Fear of Fear

My first horse – Modelo

A few years ago, my wife bought me my first horse, a young bay thoroughbred/quarter-horse cross, named Modelo. I was like a kid with a new pony…in more ways than I even realized.  I loved having my own horse and rode at every opportunity.  However, I knew almost nothing about riding or horsemanship and it didn’t take long for Modelo and me to start developing bad habits.

The very first time I mounted Modelo, he side-stepped a little as I swung into the saddle. Sherri commented, “Oh, we’re going to have to watch that.”  Not understanding the importance, I shrugged and we continued our ride.

The next time I mounted, Modelo sidestepped again. Sherri told me, “You need to stop him from doing that.  It could get to be a bad habit.”

Now, at this point I was not very concerned about the side-stepping. It just did not seem to me like a big deal.  More than that, though, I had absolutely no idea how to correct it.  Since I wasn’t telling Modelo to move, I had absolutely no idea how to tell him to not move, especially while I was in the middle of swinging myself into the saddle.

I asked Sherri, “What do you mean? How am I supposed to stop him?”

I honestly don’t recall exactly what Sherri told me at that point. I just remember her response seemed very vague and not very helpful.  I pressed for specifics and the response seemed to become even vaguer.   Finally, she said I should probably ask a friend of ours who was a professional horse trainer.

As a side-note, I should point out that over time I have learned vague sounding responses from experienced horsemen are quite common. Many of the best horsemen learned experientially from their horse and have difficulty explaining the concepts to a beginner.  Ray Hunt is widely acclaimed as one of the best western horsemen of all time, yet reading his books for the first time left me feeling more puzzled than helped.  The problem is in finding a way to convey finely developed sensual experiences to a novice with no understanding or experience.

So, faced with a seemingly minor issue which I had no idea how to correct, I simply ignored it and kept riding. Why make mountains out of molehills?  Right?

Except the issue did not remain minor. Over the next few months, it gradually got worse.  Although I didn’t fully realize it at the time (remember I was a beginner) the side-stepping started looking a whole lot more like startling.  Since I was mostly solo riding, the escalation went largely unnoticed.

My solution was to simply try to mount faster. Mounting felt vulnerable to me, but once I was seated in the saddle with reins in my hand, I felt more in control.  So, I started rushing my mount to get securely in the seat quicker.  I even bought a pair of pointy-toed cowboy boots so I could find the off-side stirrup easier and gain a secure seat quicker.

For a while, this strategy seemed to work. Sure, Modelo still seemed a bit energetic during mounting.  However, I learned to mount quickly to gain control, then all was good for the rest of the ride.

Until, one morning, Modelo was faster than me. The instant I began putting weight in the stirrup, he erupted into a wide-open full-gallop bolt!

From there, things spiraled from bad to worse for a while.

We eventually got it figured out. With a lot of input from others and a few weeks of going back to the start and teaching Modelo to simply stand still and relaxed for mounting, we got it figured out.  I learned how to mount without putting so much torque on the saddle and horse.  I learned to correct movement while mounting.  I learned to go slow and not rush mounting.  I learned a lot of things.  Little did I know, I had just taken my first step on the journey of horsemanship, by learning to recognize I was the one who needed to improve before the horse could improve.

For several years, I have viewed this experience as an example of the importance of consistently addressing little things before they become major issues. I have thought of it as personal evidence that in every interaction with a horse we are teaching him something, whether we realize it or not.  If we are not intentionally teaching him something desirable, then we are likely unintentionally teaching him something undesirable.  And that is all true.

Lately, though, I have been contemplating this whole experience from an emotional perspective.

The first time I mounted Modelo, I’m sure I was clumsy and awkward. I can only imagine how much I must have pulled Modelo off balance.

Modelo responded with a side-step…a quite reasonable response to maintain his balance during my awkward mounting. So far so good.

Except I never got any better at mounting. Not realizing I was causing an issue, I simply continued mounting the same way.  Which meant I continued pulling Modelo off balance each time I mounted.  Plus, to make matters worse, I failed to do anything to address Modelo’s inappropriate movement.

Consequently, Modelo learned to anticipate discomfort during mounting, and he learned (because I unintentionally taught him) the appropriate response to that discomfort was to move his feet.

As things escalated, Modelo digressed from responding to discomfort to responding to fear of discomfort, and his sidestep turned into a startle. He began startling in anticipation before he ever felt discomfort.

For my part, I responded by trying to get in the saddle quicker. Why?  So I could control Modelo.  While mounting, I felt vulnerable…out of control…scared.  So I learned to try to mount as quickly as possible to try to regain control.  My response to a scary situation that left me feeling vulnerable was to pursue a higher level of control.

My response to a scary situation that left me feeling vulnerable was to pursue a higher level of control. Click To Tweet

I didn’t realize at the time that my rushed mounting was only making things worse. It was a bit like sneaking…it was quite similar to a predator’s behavior…and it caused Modelo to become tenser rather than calmer.  Consequently, things escalated to the point Modelo started reacting out of fear of fear.  As soon as I started putting any weight in the stirrup…long before he could have felt any discomfort…Modelo reacted by bolting in terror.  He had learned mounting was something to be feared and the appropriate response to fear was to move his feet.  So he ran.

Based on my understanding at the time, the fundamental issue was my lack of control. So, I responded by trying to gain control quickly.  The more things spun out of control the more right it felt to pursue control.  It was a scary situation that needed to be brought under control, quickly.

The real issue, though, was Modelo’s fear and discomfort. The true solution was found not in trying to gain control as quickly as possible, but rather in addressing Modelo’s fear and discomfort.

As long as I viewed the situation as a need for control, the problems continued to escalate from bad to worse, with each of us escalating our behavior in response to the other. When I finally let go of my felt need to quickly seize control, I was finally able to begin seeing things from Modelo’s perspective and start addressing his fears.  That was the beginning of starting to work together to address root issues and find real solutions in a relationship based on mutual trust and understanding.

Looking at the American political scene over the past several years, I see a similar escalation of fearful responses.

During the Obama administration combined with a liberal-leaning Supreme Court, our country saw several changes intended to help people who felt marginalized and mistreated.

We saw the end of the don’t-ask-don’t tell military policy toward homosexuality. We saw the end of legal barriers to homosexual marriage.  We saw policies implemented to address transsexual bathroom privacy concerns.  We saw religious diversity inhibition concerns addressed through prohibition of public Ten Commandments displays on government property.  We saw a heightened awareness of religious and cultural sensitivity in public expressions of “Merry Christmas” often being replaced with the more generic “Happy Holidays.”  We saw a heightened awareness of unintentional racial profiling and resulting use of lethal force.

We saw all these changes and more in a relatively short period of time.

These changes were welcomed by those who were positively impacted. Many felt they had been marginalized by society for decades.  These folks embraced the change and felt empowered to speak out in favor of more change.

For other folks, however, all these changes on multiple fronts within a relatively short time period felt very uncomfortable. Change always feels a bit uncomfortable.  Change perceived as being forced on us by others feels very uncomfortable…scary even.

Many people felt attacked. Perspectives they had taken for granted their whole lives were suddenly being challenged and overturned.  They feared what more changes might be coming.  Would pastors be legally required to perform marriages that conflicted with their religious convictions?  Would bathroom privacy cease to exist?  Would Christians start to experience legalized persecution for our religious beliefs?

We saw a rise in talk about “war on Christians,” “war on Christmas,” “war on marriage,” “war on traditional family values,” “war on law and order,” etc. We saw state legislatures introduce bills to ensure pastors continued to have legal right to exercise personal religious discretion in which marriages they agree to officiate.  We saw bills introduced to forbid men using a women’s restroom.  We saw state legislatures act to specifically permit public Ten Commandments displays on state government property.  We saw legal battles over county clerks refusing to process marriage licenses.

Why? Because people felt threatened.  People felt as though we were losing our national identity in all these changes being enforced by powers outside their local jurisdiction.  People felt attacked and responded defensively.  Facing a scary situation, people felt vulnerable and responded by trying to quickly regain control.

Facing a scary situation, people felt vulnerable and responded by trying to quickly regain control. Click To Tweet

Fast forward a few years to the present. Donald Trump has been President for the past two years.  For those first two years, both Congressional houses were majority Republican.  Two conservative justices have been appointed to the Supreme Court.

Last week, we saw video of an encounter between a group of high school kids from Kentucky, a group calling themselves Black Israelites, and a group of Native Americans. There was a lot of early misinformation, conflicting accounts, conflicting first impressions, and conflicting final impressions.  Fortunately, the altercation ended without violence.  The ensuing discussion has clearly illustrated that for a high percentage of Americans, the simple act of wearing a red hat bearing the words “Make America Great Again” is now viewed as an openly antagonistic display of racism.

Why?   Because of the racist undertones of rhetoric associated with the political group currently in power…because of the openly white supremacist organizations who have publicly supported that political group…because of the racially motivated violence and threats that seem to have been emboldened or inspired by the rhetoric…because of fear of what more might be coming.

Also last week, the state of New York passed a new abortion law. The new law has been celebrated by its advocates as a great victory for women’s rights and women’s health.  The new law has been denounced by its opponents as a horrible travesty against innocent unborn babies.  When I read information on the new law, I was puzzled.  So far as I can tell, the new law sparking all this controversy does absolutely nothing.  It simply conforms to the Supreme Court status quo on the topic of abortion.  It neither expands nor reduces legalization of abortion in New York.

So why bother passing such a law at all? Because of fear of change.  With two new conservative Supreme Court justices, people are concerned women’s health and privacy rights could be reduced.  So, they made a pre-emptive move to try to preserve their existing rights as state statutory law.  Much like the bathroom laws and the Ten Commandments laws of a few years ago, this new abortion law is simply a reaction to change combined with fear of further change.  Facing a scary situation, people felt vulnerable and responded by trying to quickly regain control.

I find myself thinking of a horse named Modelo and the lessons we have learned together.

As long as we view the situation as a need for control, the problems continue to escalate from bad to worse. Each group escalates their behavior in response to the other, in an attempt to retain control.

We need to let go of our felt need to seize control, begin trying to see things from each other’s perspective, and start addressing each other’s fears.  Only then can we start working together to address root issues and find real solutions based on mutual trust and understanding.

We need to let go of our felt need to seize control and begin trying to understand each other’s perspective. Click To Tweet

I realize I am grossly over-simplifying things in my horsemanship metaphor. Yet I still believe the comparison is apt.

Fear begets fear. Both parties react to fear by trying to seize control.  Attempts to seize control beget more fear.  We are becoming more divided and more fearful and the situation continues to escalate to the point we are no longer even reacting to each other’s actions.  Rather, we are reacting to our fears of what the other party’s actions might become…or to theoretical “slippery slopes” of consequences.  We have begun reacting out of fear of our own fears.

As Americans, we need to come together and try to understand each other’s perspectives and concerns.

As Christians, we need to trust God.

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

I encourage you to find someone this week with a political position that opposes your own and try to understand their perspective.  Ask questions without judgment, debate, or argument.  Just try to see things from their perspective.  Try to understand their concerns.  You don’t have to agree…but don’t express your disagreement.  It’s not about who is right or proving a point.  Just ask questions, listen, and try to understand.  Maybe start the conversation with, “Can you help me understand…?”

Listening to understanding is the beginning of releasing fear and the felt need to control.

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?

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.