Friday, March 11, 2016

The Child Within

Horses have an uncanny ability to bring up strong emotions in us. If we are not plagued by frustration, we are overcome with joy. If there isn't steam coming out of our ears, there is love spilling from our hearts. Perhaps this is the intrigue of horses, they push us to look at ourselves, especially the dreaded dark side, more times than we care to count, but they also fill us with love. Joy, compassion and gratitude are frequently present, but so are anger, frustrating and sadness.

And then there is fear.

Fear is one of the most common emotions in equestrians all over the world. If you are feeling it, well, so is someone else. We all have fear at times, and we should, as fear is healthy, it keeps us safe. And sometimes spending time with horses can be dangerous. But unfortunately fear wants more than just to warn us, it wants to take over. So when you notice that fear no longer sits in the passenger seat of your life, but is in your lap, trying to take over the steering wheel, it's time to take a closer look at it.

A client contacted me recently, wanting to better understand and eventually control her fear of riding and handling horses at the riding school where she rides once or twice week. She had thought she had put her fear behind her, but after her teacher was involved in an accident, fear showed up again, this time stronger than ever.

I always commend students and clients who approach me with this subject matter. Admitting you have fear is the first step in the long process of recovering from it. Fear is important and should always be listened to carefully. What is fear's message?

In my client's case it took a while before we arrived at the very heart of the matter. We talked about where and when fear enters the picture. What triggers it? What behaviors does my client engage in to feel "secure"? How can she help herself when fear is present?

Our discussion took us into many topics such as the fear of losing face with your peers, feeling insecure about your abilities, hating the element of surprise and the feeling of foreboding chaos which has my client observing her surroundings neurotically for the slightest disturbance that could trigger a reaction from the horse.

"I feel like a little girl, when I'm afraid," my client said. "It is crazy. I feel so capable elsewhere in my life, but at the barn I'm lost and insecure. I don't trust myself at all, especially now that my regular teacher is not there."

"How long has fear been present in your equestrian hobby?" I asked.

"Good question," my client said thoughtfully. "Probably always."

I felt that we were getting to something important, so I pressed on.

"When did you first start riding?" I asked. "Tell me about that time."

My client was silent for a second. Then she said: "I was eight and there was zero instruction. I was literally plopped on a pony and pushed in with the others. If the ponies didn't go, the teacher chased us with a whip. I was a very shy and timid child and was scared shitless the whole time, it was so out of control and I had no idea what I was doing."

She was silent for a moment. "Oh my goodness," she then said.

Yes, oh my goodness, indeed. This was the defining moment. This is when the twine started to unravel, when Pandora's box opened, then the seas split.

"I have carried that experience I had as a little girl with me since it happened. For years. It is my identity, how did I not see this before this moment? No wonder I feel like a little girl at the barn, I AM the little girl I once was."

This is not the first time a client or student of mine revisits the very beginnings of her equestrian life and discovers the key to her problems in the present. For example, a few years back a student of mine was having trouble riding her mare in the arena.

"She just moves like she is in molasses. Or worse, she stops and won't go. I don't want to force her, that's not my style. I mean I can ask, but I'm not going to start kicking and whipping her." She sighed. "It drives me mad. And all I have to do to get her to move is to leave the arena. If we were in the field right there, she goes beautifully." She pointed at the field next to the arena.

And she was right. We tried everything, correcting her seat, finding her inner power, clicker training, which all worked for a split second and improved the situation. But in the end, her horse just retreated back to sulking in the middle. The worse part, from my student's perspective, was that the mare would go with another rider.

"It's me, I see that, but I can't fix it," my student said with tears in her eyes. I could see how frustrated and even ashamed the mare's owner was. Nothing seemed to work.

Until I asked the right question.

"Tell me about your riding history. When did you start riding and how was it for you, when you started?"

Turns out my student was a very quiet and painfully shy child. When she started riding at 8, she never was able to get the ponies to move. So she spent most of the lesson standing in the middle of the arena, where the teacher either ignored her or shamed her, after which she was chased with a whip.

"It was horrible, I felt like I was such a failure."

Wow, and does that remind you of something that is happening now, this very moment, with your mare? Here you are, yet again, in the middle of the arena, on a horse that refuses to move.

It is amazing how our childhood experiences affect the way we are as adults. As children we are so open to everything, so vulnerable and unassuming. This is where and when our values are made, our identities are molded. And it is even more amazing to witness the way horses see this trauma in us and bring us to look at it, over and over again, as if they are trying to help us resolve it, once and for all.

I was a tough tomboy as a child. Sensitive inside, but determinate and energetic outside. When I started riding, it took my teacher about five minutes to figure me out. I was given one of the biggest horses in the barn to ride, a lazy Finnish horse called Viri. I was just a wee little thing, barely 10 and eager to please my teacher. I didn't know how to ride, but I knew that if I got the enormous gelding to go, my teacher would praise me. And boy did she!

From that moment on my fate was sealed. I was given the laziest, most stubborn horses to ride and each time I rode it was like going to war. And each time it worked. By the time I was in my teens, I had the reputation of being the one to get any horse to go. I learned to kick them effectively, and not only that, but hit them, too.

Took me a while to recognize that child manifesting in me and work her out of my system. When you have always been the one who gets the last word with any horse, there is a lot of anger, pride and ego to sift through before you arrive at a neutral place. Just like my client's fear was handed to her on a silver platter, I was handed the identity of a tough rider, one that didn't take no for an answer.

You might think that these childhood experiences are not that important, but they are. We may carry them with us in our bodies, our very cells, for the rest of our lives. We tuck them in to the back of our minds where they become values and belief systems, identities and thought patterns. Understanding their power is crucial. And, if we do not tear down the walls we have build around those childhood experiences, they will continue to manifest in our lives over and over again.

So, I ask you now, what is the unwanted emotion you continuously run into with horses? Is it fear? Anger? Insecurity? Shame? Inadequacy? Something else?

Did you have an experience with horses when you were a child? Go back in time and remember your first ride, your first teacher, your first horse. What were you feeling? Can you trace your way back to the heart of the heart, the core of the core, of who you are with horses today?

"What we remember from childhood we remember forever - permanent ghosts, stamped, inked, imprinted, eternally seen." ~Cynthia Ozick