Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Highest Form of Human Intelligence

Sometimes the only way you can take a really good look at yourself is through somebody else's eyes. ~From the television show Scrubs

A few days ago I was at the barn in the late afternoon and had just tacked up for a short trail ride. When I walked to the yard, another boarder was preparing to go on a ride with her mare as well. I used to ride this woman’s horses for the first year I lived in Switzerland, so we know each other fairly well even though we have taken two completely separate paths since; her the competitive dressage path and me… well, we all know I’m taking the path less travelled.

However, despite our differing views, I do try to stay in a working relationship with the people I meet at a daily basis at the barn, even if in passing. So, when I saw this lady leaving for her ride, I asked politely if she was going on the trails.

“Yes, but I go alone,” was her terse answer.

I shrugged off her rudeness. I didn’t care if we went together or not, I had just tried to be polite.

After my ride, I saw the lady in the tack room; she was cleaning her saddle and bridle. When she saw me she smiled apologetically.

“Sorry about earlier, it was not because of you that I didn’t want to ride together.”

“No worries,” I said. But the lady wasn’t done talking, she wanted to explain.

“It’s because of that horse.”

“That horse?” I said, confused. “Do you mean Little Love?”

Yes. She meant Little Love.

“I have made a decision not to go out ever again with that crazy horse,” the woman continued.

I see.

“But we have ridden together before without any problems,” I pointed out.

“Yes, but last time I was out with the owner, that crazy mare spooked my mare. I can’t afford to have that happen. The way you all ride her without a bit…” She looked at me accusingly.

Right. I should have known this was about the bitless bridle.

“I’m sorry you have made that decision. Of course, you need to do what you feel is right for yourself.” I wasn’t going to challenge the woman any further, there was no point. She had already passed her judgment. But I have to admit, I was angry and hurt. For a moment I wanted to leave, but then I remembered a book I recently read about nonviolent communication that had raised my awareness about passing judgment. It is so easy to judge other people, hadn’t the woman just done that? Maybe it was worth trying to learn to be different. I took a deep breath and did my best to remain neutral about the woman’s comments. Maybe, instead of getting furious, I could make an effort to understand her world.

“You’ve been here for a long time today,” I said lightly.

The lady rubbed her tack vigorously. “Yes, I know, it’s because of my stupid mare.”

“Oh,” I said, suddenly realizing that perhaps there was more to this woman’s foul mood than Little Love and the bitless bridle. “What happened?”

“Wednesday when I rode, she was so good. And then yesterday she was awesome when my trainer rode her for an hour and a half. It was so beautiful. But today…”

“It didn’t go so well?”

The lady looked up at me, visibly delighted I was taking an interest in her problems. “You know,” she continued, “the first half an hour the mare was like a dream. I was really happy with her, especially with the piaffe and passage. But then suddenly she got all heavy in the front and tight in the neck.”

I made an effort to remain neutral, but it was getting increasingly harder. I said: “Sometimes it’s hard to know when to stop.”

The lady gave me a sharp look, but then said: “I couldn’t get her to relax after that, it was awful, her neck was like an iron rod. After trying for fifteen minutes, I started cantering her. Usually at the canter she comes around, but this time it took 45 minutes. I mean, can you believe it?”

“Wow, you cantered her for 45 minutes?”

“Yes, I actually timed it.” The woman sounded frustrated. “And I did lead changes, counter canter, small circles, big circles, bending left, bending right and then finally, after 45 minutes she let go and relaxed. I was absolutely exhausted.” The woman dipped the two bits of her double bridle in the bucket in front of her to clean them off.

Silence. I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound like an accusation. Finally I said: “She is in pretty good shape if she could canter 45 minutes.”

The woman snorted. “That’s nothing, last summer I warmed her up for three hours at one competition. I just don’t get it, why did she have to do this to me today?”

“Well… you rode her hard Wednesday and your trainer rode yesterday, maybe she just needed a break?” I suggested.

The lady gave me a sideways glance. “A break?” She said. “Are you kidding me? She’s nine years old and she needs to be able to handle getting ridden hard three days in a row. She has no idea what we have ahead of us next competition season. I can’t afford to have this happen then.”

Of course not. I thought of her mare, the only horse in the barn that attacked the metal bars of her stall every time another living being passed close by. I searched my brain for something to say that would not make this woman defensive, but would at the same time help her perhaps understand what her horse was trying to tell her.

The lady hadn’t noticed my silence. She wrapped her double bridle up in a neat bundle and hung it on a hook on the wall. “Of course the annoying part is that I couldn’t just put the mare into her stall after all that. I had to walk her for twenty minutes and now she’s sweating like crazy, even though I clipped her two weeks ago.”

I nodded. “Well, she did work quite hard. She must be tired.”

The lady ignored my comment and sighed loudly. “It’s always something with that mare. Now I have to come back to change her blanket and I haven’t even had lunch yet. And all because of that stupid horse. Sometimes I don’t understand why I even bother.”

Frankly, I was starting to wonder about that as well.

My immediate reaction to what this lady was saying was utter and pure judgment. How could she treat her horse like that? How could she demand all those things and then blame the horse for what had happened as if it had planned it all along just to ruin her day? And not only that, she had also judged Little Love and my use of the bitless bridle. Didn’t I have the right to judge her back? Didn’t I have the right to tell her exactly what I thought?

Honestly, I wanted to scream out loud.

But then I remembered - some years back, I was this lady.

The Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti once remarked that observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence. He must have been right, because it is so very difficult (sometimes nearly impossible) not to be judgmental of people who do not share your views. But judging doesn’t get us anywhere, it doesn’t help us understand. And I feel that it is important to try to understand everything anyone does. Only then, when I have full understanding, can I hope to have compassion. And nothing has the power to help people like compassion does, this I have seen over and over again.

I believe my New Year’s resolution will be to try to understand and observe without passing judgment. Sounds pretty noble, to be honest. I’m not sure it will work 100% (heck, I'll take 50%) as I don’t think I am exactly saint quality and never will be. But damn if I’m not going to try my best to change my thinking from: “That self-centered woman abuses and uses her horse”(definite evaluation) to “She is not yet on the Path” (a neutral observation).

Everyone can change – I can and so can this lady. Sometimes change is not likely, but it is always possible.


Still learning. Will never stop.

Always when judging
Who people are,

Remember to footnote
The words "So far."

~Robert Brault


  1. I LOVE your blogs. Thank you so much for taking the time to write your observations and sharing your path with the rest of us.
    As a member of the Jewish Clergy, I try to listen without judgement to those who walk into my office and life. Somehow, though, when it comes to the horses, that is so much harder to do . . . Thank you for sharing your resolution - I will join you in it!

  2. Katariina,
    I don't think any of us is a saint. We have all passed judgements on others and we have all been judged by others. One of the reasons I stopped showing horses awhile go was because I simply did not enjoy the fact of having my relationship with my horse being judged by someone who knew little to nothing about me or my horse. They have only one "ideal" in their mind and will judge you based only on that. When showing, you are only allowed certain types of tack. You must trim/braid/band your horse in accordance with standards set by someone else....and heck.....even the clothes YOU wear are dictated by others. What does all this really have to do with the relationship you have with your horse? I view horse shows as nothing more than forcing your horse to perform to someone else's standards....and not a true assessment of the bond you have with your friend. The sad part is that so many people live to meet this standard. They push themselves....and their horses to the breaking point.....and for what...a ribbon....the admiration of others?
    ....and if that isn't enough, many of them think that other horse owners should share the same goal. So much so that they look down on those that don't aspire to be the same.
    The irony of it all is that the people that don't pressure themselves (or their horses) to this extreme are often happier.
    While it would be easy to dislike this woman you spoke of -- I feel sadness for her. Her need to fill this goal of winning the admiration of others is so strong you can almost touch it. In doing so however, she will sacrifice the relationship with her horse, her peers, her health (in terms of stress), her horse's health, money, possibly even her family for a goal she may or may not reach. ....and even if she does do well at these upcoming competitions....what then? Has it really made her a better person?
    I think it takes more ambition and strength to follow a path of your own choosing. The discoveries are many and possible frienships are endless. There is little to no pressure because you no longer feel the need to please someone else.
    I imagine this gal would have enjoyed having you and Lilo along on her ride....if she didn't feel so driven to accomplish something. If she worried about her horse spooking, surely she wouldn't have to ride. She wouldn't have to sacrifice good company in the name of competition. It's the journey that matters not the end result. The highlight of her day was most likely having a caring person listen to her problems (you). It's sad that they even had to exist in the first place.

  3. That's some New Year’s resolution! I am really good at judging others, and I hate it. Thank you for reminding me, I will try to focus more on observing.

  4. That lady has created a heavy burden for herself, hasn't she? And she's finding it hard to bear. I wonder how she would answer if she were asked what her goal really is. Is it to win? To improve? To achieve lightness? To be admired? Or has she lost touch with her goal completely?

    And a whole half hour of being a "dream"?! Lately I've come to appreciate ten seconds of dreamitude, and then saying to the horse, thanks what would you like to do now?

    I'm going to join in the collective New Year's resolution and try to observe rather than judge too!

  5. Thanks for your comments everybody and for deciding to join me on this difficult venture of becoming less judgmental and more observant! June and Carol, you are both spot on with your thoughts on this lady's situation. I think many people who have horses are in similar predicaments; seeking something they inherently know exists. Unfortunately they often seek it in all the wrong places first. When you go down a road that leads to a dead end, sometimes even a lifetime is not enough time to make your way back. Especially when the world around you is still stuck in the dead end.

  6. Wonderful post. I too am working on being less judgemental/more compassionate and wondered if you might tell us what book it was you were reading.


  7. Hi Chris,

    Sorry, should have written the title of the book somewhere for everyone to see... The book was Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg. Hope that helps!


  8. This is definitely something I have to work on. A lot. I just can't help to try to persuade people. Usually they become so defensive and angry. What amuses me is that I haven't heared anything new or scientifically proven from them. It's always the same story about mis-behaving horses and me who has never competed (or ridden a horse who loves to be riidden which I really haven't done and never will because there are no such horses) and ought to keep mouth shut. Maybe I do. But it is still extremely hard to pass tortured horses just like that.

  9. PrimumNonNocere, I see that you have been marathon reading my blog :-) I agree with what you say, sometimes you just want to say what you think and shake people up. But they do get defensive - unfortunately. And when they are defensive, they stop listening. So, I'm working on creating a more neutral tactic of persuasion. It really does work better (but is harder on the persuader). I don't think anybody wants to abuse their horse, they just have their reasons for behaving the way they do: Ignorance, denial, other personal issues, selfishness... if there is one thing I have learned it is that you can't force anyone down this path. What's that saying in English: "you can lead the horse to water, but you can't make it drink".

  10. Hah, my friend RuthAnn can totally make her horse drink. She is just ever so persuasive.
    But that is not the point I was going to make.
    It would be so much easier to be less judgemental, if the horse was not part of the equation. When another breathing being is part of, and affected by, unaware humans it becomes challenging for me. And yet, I also honor the horse enough that they might have picked their human partners for a reason. Often there is a reason behind the madness and the horse will be the teacher and the human will eventually come around and soften. Most of the time I feel, the best we can do is to offer our truth as we see them as the horses' truth and then leave the rest up to the Gods.