This life lesson blog is a fictional re-creation of real life experiences with my students designed to maintain anonymity and confidentiality.
On a gray winter afternoon in the middle of a round pen surrounded by green pastures and majestic Douglas firs, the young woman was barely visible next to the big beautiful chestnut gelding attached at the end of a 14 ft rope. Her slight build and blond hair were in sharp contrast to the stocky, muscular chest and round barrel of the horse alongside of her, unmistakable with its shocking red mane and tail. I had given her the task of getting the horse, Red, to “lunge” in a circle at a walk, then a trot. Lunging is an old French word for lengthening, as in the stride of the horse, normally used as part of a comprehensive exercise program. There had been little progress in the activity as the horse barely trotted a few steps and then stopped. I could see that my student was getting frustrated.
Earlier, “Mary”, began her Life Lessons with Horses, as we always did, by sharing what was on her mind. She was concerned about the way she was being treated by a colleague at work. They were both assigned to the same department, but by virtue of her years of service, the co-worker, a middle-aged woman, was Mary’s supervisor. She told me of a time recently when she had planned to leave work early on a Friday to prepare for a long weekend trip with family. Friday’s were typically quiet in the winter and she had mentioned to her co-worker earlier in the week that she was heading out of town so she could get ahead of the traffic. The woman smiled, waved her hand in the air and said, “That sounds like fun. No problem, leave whenever you need to.”
When Friday rolled around and my student was packing up to leave, her supervisor entered the cubicle seemingly out of nowhere and said, “Don’t forget, you have to finish those forms before you leave. They have to be submitted before the first of the month, which is Monday”. She disappeared as quickly as she’d come, leaving Mary wondering if maybe the woman had forgotten their conversation earlier in the week. Finally, she caught up with her supervisor and said, “But I’m leaving on a family trip and told you I was heading out early to beat the traffic. Remember, we talked on Monday?” The woman shrugged her shoulders and said sternly, “Sorry, you knew it was the end of the month-it’s your job to keep track of these things”, as she quickly turned and walked away. Mary told me she was furious but had no words as she headed back toward her desk in shock. It wasn’t the first time she had felt like the rug had been pulled out from under her. She couldn’t decide if she was angrier at herself for trusting the woman again or furious at the way she had matter of fact reminded her of the commitments of the job, as if Mary was not aware. How had she let this happen again? Mary completed her work, suffering in silence as she mentally rearranged her weekend plans. What other choice was there, right?
I stepped up and looked through one of the metal panels of the round pen out where the two of them stood and asked, “what are you feeling?” She turned to face me and said, “I’m swinging the rope to get him to move, but it’s not working. I feel like I’m being too aggressive, like I have to be really rough so he’ll listen to me.”
“Was she really being aggressive?” I wondered. “And WAS he listening to her?” To me it looked more like she was being annoying or at the very least, ineffective. The horse saw a rope swinging at him without any real intention or purpose. His answer was to look in her direction and then finally step towards her and stop, as if to say, DON’T DO THAT! Instead, she kept swinging the rope faster and harder! How rude! More importantly, every time she asked for movement, she collapsed her center and leaned back a little, the first sign that she was about to take a step backwards. She was basically saying to the horse, you can move my feet any time now. I’m all yours! Exactly the opposite of what she said she wanted to do.
I asked another question, “In your mind, what does aggressive mean?” She thought for a moment and then said, “I’m not sure. I think aggressive is like being a bully, making someone feel small and scared”. I followed up with, “Do you think the horse was scared of you or felt ‘small’ in your presence?” She answered quickly with a nervous laugh, “Not at all! if anything, I was starting to feel a little scared.” I continued my line of questioning, “What do you think is the opposite of aggressive?” This time she paused and really gave her answer some thought. ” Well, ” she began, “I guess it would be doing nothing or being quiet? That’s really hard to say.”
Now it was time to bring the questioning back to the real-life experience with her supervisor. “Mary, in the story you shared with me about your co-worker, did you feel like she was being aggressive?” Mary’s face stiffened and her jaw tightened. “I think she likes being in charge and making others feel inferior.” “One minute, she acts like she’s hearing you, understanding you and wants to be your friend and the next minute she’s making you feel…..yeah, small.”
I then asked, “And what choices did you feel you had in response to her sudden change in behavior on that Friday afternoon?”
Mary seemed to hesitate in order to find the right words. “In my head I wanted to scream in her face and tell her how unfair and wrong it was of her to say one thing on Monday and then just as I was leaving, tell me to finish my work…or else. That I was tired of her acting like she cared about me and what I said to her, when in reality, she didn’t give a rip. I wanted to turn around, walk to my office and slam the door in her face”. She was talking a little louder now and Red took a half a step back. “Of course, I would have lost my job.”
She continued in a softer voice, “The other option was to just do what I did do. Which was to put my head down, keep my mouth shut and go back to my desk to finish the work.”
“Okay” I said, “Let’s see if there’s another option.”
It was time to have Mary reconnect with Red and try the activity again. I explained to her, ” I want you to send your horse out on a circle like I showed you, but this time I’m going to have you use the stick with the flag on it. Remember to stand tall, keep your belly button, your center, pushing out toward his body as you wave the stick toward his hindquarters rhythmically, saying to yourself, I want you to move your feet.” I continued, “The minute he moves even a few feet, stop and reward him.” She tried it just as I had instructed her and Red took several steps away from her and forward on the circle to the left. Mary broke out in a big grin. “I did it!” she shouted. “That was so much easier.” I agreed and asked, “Why do you think it was easier?”
You could hear the excitement in her voice. “Because I felt like I gave him the right amount of energy with the stick without being too rough. He didn’t come at me. I also felt like I knew what I was doing after you gave me a few pointers, like pushing my center towards him. He didn’t have to go very far and so I think he liked being rewarded for his efforts.” Mary had noticed how her body posture and intention had made a huge difference in how the horse responded to her. Red felt her energy coming from within to move him rather than as a meaningless motion from her arm as she stepped back. And he liked the reward of rest after the slightest effort.
Mary and I sat and talked about the challenge she had had with her supervisor. At the time, she felt her only options were to speak up and either lose her job or turn an already difficult relationship into an impossible one OR suffer in silence and allow the same dysfunctional behavior to continue, making her work life miserable. But Mary discovered, with the help of Red that if she was willing to practice being more assertive and ask for what she wanted in a more direct way, anticipating the resistance from him, she could get the results she wanted. The horse moved a few steps the first time, but each time she rewarded him, he was willing to go a little further. Of course, Mary’s co-worker was not a horse and unlike a horse, had more complex reasons for behaving the way she did.
Still, when Mary found herself in a similar situation just one week later in which she was scheduled for a doctor’s appointment before the end of her work day, she anticipated the woman’s response and remembered to complete paper work that the supervisor had signed in advance, excusing her. As she heard the words, she knew we’re coming, “Sorry, but we have a meeting this afternoon that everyone has to attend” Mary quietly reminded her, with the form in her hand, that she was excused from work to go to the doctor. Mary handed the paper to her and said, “I was able to finish my work early today and I really appreciate you giving me the time off to make my appointment.” Without missing a beat, the woman looked at her and said, “Of course, we’re all family here.” Mary walked away, smiling to herself and remembering the day she learned from Red about “the third option.”
Mary had discovered that she did not need to respond to her co-worker with aggressive, rude behavior when faced with resistance and push back. Nor did she need to become passive and just accept the woman’s treatment of her. As she did in her interaction with Red, she chose instead to find a common goal (the work is done and both women felt respected), anticipate the needs of her boss and reward her with a thank you for acknowledging Mary’s needs (although she still didn’t trust the woman’s seemingly insincere response, “We’re all family here.”) Mary’s continued “kind but direct” treatment of her supervisor allowed both women to be less defensive in their actions and eventually led to more “real” conversations as the older woman let her guard down and shared some of her own insecurities about her position at work. A win-win for all! Thank you Red for another great Life Lesson with Horses!
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