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