Show Me Your Horse and I’ll Tell You Who You Are
Quotes are everywhere: facebook profiles, email signatures, websites, you name it. People just get so excited when they happen upon a phrase that they find particularly compelling or relevant to their lives. The horse world is no exception. Throughout history some of the world’s greatest politicians, literary geniuses, and regular Joes have taken stabs at using language as a mechanism for illustrating exactly what it is that horses do for us as human beings. One of my all time favorite quotes is from an old English Proverb, “show me your horse and I will tell you who you are.” When I was younger I took it at face value and loved it. I was obsessive about clean tack and super into grooming; excessive Show Sheen application, polished hooves and perfectly pulled manes. I would look at that quote and think that if someone would look at my horse they would immediately know that I had my crap together and was awesome. How could they not when he was so spick and span and all of his clothes matched perfectly? As I got older, particularly after leaving riding for so long and coming back to it, I started to read this phrase with a lot more introspection.
In a post from last month I stated that horses should bring out the best in us, and continued on by saying that they highlight our weaknesses and thrive on our strengths. This is more true than a lot of people are willing to admit. Horses are incredibly intuitive and play directly off of our energy. It is nearly impossible to deal with a horse and hide any apprehension, fear or weaknesses that we may have. They will undoubtedly pick up on it and react, often times in a very big and obvious way. If its fear that you are riddled with, they will more than likely be afraid too. If you are confident, they will be confident. If you are weak, your weakness with stifle them. When I was a kid I was fearless. I wasn’t afraid of falling, would point my little pony at anything and not give the possibility of falling off any thought. I handled him confidently and rode him confidently, because I had never been given any reason to believe that I shouldn’t be confident. To sum it all up, I was without reserves in all aspects of my horsemanship and riding. When you get older you not only lose some of your confidence from the shear fact that you are actually aware of your ability to sustain injuries, but you also begin to carry the baggage that comes from living life, interacting with people and getting burned. That childlike carelessness and freedom to just “be” goes away and you are left with your adult self, and all of the crap that goes along with it.
If you want to know who I am, you really can just take a look at my horses. They both play off of me, in their own ways; where I struggle, they struggle, where I thrive, they thrive. I doubt many people take the time to realize how watching someone ride, and interact with their mounts, really offers a sometimes uncomfortably honest look at them as human beings. Conversely, I also doubt that many people are willing to look at what their horse’s behavior is saying about them, and take that as an opportunity to learn about and address their weaknesses. It’s a unique form of constructive criticism that is all too often overlooked…
Here is one example:
It’s always fun to watch someone when they are on their A game; whether it’s professionally, at home, or in a hobby of some sort. They come alive. You get to see a side of them that you may never be exposed to in any other environment; sometimes you even need to take a minute to step back and make sure you are looking at the same person. Everyone should have something in their lives that does this for them, something that brings out the confident and strong individual who they deserve to be. As a teenager I was this way with horses. I knew my stuff and could react on the fly without skipping a beat. When I took time off from riding, I forgot a lot. Some of my natural quick witted decision making skills went away with time and lack of practice, and there I was an adult; still able to remember what it was like to be confident and poised in the presence of a horse, but fairly ill equipped to actually do it. The issue was one that pops up fairly often with me. I second guess myself, even when I know what I’m doing. I do this all the time. I am the person in trivial pursuit, who knows the answer, but is afraid to tell their team mates that they are positive that it’s correct. I am the person who will give directions and when someone asks if I am sure, I will respond with “I think so”, even when I could drive to the location in my sleep. At some point in my life I just kind of lost faith in myself, in my intelligence, and in my gut instincts. I just don’t trust myself the way that I used to.
When you don’t trust yourself with horses, you open the door for a whole lot of potential drama. Horses are prey animals and herd animals. They need to have a leader who is on their A game at all times, or else in the wild someone would be getting their butt kicked. It’s no joke, and their instincts do not let them forget that. Horses put a lot of trust in their riders and their handlers. In all interactions they will silently look to you for reassurance that something that you have asked them to do is safe, and the answer needs to be a resounding and firm, “YES” every time. There can be no “I think sos” with horses. If you “I think so” after pointing your horse at a jump, you should just get ready to hold on because the refusal is coming. If you don’t trust that he can jump it, he won’t trust that he can jump it. End of story. The same goes for leading them into horse trailers, urging them over a water hazard, or convincing them go into a dark and unfamiliar barn. They will follow, but you need to be ready to lead.
When we first brought the boys out to our farm I was suffering from some serious confidence issues. I was second guessing myself left and right. There was just so much that I hadn’t anticipated, and I was having a lot of trouble trusting myself to deal with the various issues that came our way. There is a lot of comfort that comes from knowing that there is a qualified barn owner or manager at a boarding facility interacting with your horse daily and making sure that they are healthy, safe, and not about to drop dead. When that qualified person becomes you, and you are prone to self doubt, you will inevitably have many “oh crap” moments… “Does this hay smell like mold? Is he colicy? Is that a limp? Or did he just take a funny step?” I wonder what pilots feel like when they take that first solo mission in a big 747. Do they get up in the air and think to themselves, “crap now it’s all on me to get this thing landed in one piece. What have I gotten myself into?!” I wonder if at that point they think back longingly to the days where there was some Captain Sully-esq figure in the cockpit smoothly telling them over the plane’s PA system how much he appreciated them choosing Blah Blah Blah Airline, and that they will without a doubt have the plane touching down 35 minutes past the hour, so just sit back, relax, and enjoy the Direct TV. .. But that is no way to live life. If you want to be a pilot, a doctor, a parent, a horsekeeper, or whatever; at some point you just need to grow a pair, and trust that you have the proper training, skills, and knowledge to do it, and then do everything in your power to be awesome at it. At the very least give yourself the opportunity to succeed before you deem it a failure at the starting blocks.
About a week into Operation Karen Horsekeeper Grady started rearing every single time that I took him out. It was ridiculous. The first time that he did it I think he was just acting like any baby horse would on a cool crisp fall day, anxious to go hang out with his buddies. It really wasn’t that big of a deal, but it took me by surprise, and rocked my already shaken little world a bit more than I could handle at the time. I hadn’t had too many rearing episodes in my life and the fact that Taylor had jacked himself up so badly from rearing made it terrify me that much more. Plus Grady is not small by any means, and he was not doing a little mini rear. He was UP, and when you are directly under a horse that size who is basically vertical, it is scary. A younger and more confident Karen would probably have put a stop to that crap before he even got up there in the first place, and then immediately put his misbehaving behind in its place. Instead of reacting though, I just sat their frozen by apprehension. In my gut I knew why he was doing it, what I could do to stop it, and I understood that if I had been paying more attention it wouldn’t have escalated to that point; but instead of just realizing those facts, moving on and dealing with his blatant display of disobedience and rebellion; I just stood there with fear oozing out of me. I was terrified, and he knew it. Every afternoon from that point on I would open his stall door and already be freaked out that he would do it again. As I timidly led him out of the barn, everything in my body was saying “crap crap crap!” My confidence was zeroed out.
If someone out there had observed us at this point, they would have immediately been able to size the situation up fast. There are a thousand instances where people can trick others into believing they are confident when they are not. At work you can throw on some awesome clothes, inject a little spring into your step and get pretty far with minimal confidence. Guys can go out to bars, and be loud, obnoxious and aggressive and leave that night fooling tons of bystanders into thinking they are fearless. Others can step out on a stage, swallow the frog in their throat and deliver a speech successfully all while silently being on the verge of passing out from intimidation. But horses do not allow their handlers or riders to get away with such trickery.
One afternoon I had just about lost it. I decided that I needed to tap back into some of the old me, and get a refresher on what I used to be made of. I called my best friend Dawn who I rode with growing up. “I just don’t know what to do” I whined to her over the phone. “I know that at this point this is my fault, I just don’t know what to do about it”. I don’t really remember her exact words, but it was a sweetened up Dawn version of “get yourself together, and go deal with that horse”, whatever she said straightened me out and made me realize that I needed to stop acting like such a sissy and take charge of the situation ASAP. I knew what I was doing, and I needed to act like it. These shenanigans were about to stop for good.
The next day I went to get Grady. I marched right up to his stall, put his halter on, and stared him right in the eyes. “I am sick of this crap,” I said to him sternly. “No more funny business dude.” He stood there looking at me, bored, clearly not knowing or caring what I was blabbering about. But it didn’t matter, the words were for me, helping to reaffirm my new confident demeanor and remind ME who the boss was in this situation. As we walked out I could feel him getting ready for lift off. I swung around, faced him, jerked the lead rope down firmly, and gave him the best death stare I could muster up without laughing. He was so taken aback by my sudden display of leadership that he nearly stumbled backwards, and looked at me confused. “That’s right dude, I’m done playing your stupid games, act your age.” He lowered his head, wiggled his ears a bit, took a deep breath and relaxed. He was probably thinking, “Finally you are ready to be the decision maker lady.”
Since that afternoon Grady has never reared with me again, but there have been countless other situations like this, where I have realized, thanks to him, that I need to be more confident, I need to trust myself and my intellect, instincts, and ability to handle difficult situations. I also need to be a firm and clear leader when it comes to my horses. Without them I don’t know if I would have been forced to address this issue, I may not have even known that it existed.