Nothing

This is probably going to be a disjointed piece. I started it for one reason, and set it aside, and then it popped back into my head for an entirely different reason, which now seems like what I was waiting for to get to the point I wasn’t sure I had.

“Instead of trying to help the horse handle more they get more careful. And the more careful they get,the more careful they have to be. And pretty soon the horse has trained them to do nothing.” –Harry Whitney

 

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I heard this quote at a horsemanship clinic, and it sounded uncomfortably familiar. I have a horse like this, one who who has trained me to do nothing to the point that I had stopped even approaching him except to feed. He seems to be very fond of people, me included, as long as we just hang around and don’t ask anything – at all – of him. It’s human requests for work that are the problem.

Based on his past it’s a reasonable problem that he has with the requests; I can’t argue with his logic. He was clearly asked to do far too much far too young. I have always said his dressage career was like asking a third grader who shows promise in math by learning the multiplication tables easily to do calculus, and then declaring him a failure when he couldn’t understand it.

Before that he was given good basics from someone who was a wonderful and gentle horseman right up until a horse flatly refused to do something, and then the beatings began. Just till the point that the horse decided to comply, and then it was all peace and gentleness again. I imagine this is confusing to a horse.

It’s particularly easy for me with a horse with this background, who is also very large,  who is also very reactive, to back off and back off and back off till the point I am not even there. The whole idea of making myself noticeable enough for the horse to start to care what I might be asking is something I had stopped considering.

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Backing off to the point of doing nothing is a behavior I learned well from humans pretty early in my life. It’s one of those behaviors that served me in the past, and though it doesn’t actually serve me in the present I’ve gotten so adept at it I sometimes don’t even know I’m doing it. I became aware of it as a bad relationship pattern in my adult life and so I first thought it was a something I started as an adult. But then I had a conversation with my high school boyfriend, now a good friend, who told me he had been talking to his therapist about me before I came for a visit and he had said “She was the perfect woman for me because she didn’t ask anything of me.” Talk about a good opening line for me to take to my own therapist.

As a child I learned young that it was best to slide through my days without asking for anything. The less I needed or asked for, the safer it was to walk through my house. This is not a crazy thing to extrapolate later to a large and reactive animal who could actually hurt me without even trying to. It may, however, be a little crazy that at some point in my life I became proud of being so undemanding, proud that I don’t ask anything of anyone.

Not wanting to get big enough to get my horse’s attention is more complicated than “I want him to like me.” It’s also that I don’t want to upset him to the point I get hurt. It’s also that I don’t want to be the person he feels like he has to tiptoe around, because I know what that feels like. I don’t want to be the crazy person that makes everyone else afraid.

Not wanting to be demanding enough in my human relationships to get attention – well, I’m not sure if that’s a different story or not. It does have something to do with “I want them to like me,” but also with believing that my worth to someone else is defined by what I can (and will) do for them, and not by who I am. It also has to do with “I don’t want to upset him to the point that I get hurt.”

And this brings us to yesterday, when I started thinking again about what I wrote above and then tabled for several months. When I started seeing the “me too” hashtag on social media around stories of sexual harrassment, I had very mixed feelings. My first thought was that I didn’t really have any stories like that, but when I thought about it a bit more I realized that my stories are just so commonplace I don’t even think about them as harrassment. A male friend asked his friends on social media what he could read to better understand. I suggested he ask women he knows for their stories, and then I told him mine.

What I wrote to him began: “At first my “me too” was just (“just!”) about random occasional catcalls and yelled comments from construction workers or whoever, “it’s a joke” statements by people known and unknown, moments of fear on city streets, in dark parking lots, on the subway.”

The more I wrote, the more I remembered specific incidents, some with people I knew and respected and trusted, and the more horrified I became at what I have come to think of as normal. As I also wrote to this friend: “I don’t consider that anything bad has ever happened to me. I had to think long and hard about whether I had a “me too” because it’s just how things are for women. I feel like I have never not known how to walk with a purpose, how to deliberately make myself not look like a potential victim. It’s impossible to learn those skills without knowing you are doing so because you ARE a potential victim, because you can in fact be overpowered far too easily.”

The most recent articles and conversations I have read on this topic have been about one highly publicized incident that has engendered a lot of comments like “Why didn’t she leave?” and “How could he be expected to read her mind?” I think my fascination with this particular conversation has been that I can see both sides so easily, and I don’t see a clear right and wrong. I think about how I have learned to do nothing, to not react, in situations where I feel afraid, and how the more afraid I feel the less I do, in an effort not to trigger a response I don’t think I can handle.

I have a lot of places where I know that my horsemanship and the rest of my behavior in life are inexctricable from one another. As I contemplate how to work with my horses in order to get to where I want to be – knowing what I am asking for, asking for it clearly, and shaping the response I get into something that the two of us are doing together with both of us fully present – I realize how much of this work is mine alone to do.

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Truth Serum Horse

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I’ve been avoiding one of my horses.

If you look at how much I work with my horses (or don’t), you’d think I’m avoiding them all, but I’m not. It’s true that I can’t remember the last time I rode. It’s also true that somewhere along the line, riding stopped being the point of having horses for me. Maybe it never was.

One of my favorite horse books when I was a kid was called The Secret Horse. It was about two girls who stole a horse who was about to be euthanised from an animal shelter in the middle of Washington DC. They hid him away on a not quite abandoned property, without knowledge of or permission from either their families or the caretakers of the property. I grew up in DC, and in my mind I still know the exact houses in my neighborhood I pictured them living in, and I know the property, a whole city block square in my memory, where they kept the horse. They groomed the horse a lot, and fed him loads of cut grass they carried to the barn on sheets after it dried to hay in the sun, and at one point they took turns getting on him bareback with a halter and walking slowly around the barnyard. Despite the many, many books I read about girls winning unexpected ribbons at horse shows, The Secret Horse always stood out as my kind of horse story.

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I had my own secret horse eventually, though I bought her instead of stealing her, and I kept her at barns where the barn owners knew she was there. She was, however, a secret from my parents. I bought her from a farm where I was working before I left for college, and then had her transported several states away to join me in Vermont. I kept her for three of the years I was there, working odd jobs to pay her board, and borrowing cars and bicycles so I could get to the barn to see her. I eventually sold her, all without ever telling my parents I had owned a horse.

As things often turn out in my family, the real secret was that my mother knew about my secret horse almost the whole time. The barn I bought her from had called my parents’ house at some point after I left for college and before I had her trailered up to join me, and my mother had answered the phone. I don’t know what conversation took place, because it was one more thing we never discussed. The horse’s name, it may be relevant to note, was Stretch the Truth.

The horse I have been avoiding has a name, but we often refer to him as the Truth Serum Horse. He earned this nickname when I had him for sale once, for five or ten minutes. It was one of those times I didn’t feel like I was doing enough with him, and that maybe he should be in a barn where someone would ride him more. I ran an ad that more or less said “I have a big brown horse that I don’t want to sell. Call me if you have to.” One person must have been intrigued enough by the ambiguity of the ad to call. She came to see him, her best friend and husband in tow.

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I rode him first, and he started out really rough and feeling like he was about to blow – a not insignificant event in a horse as big and athletic as he is. I was up there feeling like here I am calling myself a horse trainer and he looks like he doesn’t know the very basic basics and I look like I can’t ride a carousel horse. I stopped and looked at these three strangers and said “I just quit one of my jobs today and it’s a job I thought I always wanted but it turned out to be terrible and now I’ve quit it and I’m relieved and sad at the same time and my brain is really distracted.” Then I took a breath, picked up the reins, and the horse moved off like an old schoolmaster and went beautifully through his paces.

The woman who was interested in buying him got on next and started off similarly, the horse looking awkward and the rider looking grim and miserable. Suddenly she said “I hate riding in front of people, even people I know – I’m so nervous that they think I’m incompetent and doing everything wrong that I don’t even remember to breathe.” Just as suddenly she and the horse clicked into a smooth, soft jog trot and the rest of her ride she was grinning from ear to ear.

Her friend and her husband rode the horse with almost identical patterns, the rough rides smoothing out as soon as they blurted out what was bothering them. I have no doubt that the horse made that happen – he needed everyone to get over how they were trying to look and to just be how they actually were.

Horses have varied tolerance for people whose insides and outsides don’t match. Some horses just tune it out. One horse I had would see me coming when I was in a certain mood and turn and walk away. “Nope. You are not getting on me today. Not with that attitude.” The Truth Serum Horse doesn’t have a low tolerance, he has zero tolerance for being around people who are out of integrity. I could insist, but only by shutting him down entirely, and I got out of the forcing-horses-into-a-mental-shutdown business years ago.

The Truth Serum Horse came to me with numerous issues from how he was trained in his first few years. While I have helped him to feel better physically, and about life in general, I have not really helped him to get past his problem areas. I mostly just avoid them, and if I don’t feel like that is working, I avoid him. It has only very recently come to my attention that this is pretty close to my own path of making some progress toward the way I say I want to be, but then avoiding meaningful, lasting change. No wonder I want to avoid the horse who insists that I not only look at the underlying thing, but admit it. Out loud.

Because I think of myself as a horse trainer with a specialty in “fixing” troubled horses, I tend to look at horses in terms of how I can help them be more comfortable with the things I want them to do. The Truth Serum Horse has made it clear he won’t be comfortable unless I become more comfortable with the things he wants me to do. It’s taken me a lot of years, and a horse who won’t accept anything less than the truth as good enough, to realize that the one I need to fix is me.

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Down Dog

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I would like to like yoga more than I do.

People talk about intention in yoga and meditation. I am full of intention. I intend to meditate. I intend to do yoga. I don’t actually do either, but I intend to.

I’m very impressed that the dogs do at least downward dog if not also upward dog every time they get off their beds. I tried that recently and wound up in something resembling child’s pose but more painful, face on the floor and unable to move for several minutes. I don’t recommend this as a motivator for beginning a daily practice.

Someone recently asked me if yoga speaks to me, and the truth is that it does not. The other truth is that I don’t know what does. Where exercise is concerned lately I feel like Tigger who says that Tiggers like everything but then with each attempt he finds that Tiggers do not in fact like honey, haycorns, thistles, or pretty much anything in Kanga’s cabinet. I don’t really like yoga, or any kind of group workout, or spin bikes which make me want to stab myself. I agree with Tigger that they may all be for heffalumps and woozles, but not for me.

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Once upon a time I was a gymnast. I was flexible, and strong, and fearless. I was also 12 years old, which may be pertinent. But more recently I was a soccer player. I was fit and strong, if not flexible, and I was fearless enough to get hurt, at which point I became less fearless. The line between fearless and foolhardy has never been all that clear to me, and I’m not sure I like the side of it I’m on now, or the width it has grown to in the past few years.

I’ve ridden horses since I was eight years old and though I have almost always been foolhardy, I have almost never been fearless. I was terrified of horses when I started riding. My older sister remembers it that I was scared and she dragged me into it so she’d have company, and I remember it that I was scared and I did it anyway because I wanted to do what she did and what she wanted me to do. We are both probably right.

After the first time I fell off I lost my most paralyzing fear, and quickly moved into the realm of foolhardy with the help of the barn management. I don’t know what their source of horses was but in retrospect I’d guess they bought most of them out from under the kill buyers. They didn’t seem to know anything about any of the newly arrived horses and they liked to put me and my sister on them to see what would happen. I’m not sure if at 8 and 11 we were supposed to be the bravest, or if as little kids whose parents didn’t hover much we were the most expendable.

I certainly learned to stay on. More importantly, I learned that I COULD stay on. Much later in life I heard someone say that I could ride anything that had hair, and it’s true. I can’t say that I always wanted to, though. And after a while, especially with horses, the fear on the inside and the foolhardiness on the outside start to clash with one another. The horses at least can tell that you are out of integrity, even if the people think (and say) “wow, I wish I could ride like that.”

I haven’t been on a soccer field in four years now, since I tore my ACL in a pointless scrimmage, playing a position I don’t normally play and displaying an uncommon surge of competitiveness and determination to get to the ball first in 95 degree heat. I did, just as the other player’s knee got to the side of my knee. Some things are not worth the effort, I realized as I felt my knee blow apart right before I hit the turf.

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Hiding what’s going on in my insides from myself turns out to not be worth the effort, either, and I suspect some things have blown apart without my realizing it while I’ve been acting brave and feeling afraid. I have been on a horse maybe twice in those same four years. I have four horses standing around in my fields, and while I’m sure they don’t mind having to eat hay and grass for a living instead of working, I miss the connection of having a partnership with them. If I’m honest, I haven’t really had a partnership with any of these horses, not like the one I had with my old mare who died seven years ago now. That’s a long time of not letting anyone in again. Of not letting myself get hurt again. Of being fearful instead of foolhardy.

Maybe it’s ok that Tiggers don’t like haycorns, or yoga. What Tigger found he liked best, as I recall, was Strengthening Medicine. Maybe if I get back out there with the horses I will find me some of that.

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