A few weeks ago I ran into an acquaintance and her very ill behaving puppy which already at seven months old was the size of a large Shetland pony. I had met them a few times before and knew that by human standards the dog was “out of control”.
"I’m sending my dog to a trainer for five weeks", the owner of the dog told me almost immediately upon our meeting. She was driving her car and the said dog sat in the back seat, not because it wanted to, but because it had no other option, as it was tied tightly by its choke collar to a hook on the ceiling. “We always do this with our dogs, it’s much easier. After five weeks they come back obedient and submissive.”
The puppy was trying to shove its face out of the open window, but couldn’t without choking itself. This did not deter it from trying. I nodded and smiled, but in my mind I wondered how devastating for a dog it is to be sent away to a strange place only a few months after he has arrived to his new home and family. And to go to training with a stranger, no less. On the other hand, this is exactly what happens with most horses, often several times in their lives. But I won’t get into that now.
I have always thought sending a dog away to be trained is a cop out, because really, isn’t it much more important to train the owner? One could argue that people should not get dogs if they don’t have the time, resources or interest to put into teaching them how to be in their world. Especially a dog the size of a pony! I mean hello?
I was definitely starting to fall into judgement. But how could I not? It is so easy, after all. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, we all wrestle with judgmental thoughts sometimes. More often than not. The thing is, however, I don’t want to be judgmental. In fact, already years ago I decided to learn to neutrally observe and understand, no matter what the situation. Judgment isn’t helpful, in my opinion, it only divides people, alienating them from each other. Judgment, I believe, is the root of so many negative interactions in the human world and I want to avoid it the best I can.
But how to stop?
Brené Brown (yes, I’m mentioning her again, she’s that good) introduces an interesting idea to fight judgment: What if we believed people are doing the best they can?
I know, sounds counter intuitive, doesn’t it?
But think about it. If you assume everyone is doing the best they can, there is no space for blame and judgment. And without judgment, there is more space for compassion. And having compassion for the people you interact with on a daily basis will have a definite and profound effect not only on the lives of the people you interact with, but your own life as well. So really, whether people are doing the best they can is irrelevant, it’s more important to believe they are doing the best they can.
This is some difficult, deep work, I’m not going to lie. There are moments when I want to yell out loud: “Did you see that? OMG, absolutely awful how some people don’t give a shit!” And I try to talk myself out of the belief that everyone is going the best they can. Because hello? Clearly that can’t possibly be true.
But then I take a deep breath and catch myself. Usually at this point the universe will provide me with a reminder. Which is exactly what happened the same week I ran into my friend with her puppy. My husband, who was going through files on his old computer, ran into a folder with ancient videos. One of those videos was of Andiamo, a horse I used to own eleven years ago. The video shows him tacked up with a vaulting pad and surcingle and his head pulled in with side reins that are attached to the snaffle bit in his mouth. Also attached is a long longeline and at the end of the line is who else, but me. Moi. Myself.
Andiamo looks tense. His tail is tucked between his legs and his croup is low. Anxiously he lifts his head and braces against the (very) short side reins while his back is like a rod iron, flat and unyielding. The look in his eyes is wild, but despite the evident panic, he is behaving like a “good boy”, cantering on the circle, doing what I am asking him to do, allowing the vaulters to move on and around his back.
I stand in the middle of the circle, lunging him with pride, and most likely have no idea of my horse’s true emotional state. Or perhaps I have an inkling, but I am thinking that he is a green vaulting horse and he’s supposed to be a bit freaked out. I’m not worried, because one day he’ll gets used to it all, he’ll stop being afraid. Because horses are like that, always afraid of this or that or the other thing, that’s normal. It is the humans’ job to continue doing what we do, until the horse gets used to it. And if he really is freaked out, he wouldn’t allow us do what we are doing, right?
“Wow, that looks absolutely awful”, are the first words that come out of my mouth upon watching the video. Yes, judgment. Of myself. Actually, I could almost argue that it’s not judgment, it’s the truth. I can’t believe the short side reins, and look how Andiamo is opening and closing his mouth. Clearly he is in pain. And his eyes! So fearful… and…and…
The irony of this situation, of course, is the fact that for the past year I have had the privilege to spend with a horse called Andiamo. Yes, the same one in the video. Andiamo, who is now retired on his current owner’s property, is a kind, forgiving soul. Back in the day, he used to be a dressage and vaulting horse, winning ribbons, but now he is my teacher and guide to my less perfect self.
It is an understatement to say that my philosophy and way of being with horses has changed significantly in the past decade. Perhaps, instead of listing all that has changed, it would be more accurate to admit that everything has changed. And how much can a human mind and heart grow in just ten years! The video is proof of that.
Now I realize that we should have stopped with Andiamo or perhaps not even started in the first place. But I was in such a different place then, a celebrated vaulting coach, a dressage rider and trainer. Competitive and goal oriented. I would not have been capable of seeing horses in the light I see them now, even if someone would have shown me. I was in a completely different mindset: human doing instead of human being.
But, as I dared to claim before, everyone is doing the best they can, even I am, on the video. I wasn’t deliberately causing Andiamo distress; my awareness – in hindsight – was simply limited. Which makes me wonder how limited it is now. Will I look back at myself in ten years and label myself ignorant, yet again? What have I missed today which tomorrow will be a blaring mistake, even abuse?
Perhaps this is a lesson in humility, yet again. We cannot know where people are coming from. The lady who is yelling at her kids or the trainer who kicks his mount with spurs; they are all doing the best they can. No, really, they are. It may not seem like that to some of us, but we also don’t know the whole story. We don’t know where they have been, what their life looks like, what is their cross to carry. We also don’t know where they are on their so called path. Maybe they aren’t ready to look at what you and I are doing with our horses. Maybe they are not there yet. Maybe even we aren’t there yet, even though we think we are enough above it all to judge.
I have made a commitment to myself to believe Brené Brown. To believe that everyone is doing the best they can. You, me and my friend with her gigantic puppy. And so it was eleven years ago when I thought I was training Andiamo to be a vaulting horse even though he was clearly freaked out and anxious. Our best can merely be our current best.
I think meeting Andiamo again, being able to look back and see how I have grown, how I have changed in the past decade has been one of the most valuable lessons of my life. Because it is now clear to me that although people are always doing their best, it doesn’t mean that their best cannot change to be even better. It can, through an open mind, a lot of work and continuous reflection. It is a (sometimes painful) practice that never ends. Tomorrow my best is hopefully better than my best yesterday.
Others may evolve or they may not. Regardless, they are doing the best they can. We really can’t ask more from anyone.
"Love is the absence of judgment." - Dalai Lama