Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Christmas is the time of year that brings up thoughts for me on the idea of being grateful. There are often so many confusing emotions surrounding this holiday for me and for so many people. We give gifts, we get gifts, we think about those who have no gifts, and if we are honest with ourselves, we are not always all that grateful. I like to show my gratitude to my friends and family with gifts. That is part of the holiday season I enjoy. That enjoyment, however, often runs thin in the long lines, small budgets, and busy schedule that goes along with it. I enjoy getting gifts as well, and though in some moments I am incredibly thankful, there are many others that cause me to grumble as I once again stand in line, returning the things I wasn’t that grateful for. Then there is also the desire to help those less fortunate at Christmas, but that also brings up a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions. I find that an important factor determining our level of gratefulness is this: expectation.

I have been learning a lesson in gratefulness from an unlikely place. Riley is a big, beautiful, brave, bold, and smart Belgian and Thoroughbred cross. At this juncture I believe she is six years old. When she was four years old I may have described her differently. More like big, beautiful, bossy, smart-ass and possibly dangerous. The difference between these two has come because of shifts in attitude, relationship, and expectation. I believe that when Riley came to us, she didn’t expect to stay. She seemed to hold out her level of trust until she, and we, felt like she belonged. And when she began to belong, she began to show her gratitude, and began to contribute. I believe also that Riley needed to be appreciated. She is a proud, sensitive girl, who can be easily offended by being pushed around or unacknowledged. Riley has taught me this lesson because she likes to make it clear that she is powerful, fast, and smarter-than-you, but that she also has a heart of gold.

I have learned to be so appreciative of everything that Riley gives me, and because of this, she offers more. My favorite past-time with her is the catching game. Not because it is fun (it’s not really), or because it shows improvement (I have yet to just walk up to her and put the halter on), but because it is the ultimate lesson in gratefulness. Every time I go out to catch Riley she leaves. Sometimes it is in irritation, sometimes it is in uncertainty, but more often lately, it is in a big show. Sometimes it takes three minutes, sometimes fifteen minutes (sometimes I just give up and get somebody else). We communicate. She shows me how fast she can run away, I show her how amazed I am. She shows me how kindly she will turn and face me when I ask, I show her how beautiful I think she is. And when finally I show her the halter, and she sticks her nose right in it, I hit the floor. Every time. I don’t expect that I will catch Riley, but I am beginning to trust that we will find each other.

Every interaction I have with that big girl causes me to be grateful. When she comes up to me with a sweet look, I am grateful. When she stays with me on line in the yard, I am grateful. When she offers softness on the rein, I am soooooo grateful. Yet with all the improvements Riley has made, I do not think that I have begun to expect anything from her. She simply won’t have that. I have, however, begun to trust her, and believe in her. And I believe that she is grateful for that.

Back to the hustle and bustle, and holiday “cheer”. I wonder if we can learn to approach life as Riley has taught me to approach her, how much more joy we would find. Can we live without expectation, and find wonder in whatever occurs? Can we be grateful to one another for even the smallest offerings? Can we enjoy the moments by learning not to expect them, like opening the gate and having the herd all step politely away, like stepping into your office in the morning and it being WARM...or cold, coming home to a home. We do not have to take things for granted in our lives just because they are always there. We can TRUST that they will be there, and be grateful for them.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pretty Girls Turn Heads

From the moment that RG and Zeta came to live at the residential treatment facility where I work, they were up to something. Much like the state of equine program there, it was clear that they hadn’t had some attention for quite some time. But also like our program, that was going to change.

RG and Zeta are a couple cute-as-a-button Arabian mares, donated to the program under the assumption that they are “good riding horses”. While I don’t doubt that it is in there somewhere, it remains yet to be seen. What was clearly visible, however, was the tangled mess of a tail on Zeta. Unless she had been on a recent vacation to Jamaica, I assumed that it was a result of the fact that she also was not easy to catch and this was a clear indication that she had not been handled in years. I have spent hours in my life combing out tangled tails, because I really don’t believe in cutting a horses hair, however, after we spent the time doing what it took to catch Zeta, I grabbed the nearest sharp instrument and hacked that dreadlock off. Surprisingly, what we found was that once Zeta was “in hand” she was good as gold.

RG is another story. Friendly, sociable, calm and brave. An ideal picture of what a riding horse for a kids program should be, except that we soon learned also that RG was not very sound. She had trouble standing on her rear legs, and then one day on my way out, I saw RG laying down and sensed that I should go check her out. As I walked out to see her, her friend was standing nearby, and surprisingly allowed me to walk directly up to her and touch her. She seemed to say to me, “help my friend, thanks for helping”. As I suspected, RG could not get up. Amidst the hullabaloo of trying to help out RG, these smart, sensitive Arabians accomplished their first act as therapy horses. They brought a group of employees and administrators to the necessary awareness that caring for horses is an important, and difficult job.

A curious thing about Zeta and RG coming to the program, is that everyone seemed to have an interest in them. Its hard to explain the connection that I have been feeling to Zeta, but I think that is what this story is all about- their unexplainable draw.The second miracle happened the day we went to test out Zeta’s riding knowledge. As usual we played our catching game, and I was beginning to feel that Zeta understood me and even liked me. Zeta was, as I expected, a good girl when it came to saddling, however I realized that her short Arabian back was not going to like the saddle that I had brought up. Immediately,as if out of thin air, up pulls the donation truck with a saddle that was a perfect fit for Zeta. We had a good little session; I learned that Zeta would definitely need some work, but was willing. Then, as we were leaving, an employee stops by and says that she had a group of people donate a bunch of stuff for the program, and that a company was going to donate arthritis medicine for RG. Somehow these little horses have been sending out their wish lists, and getting results.

The next thing on RG and Zeta’s agenda was an agency-wide equine therapy session. The session was scheduled to be only for a group of 6 boys, however, RG and Zeta decided that arena was too small for them, and took advantage of the open gates to take the session to the rest of the campus. You may recall that Zeta does not like to be caught, and it is very possible that I created this very incident in my mind, as I had worried about what would happen if they got out. After I was able to control my panic and fear that they would take for the road, I could enjoy the scene unfolding before me.

If you have ever seen Arabian horses run around expressing their sense of freedom, then you will know it is a captivating sight. The whole campus stopped and watched in amazement, many of them never seeing horses before. I tried to solicit help from the bystanders, but began to realize that they had no intention of getting near the wild running horses. It wouldn’t have helped anyway, what I needed were people who knew what to do, and understood how their behaviors would affect the horses. Call in our Friday afternoon group members. The six boys scheduled for a session came to the rescue, creating a boundary with their bodies and controlling their energy to guide Zeta to a safe space until she was calm enough to allow herself to be caught ( I already had RG on the line).

As the boys continued with their session (in the appropriate enclosed arena), learning about focusing their thoughts and paying attention to their body language, the rest of the campus was buzzing about horses. All of a sudden kids were asking about meeting the horses, and how they could be able to do things with them. Kids who always thought they were afraid of horses, had a sudden curiosity. Interest has been peaked for equine therapy.

In my opinion, the value of a horse is not whether you can ride them or if they can be of service to you, the value of a horse is what they can teach you. These pretty girls have taught me a lesson. We have the power to get things done, we just have to use it. You don’t know what you can get until you ask. You don’t know what people will think about something until you show them. You can make things happen if you want to, and people will join you to take up the cause. Of course, it just comes naturally when you’re as pretty as these two.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Hunger

Predator and Prey
The skies are very active this time of year. Flocks of thousands of blackbirds swarm from field to field, roosting like black leaves on the naked trees. Vultures circle endlessly, little sparrows and bluejays flit from branch to branch in my yard. And my eyes perpetually peel the air in fear to spot the arch-nemesis of my little chicken flock, the hawk. I suppose this sudden seasonal activity is due to the need for nature to prepare herself for the cold lean winter. The skies are full of hunger.

Though I recognize that predatory behavior is a necessary part of natural life, I have to say that I cannot think of a time that it has served me. I am not a fan of my chickens getting eaten, the little rabbit I shot on one of my first hunting trips made a meager stew, and I have a sickly feeling in my stomach when I think about the sadistic joy on my dogs face when she killed a baby bunny. We are far removed from our predatory nature, buying our meat in packages and taking out our violent urges on video games. But our predation leaks out in so many ways.

There was a predator on the loose the other night. Literally. The predator was me, and I was on Loose. It was a strange experience, as I rarely get upset at Lucy, and I have learned to control my predatory urges well. However, A few things were different: I was under the stress of preparing for a competition. The competition was really not a big deal, but if you read my prior posts, you will see how it tends to affect me. We were also experiencing something called a pre-encounter environment, a term used when discussing prey behavior. This is an environment in which the prey animal is aware that there is potential for predator attack. In other words, they feel unsafe. Using a bridle is something new for me and Lucy, and as most things are when they are new, you are out of your comfort zone, on heightened alert, and less confident. The last thing that was different was that because of this pre-encounter environment, Lucy began acting like a prey animal, which is something that she rarely does.

Just like when my dog’s predatory instinct to kill kicks in when she hears the panicked squeaks of the baby rabbit, my frustration and instinct to enter into a fight and win kicked in when Lucy became right-brained and scared. All of a sudden I wanted to use force instead of psychology, and everything I knew went out the window. In fact, at one point, my husband sarcastically told me that I should just get off my horse. He was right. I knew even at the time he was right. But is that what I did? NO. Why? I was being driven by my instinct. And it did not serve me or my horse.

The predatory instinct is a survival skill, based on the need to eat large amounts of protein rich food. Humans are a strange species built for both vegetarian and carnivorous diets, with skill sets that also serve both lifestyles. However, being a social and verbal species, our predatory behavior is not just about hunger, but about obtaining other things necessary to survival- order, society, family, territory. It is is what helped us become the beings that we are today.

Horses are a very unique animal. Not only are they a prime example of prey animal: fast, sensitive, smart, alert; but they also have the qualities that have made them a prime animal to partner with man: fast, sensitive, smart, alert, brave, athletic, social. Horses are the only animal of its size built in such a way to carry humans. In fact horses have been our partners over the years in so much of our predatory acts. It is clear that horses were made to be with us, yet it is such a paradox of predator and prey.

Aesop’s fable tells of the lion and the mouse, a predator and prey animal, who learn different ways of being because of a kindness shown. The bravery of the little mouse who pulled the thorn from the lions paw is rewarded when he is then face to face with the sentence of death at the claws of his lion. The predator defies his predatory instincts and spares the life of his friend, proving that a relationship can truly change biology.

While our instincts are opposite, our willingness to form a partnership causes both species to be better for it. I’ve learned a lot from my experience of predatory instinct the other night. And the only reason that I was able to learn is because I am in a relationship with a magnificent animal that deserves to be treated differently. I realize now that cavemen must have been true barbarians until they encountered horses. It is a special animal that causes us to see the faults in ourselves, forgive us for them, cause a hunger and yearning to be a better person, and be willing to learn and grow alongside us.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Embracing the Darkness

I’ve been trying to embrace the darkness. Instead of hating that it gets dark before I even set my foot out the door to come home, I have been trying to make good use of the change, such as spending time hibernating at home with my husband, and taking the opportunity to spend undemanding time snuggling and grooming my horses. As I was enjoying my beautiful Lucy tonight and combing the massive amount of burrs out of this normally quite prim pony’s tail (it’s usually Bucky I have to worry about- I’m pretty sure he ROLLS in them...), I was reminded of why I often call her my Wild Indian Pony. I’m not sure what she loves more, greeting me with a sweet nuzzle to the neck and resting her head on my shoulder, or leading a wild bucking and running frenzy across the field with her friends when I come to catch her .

She is rather interesting in the herd as well, though by nature she often seems passive, she also never lets any of the boys push her around if she doesn’t want to. Her quiet place in the herd can quickly turn into a nasty face to protect her space. She has been interesting as my partner as well. She has shown up as a firm and opinionated teacher, yet also an obedient and willing partner.

Lucy has a swirl at the curve of her neck where a brown spot and a white spot meet. It creates a perfect symbol of what I have discovered her personality to be. It is a graceful brown and white yin-yang.

The Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang refers to the opposite forces of nature which, as they act in turn, give rise to the other. It speaks of balance and interdependence. It comes from observation of the cycles and patterns of the universe and earth, and the symbol itself is actually a picture of the charted cycle of the winter and summer solstices.

In western thought, we often think of this philosophy as the balance between good and bad. In fact we Americans are obsessed with ideas of good and evil. Look at our favorite stories, our religions, and even our penal system. However, this philosophy does not speak of what is good or bad, merely what is opposite, yet interdependent. It does not weigh whether the yin is better than the yang. I cannot pretend to be any type of expert on this subject, but what I have gathered are that the yin and yang are three things: It is change, It is natural, and because it is natural, it has ease.

In looking at our own nature, we can see the lights and the darks. All too often, however, we are prone to judge them. As I have sat with my clients at work this week I have seen the darkness in their nature come to a head until it turns into a reflection of light. I have seen hate expressed until it turns to love, and back to hate again, for the hope of love in the future. The cycles of our emotions and relationships need these interdependent opposites. Our anger and hate and hurt is all a part of our bodies and brains working on being healthy and whole. Our sicknesses and so-called faults are all a part of us expressing who we were created to be.

It is simple, easy, and natural for Lucy to be a wild pony one minute and a golden angel the next. It can also be simple, easy, and natural for us to accept who we are and who others are in all our holy and unholy forms. This is the cycle of change. The summer can only come if winter has taken it away first. We can only love and accept ourselves if we allow ourselves to embrace our darkness first.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fear Itself

In honor of the Halloween season, I am currently working on scaring the crap out of myself. Its not an easy job; it takes a lot of thought. A lot of morbid, tense, irrational thought. Lucky for me, I have a good deal of practice. In case you are looking for guidance in how to totally work yourself up emotionally, here’s the how to: First, It’s always a good idea to work on developing fear in the places that you would most like to not have it, such as regarding something you love the most, or really enjoy doing. After all, what good is being afraid if it doesn’t affect your life much? Once you have determined the most unsuitable area of your life to create anxiety, then, try to think about the worst thing that could possibly happen. We can get really creative here. For example, have you ever thought while driving down the road at night that some little kids will just run out if front of your car, and then you squash them? That’s pretty scary. How about thinking about coming home to your house burnt to the ground, all your kittens and guinea pigs crispy inside? Classic fear right there. Like I said, you have to be creative. My personal favorite is to think about all the crazy things that could happen while driving a horse trailer. I’ve got a whole beautiful list!

Another extremely valuable tactic to use to raise your fear and anxiety levels is to think about a time that something relatively scary happened to you, such as a car accident, or someone getting sick or hurt, and then make a blank generalization across the board that such things are always in the wings waiting for you. Its helpful to exaggerate them a bit, and really obsess about the danger out there lurking. I like to think about past car accidents that I have been involved in (which have all been very minor), and then imagine how gory they could actually be. Here’s a good tip: think about what COULD have happened....Lots of material to work with there. The bigger and more often you can get yourself to have these obsessive scary thoughts, the more scared you will be! And that IS what we are going for, now ISN’T it? (moooaaa-aaa-aaa)

And finally, if you really want to allow your fear to take hold of your life, let it keep you from doing what you love! After all, you wouldn’t want everyone in the entire town to obsessively talk about that little fumble you made in your speech, and therefore shun you from any all all social events for the rest of your life. You absolutely would NOT want to LIVE if that girl didn’t really like you, besides, she would probably throw her entire dinner plate right in your face (oh, the horror!), and most likely slit your tires and get her crazy girlfriends (who just happen to have access to medical supplies) to put some whacked out drugs in your lunch! You may want to give up driving, for sure, and relationships..... If fact you should probably never leave your house at all, I mean, who else will save the guinea pigs from roasting? Whatever you do, do not, I repeat DO NOT follow your dreams!!!

Remember, YOU are in control of your fear. They say the greatest fear is fear itself. I know that if you try hard enough, and with these tips, you can be successful at creating a truly outstanding level of anxiety, paranoia, and good old-fashioned fear in your life. Hope you hate it!!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Change for a Dollar

While facilitating an equine-assisted team building this weekend, I came face to face with one of the great hurdles of the human condition. As the members of this group talked bout how they could better work together, what they needed to overcome to meet success, and the roles each of them played in the group, what I kept seeing was what each individual needed to overcome in order for the group to meet their goals. What I realized, for them and for myself, was that the things that each member needed to do for the group’s success, was the very same thing that they needed to do for their own success. This dilemma is universal. Those deeply ingrained character flaws, ways of thinking, and traumas of childhood are the very things that keep us from realizing our dreams. They are the things that we struggle with every day of our lives. And for people who are up to something in life, who want to create their dreams, who are willing to try to change for it, well, they are up against some tough obstacles.

This scenario left me mulling over the question, as I often do, “What about change?” How does it happen, what does it take? As I observe at the residential treatment facility where I work, people can get overwhelmed by the task of changing. And so easily that feeling can lead to giving up before they have ever even started, however, as time moves on and the level of dissatisfaction with their life becomes increasingly uncomfortable, suddenly change seems like a potential option. Typically, after things in life become unsuitable for long enough, then people get excited about changing.

I had a similar question in my mind as I rode Lucy the other day. We were playing with developing contact with a bit, and working off of the bit. I have ridden Lucy with a bit a handful of times, and know that it is a very delicate situation. I want to teach her to take contact with the hard metal bar in her sensitive mouth, but preserve the trust, relationship, and sensitivity that we have worked so hard on creating. This is a really important job (I feel the pressure...), and I have this goal, this picture in my head of what I want the ultimate outcome to be- you know those pictures of fancy dressage horses with arched necks and big powerful strides, complete with flowy mane?? The problem is, I have no idea what I am doing. I mean, I know the principle, and the theory, and the technique, etc, etc. But I have never done it before; I do not have the experience of knowing what I am looking for, step by step. I suppose you could say that it feels uncertain, like most change.

As I was pondering how Lucy and I would ever get through this next step in our journey, I looked back through our time together at other changes we have made. I remembered that there were once things that felt like this, but now were easy and second nature. I remembered how we would struggle and struggle with something and then one day, it would all come together. This made me feel more adventurous and excited about our current task. Knowing the results that we have been able to accomplish already made this seem less daunting.

Principles, Purpose, and Time are the tools of teaching (Pat Parelli). When we are looking to change something about ourselves, we generally need to learn something new. A new habit, way of being, a new attitude. Principles help guide us on the path to our goals. Principles are things that people must hold to, or it will all fall apart. Determination. When we need to change, we need to hold to the idea of this change. It must be center to what we are doing. When we forget that we wanted to change something, well, we are probably not working on changing it. Holding to a principle helps us to have a positive attitude.

Purpose gives us our motivation. Change does not happen without motivation. Whether it be a better relationship or a healthier body, we need to know why we are doing this! That is why we often don’t deal with those ingrained behaviors and thoughts until they get in the way of our dreams. I wouldn’t ever need to learn how to develop my horse with a bit if I didn’t have that picture of that majestic, flowy haired horse in my head!

TIME!!! This is my favorite one. Time is how you can look back ten years and see how far you’ve come. Time is how you can take a deep breath and realize that tomorrow is another day. Time is how you get older and wiser, and how you learn to have patience with yourself. We often aren’t willing to allow time to do its work. But the fact is that there is nothing more important that taking the time it takes. Anyone who expects you to radically change overnight (including yourself!) is fooling themselves. But a change does happen immediately, and everyday, when you are willing to work on it. Being on a journey to something that you desire is the change.

Change isn’t easy. It takes blood, sweat, and tears, and often it takes a lot of help. The bottom line is no one does it for you, and no one has to live with it like you do. Some change may cost a whole lot than you bargain for, but in most cases if we don’t change, we will pay very high prices. It’s perfectly understandable to not want to change, but it’s perfectly unacceptable to not change when your life leads you there. The reality is, you’ve done it before, just look.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Smelling the Roses

It’s amazing how sitting in a warm dusky pasture with all your favorite ponies can change your perspective. I have had a very hectic week, well, few weeks to be exact. I have been stressing up one side and down the other, with little room to breathe. Do you ever notice how all the crap just stays with you? I knew that at the end of the week the only thing I needed was a nice relaxing ride with Lucy. Even though I was hoping that the ride itself would relax me, what I did was take into the ride all the accumulated stress over the past weeks. I knew what I needed was to relax, but what I did was “work”.

Both people and horses are constantly using their brains. People, however, have language, which tends to get things all mixed up. Horses are constantly aware of their surroundings and each other. Humans are constantly caught up in their thinking about things, creating meaning and stories about the things that they are aware of. Horses must be ever present, living in the moment, for their own survival. They are never not “smelling the roses.” Humans, however have the tendency to allow stress to make the things we enjoy doing feel like work. Today, after recognizing my horses suggestion that it was much more enjoyable to hang with your friends and munch grass than stress out, I was able to set aside my direct line thinking and do my favorite thing, lay down in the pasture in the sun, my friends grazing around me and nuzzling me. But even this didn’t really relax me for a while. Why? Because I couldn’t turn my brain off.

Our brains have many circuits, paths, wires, hardware, and software. And just like computers, they will do as they are programmed to do. They can also be reprogrammed. Stress is one of those miserable viruses that gets in our brains and eats away at the RAM. Alright, enough with the computer references, you get the idea. But how do you deal with a over productive, rarely present brain? The trick is to slow down, turn off, reboot. Call it awareness, mindfulness, meditation, or stopping to smell the roses. Pay attention!

As I sat in the pasture, what it took to relax me was simply feeling the sun..... no, really feeling it. Being present to the flight of the birds and bugs. Focusing for a moment on a single blade of grass. And as I did this, I felt my heart rate drop, and my breathing steady. I felt happier and more energetic. Awareness and mindfulness is a practice. Perhaps meditation sounds too serious to you. You can meditate any moment of any day. Take a few minutes to simply notice your breathing. Tune in to a particular noise you hear. Focus on something you love. Simply do these things, do not allow your thoughts to get in the way. Awareness is about being physically and mentally connected to a thing, without thoughts and language. It is instinctual.

As we become present to things around us, we become present to ourselves. When we become present to ourselves, we can take care of ourselves (and our herd). We then place ourselves in a position to get what we want out of life, instead of living in an unaware, stressed out, angry, confused body.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Bucks and Hops, Spins and Stops

My observation is that most of the problems we encounter in life are communication problems. Communication is two of more people sharing and understanding an idea, right? Well if that’s the case, how much communication is actually going on anyway? Seems more like people throwing ideas at walls, down holes, and into the wind. Very little of it actually being shared and understood. And we wonder why people have anger problems.

First time I rode that pony, she bucked my ass off. As I got up off the ground, still with the marbles rattling around in my head, and brushed the red dirt off my whole body, little did I realize that this would be a moment that defined our relationship. It was communication. There were many more bucks after that day, thankfully, none that actually caused me to hit the ground. It would be easy (and I’ve done it before), to get mad at that communication. It would be easy to blame my horse for bucking, call her wild and crazy, smack her and beat her up for being a horse. But I slowly began to realize that when my horse was doing something that I did not like, it was because I was doing something that she did not like. It was helpful to listen to her comments.

How often do we get constructive criticism in the form of a near death experience? Yet so often it feels that way. For some reason, we take things very personally from people. One of the wonderful things about horses is that they can be our mirror, give us feedback about our behaviors, attitudes, and demeanor without it coming out like a predator (as it often seems when coming from people). But not everyone gets to hear about their faults from a gorgeous galloping creature. Most of the time, it comes from people as screwed up as us, and it comes out angry. So we shy away from communication. We hide our true thoughts and feelings, run into a safe little hole, and worst of all, we don’t listen. Or we snap back, make things worse, and ruin relationships.

In my relationship with my horse, I have listened to her communications. I have looked to understand her thoughts and feelings, and sought out her opinions (most of the time). And those bucks and hops have begun to turn, and will continue to turn, into beautiful, expressive, and athletic movements. True unity. I would not have this relationship with my horse if I had simply made her behave. I might have a horse that didn’t buck, but I would have one that was distant, shut down, and even afraid to move. So many of our relationships end up turning out that way. Instead of being able to express ourselves wholly, we live in relationships that are hindered. And we hinder our own growth by shutting out the things that people say because they hurt us.

What does it take to be able to communicate (share and understand ideas...)? I suppose technically I should be an expert on communication, being a therapist and all, but the reality is that I am human and have all the crap that comes along with that. As therapists, we are at least supposed to try to understand our crap. The most effective way to communicate is to understand what you are saying- verbally, non-verbally, emotionally, energetically... and not be afraid to notice it. Then be open to the feedback you get from others, and try not to be afraid of it. Scary, I know, but it can’t be much worse that getting your ass bucked off by a wild and crazy horse, now can it!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Approval Vs. Acceptance

There are two types of relationships that we have in the world. Those that matter and those that don’t. I mean, technically, they all matter, but really -at the end of the day- who counts? Our family, our friends, those that have to live with us.... Yet somehow, I often find myself in situations where I am looking for other people’s approval. Mostly the approval of people that I don’t really know.

I will let you in on a little secret of mine. It may not be a very dark one, but it does go kind of deep. I have found this lesson lately in my horsemanship, I will take my horse to a show, or clinic, or some situation with other people, with this strange, underlying expectation that people will look at me and say “wow, what a great horseman!”, or that I will win all kinds of ribbons because I am simply the best. Now, we all know that that reality is a bit twisted, but somehow, this weird little part of my brain, probably manufactured in childhood, tells me that I must seek other’s approval. And for some reason, tells me that I must be worthy of other’s approval.....( I suppose that’s another topic entirely)

So what happens when I am in these situations, and lo and behold, I do not GET this much needed approval from these super important people who I barely even know? Well, I could have a mental break down, run screaming into the woods, beat myself up for being so stupid, hide my head in shame, etc. But, I do not do this, because I have a horse! What happens in these situations, I’m finding, is that instead of getting approval, I get acceptance. From my horse :)

What I experience in myself is a lack of perfection, which for some people can be frustrating (guess some people is me???). What I experience from my horse is partnership. She’s there, hanging in with me, saying, “Look, I’ve been with you up until now, I’m with you now, and I’ll be with you wherever we’re going. I love you for who you are, just like you love me. We are in this together.” If I make a mistake, she comes back and we try again. If it all comes together, we both are happy. They say you should let your horse be the one to tell you how you are doing, and she tells me every day with love, acceptance, and joy. So why should I get all crazy in my head about what other people say or don’t say? (again, another topic entirely...)

Approval is looking for someone to tell you about your accomplishments, or how well you live up to their standard. But is life about living up to someone’s standard, or is it about relationships? Acceptance is about being in a relationship that will support you, and love you for your REALITY, not just the best moves you can make. And it’s SO much better!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Herd

Its been a long time since I’ve sat down to write my thoughts. Perhaps that has been because there were just too many to organize. In the past few months, learning experiences have come and gone, some hitting me without me even knowing what is happening. But what I want to describe today is the thing that has been impacting me most lately, and is one of my favorite topics- The Herd.

Riley, Lucy, Bucky, Inny, Ceasar and Buddy, Zig and well.... Breezy. In no particular order. There- introductions made. But here its not about the individuals, their personalities, traits, or specializations. It’s about the whole group. I have been experiencing the value of this thing called a herd... or a flock, or a family. They are funny things. Never perfect, often in conflict. Many times they seem unfair. But they are always there. There is something about the group of individuals that you call yours, that is different from all other groups in the world. There is a level of comfort and familiarity, but also a level of friction which is necessary to cause us to grow.

You know that feeling that you get when you come home after a long day, prop your feet up on the couch, settling into that comfy divot? Then you talk to your family, whether it be about dinner or your day, or the latest drama. Maybe you get up to do some chores, maybe you say “screw it!” and just watch TV for the rest of the night. Its how I feel when I go out to our pasture. I work at a facility where there are horses. I use these horses in my work, and I have gotten to know and appreciate them pretty well. But they are not my herd. The days when I work with them and then come see my horses I recognize this huge difference. I come home and I feel HOME. I feel like I have been spending all day with mere “acquaintances”, but now I am with family. What is this idea of the herd? Of where we belong? How is it different than all the other places in the world? Recently I have seen such strong herd dynamics in the pasture, and strong “herd” dynamics in my life.

A few weeks ago, our dear friend Breezy left us. He had struggled..... I should say WE had struggled for two years to develop health for him after a debilitating illness. And the one thing that kept him going was the herd. His loyal friend Zig who rarely left his side and ALWAYS knew when something was wrong with him was a major player. And there was us, me and Jeanne (and the family and friends) who were always urging Breeze to eat, or get some exercise, to find purpose in life, because we needed him. Breeze was doing great, but he must have decided that his time was up, and he died out in the pasture that day. When the truck came to get him, the herd all lined up at the fence to watch, or to say their goodbyes, or something. They clearly knew that their herdmate Breezy was leaving them.

Over the next few days, the dynamics became very clear. We watched as Innocence helped Zig with the great grief that he had, and Ceasar brought him stability, and Bucky tried to keep his spirits up. I fit into that dynamic as well, doing all that I could for Zig while working out my own grief amongst the herd. In the weeks following, the herd has seemed much tighter. There used to be little “cliques” in the herd, but recently they have all been together. There doesn't seem to be much bickering, and I have noticed how they are all so aware of one another. They are aware of me too. I suppose that as this herd bond has been strengthened, their bond with me (another member of the herd) is strengthened as well.

I have seen this dynamic play out many times in different herds over the past few weeks. I have seen how my flock of chickens have gently accepted the new baby chicks and how their momma so religiously cares for them. I have seen a group of friends who lost a loved one devote weeks to coming together to mourn her, remember her, and care for one another. I have seen my own family jump in to care for my father in law who suddenly became ill.

These herds are not without their faults. The chickens perpetually bicker about food, and love to “remind” Momma Cass about her place in the pecking order when she gets too protective of her chicks. My friends have, in their grief, lost their cool at park rangers for cutting down trees. My family is likely never to overcome the complicated sibling rivalry that creeps into every aspect of family relationship. I have also seen herds recently in perpetual pain because of inability to communicate properly, misunderstandings, and personal issues. But perfect or not, our “herds” give us a sense of who we are, they give us our position from which we explore the world. They help us develop our boundaries and understand things about ourselves. They help us feel loved and safe.

This causes me to be grateful for my herd. We need to recognize the importance of all those individuals that we call a part of our herd. Whether they be family or friends, people or pets, there is a strong bond that ties us. While it may often take a stressful situation to bring out the best (or worst) in a group, it is good to try to enjoy those moments of comfort and solace that you have in your herd. Be grateful for who they are to you, and for who you are to them.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Roll with Resistance

I met a man today who was resistant. Resistance frustrates me. When people resist things, especially in areas of growing and learning, I just want to push them around- make them give in, or see things how I want them to see them. This was my inclination today with this man. Then, when I began to push, I saw the pain in his eyes. He said, "I don't want to talk about it", but what he meant was, "I am afraid to talk about it, if I do, I may break down." As he left the arena, pretty much in the same manner that he came in, I worried about where his life might lead him. My eyes and thoughts then fell upon the nice moon shaped scar on Bucky's rear end. Now that is a story of resistance.

Bucky had lived a pretty isolated life for about ten years, master of his own herd. When I moved him and his friend, Buster, to his new home two years ago, it was quite a shock to his system. He and Buster were placed in an adjoining pasture to the new herd. Ceasar was the boss of this crew. Bucky, however, was not inclined to take his word for it. To make a long story short, Bucky and Ceasar had their conversations over the fence, each one telling the other that THEY were going to be in charge. The next morning we found Ceasar in the pen with Bucky and Buster, and Bucky with a nice flap of skin removed from his hind end. Ceasar had found that it was important enough to come through the fence, and tell Bucky like it really was.

I used to tell this story with the implication that Bucky just was too full of himself to back down. Today has changed my perspective on this. I was thinking of this in the same way that I deal with resistant people. I act as though it is their own dang fault if they don't get it, that they are resistant simply because they want to be. But the similarity I saw today in Bucky's story and this resistant man was this: they needed to protect something. They needed to protect something. Bucky did not know that soon he and Ceasar would be best friends. All he knew was that he needed to protect his herd, to the death, if necessary. This man's emotions were so great inside of him that he was literally afraid that if he was vulnerable and did not protect them, that it would somehow be too much for him to handle. That protective reaction is very strong. It is part of our survival DNA.

I am challenging my beliefs today about resistance. Who am I to say how important a thing is to a person? Resistance is not just a defense mechanism- sometimes, it is a life skill. Tom Dorrance talks about a horses sense of self-preservation. We can generally understand this when we think about the ongoing saga of prey animals and predators. It is easy to see what he means by the physical sense of self preservation- the need for safety, fight or flight, etc. Often horses also have problems which are the result of their sense of self-preservation in the mental sense. We see these issues in harshly trained horses who need to relearn how to trust people, or even themselves. Tom Dorrance also refers to the importance of protecting the horses sense of self-preservation in regards to his spirit. I suppose that this refers to what we might call dignity, or even self-esteem. Ego, maybe? How many times do people get blamed for their resistance because they "just have too big an ego". Whatever it is, it is a very fine line between something we can see and understand, and something we can't.

What a person protects is important to him, period. Whether that be a thought about changing, or their secret recipe for the world's best brownies. Though it may seem so illogical that a person puts so much effort into resisting something that may be so good for him, I cannot blame him. This problem is his. This resistance is his. All I can do is roll with it. My pushing harder never helps. Dang it.

I have a big horse that is teaching me a lot about rolling with resistance. Particularly recently with all the green, sweet grass, and the need for this 1,500 pound horse to wear a muzzle. You can imagine that a horse that fat would prefer that her eating not be stinted. However, since Riley and I have begun to develop a relationship, I have begun to approach muzzling in a different way than I did last year. When someone is resistant, it is difficult to see how someone or something might potentially help them. Having that relationship and communication helps. When putting Riley's muzzle on, I do not halter her, or even offer treats (though those things would certainly make it easier). What I do is ask for her cooperation and help, and be extremely pleased when I get any of it. I also try to express the intention that I want to do it with her, not to her, or even for her. Horses are very good at reading your intention. Just try putting a muzzle on a loose horse in a 28 acre pasture! People are pretty good at reading intentions too, though they tend to internalize what they see, and make up things about it, which feeds into their feelings of discomfort, distress, or pain.

The problem that I often have in dealing with resistance, whether it be in people or horses, is that I make it about me. I am trying so hard to help; I am frustrated with their lack of participation; I am offended when they treat me with disrespect. The reality is that a individual is too wrapped up in their own problems or pain to even notice or care what I think. I am not even part of the equation. Unless I push so hard against their resistance that I am just another annoying problem. Yet resistance is so hard to deal with because, like it or not, I am too wrapped up in the outcome. But just like the problem belongs to them, so does the solution. My fear is that it may take a moon shaped scar to get the point across.

Rolling with resistance has always been something that I haven't quite understood. But here is what I have determined that it involves: 1) Portraying understanding and empathy about the resistance, 2) Setting an expectation of behavior that you feel is important in an honest way, 3) Be passively persistent- wait until the individual is ready, and 4) Be there to help when they are ready! The key to me is understanding that to them, whatever it is that they are trying to do is HARD WORK. And who likes to do hard work? Really, I would probably do the same thing in their shoes....Perhaps this has been so difficult because of MY resistance to resistance!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

All the Moving Parts

I had the lovliest time playing with my Lucy this weekend. Generally, we have a good time together. Things have been going quite well. Most often we even have a great time, but I often struggle to come home feeling elated. And that's my issue, not Lucy's, because she's an angel! This sense of dissatisfaction bothers me. Why can't I be flying on cloud nine about all the cool stuff we have accomplished? I feel like such a.... well, such a poophead. I don't think there's any other word.

Allow me to first tell you about this lovely angel (bear with me whilst I brag....). Lucy is a gorgeous paint mare- the kind you would see on Native American posters running with the wind in her hair. I call her my wild Indian pony. She is as sweet as can be but still has plenty of sass. She always delivers it with grace, though, no matter what it is. Through the something like a year and a half that we have been together, she has been the perfect partner: always willing; she has stepped up to everything I have ever asked her to do, which has been quite a lot. Though Lucy was originally named (Loosey) for her rather loose lips, her name has become quite fitting, meaning, "bringer of light". I want to be just like her when I grow up.....

Lucy and I have recently been working on some Finesse, that is, refining our communication and developing more precise movements. In refining our communication, I am looking for softness and willingness. In developing more precise movements, I am looking for clear communication to a particular body part or combination of body parts. The definition of communication that I like to use is, "two or more individuals sharing and understanding an idea." The thing that I have discovered about communication is that, if it is in fact shared and understood, it brings clarity. And clarity brings confidence. I have seen Lucy go from a very unconfident learner to a horse who is now, not only confident in any surrounding, but also has begun to manipulate her surroundings (her herd) to her pleasure! The clarity that I have had with Lucy has caused me to be a more confident rider. And what I have learned today is that more precision in our communication has caused us both to be more confident in our relationship.

One of the things that horseman Pat Parelli teaches is that you have to be particular without being critical. It is one of those things that I truly struggle with. It's not terribly hard for me to remain calm and not get frustrated anymore when things don't go right. What is hard is usually rejoicing in the good. This is why I come away from my rides with Lucy feeling a little down because she took two steps after I asked her to stop, even though we were riding bareback and bridleless. It is also why I can feel grumpy for days on end and not know why, even though my life is perfectly fine. Or why I will stress about all the "things I have to do" instead of just getting them done; the list is never as long as I make it out to be. I allow a negative thought about one thing to then speak to me about everything else.

While riding Lucy this weekend, I recognized that being particular can actually help you with not being critical. As I worked with communicating with Lucy to move forward two steps, then back two steps, then to the left two steps, then the right....I realized that this particular communication was bringing clarity. And that clarity brought confidence! We then worked on opening and closing a gate, something that definitely requires precision. I had to be particular. We had to have clear communication, or it would have been a whole big problem. There's a lot of moving parts in that equation: people parts, horse parts, gate parts....

This practice in being particular is the reason that I am happy today. Today, Lucy and I were riding in the pasture a bit, and playing at liberty (no ropes), and things didn't go perfectly... This gave me the opportunity to take the thing that didn't work, and focus on it until there was clarity. And I could visibly see that the confidence in our relationship caused us both to hang in there until it worked out! Best of all, I was able to leave feeling happy, and able to truly feel that a bump in the road is just something to work on. And something to work on is a good thing.

There are so many moving parts in our lives: work, home, school, friends, hobbies -- just to generalize. If there is a problem in one area, it may or may not be because there is a problem in another. But you can bet that if you don't fix the problem, it will creep through each area of your life until you can't even fix it because you don't know where it came from. Our brains are like that. One negative thought will permeate things it has no business in. Unless we can clarify with our brain what exactly it is talking about! Once we know where that negative (or positive) thought came from, things can be put into perspective. We have to learn to be particular with ourselves to avoid being critical, and keep tabs on all our moving parts.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Natural Power of Focus

One of the principles of natural horsemanship is that there are mutual responsibilities for horses and humans in a partnership. One of these responsibilities for the human is "Use the Natural Power of Focus"(Parelli Natural Horsemanship). Of course this is the ONE thing that I forgot while giving a horsemanship lesson a few weeks ago. And why did I forget this one? Well clearly because I wasn't using it.

A few days ago, I was riding Riley, a big draft horse cross who just happens to also be the smartest horse I've ever known, as well as strong and fast. I've only ridden her a few times, and she's probably only had a handful of rides in her life in addition to that. Needless to say, the first few rides, I did not expect much, and she delivered just that- diving for grass every three steps (mind you, there is no rein-wrestling a 1400 pound horse with a neck as wide as her girth!). I did my best to match her persistence, and eventually we got somewhere. Unfortunately, now I expected something. So this fateful day, as I was riding Riley for the third time, she was diving for grass about every thirty steps, but since Riley is so smart, she was doing it with a strategy- to get me frustrated! As I was feeling the heat creep up my neck and the discouragement sink into my belly, out of the corner of my eye appears Bucky, with just the wisdom that I needed. I'm sure some of you understand the intuitive communication that can happen between you and someone you've been with for over 15 years, and when Bucky said what he had to say, I knew he was right. Riley was trying to get me to lose my focus, and it was working. It wasn't about grass. It was about whether I was a good enough leader to keep my focus when things got distracting. hmmmmm......

So this set me on the quest- what is the natural power of focus? Focus is not simply fixing your eyes on a goal and nothing else. I've done that before- and ended up on a pile of snow about half a mile away from where I'd intended after an unscheduled brisk gallop through the field. Focus is not being all consumed with something to the point that you don't pay attention to anything else. How many people lose their families because all they do is work? It's not helpful to have a one track mind in life. A person who uses focus is someone who knows what their goal is, certainly, but I think more than that. I think focus is more of a driving vision. A goal is something specific that you hope to achieve. Vision can be defined as "unusual competence in discernment or perception; intelligent foresight". Someone with a driving vison knows what has to be done, and what it will take to get there. He understands that there will be difficulties, and knows how to deal with them. But there is something more important behind the goal that he never forgets. It's a principle. A good relationship, building trust, being the best you can be, creating a better world. These are visions. My focus that day with Riley could have been simply a goal, and it was to a certain extent- " lets go over to that barrel." But a mere focus on the goal would not help if my vision was not bigger than that- "I will be good enough to be your leader". As it may be for you , I'm sure, my job can be frustrating for me sometimes. Sometimes I feel like there are so many challenges thrown in the way of doing what I have to do, that I lose motivation, energy, and focus. But if I can maintain my vision- to help my clients-I will have a sense of focus that will then give me direction.

The second thing in developing focus, after knowing your vision, is creating a plan. The third thing is sticking to it. I was giving a horsemanship lesson to a young man who was having trouble getting his horse to go where he wanted her to go. We created a plan together to follow the rail. Then came the hard part - sticking to the plan. I gave him the homework for the week to go home and find something he needs help with, create a plan, and stick to it. His mom loved the idea and said that it is exactly where he was having trouble. I am excited to see how it works out for him. In the meantime, I have to make my own plan and stick to it! A plan can be specific and detailed, or it can be a simple idea. "I'm going to keep trying until i get it right!" Creating a plan and sticking to it gives you confidence. There is a safety net in knowing exactly what to do. When my horse doesnt go where I ask, I simply ask again. It keeps me from getting frustrated, angry, and losing focus.

While listening to a podcast from 5* Parelli Professional David Lichman, he reminded me that Focus develops Feel. How much better could I serve my horses, my clients, my family and friends, if I used feel? If I paid attention to when to push, and when to back off. If I was constantly present in the moment to give them what they needed? My conclusion is that to develop focus and feel, I need to keep present in my mind my vision. If the vision present in my mind is to love my husband, be a good leader for my horse, or create something big in my life, then the plan will follow that, and the feel will be there.

The natural power of focus is that it develops unity. If I am going a certain direction, you can align with me and we can enjoy a united path. If I am not sure where I am going, then chances are we will never be going the same direction. And who doesn't want unity? Who doesn't want to be able to ride their horse bareback and bridleless off into the sunset, or have whole, healthy, loving relationships? I do.