Friday, February 18, 2011

Unmapped Country

There’s a period of life when we swallow a knowledge of ourselves and it becomes either good or sour inside. - Pearl Bailey

I used to give lessons to a student I’ll call Sarah. I taught Sarah regularly for a year on a once a month basis. She was a petite woman, and a very tense and serious rider. Sarah owned a horse called Daniel, a beautiful chestnut warmblood with a playful twinkle in his eye. Daniel was not an easy mount by any standard; not only did he have physical issues, but he was also very sensitive with a low threshold for outside stimulus. In other words, he was a horse with what people call a spooky nature.

The importance of building a relationship with the horse on the ground before riding is crucial and I had tried to encourage this sort of activity in Sarah’s case as well. Sarah, like so many other riders, however, was relatively set on just riding Daniel, because “why have a horse if you can’t ride it?”

Why indeed? I could have given her at least ten reasons, but unfortunately just telling a person about the complexities that lie in a horse-human relationship will not make them a believer; they must find that path for themselves.

In the beginning of one of our last lessons together Sarah walked over to me with her horse and said: “He’s acting crazy and has been for the past few days. I’m really freaking out. I think it’s just a game. I know he’s really not afraid, he’s just playing with me.”

I looked at Daniel, who was fidgeting on the other end of the reins, constantly looking around. I could see there was so much more to the situation that initially met the eye. Sarah looked at me in desperation.

“I’m so angry at him, I just want him to stop messing with me like this.”

Daniel startled at a noise he heard outside the arena and Sarah jerked on the reins, making the bit clunk against her horse’s teeth. Daniel’s eyes rolled around in his head and I could see the whites flashing like warning lights. Every muscle fiber in his back was tense.

“Yesterday I rode him on the trails and I got so scared I had to come off his back. He was still crazy. It took all the strength I had not to start hitting him with the whip. I wanted to kill him.” Sarah yanked at the reins again and slapped Daniel on the chest with the end of her whip as if to make her point clear. I could see she was at the end of her rope. I suggested we talk about all the emotions that she was experiencing, especially the anger that seemed to dominate her actions. After a long talk, Sarah was ready to admit that she was actually very insecure and afraid, but these feelings would manifest themselves as anger.

“Do you think it’s fair to Daniel to ride him when you are going through all these feelings?” I asked.

Sarah looked at me quizzically. “Probably not,” she said and smiled sheepishly.

We talked for a little longer and the more Sarah revealed her true feelings, the more relaxed her horse became. I pointed this out, gently suggesting that perhaps the emotions running high in Sarah were partly responsible for Daniel’s state of mind. I also suggested we forget the riding and work on dealing with the emotions on the ground, but Sarah wouldn’t hear of it. Instead she said: “Can you ride him for a while?”

I had ridden Daniel before, but only in the bitless bridle, which was what Sarah usually used. She told me she had put the bit in Daniel’s mouth again because she was convinced she would have more control with the bit. I shortly explained that the bit would just add to Daniel’s panic and asked her to get the bitless. Sarah ran to get the bridle, while I talked with Daniel. The gelding looked at me with wise eyes. I knew he had a lesson to teach his owner, if she would just stop and listen.

Once I was sitting on Daniel, I walked around for five minutes simply breathing and relaxing, and soon Daniel followed suit. In the very beginning he spooked twice, but I left him alone, rather giving him reins when he was afraid, instead of trying to hold him, which I knew would make him panic more. As I rode around, Sarah watched me ride from the middle of the arena.

After a while I stopped and approached her. She looked at me in bewilderment.

“You know what? It’s not a game. He was really afraid in the beginning.”

“You’re right,” I said. I was happy she had made that observation on her own. Daniel blew air out of his nostrils and chewed. I could nearly hear him saying the words “Thank you.”

“I saw that when he was afraid, you gave him rein, instead of trying to stop him or control him. It’s almost like you allowed him to have his fear and then he wasn’t so afraid anymore.” Sarah shook her head. “It’s the exact opposite of what I always do.”

I nodded. “Your reaction is normal. We want to be in control, but by trying to hold a frightened horse, you will just make him freak out more.” I looked at Sarah. “I like how you said I allowed him the fear. Could you allow yourself the same thing?”

Sarah hesitated, but then nodded. She looked up at me. “Maybe I should ride now, I feel better about it after seeing you ride.”

I nodded, even though I would have liked to talk more with Sarah about her fears. But sometimes it’s best to wait, especially when people are still just discovering their emotions.

“Let me get my helmet,” Sarah said and started to walk toward the benches at the door. Daniel followed her spontaneously and although I was still sitting on his back, I let him.

“Look at him,” I said. Sarah turned.

“I know,” she said. “He always follows me around. He really trusts me on the ground.”

“Perhaps that is something to think about, Sarah,” I said. She nodded, but didn’t look at me.

She got on and gathered the reins, but before she walked off with Daniel, I touched her thigh.

“You know how you said Daniel trusts you? This horse believes in you. Perhaps you need to believe in yourself as well. “Our eyes locked. “And in him.”

Sarah didn’t say anything. She asked Daniel forward and I talked to her about breathing and trying to really feel Daniel underneath her. Suddenly I saw tears streaming down Sarah’s face.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

She nodded, unable to speak.

She picked up a trot and Daniel responded beautifully, his head lowered and his back up. And so Sarah rode around and around for ten minutes, tears streaming down her cheeks, but with a smile on her face. Daniel got scared a few times from the noises outside the arena, but Sarah was able to loosen her grip on the rein, take a deep breath and settle him back down. I watched him moving around, carrying Sarah on his back and I thought: “Who am I kidding? I’m not the teacher here, I’m merely the guide who leads people to see the real teachers – the horses.” This horse, bless his heart, was slowly guiding his owner down a certain path whether Sarah liked it or not. Some day she would hopefully analyze her own fears and how her horse was reacting to them, but at the moment Daniel had given her something valuable by letting her have that moment on his back.

I’ve always wondered about people who are afraid of their horses. If you were afraid of dogs, would you want a dog? Probably not. If you were afraid of snakes, would you get a snake? Definitely not. But horses are a different story. I can honestly say that the majority of the people I have taught riding to in the past ten years were on some level afraid of their horses. Some were even brave enough to admit this fact, often crumbling in the middle of a lesson into a heap of uncontrollable sobs, but most fought it tooth and nail, transforming fear into anger and relentless determination. Knowing and seeing this with my own eyes, it amazed me that these people kept riding. Why are people willing to go through years of fear, pain, and insecurity just to sit on a horse? Why not take up something less emotionally challenging like guitar playing, jogging or cooking?

Why? Because they can’t. Because of the magnetic pull of horses overrides even the strongest fear.

I believe that people who are drawn to horses subconsciously recognize these animals have something to teach them. We may have no idea how aware horses are of our lives, our deepest fears, our hidden secrets, but somehow we feel an urgent need to be close to these animals. So, we start riding. Not necessarily because we want to ride, but because that is what the world offers in terms of being with horses. Perhaps we are afraid, perhaps we feel like we are in the wrong place on top of the large animal, but if that means we can be close to them, we accept this as part of the bargain. And thus the fearful rider is born.

After my lesson, I talked to Sarah again, asking her how she felt.

“I feel great, I’m so happy I was able to ride Daniel this time without getting afraid or angry.”

“But you do know that you don’t have to ride him,” I said. “If you are afraid, why ride?”

Sarah looked at me, I could see she was holding back tears.

“No, I have to ride,” she said quietly, before walking away with Daniel. I watched her go, puzzled by this persistence to mount her horse despite her own emotional problems and the obvious signs her horse was giving her. It reminded me of another student I had a while back, who had purchased an old dressage horse so she could learn how to ride correctly, only to discover that the only way to get her horse to move forward was to beat it with a long dressage whip, sit through a number of bucks and pray he would start moving forward. When I arrived at her barn for the first lesson, she was standing nervously in the middle of the arena, holding onto her horse that stood stock still. When I asked her about the horse and heard his tragic story of years of forcing and punishment, I was horrified. The student asked me to ride, but as soon as I was in the saddle, I could feel what she meant; he didn’t want to move another inch with a rider on top of him.

After a lengthy talk with the owner, where I told her about just spending time with her horse, perhaps easing into working at liberty and taking long walks by foot in the forest, she broke down and started crying.

“You really think I shouldn’t try to ride him?” She said between the sobs. I nodded, feeling sorry for the girl who had just bought herself a horse to ride and now I had told her she should forget about it, at least for the time being. The young girl wiped the tears streaking down her face and said, to my surprise:

“Thank you for giving me permission not to ride.”

The horse’s role in our society is primarily as a mount. Ask any three year old child what we do with horses and she or he will answer: “We ride them.” When something is this ingrained into our consciousness that even small children are aware of it, it is hardly surprising that adult horse owners believe they have to ride their horses “no matter what.”

Interestingly enough, I heard from Sarah the other day. Turns out Daniel’s joints finally gave in, and Sarah is now officially unable to ride him because of his condition. So many people in this situation would have disposed of the horse and bought a new, “better” one, but Sarah doesn’t want another horse. She continues to spend time with Daniel without riding, something I am convinced Daniel was trying to tell her to do from the very beginning. Sarah reported that her fears have not subsided, but rather have evolved and she has realized they have a much larger hold on her life, a hold beyond the barn environment.

“Now I can see that I’m afraid of a lot of things and I need to learn to let go of that fear because it holds me back in life. But Daniel is teaching me how to deal with it. And that’s helping me live more the way I want to live.”

Horses don’t come into our lives accidentally, but with a purpose. Sometimes their intention is obvious and sometimes it is so subtle that it takes us decades to unravel the meaning. Horses are so deeply connected to the inside of humans that they can and will unearth emotions we desperately try to hide from.

Fear is a powerful and uncomfortable sensation that grips each and every one of us at least a few times during our lives. But there are those of us who live with fear more than others; be it fear of failure, fear of taking control of our lives, fear of being who we truly are – you name it. Horses seem to navigate towards these people only to bring them over and over again to the place they are trying to avoid the most. I have witnessed this insightful dance, this untangling of painful emotions, again and again, and each time it leaves me captivated by the emotional intelligence of these animals we call horses.


There is a great deal of unmapped country within us which would have to be taken into account in an explanation of our gusts and storms. ~George Eliot


  1. Very nice post - great thoughts and insights and a wonderful story. Thank you.

  2. I don't even know how to respond to this piece. You have expressed a profound understanding of the mechanics of fear vis-a-vis horses and humans. I surely see some of my own experiences in the last two paragraphs. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for a wonderful, moving post. I'm trying to get beyond my own fear of riding, due to a fall and now permanent nerve damage in my back and legs. I'm glad to know that, no, you don't HAVE to ride your horses! It's been two years now and I'm finally ready to ride again, but if I don't, maybe that is okay, also. Horses give us such pleasure and wisdom and I'm always learning new things from mine! I'm going to bookmark this post and come back and review it.

  4. What a gorgeous post! I agree with everyone you've written here and so appreciate the care with which you've written it - thank you.

  5. Absolutely perfect post. This gets to the heart of what I believe about horses and riding. The giving of the reins when they are in fear is the key and how can that ever be done if the rider hasn't conquered the fear on the ground? The idea that "riding" is only when you are on a horse's back has to be dispelled. Riding begins when you halter the horse, walk the horse, hand graze and bond, groom. This is riding and when the fear is finally handled in this forum, then, and only then, should the rider mount. Why can't people be patient and wait and enjoy the whole experience? Why do they rush these kind animals?

  6. This post was very insightful and told a great story.

  7. Excellent post with a powerful story and message.

  8. I can not tell you how impressive and on the money this post is. If only more riders could get this message. The poor horses...

  9. Hope you don't mind - I linked.

  10. Thank you all for your encouraging comments, this particular blog post was not an easy one to write, I literally rewrote it at least ten times. I still think there is so much I didn't say (and should have). Fear, especially when it comes to the horse - human relationship, is a multifaceted issue, which makes it sometimes hard to know where to even begin unraveling it. I am intrigued by how horses deal with it and hope I can shed some light on what I have learned along the way so others don't have to search in the dark.
    PS. Always feel free to link!

  11. Beautiful essay!

    The reason I'm compelled to ride is because horses give me wings. It's me and another creature, and together we can outrun anything and go anywhere. It's just part of my personal horse mystique. :)

  12. What a powerful post! I came here from the link that Kate posted on her blog, so glad she did. I too have fears with my horse, I have come off him many times. I am not the rider I was years ago but I still love riding. There are times I don't ride but just take my horse for a walk, for the enjoyment of just "being" with him.
    thank you for this beautifully written post!

  13. Wow - so much of this post mirrors the experience I've had with my horse over the last year and a half. It took a great deal of soul searching to develop the trust we needed to ride together.

    It is (should be) a profound relationship / journey we share with our horses. You have expressed that so sensitively. Thank you :)

  14. There is so much truth in this blog. It's all about relationship, isn't it...

  15. Wow, this blog post really touched me. Thank you for writing it.

    I've been going through much of the same thing with my own horse (a spooky chestnut warmblood!). Fortunatly I have someone to help me with him, who is also the man I bought him from. He once told me that "the first thing you have to learn is that you can never control a horse with the reins". I am still working on that, but things have improved immensely with time and getting to know my horse better.

    I think the reason I, more often than not, insist on riding when I would rather just, for example, lunge the horse, is that it simply feels like a failure to me not to overcome my fear and get on with it. Whether that's the right approach or not can surely be discussed, but in my case it has also helped a lot that I now know that when he spooks, I can handle it and just keep riding, it's not the end of world. My horse also spooks less and less, adjusting himself, as you write, after the riders feelings.

    I don't want it to seem like riding to me is mainly about overcoming things, but that's my first reaction when I feel a tinge of fear.
    Why am I afraid? I've already written a way too long comment, so I'll stop here, but I guess that's a question for every individual rider to work out for him-/herself.

  16. Such a beautiful and truthful post. I remember when I finally had the opportunity to take riding lessons as a young teenager, I hated the stable I went to and was frequently afraid, but went every week anyway. I went because I sensed it was my only chance to be around horses, and I needed it, though I was sick with dread on the drive there. Throughout the years I have struggled with being afraid of my horse and being ashamed to admit it. Finally, when life intervened and I didn't have the time or energy to ride, I simply spent time with my horse. Things are so much better now, and many of my riding fears have eased, as our relationship on the ground has grown.

  17. Katariina, this is a gorgeous piece of writing.

  18. Wow, I also came here from Kate's link. Fear is my constant companion on horseback the last 5 years. With so much in my life that is no longer the same I ride for the 5 seconds that I occasionly get on horse back where I am the person that I was before I got sick

  19. Shelby in CaliforniaFebruary 20, 2011 at 8:37 AM

    Beautiful. K, you've pretty much left me speechless with this post. So powerful and resonates almost in a primal way... certainly on a cellular level. Thank you for this, I hope the entire horse industry and the world for that matter reads this.

  20. Wonderful post - great story.

    It really resonates with my early experience on horseback - fear, but never a willingness to walk away from that fear. I don't know exactly when I learned to let go of that - but I do believe it was a horse (or two horses) who taught me. A lot of it is about trusting the horse - which ties in to giving the rein instead of taking it up when the horse gets tense.

    This summer, I took a friend out for a walk on one of our horses, with me walking alongside. The horse got panicky the further we went from the barn and started jigging. My friend and I discussed that we should turn around and let the mare go home, as we didn't want to overtax her confidence. As we were heading home, the mare was still very tense, and my friend said, "I should be afraid, but I'm not, I don't know why." I think the answer is that because we were cooperating with the horse and letting her participate in our decisions, there was not that primal fear of confronting and opposing the horse's great physical and emotional strength. (Next time we took the horse out, she was willing to go much farther.)

  21. From the overwhelming amount of responses (compared to other posts) I can conclude that this is a subject that touches all of us in some way. I have been in tears reading the comments you all have written and hope that in the future I can keep writing about this subject that so profoundly affects us all, thank you.
    For those of you who talk about you own fear, I congratulate you for recognizing it and commend you for your courage. Keep listening to your inner voice and the voice of the horse. June's story was so telling; it is all about communicating and doing things together with the horse, instead of against it.

  22. That is a great post, with a wonderful story illustrating the wisdom of horses. Isn't it strange how we can be so drawn to horses and yet not put aside our own way of looking at them in order to see life - and us - through their eyes?

  23. Beautiful and insightful post.

    There's nothing I love more than being with a horse except maybe being with a horse when another person realizes what that means.

  24. I wish i`d wrote this post!! Its a really intelligent and modest post, true and well observed.

  25. I came here from Kate's link too. What a moving post. The emotional component of our relationship with our horses is probably the reason that I've loved horses ever since I can remember. They are my solace, my companions, and my teachers. They can also be my judge, and my reflection.

  26. Again, came from Kate's post:) I actually have read your entire blog in the last few days. I can't thank you enough for giving me new eyes to view my horse through. He's such a good soul, I've known that for awhile, but it's so very easy to forget and rely on old habits when interacting with horses.
    I love your writings about LiLo. She reminds me so much of my deceased mare Ebony, it brought tears to my eyes more than once.
    Thank you for being an advocate for my best friend Miles. I bet he would thank you for educating his clueless mom if he could.

  27. Thank you all for your comments. It is proof that we are truly all connected by this force called horses, and feel them calling to us, even if it is subconscious at first.
    Sarah - What you just said is the reason I write this blog: to bring awareness to fellow horse lovers about the things I have discovered about horses in recent years (and am still discovering), the things that have changed my life and the lives of the horses around me to the better. If I can help one person see what I have seen, I have succeeded. Thank you.
    PS. Give Miles a hug from me

  28. Like everyone else, I followed the link from Kate's, and I'm so glad I did. I've read a lot of horse stories, and this is up there with one of the best. I don't know if there is a better piece of advice for any horseperson. A rider's instinct is to "control" their horse in scary situations, when in fact, just the opposite needs to occur. You don't really have "control" anyway--none that your horse hasn't given you, that is. It took me many years to learn the lesson you have here, and I'm still learning it. And I also agree that horses come into our lives to teach us. I wonder if we choose them or they choose us for these reasons--or both. I have so much more to learn from my horses!! I'm a little nervous, a little excited.

  29. so beautiful and insightful, I had tears in my eyes....

  30. Thank you for your post, and wonderful that it has touched so many people, I too have been fascinated by the horse-human-fear relationship for many years. Fear is the primary emotion of both horses and humans, horses are comfortable with that, humans are not, we spend our lives inventing complicated ways to 'conquer' or deny fear! Seeing fear for what it is the only answer and horses can help us with that. As you so rightly say often the first step is discovering the joy of not riding ;) Just hanging out with a horse and learning the art of simply being.

  31. This Fear Factor is so interesting - when I got Olga, I spent first 6 months doing very little because I got so worried so easily (and so did Olga, of course.) But during this "honey moon" we were able to establish a strong bond and we have a great deal of trust and respect nowadays.

    But I still remember how hard it was to explain why I wasn't riding and doing stuff with her. I did not feel it was even an option to tell anyone I was trying to avoid situations where I got scared or worried.

  32. Yes Jen-ska, isn't it interesting that you didn't feel like telling people about your fear? Fear is such a taboo subject when it comes to horses. I have had so many students break down in tears of relief when they were finally able to talk about their fear. Good for you for listening to that feeling though and not "pushing" the riding issue until you and Olga were ready.

  33. Wow...I'm speechless. You have a gift with words and both humans and horses who cross your path are unbeleivably lucky.

    I have 8 rescued horses and I do not ride any of them. One day I might, but the goal for now is simply to help them trust again. I cannot tell you how many people think I am bizarre for not being focused on riding, but that's okay...I love my horses and they love me and that's all that counts.

    Thanks for writing such a thoughtful and positive post and showing the horse's point of view in such an eloquent manner!

    Sue and the crew
    Dream Valley Ranch

  34. Came here from Zen Horsemanship blog. I too have been touched by your beautifully told story (lots of tears) and the gentle understanding way in which you handled this vulnerable girl's fear. You never made her feel wrong, but softly guided her to see the best path for herself.

    I have a rescued, abused horse who found me 2 years ago as a 2 year old. He was very aggressive towards humans due to fear. I have given him time and space and love to heal and he is now learning to the gentle touch of a human being without force or ropes or sticks. I also have my own fear to conquer in this process - that of possibly getting hurt by pushing him over his threshhold to where he may revert to what he had learnt was the only way - fight, not flight. Yesterday I conquered that fear in a small way by trusting my horse when I ran my hand down his front leg for the very first time. My trust was rewarded with his, shown by a very sleepy headed, soft eyed horse that "couldn't have cared less". To me it was like jumping over the moon!

  35. After teaching riding to timid or wary adults for years and helping them overcome their fears of such a large, powerful animal, I have now had to confront my own fears. Just before I left the county stable where I worked to move out of state, I was thrown when my horse fell to his knees during a trot. (The horse, who died a week later, might have had a seizure, he went down so fast.) I have not really ridden since then and keep making excuses to avoid it--for five years now. I'd been thrown or fallen off in the past, but this fall was different. It really scared me, esp. since I landed on my head, as my cracked helmet proved. (I notice that as we get older, we lose our youthful bravado and our caution or sense of panic increases.)
    Thank you for this insightful post, which really got me re-examining the root of my anxiety and avoidance. If only I had gotten on another horse the day I fell and worked past the fear . . .

  36. Thank you for sharing this, I too had more than one tear in my eye. I moved my horse from the UK to Canada and there have been some changes from the feed to the terrain that although he does his best they have taken their toll on him - I know that people will feel I am very soft on him, but when he started to do back up and take me across the road rather than go up onto the trails I felt I had to listen to him.....this horse is my horse of a lifetime he has a huge heart and a huge personality - if the hill work really makes him unhappy and physically sore then so be it, we are working on the flat and that's just fine with me..I think they do try and tell us what's happening what they are feeling and if you can pick up on a 10th of that then do! thanks again

  37. Thanks for this. Stumbled upon it, via Kate at A Year with Horses, and sent it to a list in which I participate. Focused on addressing fear issues in horses. Your blog resonated with many and has gone to FB and a few other places.

  38. Wow, what a gifting and talent writer you are! People of your kind who share their knowledge about horses are great inspiration for me to understand my horses (and myself) better.

    Thank you so much about writing this post! I wondered why my horse has been so "spooky" few days. Today I realized that I have been afraid. Because of some reason I have been thinking what kind of dreadful situations I have been with horses formerly, and of course I couldn't help thinking about it when I was riding. And then horse did just what I was afraid...

    I decided not to ride for a while, so thank you so much that you "allowed" me to do it! This post confirmed me that I'm doing the right thing.

    (Olipas jännä kirjoittaa englantia pitkästä aikaa, liekkö tuostaa ottaa mitään selvää... Kiitos kommentista kuolaimettomuudesta kertovaan blogitekstiini)

  39. WOW... your insight is amazing. I have 5 horses that I rescued and are not rideable due to issues from abuse. I've had 4 of them for 16 years. So many people have a hard time to understand why I have horses that can't be ridden. I am sending them a link to this blog. THANK YOU!!