Relative Comfort

I’m not an expert horse trainer. I am, at best, a novice horseman…maybe more of a wannabe horseman…which is okay, too.  My only horse experience has been working with our own horses.  So, take my observations with a grain of salt…I have a fairly narrow experience spectrum in regard to horse behavior.

However, the more I work with horses the more I find myself thinking of them as natural comfort magnets. Horses naturally move toward what feels comfortable and they naturally move away from what feels uncomfortable.  Their level of comfort or discomfort can be either physical or emotional…it often seems largely intuitive…which makes sense for prey animals.  It’s important to avoid anything intuitively perceived as uncomfortable…potentially dangerous.  It is equally important to gravitate toward comfort…food, water, shelter, safety.

I have begun to think of horsemanship as largely a matter of managing a horse’s comfort levels and comfort zones. Horsemen talk a lot about pressure and release.  Pressure is basically mild discomfort applied to solicit a response.  The release is basically comfort applied as positive reinforcement of desired behavior.  So, pressure and release are basically just using comfort and discomfort as training aids.

Horsemen also talk a lot about desensitizing…training a horse to be comfortable with something that has previously made him anxious. Basically this is a matter of incrementally expanding the horse’s comfort zone.  To desensitize my horse to an object, I expose him to it in small doses, letting him become comfortable with it first at a distance, then close up, then very close, then touching, then rubbing all over his body.  I incrementally step him from terrified to comfortable by gradually expanding his comfort zone to include the object of concern.

The tricky part comes in knowing when to apply comfort, when to apply discomfort, and to what degree.

For example, let’s say a horse has been taught to load in a trailer and normally has no issue loading. But one day I go to load that horse and he balks.  He backs away from the trailer door and doesn’t want anything to do with it.  Now, a lot of horse owners at this point will say, “I hate when a horse knows what to do and refuses.  He’s just being stubborn and defiant.”  Acting on that basis, they will then firm up and apply increasing pressure (discomfort) outside the trailer with the intent of getting the horse to load in the trailer.

Sometimes that works. Sometimes that is exactly what the horse needs in order to find the confidence to go ahead and load in the trailer.

But sometimes that doesn’t work. Sometimes the horse will respond by more actively avoiding the trailer door.  And here is where it gets tricky…

If I respond to my horse’s reluctance to load by firming up and assuming he is being defiant, my natural response to increased resistance will likely be to become even firmer and more aggressive. That can quickly escalate into a contest of wills which I cannot win…the horse is too much bigger and stronger than I.  More significantly, by battling out a contest of wills right at the trailer door, I am turning the trailer door into a high pressure zone…a place of discomfort and suspicion…which is the opposite of what I want.  A horse who loads easily is a horse who feels comfortable and confident both around the trailer door and inside the trailer.

Now, here’s where the comfort management comes in.

For whatever reason, the horse was initially uncomfortable with the trailer door on this particular day. My escalation of pressure didn’t work and resulted, instead in making him even more suspicious of the trailer door.  I’m increasing pressure outside the trailer with the intent of getting him to move through the trailer door to escape the discomfort I’m creating.  However, the situation is rapidly devolving to trap the horse between two escalating sources of discomfort.  Most likely, the horse will attempt to escape both sources of discomfort by moving completely out of the area.  He will probably try to flee the area, even if he has to buck or rear to do it.

At that point it’s probably best to walk away and try a different approach…maybe one that focuses more on comfort and less on discomfort. Successful trailer loading begins with the horse feeling very comfortable in and around the trailer.

Where the comfort management gets really fun is in realizing the horse is also sensitive to different levels of comfort and will tend to gravitate toward the more comfortable. If I’m going down the road and want my horse to move toward the left side, one way to cue that is to press with my right leg so my horse will move left, away from the pressure.  I haven’t really caused any discomfort.  I’ve just set up a situation of relative discomfort.  I’ve made the right side feel a little less comfortable than the left side so the horse will move left, away from the less comfortable.

Once I started experimenting with relative comfort I wanted to see how light a cue my horse would respond to. Before long, I could get him to step left with just a light brush of my right leg.  Then I decided to take it one step further.  What if, instead of creating relative discomfort I created relative comfort.  Rather than pressing with my right leg, I lifted my left stirrup away and my horse stepped left.  The lifted stirrup created a lower pressure zone of increased relative comfort which the horse gravitated toward.

Rather than using mild leg pressure to push the horse the desired direction, the lifted stirrup sets up a mild comfort differential to invite the horse to step the desired direction. It’s the difference between leading versus pushing…the difference between inviting versus compelling.  The really cool thing about this approach is I never did anything to cause discomfort under saddle.  Instead, I invited him from a place of comfort to a place of greater comfort.

Comfort under saddle is important because my long-term goal for my horse is for me to be his greatest source of comfort.  I want the place beneath my saddle and between my legs to be his greatest comfort zone.  When we’re riding and encounter something he views as scary, I want him looking to me for direction, confidence and comfort rather than running scared.

Disclaimer: Lest I give the impression I’m a better horseman than I am, let me clarify that not every ride is as smooth and light as I have described here.  Some rides are a bit rougher.  Even most good rides require a couple of times using enough pressure to “give the horse a reason to respond to the light cue” as Carson James likes to say.  However, some rides really are that light and smooth…and with practice those light rides are becoming more frequent.

Reflecting on the response of these horses to varying levels of comfort, I realize I’m not so different from a horse. I too am drawn toward comfort and repelled by discomfort.  I also tend to gravitate toward the more comfortable.  In tense or fearful situations, I too look for a source of comfort.

No wonder Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as the Comforter!

But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. (John 14:26)

Like my horse, in stressful situations I tend to flee to a place of comfort. There may be any number of comfort sources I may turn to…and there may be nothing wrong with many of them.  However, sin can be addicting for the very reason that it provides temporary comfort…and any comfort source (other than Christ) raised to a high level of priority can become sinful.

Much like my goals for my horse, God’s goal for me is for the Holy Spirit to be my greatest source of comfort. My greatest comfort zone should be abiding in Him.

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. (John 15:5)

When I’m scared or stressed, I need to learn to run to Father for comfort and direction.

Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

What a wonderful Savior, who leads us from comfort to comfort with light gentle cues!

Your thoughts?

 

Faith thru Fear

horseback riding on gravel roads

Riding Gravel Roads

It finally happened!

That nagging worry at the back of my mind found fulfillment. My worst fear became reality.

…and it was okay…

I’ve been riding Knockout over a year, now. Sometimes I’m able to ride as often as three or four times in one week.  Other times I go as long as three weeks between rides.  I figure I’ve averaged about one ride per week…which means I have about 60 rides on him

We have made amazing progress in 60 rides!

Knockout has matured from a green-broke, frightened, spooky, flighty colt to a pretty reliable young horse.

My progress has been no less remarkable in my own way. I began riding Knockout as I was recovering from cancer treatment and my physical strength has returned as we worked together.  I have learned a lot about horsemanship and relationships.  I have learned a lot about myself.  I have faced a few fears and overcome a few insecurities.

The first time I rode Knockout I was scared. Cancer treatment was quite an ordeal, and to be honest I was feeling pretty fragile.  I didn’t trust my own lack of strength or my ability to recuperate.  But I was determined to ride him.  So, I thoroughly disked the arena to a nice smooth carpet of thick soft dirt, and climbed in the saddle.

That first ride started out pleasant enough. We walked around the arena both directions a few times with no mishaps.  I asked for a trot and Knockout sprang into a gallop.  Startled, I pulled back…and Knockout promptly bucked me off.

I stood up, dusted myself off, realized I wasn’t hurt…smiled…and remounted.

That buck-off was the best thing for my confidence. It showed me I wasn’t as fragile as I’d come to believe.  I could still take a fall from 14 hands into soft arena dirt without doing any damage.

Knockout and I have done around 60 rides since then. We’ve come a long way in learning to relax under saddle.  We’ve done a lot of work on transitions from walking to trotting to loping to stopping to backing…and every combination thereof.  And we’ve developed a relationship based on clear communication, mutual respect, and mutual trust.

There’s a limit to that trust, though. Knockout is still a prey animal and prey animals are prone to flight.  That first ride was not his last time to bolt or buck…nor was it my last time to panic and mishandle a situation.  We’ve had several opportunities to practice the one-rein stop.  We’ve also had plenty of opportunities for me to practice relaxing and going with him when he startles.

The startles are now much less frequent. They’re much more controlled when they do happen.  And I respond much more calmly than I did previously.

Overall, at this stage, I consider Knockout to be a pretty solid young horse…and us to be a pretty solid team.

Yet, I’ve still retained this nagging concern at the back of my consciousness. What if Knockout bolts in thick woods?  How would we deal with an all-out runaway situation through thick trees and low-hanging branches?

It’s not a pretty picture…and no matter how much I tried to plan for it I had trouble envisioning a happy ending to that particular scenario. Out in the open, I have time to respond and room to maneuver.  I have options like turning a big circle or performing a one-reined stop.  On a narrow trail through thick forest, there is neither room nor time for any of that.

So I dealt with it the best I could…by trying to minimize the risk of it happening. Riding the gravel roads, we practiced transitions over and over, going from a walk to a canter…from a canter to a full stop with backing…from backing straight back to a canter.  We practiced over and over, building muscle memory…building confidence…so we were both more comfortable with speed and with sudden application of the bit at speed.

Yet the nagging doubt at the fringe of my consciousness still nagged…because I knew practice while we’re both relaxed and focused is not the same thing as a real life bolt on a terrified horse who believes he is fleeing for his life.

Yesterday morning we had a really nice ride down the gravel roads. Knockout wanted to turn up a trail running through a pine thicket and I decided to go with him.  We rode about a quarter mile or so down the trail and all was good until we came to a place where the trail runs between two large oak trees with low hanging branches covered in dense foliage.

I reached my right hand out to move a branch aside and Knockout startled at the sudden movement of the leaf-laden branch. Normally, this would not be a big deal…normally I would lightly check him and that would be the end of it.  This time, though, Knockout’s startle carried us deeper into the thick foliage, moving and rustling the entire branch.  To Knockout, it must have seemed as if the whole forest had suddenly lunged toward him in an attack.  My light check was ignored and Knockout plunged forward…crashing us both thru the pair of low-hanging heavily-leaved oak branches…with lots of added movement and added rustling.

As Knockout leaped into a run, I thought, “This is it! This is that runaway ride on a terrified horse through dense forest!”

My next thought was, “Keep your seat! Keep your seat, stay calm, and ride it!”  Which was followed by, “We really need to stop!  Now!”

Firmly grasping the reins in both hands, I took a deep seat in the saddle and pulled back to ask for an immediate stop, “Whoa!”

For a split second, Knockout sat back on his hindquarters. For just a split second, he responded to my cue to stop.  But in that split second I felt his energy gathering for another leap forward.  Experience told me that next leap would either be a terrified bolt through the bit or a bucking fit to escape the pressure of the bit from the front combined with that terrifying ‘predator’ chasing from behind.  In that split second, I realized Knockout was trapped between a rock and a hard place with adrenaline-fueled energy that was going to release somewhere.

In that split second, I dropped all pressure from the bit and gave Knockout plenty of slack in the reins.

Knockout leaped forward again…as he landed and brought his hind hooves under himself, I took another deep seat in the saddle, leaned back, and drew the reins in, “Whoa!”

Again, Knockout sat back on his hind quarters. Again I released pressure, putting plenty of slack in the reins.

And we walked off.

That was it. Three leaps…two whoas…and it was over.  The catastrophe was averted and we were once again calmly walking down the path through the pine thicket.

I smiled, leaned forward, petted Knockout’s neck and told him what a brave horse he is for trusting me enough to follow my direction even when he is terrified.

As we continued the ride home, my smile grew as I realized my worst fear had become reality…and together we had handled it just fine.

Yesterday, my confidence grew just a bit. I believe Knockout’s confidence also grew.  We were both scared, yet we both chose to listen to each other and to trust each other…and we learned that together we can handle tense situations just fine.

Sometimes, we have to experience our worst fear becoming reality in order to take the next step in building confidence.

Sometimes, we have to experience our worst fear becoming reality to take the next step in building confidence. Click To Tweet

I’ve had plenty of life experiences that seemed catastrophic at the time. Loss of loved ones…a failed marriage and subsequent divorce…child custody battles…a 20 year employer closing their doors…cancer diagnosis…

And you know what? Through every one of those situations, God has proven Himself faithful.  He has been my constant friend and companion thru every difficulty.  Through those difficulties, my faith in Him has grown and our relationship has deepened.

When our worst fears become reality is when the relationship is given a chance to be tested and proven.

 

How about you? In what areas has your confidence grown through seeing your fears become reality?

 

Impossible Lightness

knockout after riding

Knockout after Saturday’s amazing ride!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was truly an amazing ride!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, think about that for a second.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here I am a year and half later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can see why…and am learning from them…

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

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

 

Your thoughts?

Softness

two year old colt

Archie – Our 2-year-old AQHA stud colt

Friday evening I spent a little time working with Archie, our 2-year-old stud colt.

I was asking Archie to yield to tail pressure. If I tugged his tail to the left, I wanted him to step his hindquarters left.  If I tugged his tail to the right, I wanted him to step right.  It sounds simple, but there’s actually a lot going on in this learning exercise.

We had to overcome a horse’s natural instinct to escape entrapment. Natural instinct tells a horse when his tail is tugged left he should move away by stepping right…the opposite of what I was asking.

We had to develop understanding. When I first started tugging on Archie’s tail, he had absolutely no idea what I wanted him to do.  The cue had no meaning to him, so he simply followed his instincts.

We also had to develop discernment. Archie had to learn to distinguish between a tug to the left versus a tug to the right, and the different response expected for each.

So we started working on the left side. I tugged left and Archie stepped right.  As he moved away from me, I increased the pressure.  He took another step right.  I moved with him holding the pressure as he took a couple more steps to the right.  Then he tried moving forward.  I stayed with him, holding pressure until he ran out of room to move forward.  Finally, he took just a little half step to the left and I instantly let go of his tail.

Then we repeated the process over and over as Archie learned to understand a tug to the left meant I wanted a step to the left.

Once we had the left side working halfway decent we started working on the right side. His resistance on the right side was initially much worse than on the left side.  He had just learned that a tail tug meant step left and he was determined to do what he had just learned.  He had no understanding that a tug to the right was a different cue from a tug to the left.  So we practiced the right side until he understood the expectation then went back to the left side…which was now confused by work on the right side.

With patience and consistency we got it sorted out. Archie learned to distinguish between a left tug and a right tug as well as the expected response to each.

At one point in our training session, I would lift his tail while standing on his right, and he would instantly shift his weight left, bracing against the tug he knew was coming. I would give a light tug and he would resist.  I would hold the pressure with a soft firmness and after a few seconds he would relax and step right.

We practiced that a few more times.

Then we finally reached a point where I lifted his tail while standing on his right, and he shifted his weight to the right, ready to respond to the tug he knew was coming. I softly tugged and he just gave to the cue by stepping over…smooth…soft…light…fluid.

There it is! There’s that softness Ray Hunt (and other great horsemen) wrote about!

When we started, it felt like trying to drag a rope tied to a 500 lb weight! Actually…that’s exactly what it was…dragging a 500 lb horse around by the tail.

By the time we finished, it was no more effort than dragging a newspaper across a smooth counter.

Archie was soft to my feel. He was light.  He anticipated my ask by preparing to respond rather than by preparing to resist.

That’s exactly what we’re working toward…a soft response to a soft ask…

But to get there required a lot of firmness…a lot of consistent persistence…a lot of understanding…a lot of trust…and a lot of respect.

Contemplating that softness this morning, I am reminded of the words of the psalmist:

I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart. (Psalm 40:8)

Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law And keep it with all my heart. (Psalm 119:34)

This is what it means to be soft-hearted…that when I feel the Holy Spirit’s prompt I relax into His will ready to respond as soon as I understand His ask.

The prophet Zechariah provides a contrast showing what it means to be hard-hearted…to respond to God’s prompt by bracing to resist His will:

They made their hearts like flint so that they could not hear the law and the words which the Lord of hosts had sent by His Spirit through the former prophets; therefore great wrath came from the Lord of hosts. (Zechariah 7:12)

And Jeremiah prophesied the coming of the New Covenant which was enacted by Jesus Christ. Rather than laws carved in stone rigidly followed out of fear, the Holy Spirit teaches us softness…a soft response to a soft ask:

“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” (Jeremiah 31:33)

What a gentle master! He calls us to a relationship of willing response based on trust and respect as we learn to rely on His goodness and faithfulness.

Early in that training session, we had to work past Archie’s confusion over different prompts.  It took him a little while to discern the difference between a tug to the left and a tug to the right, as well as the proper response to each.  He knew the tug meant something, but his confusion and natural instincts interfered with clear communication.  He stepped wrong as often as right, and always with a good deal of resistance…of first bracing against the tug before eventually giving to it.

I think a lot of Christians reside mostly in that place…sort of stuck early in the training.  They haven’t figured out the soft cues and soft responses of the New Covenant.  They see rigid laws to be fearfully and woodenly obeyed.  Their confusion and natural instincts interfere with clear communication, so they miss the nuances of the Holy Spirit’s prompts.  Seeing a fellow believer being tugged left they scream, “Step right!  Step right!  A tail tug always means step right!”

Blind guides…misapplying rigid laws…while completely missing the Holy Spirit’s soft prompts…

Lord, please continue to be patient with us!  Teach us to respond to you, not out of fear in response to laws carved in stone, but out of trust and respect as we learn to respond softly and fluidly to your soft prompts.

Overcoming Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We help him overcome his fears.

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

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

So, how do we do that?

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

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

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

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

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

I keep pushing him outside his comfort zone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are Mine!
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they will not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched,
Nor will the flame burn you.
For I am the Lord your God…” (Isaiah 43:1-3)

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

And He wants the same for you!

 

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

 

Dark Scary Places

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

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

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

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

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

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

The issue to be addressed was lack of confidence.

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

Now, here is where it gets interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

It was wonderful!  🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

 

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

 

Reins of Legalism

our family riding horses

Riding with family

When I first started riding horseback, I viewed the reins as the controls used for steering and stopping the horse.  To steer the horse one moved the reins to right or left, much like the steering wheel of a car.  To stop the horse one pulled back on the reins much like the brake of a car.

Funny thing though…the more I used the reins to steer…to control the horse’s direction…the more he tended to wander off from the direction I wanted him to go.  So, I had to correct.

It was sort of like driving a car in need of a front end alignment.  Get the horse pointed the desired direction and lower the reins.  The horse wanders to the right.  Use the reins to tug him back to the desired direction and lower the reins.  The horse wanders right, again.  Tug the reins to the left of the desired direction.  He drifts right, again.

I decided the problem was too much slack in the reins.  I would have to take tighter control to keep him from wandering off.  When the steering mechanism has too much slack, make adjustments to remove the slack, right?

So, I shortened my grip on the reins and rode with both hands rigidly holding the horse’s head position.  The horse stayed on track.  Problem solved!

Except for one little problem…

I could only be confident of holding our direction by rigidly holding the reins in position.  Micro-managing the horse’s every move does not make for a relaxing ride.  Both horse and rider have more tension and stress than necessary.  Watching more experienced riders I could see they were much more relaxed and usually rode with a loose rein.

“Maybe it’s just a matter of time,” I thought.  “I have to keep tight control for a while to let the horse know I’m boss, then I’ll be able to loosen the rein a little.”  But every time I loosened the rein, the horse started wandering off track again.

Then I started riding a horse trained to foot prompts that had not yet learned neck reining.  That was even worse!  I fumbled to remember the foot prompts…the horse over-responded…I over-compensated…and we zig-zagged along wherever I tried to go.  “Keep at it,” my trainer suggested, “You’ll get it figured out.”

It was horribly frustrating!  My horse and I could not walk a straight line.  I knew it was my fault but felt helpless to correct it.  The horse promptly over-responded to my every foot nudge just to have me immediately over-correct him back the other direction.

Finally, one day I made an amazing discovery.  Every time I turned my body at the waist my horse responded by going the direction I was turned.  “Hey, this is just like snow-skiing!” I thought, “Turn and look to change direction.”

That moment of epiphany, though just the beginning, became a major turning point in my understanding of horseback riding.

Today, I view my reins and boots not so much as a means to control the horse’s direction as a means of telegraphing my body language to the horse.  I see the horse not as a riding machine to be controlled, but as a partner to be communicated with.  I am still a very inexperienced rider, but the paradigm shift has definitely helped me progress.

Lately, I have thought about these riding-lesson truths while pondering Paul’s words about the roles of law and faith.

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. (Galatians 3:23-26)

Scripture is to us as reins are to a horse. Click To Tweet

In early training, the reins are used to teach the horse to yield direction to the rider.  Later, the reins are still in place to serve a similar function.  However, as both horse and rider gain experience and trust, the reins are used less and less as a means of directing and more and more as a means of communicating.  For a very skilled rider on a superbly trained horse, the reins become superfluous and are no longer needed.

In the same way, as immature Christians we start out studying God’s word to learn how we are to behave, and we sometimes use scripture to micromanage one another’s lives.  One person finds a scripture indicating Jesus drank wine while another finds a scripture indicating alcohol consumption is to be avoided and they beat each other up with their disparate understandings of scripture.  But they are both showing their immaturity by missing the whole point.  Both are still viewing the reins (scripture) as being for the purpose of controlling behavior.  The real purpose is to facilitate communication…to lead us to Christ…to teach us of God’s heart…and to train us in understanding and following the Holy Spirit.

Following the law (as legalists), we hear of a fellow Christian going thru divorce and immediately feel the need to learn every detail of their very personal marital relationship so we can discern (judge) whether or not their divorce is biblically permissible (as legalistic a term as ever was) so we can provide sound biblical counsel (verbally beat them up) to aid them in their Christian walk (control their behavior).

Under grace, we simply ask how we can pray for them and what we can do to help, trusting that as mature Christians they are able to hear and follow the Holy Spirit’s leading in their personal lives.

See the difference?

In what areas have you learned to loosen your grip on the reins and trust God’s grace?

 

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