When a situation arises with someone, in which we feel overwhelmed or ill equipped to respond appropriately, Brene Brown, renowned author, researcher and social worker says, we will react automatically in one of three ways: go along to avoid conflict, avoid the situation all together or resist/push against whomever or whatever is making us feel inadequate or overwhelmed. The real solution is to pause, take a breath, admit to yourself that you’re feeling overwhelmed or inadequate and explore the source. Then, instead of an automatic response that leads to resentment and disengagement, find a way to express what you are feeling that is inclusive and leads to MORE engagement and a better outcome.

EXPLORE-Can a Horse Remind Us?

You wouldn’t think that grooming my horse would bring up feelings of inadequacy in me or become an exercise in overcoming overwhelm , but that is exactly what happens when I bring Wave in from the pasture for a brush and a scratch before our “play time” or a ride (which is more about physical exercise and going to school).

It starts with putting the halter and lead rope on out in the pasture after a few moments of cat and mouse in which I walk toward him with the rope and he moves in the opposite direction, still grazing, brilliantly able to ignore me and enjoy his lunch at the same time. His talent for this is like a cue.  I’m already beginning to second guess my ability to engage with him, questioning whether he will listen to what I have to say. Wave can sense when I hesitate for even a second in my approach.

Once the halter is on, I know I must commit to spending quality time with my horse that gives him a chance to move his feet, stimulates his mind and keeps him coming back for more. And I must remember, it’s not all about him.

It’s so easy for me to go to the place where I feel his physical, mental and emotional “push” on me when he gets impatient with the pace at which I proceed or the monotony of the activities. That place is filled with thoughts like, “uh, oh, I’m not interesting enough,” or “maybe he’s right, I don’t know what I’m doing and we should do what he wants” or “I don’t want to get him frustrated, so I better hurry up.” How can a horse bring me to this place without saying a word? Glad you asked.


DISCOVER-Old habits die hard

The thoughts Wave brings up in me are no different than the thoughts that arise whenever I feel inadequate or pushed by someone or something in my life. So, whether it’s a heated conversation with a loved one or a stranger who has a strong presence and forceful, authorative language, or a new skill (like writing) feels too hard,  I’m right back where I was as a kid. My instinct is to avoid, hide or walk away. Sometimes I just go along to prevent any further rise in emotions. Unfortunately, these are old habits that no longer work for me. With people, I rarely, if ever push against or fight back.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for my response to the horses in the past, including Wave. On more than one occasion, years ago, I responded to my own sense of inadequacy with a level of aggression that I am not proud of. Swinging a rope and moving a horse’s feet is very effective, direct and appropriate when done with slowly increasing pressure and an intention that says, “I’m making a request” followed by an immediate release and a thank you when it is answered.

But, automatic, fear driven behavior from either party does not lead to greater respect and engagement-only resistance and resentment.

MASTER-response in real time

I’m quicker now at recognizing the moment at which I feel rushed by Wave’s impatience and constant moving and even rope chewing as he stands tied in the stables or arena. He’s figured out how to take charge of the situation and set the ground rules so that when I shut down, ignore him or hasten the pace at which I groom him to finish quicker, he knows he will get what he wants. I’ve seen him do it with other horses AND people. He’s quick, smart and very innovative in avoiding the desire of others to move him, physically or mentally. He has a strong personality that can easily take me off balance emotionally.

Once I see that the conversation is being dominated by only one of us, I have to step in and ask for his attention and be clear that I am not going to step back or rush the process. I let him chew on his rope in frustration but immediately reward him when he stands quietly. He can move his feet, but it will not stop me from brushing his tail and as soon as he stands still, I finish my strokes. He can get what he wants if he works with me so we both feel like we are engaging in the conversation while looking for a positive outcome.

When the grooming proceeds with a soft lick and a lowered head from Wave, I know we’ve come to an agreement and I have no problem ending the session with a few treats and good feelings that will carry over into our activity in the arena as well as future experiences together.


Our automatic responses are the result of old habits that began so long ago, sometimes we can’t even remember what event in our life triggered it. By being more aware (and spending time with a horse), you can recognize the pattern in your behavior at moments of overwhelm or feelings of inadequacy and create a plan for how to respond. Most importantly, in interactions with others, think of how best to keep the conversation going in the direction of a positive outcome.

The response to a strong personality in an intimidating, overpowering situation has to be a  determined effort to stand your ground, ask for what you want politely and reward the slightest “give” without using force or intimidation. A simple thank you or “yes, that makes sense” in conversation goes a long way. So does asking questions to clarify what is being said to you and being willing to listen to the answers. This takes real practice and a willingness to continue the relationship without taking the behavior personally, resorting to fighting back to get the response you want, emphasizing “being right” or proving you’re “better than”. Horses and humans will tell you immediately-it doesn’t work!

My grooming session with Wave ended with both of us calm. I could see how the simplicity of what took place has deepened our bond. Being willing to explore my automatic responses and master a new skill in my relationship with him has led to a more satisfying, shared experience  in everything we do.

Learn how to overcome overwhelm with your teachers the horses at Life Lessons with Horses. Call Cathy at (360)430-0430