with by adding a new rule to attempt to minimize temptation or maximize righteousness.

Much like the horse safety rules, these rules of Christian living are generally good rules based on wisdom someone gained through experience and passed on to others. They are intended to keep people safe.

The only problem is, trying to live by rules can never keep us safe.

Our safety can only be assured through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, based on trust and respect, built on clear communication in the Holy Spirit. Trying to live by the rules actually interferes with the development of that relationship.

Rules are based on trying to control. Relationship is based on trust that doesn’t require rigid control.

In the beginning the rules are important, and things are more black and white. But once mutual trust and respect blossom thru consistency and clear communication, the rules have sort of served their purpose and become less important than the relationship.

Speaking to religious leaders who were experts in biblical rules, Jesus said,

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)

Paul reinforced this principle in his letter to the Galation believers who were becoming focused on rigidly following rules,

But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. (Galations 3:23-26)

The rules are important…but they have a time and place. The rules are important…but should not be rigidly applied to all situations for all Christians all the time.

The rules are wisdom to help keep us safe as we develop relationship. Once the relationship begins to blossom in trust through clear communication, the rules are no longer necessary and become a liability, interfering with relationship building.

 

Your thoughts?

Enduring Hardship

Knockout sporting his new headstall

Sunday morning dawned a cool, clear, beautiful Spring day!  🙂

I rose early to sip a cup of coffee before slipping quietly out of the house to saddle Knockout for a quick ride before church.

I carried a pair of shears for trimming brush along the path.  The first time trimming brush with Knockout went so well, I decided to trim another short trail loop.

After a relaxed trot to the back pasture, we entered the woods and I pulled out my shears as we approached the first overgrown bush.  Knockout showed considerable concern.  He was clearly uncomfortable with both the shears in my hand and the close proximity to the bush!

Honestly, I was a bit surprised.  A few weeks ago when I first introduced Knockout to trimming brush, he was much calmer than I had anticipated.  So, I was expecting to pick right up this time.  But that’s not where Knockout’s head was that morning.

So, I followed Ray Hunt’s advice to “work with the horse you have today.”  We took a few minutes to incrementally rebuild Knockout’s confidence with both the shears and close proximity to thick brush, and within five minutes Knockout was nice and relaxed as I snipped away with leaves and small branches falling on his head and around his shoulders.

About halfway through the trail, I moved Knockout toward an overgrown pin oak branch.  Knockout acted tense about this particular branch and kept trying to move away from it.  This surprised me, since he had been so relaxed up to that point.

Thinking Knockout might be bothered by the shear number of little branches and leaves on a pin oak, I decided to start snipping at the edge and gradually work our way closer.  That worked pretty well, but then we reached a point Knockout started acting nervous again.  I thought maybe the small pine log lying in the trail was a concern, but studying it carefully I didn’t see any sign of snakes or other danger…and decided if the log was causing him angst, then he needed to learn to relax near the log.

So, once again we spent a couple of minutes rebuilding confidence, until Knockout was standing relaxed with his front hooves straddling the log.  He stood for several minutes in that position as I snipped all the branches I could reach, then I asked him to step closer to the tree.

AND…he backed completely out of reach!  …and acted hesitant about coming any closer…

That’s really not like him.  So, once again I scanned the area to try to figure out what he was concerned about.

That’s when I saw it.  That pine log he had been straddling was completely covered in fire ants!  The ants were hidden beneath the log, but swarmed Knockout’s front legs when his weight disturbed their home.

I felt so bad!  Poor Knockout!  🙁

I quickly dismounted and brushed the ants off his legs as best I could.  Then I remounted and we found another way to access the pin oak branch without stepping near the fire ants’ log.  Knockout was good as gold the rest of the ride, and we finished trimming that particular trail loop.

Riding home, I couldn’t stop thinking about how stoically Knockout stood relaxed for several minutes while fire ants swarmed and stung his legs.  Simply because I asked him to, he stood there unflinchingly enduring the pain of those stings, until I asked him to move.

Had I known what he was enduring, I never would have asked him to stand in that specific location.  It was never my intent for him to be stung.  Yes, I wanted him under the pin oak limb, where I could reach to trim.  However, it was never my intent for him to suffer needless hardship.

I wonder how many times I do that with God?  How many times do I remain in a difficult or painful situation far longer than necessary, believing that is where God wants me?

I don’t mind asking Knockout to do hard things.  Knockout was initially uncomfortable standing near the thick brush, and I asked him to do it, anyway.  I had a plan and a purpose in asking him to do that.  My purpose included working together to clear the trail.  It also included building Knockout’s confidence in uncomfortable situations.  So, clearly, Knockout’s comfort is not my highest priority.  I don’t mind putting him in uncomfortable situations…but it is always for a good purpose.

I would never intentionally make Knockout uncomfortable unnecessarily.  Being close to the shears and the dense brush was a necessary discomfort that was part of my plan to fulfill my purpose for Knockout.  However, the fire ants were a source of needless pain that served no purpose.

Yes, I am very proud of Knockout for being willing to stand quietly, enduring the pain of fire ants, for my sake.  But that was never my intention for him, and I was quick to brush the ants off and help him avoid their abuse.

I think we sometimes have similar miscommunications on God’s intent for our lives in regard to abusive or toxic relationships.

Yes, God often calls us to do things outside our comfort zone.  Yes, He asks us to love others with some level of vulnerability and giving of self.  He makes it clear that our comfort is not His highest priority in our lives.

Yet, when He asks us to do uncomfortable things, or to endure uncomfortable situations, it is always with a plan and a purpose.  God does not delight in seeing us endure needless pain.  Yes, He delights in our willingness to trust Him in difficult situations…but that doesn’t mean He wants us to endure needless pain.

God loves us much more than I love my horses.  If I grieve over Knockout’s needless pain at the sting of fire ants, how much more must God grieve over our needless suffering at the fickle whim of an abuser?  And just as I hurried to brush the fire ants off Knockout’s legs, our Heavenly Father hastens to deliver us from abusive relationships.

God does not call us to needlessly suffer for Him.  He calls us to trust His faithfulness in all of life’s circumstances.

For the Lord is good;
His lovingkindness is everlasting
And His faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100:5)

What a faithful friend!

 

Safe!

knockout after riding

Knockout after Saturday’s amazing ride!

It is time to clear our woods trails, again.

Brush is starting to encroach from the sides, narrowing the trails.  Overhanging limbs are extending lower, becoming riding obstacles.  As spring advances, it will only get worse until a trail ride becomes an obstacle course.

Those overhanging branches are a bit of concern in general, but especially when riding Knockout, our 7-year-old quarter horse (Can he really be seven? Wow!  2 ½ years doesn’t seem long from my perspective, but the difference in age between a 4-year-old colt and a 7-year-old horse is huge.  He can’t be called a colt anymore…he’s a young adult horse).

Knockout doesn’t like low-hanging branches…never has. He also doesn’t like branches brushing against my helmet as we ride.  He’s not nearly as reactive to them as he was two years ago.  Some days he ignores them completely.  Other times he’ll startle-in-place at the first few occurrences before settling down to ignore them.  Overall, the low-hanging branches are not too big a deal anymore.  But I still ride with an awareness of potential spooks and guide him thru a route that avoids unnecessary brushing against branches.

So, cleaning up the trails would make my rides a little more relaxed. Plus, it would open the trails back up to being able to ride two-abreast rather than single file.

I’ve learned trail clearing is best done from horseback. The horse becomes a mobile scaffold from whom high branches can be reached.  He also acts as a visual guide as to how high the branches need to be trimmed.

For clearing trails, a really calm, mature horse is needed…a horse who is perfectly comfortable standing under low hanging branches while I stand in the stirrups, reach around at odd angles with clippers, and drop small branches on his head.

Sonny, our 18-year-old paint, is the horse for trail clearing. Sonny can sometimes be a bit persistent in his wilfulness, but he is not spooky.  Sonny can be relied on to stay calm even in very distracting circumstances.

Last weekend, I had a (silent) conversation with myself that went something like this:

Me:        One evening this week, I need to saddle Sonny and go clean out those woods trails.

Self:       Sounds like a good idea!  Why Sonny?

Me:        Sonny stands calmly while I trim branches above his head.  I’ve used Sonny for this task before.  He’s the only horse I really trust for that sort of work.

Self:       Why don’t you take Knockout?

Me:        Are you nuts?  Knockout isn’t mature enough for that.  He sometimes startles at low-hanging branches.  Knockout’s concern with brush is a primary reason I want the trail cleared.

Self:       It sounds like you’re making excuses for Knockout.  How can he ever develop into the horse you want him to be if you keep making excuses for him?

Me:        I’m not making excuses.  I just don’t want to overwhelm Knockout and lose ground on all the progress we’ve made.  He trusts me and I don’t want to lose his trust.

Self:       So, start slow and build up.  Trim one small branch to the side, see how Knockout responds and go from there.  You’ll never know what he can handle if you don’t let him try.  You need to trust your horse.  This is a perfect opportunity to build Knockout’s confidence with low hanging limbs.

So that’s what we did.

Monday evening, I took Knockout on a trail ride and we trimmed trees for one full trail loop…including the super-scary trail thru the creek bottom at which Knockout used to always spook.

Knockout did great!  🙂

Knockout stood still while I reached out with the clippers and trimmed branches. He did not startle when the branches brushed my helmet or dropped on top of his head.  At times, I let go of the reins and stood in the stirrups to grasp a branch in my left hand while using the clippers in my right hand.  I often switched hands for better reach.  I often asked for a side-pass, shoulder turn, or hind-quarter turn to reach the next branch.  And Knockout bravely tolerated all of it.

To be clear…Knockout did not like it. He was not at all thrilled to duck under low-hanging branches.  He was hesitant about sticking his head in thick underbrush so I could reach the intended branch.

Sometimes, when I asked for a right side-step toward the brush, he responded with a left side-step away from the tree…clearly indicating he was uncomfortable with where I was asking him to go.  Yet, as I persisted asking for a right side-step, firming up as necessary, Knockout complied with my request.

Once positioned where I needed him, I dropped all pressure and he relaxed, standing quietly as I went about the task of trimming.  He stood quietly relaxed as branches dropped on his head, as leaves rustled overhead, as I drug branches out of clinging vines to cast aside.  And when I asked him to move he responded…sometimes hesitantly…but he responded.  And when I dropped pressure, he relaxed again.

I was quite impressed with Knockout’s courage!

It’s no big deal performing a task one is comfortable with.  It requires true courage to perform a task one is very uncomfortable with, then stand quietly relaxed in a stressful situation.

How did he do it? How does a prey animal wired for flight perform a task he is clearly uncomfortable with?  How can he stand quietly at ease in the midst of a stressful environment?

Trust!

Knockout trusts me. It’s that simple.

Because he trusts me, Knockout is willing to go places he is uncomfortable going. Because he trusts me, Knockout can stand quietly relaxed in a stressful situation, simply because he knows he is where I want him to be, and I am with him.

Knockout knows, when I am with him and he is where I want him to be, he is safe.

What was it Jesus said?

…lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)

Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid. (Matthew 14:27)

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)

Sometimes, God asks me to go places I am uncomfortable going. Sometimes, I find myself in very stressful situations.  My mother’s illness and departure from this world…my daughter’s surgery…my grandchildren in an automobile accident…addressing issues with my teenage stepson’s journey toward adulthood…health concerns of family and friends…political unrest…economic concerns…wars and terrorism across the globe…

This world is a scary place and I often find myself in stressful situations.

And yet…because He is with me I don’t have to be afraid. So long as I trust Him, I am safe.

 

Your thoughts?

 

The Lord is My Horseman

[A paraphrase of Psalm 23, by Joseph J. Pote]

The Lord is my Horseman;
I have everything I need.
He provides me with safe, lush, green pastures.
He directs my steps to places with plenty of fresh water.
He restores my sense of peace, safety and comfort.
He leads and directs my steps in the paths of His choice
To accomplish His purpose in my life.

Yes, even if I walk through a dark, narrow, gloomy valley full of dreaded spooks,
I will not be afraid, because You are with me.
Your seat in the saddle and Your grip on the reins comfort me and give me confidence.
You feed me fresh grain and nutritious hay in the middle of scary environments.
You groom me, caring for my coat, mane, tail, and hooves.
My water trough stays full to overflowing.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will live in the pastures of The Lord, forever.

counsel of horses

 

On Book Learning

I love reading. Few days go by that I don’t pick up one book or another for at least a few minutes of reading pleasure.

A few months ago, I wrote a post titled The Bibliophile specifically about my family’s love for books.  I have learned many things through reading books, and books are a big part of who I am.

So, when I decided to start pursuing horsemanship, I turned to books. I discovered and read several books by several different authors.  All were good and I learned from all of them.  I also discovered a treasure trove of YouTube videos on the topic of horsemanship, which were also very helpful.

But you know what? Books and videos can only carry a would-be horseman so far.  At some point, one must go out and spend time working with horses.

Many of the best horsemen refer to themselves as a student of the horse.  In using this phrase they don’t just mean they study horses.  Rather, they mean the horse is their instructor.  If one would learn of horses, one needs to be instructed by a horse.

Ray Hunt is one of my favorite horsemanship authors. I’ve read his book, Think Harmony with Horses, five or six times across a two-year span, and with each reading I gain new insights.

In this book, Ray stated,

To digest [horsemanship] goals in the capsule form a person need only know ‘feel, timing, and balance.’

Clearly, in Ray’s estimation, this was an extremely important concept. However, he went on to say:

But the truth of the matter is that just those three small terms take a lifetime of chewing before they begin to digest. Though I will use them often, I will not attempt to provide the reader with a concrete description of any of them, for to me they are as abstract and elusive as the candle in the tunnel. What “feel” can be to a 4-H child today, with more chewing, each day it will be different. The same is true of a more advanced rider. As the rider grows in awareness and insight, so will the definition of these terms. Each person, in the final analysis, will write his or her own definition day by day. Although I cannot give you “feel,” I hope to fix it up to help the reader, or rider, find his own definition.

Basically, within his book written for the purpose of teaching horsemanship, Ray Hunt confessed the most fundamental part cannot be learned from a book. It must be learned experientially from a horse.

Accordingly, after reading Ray’s book, I spent time working with my horse. Then I came back and read the book again…and learned it made more sense than in the first reading.  The same has been true of each subsequent reading.

Although I can learn a lot about horses by reading books, I can only come to know a horse by spending time with a horse.  I have to learn to listen to my horse.

I can learn a lot about horses by reading books. I can only come to know a horse by spending time with a horse. Click To Tweet

The same is true of most things in life. We can learn a lot from other people’s experiences shared in books, videos, or verbal communication.  Such book learning can start us on the right path and continue to guide us as we work thru real-life issues.  Ultimately, though, we only truly learn by doing.

Book learning can only take one so far. To really learn, one must do.

Book learning can only take one so far. To really learn, one must do. Click To Tweet

This is not a difficult concept, and I think most people would readily agree.

So, why do so many people seem to expect something different of the Bible?

Like most Christians, I have a deep reverence for the Bible as God’s word…God’s revelation of Himself, written by men through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

I am sometimes surprised, however, at how many Christians seem to believe the Bible is the end of God’s revealing of Himself and His will to us. These Christians seem to live with no expectation of God ever communicating with us as individuals.  They seem to expect prayer to be strictly a monologue and are suspicious of anyone saying God spoke to them about anything.

More concerning, these Christians seem to have no confidence whatsoever in the power of the Holy Spirit to give discernment and wisdom to God’s individual children in regard to specific situations in their personal lives. They seem to live their lives as though Christ’s admonition, “My sheep hear my voice” was not relevant to us, today.

As a result, they tend to turn to the Bible in search of definitive direction for every life circumstance. They tend to build legalistic doctrines filled with intricate rules and exception clauses (falsely) believed appropriate for application to all of life’s circumstances.

These folks tend to be very dogmatic in stating their beliefs…very closed to other people’s perceptions…very insistent that their view is the only legitimate view and anyone with a differing view is in error. They have a tendency to pluck support for their doctrines out of context…expecting to find answers to questions that are not addressed in their referenced passages.

These folks treat the Bible as though it were an owner’s manual for how to live life, rather than a revelation intended to lead us into intimate relationship with our Creator. They attempt to use the Bible as though it were a series of flow-charts with clear predefined decision-making logic intended to cover every circumstance in the human experience, rather than a book of revelation leading us to wrestle with heart-rending decisions in sometimes horrific circumstances while clinging tenaciously to faith in the goodness and faithfulness of an invisible God.

Why? Why do the beliefs and expectations of these fellow believers differ so drastically from my own?

They put their faith in book learning. I put my faith in the One who inspired the book.

I don’t expect the Bible to be a guide in all of life’s circumstances. I expect the Bible to guide me into intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit who leads me in all of life’s circumstances.

Just as in horsemanship, the most fundamental part cannot be learned from a book. It must be learned experientially from the Holy Spirit.

I can learn a lot about God by reading the Bible.  I can only come to know God by spending time with Him…by talking with Him and listening to Him…by learning to trust Him and follow Him.

I can learn a lot about God by reading the Bible. I can only come to know God by spending time with Him Click To Tweet

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)

Scripture is only life-giving to the extent that it leads us to the Giver of Life.

Scripture is only life-giving to the extent that it leads us to the Giver of Life. Click To Tweet

Your thoughts?

 

Listen

I have learned “Listen to your horse” is a common phrase among many horsemen…almost a mantra of sorts…the catch-all solution to horse-human relationship issues.

Got bucked off?  Learn to listen to your horse.

Your horse won’t trailer load today?  Listen to your horse.

Can’t catch your horse?  Listen to your horse.

I’m being a little facetious.  There’s a lot more to problem solving than just throwing out a catch phrase.  Horsemen are not generally prone to over-simplifying issues.  We’re all looking for concrete solutions to real world problems.

However, “Listen to your horse” does come up a lot.  It’s a big part of solving issues and improving relationships.  It is through listening that minor issues can be appropriately addressed through small changes, before they become major problems.

But what does “Listen to your horse” even mean?  With the possible exception of Mr. Ed, horses are not talkative creatures.  Not only do they lack human speech, but aside from an occasional whinny they rarely verbalize anything.

Yet, horses do communicate.  They are very social animals and interact with other horses almost constantly.

Horses communicate through movement and body language.  The tilt of a head…the arch of a neck…the position of ears…the fluidity or choppiness of a gait…the attitude displayed in an approach…muscle tension…and so much more.

So, listening to a horse doesn’t have much to do with audible speech or use of one’s ears.  It has to do with paying attention with intentionality.  It has to do with an awareness of the horse’s movement and body language.  It has to do with being able to feel a change in muscle tension or fluidity of gait.  It has to do with being in the moment with intentional awareness.

Ray Hunt wrote about “take a feel of your horse” then “feel for your horse.”

Ray refused to even define what he meant by feel, timing and balance.  He said these were terms each horseman had to learn for himself…and that the definitions change over time.

Frankly, I was a bit uncomfortable with that.  It all sounds a bit mystical…a bit too horse-whisperer…too abstract…

I wasn’t looking for a spiritual connection with four-legged animals.  I just wanted to learn a little about training horses.

But listening is one of the most practical things a horseman can learn.  Yes, it is a bit abstract.  Yes, it is more art than science.  No, I’m not very good at it…but I’m a lot better than I used to be.

It is through listening that my interaction with a horse becomes a conversation rather than a demand.  It is through listening that my timing improves.  It is through listening that my horse and I learn to communicate with better responsiveness to lighter cues.  And it is through listening that I am able to address minor concerns before they become major problems.

It is through listening to my horse that my horse learns to listen to me.

It is through listening to my horse that my horse learns to listen to me. Click To Tweet

I’m also learning that this intentional awareness listening extends beyond horses.

It’s just as important with people.  With fellow humans, we tend to get a little lazy.  We’re so accustomed to communicating complex concepts through words that we forget to pay attention to subtler communication of body language and emotions.  We’re so distracted by making our point, or by external distractions such as smart phones, that we neglect to be in the moment with intentional awareness of the other person’s nonverbal communication.

And this intentional awareness listening also applies to prayer.

God has never yet directly spoken to me in an audible voice.  But He does speak to me.

If it makes you more comfortable, call it a prompting of the spirit…or a nudging…or a calling to mind of a scripture.  Preachers often talk about God’s call to ministry.  Whatever words are used we’re talking about God communicating directly with us, as individual believers, through the Holy Spirit.

Yes, He does that.  Jesus said He would.  The apostles said He would.  And He does.

The Holy Spirit speaks to me in ways similar to how my horse speaks to me…except different.  Much like my horse, God has thus far refrained from directly speaking to me in an audible voice.  However, God speaks to me in other ways.

He speaks to me through our animals.  Just read back through some of my blog posts and you’ll see it’s true.

He speaks to me through recalling scripture to mind.

He speaks to me through other people.

He speaks to me in difficult circumstances.

He speaks to me in my fear.

He speaks to me through things as simple as an empty gas tank.

He speaks directly to my spirit whispering words of comfort, love, and wisdom.

He sometimes gives me direction…a course of action I am to take.

He has, at least one time, spoken to me through angels…which I still feel a little weird about saying…but am convinced it is true.

Listening to God is similar to listening to my horse.  It requires intentional awareness and being in the moment.

God speaks to me all the time.  Sometimes, I’m paying enough attention to hear Him.

God speaks to me all the time. Sometimes, I'm paying enough attention to hear Him. Click To Tweet

I’m not big on New Years resolutions.  I’ve never done the Word of the Year blogging thing.

But one thing I for sure want to do better in the coming year is to listen.

 

Rein Management

On the drive to school or church, my stepson and I often talk of horses. The other day I mentioned how I thought Knockout would be really good at Western Reining, with his cow sense, athleticism, and cutting horse breeding.  Dawson responded skeptically, “Well, I’m not going to ride him!”

“Why not?” I asked, “Knockout’s no problem.  He’s very attentive and responds well to light cues.  Just don’t try to hold him.  He doesn’t like to be held and will sometimes panic…which can lead to bolting or bucking.”

“Then how do you get him to stop or slow down?” Dawson queried.

I explained Knockout and I have an understanding on the use of bit pressure. I always first give him an opportunity to respond to seat cues.  If he doesn’t take me up on the light stopping cue of sitting deep in the saddle, I will quickly firm up with rein pressure.  However, I never hold the rein pressure.  Once Knockout has responded as asked, I immediately release the pressure.

The pressure release lets Knockout know he gave the right response. It also gives him a reason to respond.  He escapes the bit pressure by responding with his feet…and responding with his feet always results in release of pressure.

Knockout and I both have our responsibilities. He responds to my cues.  I respond to his response by releasing pressure.  That way, Knockout always has a way out from pressure and never needs to feel claustrophobic or panicked.

Later that evening, I showed Dawson a short segment of a Carson James video in which Carson demonstrates rein management. In the video, Carson is backing a horse and shows how to hold the reins with slack (drooping slightly with no tension) but with very little travel (no excess slack).  Managing the reins in this manner allows the rider to keep slack in the reins while staying only an inch away from light pressure and only two inches away from heavy pressure.  So the rider can quickly and smoothly transition between varying amounts of pressure and instantly return to slack reins upon proper response.

Rein management is all about good timing in giving the right amount of pressure for the occasion, then instantly returning to slack reins with zero pressure.

A few days later, we were walking back to the trailer at the end of a high school rodeo when I pointed out Dawson’s tight reins, “Your horse would appreciate some slack in those reins so he can relax.”

“If I do that, he’ll trot off,” Dawson responded, dropping his reins to demonstrate.

“Stop him and back him up,” I replied. “Good!  Now drop your reins.”

So, we had a short little mini-training session right there in the fairgrounds parking lot. I showed Dawson how to catch the horse starting to walk forward, stop him, back him one step, then drop the reins.  After about four times, the horse stood relaxed on a loose rein.

“Now, lift the reins about a half an inch and lean forward slightly. When the horse starts to move, just move with him.”

We walked back to the trailer at a slow walk on loose reins.

Next weekend, we took an eight mile horseback ride together, paying close attention to slack reins at different gaits and working toward good response to light cues.

It was pretty awesome! 🙂

I’m still fairly new to this horsemanship stuff. My experience is pretty limited and I have a lot yet to learn.

I’m learning, though, that there are a lot of parallels between horsemanship and parenting ADHD teens.

Much like horses, teens don’t respond well to being held tightly. They need a little freedom to move and make some of their own decisions.

Much like horses, teens need relationship and understanding. Rules without relationship don’t work well for horses or teens.

Much like horses, teens need consistency. They need to be able to rely on encountering pressure when they fail to respond to light cues.

Much like horses, ADHD teens live very much in the moment. So pressure and release need to be well-timed to be effective.

Much like horses, teens need to feel the comfort of smooth relationship with minimal pressure when they’re doing the right thing. If all they feel is pressure no matter what they do, they’ll soon quit trying or blow up in exasperation.

This means…much as in horsemanship, I need to get really good at rein management in parenting, with alertness, balance, feel, and good timing.

I’m still learning…and so is he. Maybe we can figure this out together…with help from a couple of horses.  😉

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.