This life lesson blog is a fictional re-creation of real life experiences with my students designed to maintain anonymity and confidentiality.
Deb reached down to pick up the horse’s foot as the mare stood quietly at the end of the rope in my hands. I shared with Deb how to get the horse to balance on three feet and encouraged her to lean slightly on the shoulder as she slid her hand down the horse’s right front leg. With a slight tug and a lift, Deb felt the foot come off the ground. She cradled it gently in her left hand and began cleaning out grass, mud and sawdust with the small metal hoof pick, not realizing that, for her mare, a prey animal, this is the most vulnerable of acts- letting a predator control movement. As she lowered the foot, Deb smiled broadly saying, “That went really well. I haven’t picked up a horse’s foot since I was in high school.”
Standing on a green manicured lawn in the yard adjoining her horse’s barn and pasture during one of our weekly Life Lessons with Horses, Deb had shared how, at the age of 50 she had decided to create a quieter, healthier existence with her husband on a small piece of rural property far removed from the stress and dysfunction of her corporate life and the addiction and depression that had accompanied it. Now, with her beautiful mare next to her and, having successfully picked a hoof, she was sure she was one step closer.
“How about trying the back foot?” I asked. With a little hesitation, Deb moved back to the hip and began moving her hand slowly down to the horse’s hind foot. Unlike the front foot, the mare resisted being handled and moved off with a step to the left. On her second try, Deb saw the hind foot come off the ground and moved away quickly as if given an electric shock. “What happened when you went to lift the foot?” I asked. Deb described a feeling of concern, first about being stepped on and then the possibity of injuring her previously strained shoulder, not to mention the potential for worsening back strain. Her concerns carried over into her worries about lack of preparation, education and experience in picking up a horses hoof. She wondered aloud if it would be better to just wait until she could be sure that the experience of hoof picking was less risky. The possibility of things going badly and the fear it created in Deb had put her into creating a worse case scenario in her mind. In the process, she had begun putting together what sounded like a “disaster plan”.
So I posed the question, “What if we change the experience from ‘picking up a hoof’ to something simpler”: Can I touch the horse’s leg/foot? Can I get the horse to lift her foot when I touch it, even if it leads to her moving it away from me? Deb agreed that this seemed easier and something she could be successful at immediately. It was also something she could reward the horse for and that would create more trust, deepening their bond. It also allowed her to feel more positive about engaging with her mare in the future and not dwell on the potential difficulties of each experience. Each small setback would be followed by a new idea for moving forward. She had discovered the power of creating a “resilience plan.”
Why DO we worry abouth the possibility of a bad outcome in our daily life, with its fear of hurt feelings, making mistakes, being lied to or cheated or at its worse, losing someone or something we value. The simple answer: WE LEARNED IT-either because it was modeled or we adapted the behavior as a way to cope with difficult moments in our life. Deb had learned it from her dad who she says was always obsessing about what could possibly go wrong, insisting that she repeat what he had said several times so she would never forget. Even when she was 25 years old, he warned her of the potential for disaster if she came home late after a night out with friends. The message was clear : prepare for disaster unless proven otherwise!
This negative mindset had carried over into Deb’s corporate career in which she was assigned the responsibility for assessing risk in her company’s assets. She proved to be a good match for the position but noticed that the more she raised “red flags” the less people wanted to approach her with new ideas or engage with her in general. Fortunately, Deb’s ability to bring people together combined with her innovative spirit and curious mind allowed her to create a work force at another job in which she was able to build relationships, create strong bonds,encourage sharing and reward innovation. As she described these incredible moments in her work life, I could see her face light up and her eyes sparkle, soon followed by the dreaded 3 letter word, BUT…..
Deb couldn’t help it. She found herself back in the mire of negative thoughts describing the times when things went wrong and the days when her mind was not clear and her decisions even murkier. Before I could celebrate with her on her past WINS, she had taken herself right back to emphasizing the LOSSES. Deb believed that if she stayed too long basking in the glow of good fortune, she would miss the signs of impending doom. If you expect the worst, you won’t be surprised. The supposed protection this mindset gives us from disaster really happening, is simply a myth. And worst of all, it keeps us from experiencing the moments in front of us, exploring the endless possibilities for making what we first see as a struggle into an opportunity for fun, learning, creativity and adventure. When we’re preparing for the worst, we isolate ourselves from others who wish to share their positive, hopeful experiences with us.
I asked Deb, now in the midst of listing her failures, what she had learned from her setbacks. “I never gave up. I learned more about myself and never stopped looking for a better way. It’s how I found this place and why I’m creating this wonderful home for me and my husband.” As she finished her sentence, she paused, looked at me and said, “Well I sure turned that frown upside down.” We both laughed and I shared with her that her desire to want to see more of the positive in her struggles was a great beginning to a NEW pattern in her life, one in which she would recognize her fear (the tightness and shallow breathing she felt when attempting to pick up her mare’s hind foot) and how it led her to looking for the worst case scenario, followed by the creation of a disaster plan.
Instead, she would commit to practicing more self awareness with deep breathing (including daily with her horse) and consciously decide to stay in the moment where she could respond more thoughtfully, creatively and with more curiosity. And most importantly she would give herself credit for her WINS in the form of a “gratitude list”-something that had worked for her in the past. She would share her WINS with her hubby and remember to see a setback, a struggle or a fear as a chance to reach out to others, even ask for help from those she trusted. She admitted that she had been keeping to herself and knew it was time to venture out. I told Deb how proud I was of her for creating her first “resilience plan”.