“I love mankind, it’s humans I hate”- Linus from Peanuts
The Old Pattern-Protect Yourself
The first time I worked with the mare, I was full of ideas for applying the new knowledge I’d gained at a recent horsemanship clinic. I’ll have her do this, then do this and of course I’ll use my new shiny tool with the fancy rope. After a few tries we’ll look just like the guy in the video. That’s what really counted back then, over fifteen years ago, when I was knee deep in natural horsemanship books, videos and clinics.
Keeping my eye on the prize, I was determined to make it all come together perfectly and focused on what was working to make me look all knowing, all powerful. But of course, the horse had other ideas. Each time I asked her to move off to the left with my perfectly timed swing of the rope, the mare stopped, turned and looked at me, completely ignoring my request. So, I tried again and again, swinging faster and harder to get her to move. That only served to irritate her and she would raise her head and tighten her body in a defiant pose that said, “Oh yeah, you and what army?”
Bottom line-I didn’t want to look foolish or stupid, incompetent or unskilled. And if my attempts to get the horse to move just like the manual says wasn’t working, then it’s the horse’s fault. She’s the stubborn, lazy and ill-mannered one who’s putting a monkey wrench in my plans. My defensiveness would grow and my narrow focus and direct line thinking continued until I was unable to see how rigid I’d become in my approach to the horse. I didn’t dare ask for help or mention to other horse owners that I was struggling. Little by little, my relationship with the horse deteriorated. Back then I didn’t understand what it meant to have a “connection” with the horse. I had yet to discover the work of brilliant people like Linda Tellington-Jones, Carolyn Resnick or my beloved Sally Swift. And it’s no surprise that my connection with other humans was stunted by my lack of awareness. I just didn’t want to be vulnerable or open myself up to others. It carried with it too much risk and uncertainty.
Recognize the Pattern
Why do we do that? Why do we assume that our attempts at connecting with others are going to lead to disappointment and rejection and so we back off and avoid what we think will end up in an emotional disaster? Or we tell ourselves that humans are the problem, that they cause all of our hurt, fear, pain and discomfort by not knowing what we need or want. Why not just do it myself? I’m right and you’re wrong. The strategy is to limit your interaction and always be on guard for possible invaders to our self-imposed emotional fortress. What we forget to consider is that the walls we build to protect us also prevent joy, love and connection from getting through.
For me, it began somewhere in the distant past, thinking I looked stupid or foolish in front of adults or family with their sarcastic or biting remarks or a well-intentioned comment that cut me to the quick. I recoiled and vowed to “never do that again.” Don’t ever put myself in a position to be ridiculed or criticized. Always try to do or say the right thing. Protect yourself from ever feeling that awful again. With the moment frozen in my subconscious like a wooly mammoth fossil preserved in ice for eternity, I can’t move on… or can I?
Thank goodness I’ve learned so much about my abilities and talents, my beliefs and values since then. I’m not 8 years old anymore. And yet, like all of us, it’s easy to get stuck in a repeat pattern of unconsciously recalling a moment that provokes me followed by my automatic reaction. With a lot of reflection, education and practice (and exploration, discovery and mastery with the horses), I’m learning to recognize the habit and reset my response.
Horses Can Help You Learn A New Pattern
Horses have been the biggest help in this because they give me immediate feedback. When I feel the past come up, my body tightens, I hear the old story and I hide my true feelings. The horse finds this disconcerting, even dangerous and does not want to engage with me. Because of their honest input, I’m learning to recognize sooner when I am returning to the old ways. I keep a quick reminder, a kind word or affirmative phrase in my head, “you’re okay, Cathy” and try again. When I spend time with the horse I have today, it doesn’t have to be perfect. I can reach out and share with others the progress I’m making and listen to their advice. I’ve let down my defenses and choose to find a common purpose in each interaction. I recognize the fears and hurt of others and can empathize. I celebrate success in the smallest wins. I have healthy relationships that work.
WHY? Because now I believe that I’m worthy of connection and have a lot to offer to others, including my horse, when we are together. I get to be who I am, not who I think I should be based on the expectations of others. I do not apologize for who I am and can accept others for who they are, looking for common ground in our every day exchanges. I’m focused more on connection instead of protection.
Like you, I’m a work in progress, but now I truly believe I belong here. It is not easy. As Maya Angelou said, “The price is high, the reward is great.”