Giving up Sometimes Works
By Betsy Kelleher
I once took care of a horse that resisted all my efforts to bond. I took him into a small enclosed paddock one day with a container of grain. I tried to coax him to come to me as I shook the grain. He wouldn’t come. Perhaps he knew I didn’t really like him. The one time I rode him, I remember that he bucked. I didn’t come off him, but it was close!
I soon gave up. I stopped trying to bond, stopped trying to make him come to me, and stopped trying to do anything but take care of him, as I was paid to do by the out-of-town owner. Then one day while filling the water pail in his stall, I felt a touch on my shoulder. He had come to me on his own, to stand beside me. That one occurrence didn’t change anything. We never did bond. But that moment taught me something. A horse chooses.
When I first worked with Lady, I tried to fix her too. I learned that you can’t fix “alpha mare.” I had to fix myself. I had to get past my fears of what Lady might do when she spooked. I had to become her calm, confident leader, to take charge in a way she would accept. When I was finally able to relax and work through my fear, Lady became less fearful.
With Rocky, it was those terrible tarps! Nothing else seemed to scare him, not even big tractors or motorcycles. I tried for years to help him get over his fear of tarps. I quit trying about a year ago. I recently discovered he seemed quite willing to walk over a tarp in his paddock, and when I put it over his back, he turned his head and touched it with his nose without any apparent fear or tension! What happened?
I remember reading an article by Mary Midkiff about “peaceful intention.” I knew that horses often see humans as predators. Was I conveying my intent regarding the tarp in such a way that Rocky saw me as a predator? It was something to think about. Horses can read our intentions as well as our emotions. I’m definitely not advocating giving up on training or desensitizing. Horses need lots of both. It’s HOW we train that makes the difference—our peaceful intention needs to reassure them as we work with them. Perhaps we should give up our predatory ways and learn how to be peaceful partners.
I’ve always tried to fix things—especially horses. I’m beginning to see, however, that sometimes you have to wait for the horse to come to you instead of trying so hard to make the horse be or do what you want. You can’t always get the best results by aggressively taking charge. Sometimes you have to take time to just be together without pressure, to allow the horse to choose.
I suddenly realize how this observation lines up with the philosophy of Carolyn Resnick. Have I become indoctrinated with her perspective? I’ve read some of her very interesting blog posts, but I haven’t worked to follow her teachings or spent the money to learn more about them.
She recommends that you sit in the pasture, perhaps with a book to help pass the time, until the horse comes to you. I don’t have time for that. Wish I did. I’d love to see what would happen. I wonder if hanging out in the stall would work the same. Some horses get territorial, and spending time nearby as she eats (because it’s usually a mare) might not be a good idea. I’m glad my Lady doesn’t mind if I brush her while she eats. The principle is to share time and space, to be together in a relaxed atmosphere without asking for anything except respect and friendship.
For a brief time, I owned an Arab mare, almost 16 hands and very round. She was cinchy to the point of being dangerous, and fastening the saddle was a delicate situation. If the pad or saddle fell off her, she would react violently. She once broke crossties in the barn and another time almost got loose at a public park. She had issues that needed work and she definitely had a mind of her own.
I was told she had been abused. Not long after I got her, I stood in her stall touching the scars on her neck and chest and face and we shared a strange experience. I remember clearly that my left hand was on her neck and my right hand was on her face. As I looked at those marks, I sensed a deep sadness. It was as though we were suddenly surrounded by a supernatural presence and I was standing on holy ground. I was afraid to move. I found myself saying I’m sorry, and I began to cry, feeling an unexpectedly strong overwhelming emotion of empathy. It was a gift of understanding, I thought, and I believed that Mandy and I would be able to fix her problem. It didn’t work that way.
Trying to fix Mandy’s problem only made me extremely anxious. I became totally focused on the fearfulness of the situation. I was trying too hard, perhaps, to fix her. I finally had to give up. I know I helped her some, but I wasn’t helping myself. I traded her off to someone who was better able to handle it.
We can learn from the moments that horses share with us. Those moments are gifts. The horse I didn’t own came to me only after I’d given up on my efforts to make him come to me. Mandy allowed me a glimpse of her past, perhaps revealing herself because she was searching for someone to trust. I wish I could have been what she needed.
How can I care deeply about helping a horse without getting so involved that I lose perspective? It’s difficult to control such emotions. Objectivity is lost when you care that much. But if Penny Chenery had been objective, perhaps Secretariat would not have reached his great success. Sometimes it takes one person who cares more deeply than others.
I’m thankful we have a living God who cares more than we could imagine or understand. He knows our true needs and He never gives up! I’m thankful for that day I realized that Jesus Christ had died not just for the sins of the world, but for me personally. He was willing to leave Heaven to come to Earth, to be born in a human body and to suffer and die as a perfect sacrifice, to provide for the forgiveness of anyone who would accept Him as the Son of God. He cared that much, to give all of Himself.
This is the season we celebrate His birth. May each of us be aware of His love and mercy, born in the form of a tiny baby in a stable manger, born to be King of Kings and Lord of Lords for all eternity! Remember that the angels announced to the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. A Savior has been born, Christ the Lord!” Let us kneel at his Presence and proclaim His Sovereignty! Let us care about others around us and do what we can to share God’s love with them. Merry Christmas to all!
(Originally published in the December 2012 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)