Christmas is a-coming!
By Betsy Kelleher
When I think of Christmas, I imagine a horse drawn sleigh on a snow-covered road with a family singing carols and enjoying the Christmas season. Does that ever happen anymore—or is it merely a pretty picture on a Christmas card? I never rode in a sleigh myself, but growing up on a small Iowa farm I did ride in a wagon pulled by a team of gray Percherons.
Our Percherons worked to help us farm—pulling the wagon, the hay rake, and other equipment. Most horses today have never been hitched, and a sleigh wouldn’t fit on today’s roads. Today’s horses live a very different life. Now, it’s all about having a relationship with your horse and even using horses as therapy for human problems! Things change.
As this year ends, and another begins, let’s take time to look at our horse and human partnerships. Let’s determine where we are and what we want for our horses and ourselves—and honestly decide if we need to make some changes.
I can’t remember who, but someone once told me that there are three levels of horsemanship. First, you learn to stay on the horse. Sounds easy, unless you are the one just starting to ride! Next, you learn to go with the horse. You learn to balance and to feel your horse beneath you, and to ride in harmony with your horse’s movement. You learn to put all the pieces together so you can stay on AND give effective cues at the same time! Then, you can begin to influence your horse, beyond just giving cues to go right or left or stop and go. It’s more than becoming a better rider and gaining experience. It’s a gradual changing of purpose and perspective. As you become a better rider, you are more able to help your horse develop his own abilities and talents. Horse and rider can actually teach each other so that it becomes a mutual progress.
For some, the New Year’s goal will be that first level of learning to ride (some lucky person may actually get a horse for Christmas!). The joy of ownership is also a huge responsibility, however. Take time to learn all you can. Read books, take riding lessons, talk to experienced horse owners. Never assume you can just jump on a horse and ride. That assumption has gotten a lot of people hurt or disillusioned about horses! If your life is worth protecting, it’s worth the cost of proper instruction. Be patient and take it slow, step by step. Someday you will know the value of that advice, but for now just trust me and don’t start out on a trail by yourself with a new horse and think you can handle it. Start in a protected arena, with an instructor that can show you how to sit correctly and balance in the saddle and give proper cues to your horse. Take time to know your horse by spending time with him, grooming and grazing and just walking around together. Above all, start with a well trained, gentle horse rather than a young, green animal!
When I got my first horse, I was told to “show her you’re the boss!” That was actually bad advice! We cannot use force to make our horses obey without damaging our relationship with them. The best partnerships are based on trust and respect and a willing loyalty. Learn how to be the horse’s reliable, firm caretaker, a calm and confident leader. Your horse should want to be with you and enjoy working for you. He needs to feel safe and comfortable with what you ask. As you gain experience, you will gain confidence. When you ask something of your horse, don’t ask more than you can handle. Break each big task down into small pieces that are easier to accomplish. Keep asking, and be firm without getting angry. Be patient! Give your horse the time he needs to accept what you are asking and you will have fewer problems.
As you progress in your skill as a rider, you will start to sense your horse as your willing partner. The unity of the partnership is the joy of horsemanship! I recently felt such a moment while riding Rocky in the outdoor arena. We had stopped near the adjoining pasture fence when I noticed several horses in that pasture all looking toward a nearby field. So I looked and saw 4 deer, their white tails bobbing as they ran. The horses in the pasture all suddenly turned and ran, but Rocky stood relaxed and quiet. I realized later that he was relying on my leadership instead of going with the other horses. That’s exactly what we want.
Perhaps one day you will realize that something needs to be changed. You may decide that your horse needs a more confident rider and you will need to grow as a person and as a rider, in order to become what your horse needs. This realization can become a turning point in your life. Do you grow to find greater success—do you remain where you are—or do you give up? Sometimes the challenge seems too great. But take time to think through the possibilities and determine what is really important to you. Do you need a different horse? Does your horse need a different rider? Does he need more training? Do you need a different instructor? What could help you reach your goals? And what really are your goals? What do you really want? What does your horse need? Don’t be afraid to make the changes that will help you reach your goals.
When I was riding Traveller, I felt safe. Even when I was nervous before a hunter pace, Traveller seemed calm. I could count on him. Lady, on the other hand, is a mirror of my emotions. I can’t hide my fears, so I need to control our situation as much as possible. I’ve learned to go only where I feel safe riding her. Lady and I have worked through a lot this year. Riding in lessons with a Spookless CD playing loud noises (trucks, chain saws, kids screaming, tin cans rattling), I was able to ride her closer and closer to the sounds until she accepted being right beside the CD player. That helped build my confidence more than anything else I’ve done! Building on that success, I have tried to take every opportunity to expose her at a safe distance to large machines and trucks. Whenever a diesel truck is parked running in the stable parking lot, I try to ride or walk her around it, working to get closer than before without scaring her.
And then one day I came to the barn and saw Lady standing at the back fence of her paddock, watching the combine go by in the adjoining field. She wasn’t running away from it as she had before. She was standing there, quietly watching. I was amazed.
Carolyn Resnick uses the term “shaping behavior.” I like that term. Training is a means of shaping behavior. You can’t force behavior without consequences, but you can be patient and watch it happen, if you are doing the right things.
Just as we learn to influence our horses, God asks us to be an influence for Him. He wants us to be like salt, to add Christian flavor and to preserve His ways. That can seem difficult, because only God is perfect, and we humans make lots of mistakes! But the more we let God influence us, the more we can be a Godly influence in this world. And very definitely, this world desperately needs Godly influence!
We cannot force others to believe as we do any more than we can effectively use force on our horses. We should live our lives in a way that others see Christ in us and will want that for themselves. A Godly influence is not a dominating, forceful one; it is a loving, caring attitude with a deep faith that draws others to His love.
In II Corinthians 5:18-19, we are told: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” This message of reconciliation is the message of Christmas.
God sent His Son, Jesus, to be born in a manger, to live among men for a time and to die for mankind’s sin. The Christmas message is more than a happy greeting. It is the essence of our Christianity. And especially today, it is being threatened by many outside influences. It’s time to think seriously about being that Godly influence to those around us. May God’s light shine on the world through each of us and may His love reach out and His wisdom guide us. Do you hear what I hear? Those Christmas sounds and songs? A child was born that will someday be King of Kings and Lord of Lords. His Kingdom begins within you.
(Originally published in the December 2010 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)