Both of my horses are incredibly bored right now, and Silk is especially cranky. We have lots of ice, more than a few inches of snow, water and mud in the corral and pasture, and there’s not really any more that I can do to make it easier to get around in there. Fortunately, both horses have the good sense not to run and try anything dangerous. Still, as they stand there, I feel like they expect me to “fix” it – make the ice and mud go away, make the grass grow. I know that I’m just imposing my own frustrations on them when they actually are much more accepting of the mess than I am. Nonetheless, we’re not happy campers in the here and now.
Luckily for me, I can distract myself from the February blahs by reading a good book. I just got Linda Kohanov’s “The Power of the Herd”, and I am enjoying it immensely. It’s like sitting down with a very smart friend and opening up my mind to new historical information and insights into both horses and leadership. Who knew that George Washington was such a cool guy? And learning about the concept of “cathedral thinking” puts a whole new perspective on how one might regard one’s accomplishments. Kohanov really gave me an important series of “A-ha!” moments when I read “The Tao of Equus” many years ago, and I admire all of the ways that she has helped humans and horses get along better in the world. While I am only half-way through her new book, I did read something that set me thinking about how people misperceive horses’ “bad” behavior, and it made me aware that I am so much more in tune with Silk and Siete than I was when I first began caring for them.
Kohanov says: “Inexperienced equestrians often mistake a stress response for an attack, needlessly escalating the situation. Violently punishing a frightened or frustrated horse raises his blood pressure, accentuating the flight-or-fight response, causing him to act out more dramatically. Immature trainers also tend to hold grudges, treating the horse as innately stupid or arrogant. This hopelessly critical attitude, reinforced by defensive, mistrustful posturing, virtually guarantees that the rider will continue to misinterpret the horse’s behavior and overreact to perceived threats, resulting in greater confusion, fear, anger, and resentment- increasing the possibility of panic and injury in both “partners”.
Looking back on early experiences with both my horses, I recall several key instances when trainers responded to Silk and Siete’s behavior in this way. I knew that they were mistaken, and I felt enormous frustration that I couldn’t find a teacher who would show me a better way to interact with my horses. I quickly came to realize that I had to figure it out for myself since what I believed was so different from what most trainers were insisting was the ”right way” to do things. Linda Kohanov was like a beacon in the fog for me, letting me know that I wasn’t crazy or “wrong” in the way that I was relating to my girls.
I’ve also been thinking about how many of those harsh, grudge-holding trainers eventually came around to realizing that there were other less painful and more successful ways to handle horses. As Henry Shukman, a writer and Bhuddhist philosopher, points out, “ Being wrong can, and often does, bring us closer to being right.”
Before I start to pat myself on the back for seeking out kinder, gentler ways to be part of my herd, I also need to stop and take a look at my own reaction after I have any of those “A-ha!” moments. Shukman also says, “We tend to cherish the new insight rather than notice the more important giving up of the old viewpoint. Perhaps this is the very mechanism by which we all but inevitably end up turning the new view into the next old one, which must in turn also be relinquished. And so our path goes on.”
Silk and Siete don’t harbor any resentments for the inconvenience that Mother Nature is causing them. Yesterday, in the moment of standing on ice, after eating all the hay that I gave her, Silk let me know that she was not happy about the situation. I get it that as Silk was pinning her ears the day before as a way of telling me “this sucks”, it wasn’t because she was blaming me. This morning, she didn’t look out the stall door and get depressed that here was another day where the corral and the pasture were still in a dismal mess. She had let it go. Here I am, wishing that the weather report was different, getting frustrated that I can’t do anything to make life better faster, when maybe I should just trying being more like a horse.