I’ve been putting myself out there a lot in the last five years. It’s not easy for me. My habit, learned at an early age was to keep in the background, do what was expected and don’t test the waters. The seas might be shark infested and who wants to go there? It’s a habit that began when the adults in my life made it clear that good behavior was rewarded, and bad behavior was punished. Simple, right?

Interestingly, the same concept is used in horse training including the belief that what gets rewarded gets repeated. But, here’s the rub. “Good behavior” can mean compliant behavior- behavior that does not reflect the true nature or desires of the person or horse doing the behaving, only the person demanding the behavior.

With a swing at the end of the rope attached to his halter, I asked Wave, my Arab gelding to step up to the pallet, put both feet on and stay there for 15 seconds. I had a goal and knew in my mind what it would look like when he was doing it “right”. Of course, being Wave, an independent, curious, adventurous and innovative creature, he needed to take all possibilities into consideration and balance those against the potential danger of standing 6 inches off the ground. There was a LOT to take in before he could decide to join me on the pallet. He wasn’t going to just do it on the first try. But he never left me completely.

If I had decided that Wave’s resistance was a sign of bad behavior, I could have then increased the pressure on him with a faster, more energetic swing of my rope-rush him, so to speak. But that would have brought up even more resistance in him and his response to my tactics would have been to pull back and turn in the opposite direction with even more energy and head out of dodge.


Is resistance and lack of compliance the same as “bad behavior” or is it the expression of an individual’s personality and temperament? No one in my early life had modeled for me what it looks like when a quiet, low energy person like myself steps up and expresses their discontent or disagreement with someone in a way that allows both parties to feel heard and respected. And so, I learned to keep quiet and to go along, even to agree, though I knew it wasn’t how I really felt. If I couldn’t express my true feelings in a way that felt safe for me and those with whom I was interacting, then how could I ever network and collaborate with others on new and potential scary experiences or have a difficult conversation with a friend or loved one?

Wave felt safe with me and knew that I would hear him and listen when he told me how he was feeling. His response was consistent and congruent with his personality and temperament and so I allowed him to explore his options and express his concerns while keeping us both safe. I continued with my goal to have him step up and stand on the pallet, but it was with a welcomed contribution to the conversation.


My fear in speaking up and sharing my true feelings started, like a lot of people at a age when the most important thing to me was to be loved and accepted by the people who meant the most to me and to whom I looked up to in almost every situation. But such is not the case now. I am an adult with the ability to make my own decisions based on years of experience and positive responses to asserting myself, asking for what I want and setting boundaries in relationships. So why do I still feel that pit in my stomach and the potential for repercussions if my so called “bad behavior” shows up? Why do I try to avoid it? Because, IT’S A HABIT!

For me to learn a new habit, a new skill for expressing myself, I had to start by sharing my feelings with those who loved me, who didn’t immediately judge or criticize me, especially when I was learning to articulate my thoughts more effectively. It was scary. I wanted to run away from “the pallet” and never return. I had to slow down my thoughts, take a deep breath, and DO IT ANYWAY! My first tries weren’t easy, nor was I at my best at speaking out loud, expressing myself. But, as I practiced more and more, it got easier and the response from loved ones was positive. I continue to feel butterflies in my stomach, though, instead of winged raptors, so I guess that’s a plus. Now I’m able to share more with those whom I choose to work and collaborate, some who have differing approaches and opinions. That’s okay, because I know how to make both of us feel safe to express ourselves honestly and with respect.

It was Wave, and other horses, living true to their nature and consistent in their behavior that taught me this lesson. The horses never judged or criticized me when I made a mistake. They never said I was behaving badly or that I was a bad person when I disagreed. They showed me how to be respectful and keep the relationship honest and safe. It’s made a tremendous difference in my life and my relationships.  As usual, when in doubt, the horse knows best.

Find out how you can learn to express yourself with integrity and respect in every situation, with your brilliant teacher, the horse at Life Lessons with Horses. Contact Cathy at (360)430-0430 or cathy@lifelessonswithhorses.com