Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Journey, Yours and Mine

After a four year break I find myself sitting at my computer, writing this blog again. It is about time, I would say. At first glance not many things have changed in my life since last time, but with closer inspection it is evident that the journey I started with horses many years ago has taken me deeper into the core of humanity than I ever dreamed of. And thanks to all the horses and people in my life, that journey is far from being over.

The journey I am referring to has not been a walk in the park. In fact, sometimes it has felt like I was single-handedly cutting a path in the jungle with nothing but a pitiful butter knife as my tool. If you, too, have at some point in your life started to challenge everything you ever knew about a particular subject (in my case horses and riding) just to discover a whole new - and in my opinion, better - world, you might be able to identify with what I'm about to say. Especially if by searching for the truth, you have gone against prevailing practices and stepped on a few dozens of toes.

Let me explain.

Approximately six year ago, when I was still living in Europe, I was in an indoor arena working with a student's mare, who had serious issues not only with trailer loading, but relaxing in small, enclosed spaces. I was asking the mare to walk, stop and stand between two cavalettis, something she had found very difficult in the past. That particular day, however, the mare was very relaxed and calm, something that is always a priority for me when training a horse.

When the mare offered what I asked/hoped for (for ex walked between the cavalettis or stopped from my cue between the cavalettis) she was - after the click that marked her correct behavior -  rewarded with a small piece of carrot. Often when doing clicker training I work horses in liberty, but that particular day it wasn't possible because there was another horse in the arena. It was a young Friesian stallion ridden by his owner, a lady, who had taken a few lessons with me in the past. I wasn't paying attention to what the pair was doing, but did notice at some point that the ride was not perhaps as smooth as the rider had hoped. The horse was young, only four, and it didn't always understand what was expected from him, a fact that was often lost on his owner.

I finished my short session with the mare and took her back to her stall. I was satisfied with our work together and was noting this in her training diary when the lady from the arena showed up in the tack room. She immediately made a bee-line towards me.

"What were you doing in the corner of the arena?" she snapped with a loud voice. Her body language was defensive. Here we go again, I thought to myself and took a deep breath. As calmly and clearly as I could muster, I explained the basic principles of positive reinforcement.

"Are you insinuating that I am not positive with my horse?" the lady said loudly.

What? How she had managed to configure that from my explanation, I had no idea.

"No, no, definitely not. I'm just attempting to explain what I was doing in the arena," I tried to say, but was hopelessly late. The lady was offended. She proceeded to tell me exactly what she thought of me and my clicking device. How dare I show up at the barn to do such strange things with a horse. She also made sure to stress her own positive training methods over and over again. Had I not witnessed with my own eyes how much she loved her horse and does her best to keep him happy?

I knew that there was nothing I could say or do to convince this woman that I had not criticized nor would I ever criticize her methods in any way. So I opted to nod a few times before slipping away apologetically. Unfortunately this "conversation" did not end there, because for the next month the lady felt inclined to bad mouth me to anyone who would listen and send me text messages in which she gave examples of her positive horse handling.

I was at a loss. I had only done "my thing" quietly in the corner of the arena, but somehow had still managed to offend another person's training methods. And all this merely by existing in the same space.

This blog post, however, is not about operant conditioning or even about training horses. In fact, instead of clicker training, I could have been leading the mare "from the wrong side"or desensitizing her for days to a saddle pad/halter/wash rack,  Or, I could have taken her on the trail in-hand instead of under saddle or alternatively ridden her, but with strange tack or no tack at all. Or low and behold, I could have just sat with her in the pasture, talking to her like she understood every word instead of "putting her in her place" when someone else thought it was absolutely necessary. The point is, I was doing something that was not mainstream.

Does this sound familiar? Perhaps you, too, have experienced or are currently experiencing something similar. Maybe you are the odd-one-out at your barn, the one whose every move is mentally recorded and later dissected among your so called barn buddies. These same buddies are often questioning out loud why you aren't doing things the way they are supposed to be done. This makes you feel like an outsider, alone, under a microscope. Perhaps you even vaguely remember how it was when you were more like them, going with the flow, not questioning, not looking for answers. But there is no going back. Once you have taken the road to compassionate, horse-centered equitation, the only way to go is forward.

Or perhaps you aren't quite "out of the closet", yet. Your barn buddies suspect you are onto something, but they don't quite grasp how much your thinking has changed. Only you know this, and the horses, of course (because horses know everything about us, even when we try to hide it). And the horses are definitely the hardest part of this equation. Since becoming aware of the horse as a sentient being it has become exceedingly difficult to ignore the suffering that surrounds you at the barn. Some horses are suffering from pain, others from boredom or simply from being misunderstood. And you feel helpless and alone.

On top of all this, you are experiencing one or all of three things:

a) Guilt
Perhaps you used to hit and kick horses. You, too, were angry and impatient. Or simply ignorant. You didn't have a clue how your emotions affected a sensitive animal and that there are alternatives to forceful handling of horses. The guilt you feel now for your past actions is suffocating.

b) Uncontrollable urge to preach
Because your eyes are now wide open and you see the world differently, it is impossible to keep your mouth shut, especially when the horses clearly need someone to speak for them. So you open your mouth (if you dare), first in a diplomatic manner, and finally all but diplomatically, in your attempt to explain your point.

c) Anxiety and stress.
Someone wise once said that stress occurs when our values don't match our time management. Meaning that we spend a lot of time doing something that is against our values. Which is exactly what you are having to do, if you are stuck in an environment where people don't treat their horses with the respect you know they deserve.

Why is it upsetting to see someone do something differently? Why do I have to constantly explain what I am doing? Why does it seem like there are several different approaches? How to survive in the midst of it all?

Whether you are the person blazing your own trail and feeling like an outsider or the person supporting traditional views and pointing a finger at the ones who don't, here are some of my thoughts on the subject matter.

1. People inherently resist chance, it is part of our DNA. We are scared shitless of change and fight it tooth and nail, some more violently than others. This resistance to change is part of our biology and is closely connected to our propensity for negativity. These traits saved our lives in the stone ages when we were able to note subtle changes in our environment and avoid potential dangers.

For a long time the equestrian world supported a culture in which everything was done a certain way because "it was always done that way." This has changed, lately at an accelerated pace. People have started to question and look for answers. New truths have emerged through science to replace old "truths." For some people it has been significantly harder to accept these changes than for others. As the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said over 100 years ago: "All truth passes though three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."

2. We can only change ourselves. We cannot change others, no matter how much we would like to. However, when we change, it automatically affects the people around us. This can scare people (see #1) On the other hand, people may not even conscious of the change that has happened, they are merely subconsciously reacting to the new. So that said, if all goes well, the positive changes in you may prompt similar changes in the people around you. But it can also go the other way as well (see #3)

3. Sometimes when we change, we lose relationships, even close ones. I experienced this first hand over the years as I changed from a driven dressage rider and competitive vaulting coach to the person I am today. My journey did not please everyone around me. I heard, for example, that one of my old trainers thought I had "drank the cool aid". Even though she had played a big part in my life for almost a decade, our paths diverged. Sometimes journeys no longer continue in the same direction even if they have traveled hand-in-hand for years.

4. The world will change, no matter what. Change is part of humanity, of life; without change there is no growth. Change is inevitable. You can practice having an open mind by taking small steps at a time. You don't need to chew everything right away nor is there a need to shove everything you have learned down other's throats this very second. If you are the pacemaker of change, proceed with courage. Sow "seeds" as you go and trust that they will "sprout" when the time is right. Maybe you won't be around to see it because some seeds take decades to crack. And some never sprout. Embrace this fact, if you can. Everybody embarks on their own journey when they are ready and every journey is different, not better or worse than the other.

5. According to my own experience, the best way to deal with the nay-sayers, backstabbers and finger-pointers is through empathy and understanding. I know personally that if you have, without questioning, done something one way for thirty years, and not only done but perhaps taught others to do as well, it is not easy to let all of it go in a heartbeat. It can, in fact, be very, very scary, especially if your whole identity, career and life is built upon it. Everything could be threatened. Therefore it should be no surprise that people can react as strongly as the lady in my story above. Sometimes just the mere presence of someone representing a "threatening new method" can stir up emotions that are hard to control. 

Although your life under the microscope might feel difficult, usually it is even more difficult for the backstabbers and fingerpointers. It often shows in their horses and their horses' behaviors. That is something important to keep in mind and heart.

6. If your journey has come to a point where you feel anxiety about how horses are treated/how horses live/how horses manifest their unhappiness, and you can't help them, because these horses are not yours, I recommend telling the said horses that you can see their anxiety/pain/apathy/boredom. Talk to them as if they understand every word. Everyone wants to be seen and heard, people and animals alike. You may be the only person who sees a horse's attempts to communicate and the fact that you do see it, can be important to that particular horse. The value of emotional support can not be measured, but it is real. Send the horse love and strength from your heart to help it endure whatever life delivers on his plate. And if you have guilt over past deeds, apologize. Horses are the most forgiving creatures on earth.

6. Dare to walk your own path and believe in the things that feel right to you, even if there are skeptics along the way, even if the journey seems impossible. Because it will be worth it in the end. Because of your journey, you will be smarter and many experiences richer. Yes, there will be emotions, even hard ones. Life is to be lived and felt whole-heartedly.

I trust that this blog post finds the exact people who need it and who can apply it to their own life and life's journey. Because it cannot be denied, we all do have our journeys, be they conscious or unconscious. And if  this piece of writing feels a bit "out there", no worries, you can let it go and tell everyone I drank the Cool Aid, if you want. I'm just happy you read all the way to the end, because it tells me that your "soil" is ready for the "seeds"!