Anyone who has worked with horses will tell you that they never stop learning. You’re always learning how to be a better rider, trainer, listener, and partner. Along with that, you’ll also learn a whole lot about yourself as you work with horses, whether you want to or not. I’ve done a lot of learning in my life. Every day the horses that I work with teach me not just about myself but also about my relationship with others and with God. There’s one horse in particular that I’ve learned volumes from over the four years I’ve worked with her. She is strong but scared, calm but nervous, willing but cautious, and honestly one of the sweetest horses I know. Who is this four-legged walking contradiction? Her name is Liberty, and she’s my crazy little friend.
The main identifying feature of Liberty’s character is that she is living in a near constant state of fear. Whether that fear is real or imagined, she is right in the thick of it, feeling every emotion deeply. Sometimes the fear comes from a legitimate source, and other times it comes from hiccups, or sneezes, or my foot. In short, we’ve had to work through a lot of scary situations each day, and we still have a long way to go.
When approaching a situation that can cause a lot of fear or bring up big emotions, it’s always best to find a safe space within which to do this. For horses, that means an area where they feel safe to explore new things because they trust the person they’re with. The key word here is trust; without it, all horsemanship is futile just as all relationships built without trust are destined to crumble. Only once you’ve developed a trusting relationship can you begin to broach the harder topics. You can’t just skip the foundational building blocks and jump right into the “fun” things; you need to have built up a strong framework before you can think about adding the finishing touches. I have spent many hours with Liberty in the round pen and arena working with her as she steps towards what’s frightening her. It’s through those many sessions that I’ve discovered not just what helps horses regain their courage again, but also how to walk beside people who are facing difficult situations.
When we’re afraid, it can seem impossible to ever get past it on our own. Fear likes to seclude us because we’ll never find our courage on our own. If other concerns or complications surround us, we can’t focus on the steps we need to take to overcome the problem in front of us. We need to find those places, spaces, and people who are willing to step into the darkness with us and walk us towards the light. People who encourage us to take it one step at a time and keep us from running in circles trying to avoid the problem.
If you were to throw a flag or tarp at Liberty while she was in the field, she would high tail it out of there before the fabric hit the ground. But in the round pen, she feels safe enough to investigate. I never push her; I don’t drag her kicking and screaming up to the flag and force her to face her fears head-on. Through encouragement, a gentle hand to keep her moving forward and mountains of patience, Liberty can approach the problem on her terms and in her own time.
This situation happens in real life too; some people gently walk with us as we take the tiniest of baby steps towards courage. Sometimes they encourage us to take the leap and face our fears head on because we keep avoiding them, and then they stay with us as we panic and try to figure it out for ourselves. Not only do we need these people in our lives, but we also need to be these guides for others. Constant, caring, and considerate. When we surround ourselves with these people, and as we become these people, we need to remember that nobody is perfect. Sometimes we push harder than we should have, and other times we’re too gentle, and our inaction ends up hurting rather than helping. I have made so many mistakes, both in regards to my friends and my horses, but the fantastic thing is that there is always forgiveness waiting on the other side.
There are times when we need to face our fears head-on, to run into the fray without a second thought. Otherwise, our fears will consume our lives. But then there are times when we need that gentle, reassuring voice behind us encouraging us to take it one step at a time. There is no one way to approach either for horses or people, just a lot of trial and error, repentance and forgiveness, failure and triumphs. It can seem like a long winding road was a traverse this wild life, but we have people along the way to guide us, and a God who uses the most innocuous things to teach us…like horses.