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Of Horses and People

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Photo: Stefan Angele


In what seems a different lifetime, I once told a therapist that horses felt safe to me. She, not being familiar with horses, raised her eyebrows and peered at me over her glasses to see if I was joking or not.

Definitely not.

After answering yes to questions of had I been injured by a horse, had I fallen off, etc, she asked if I “equated being hurt with being safe?”  The look that was exchanged between us was identical, and I almost saw cartoon bubbles over each of our heads that contained the words “Poor thing. She just doesn’t understand.” After a few moments, I answered that I feel safe with horses because they are honest. The fact that I got hurt was because the horse was being a horse, not a horse deliberately out to hurt me.

This is still true.  Another truth I’ve come to understand is that we’ll only get so far in our skills and relationship with horses if we don’t work on building skills and relationships with people.

I’ve heard many people say some version of  “I love animals. People not so much.” Those of us who have suffered at the hands of people (which, sadly, is probably all of us) understandably reroute our trust to animals, and keep people at a distance.

I get that people do horrible things. Many of us–myself included–have been prey to human predators and we do everything in our power to not repeat or revisit that experience. Humans are unpredictable, can be cruel, and often appear to have their own best interest in mind no matter the consequence to others.

Add to this living in an age where too much information is available and if we aren’t careful we can become mired in feeling overwhelmed by the sadness of it all. If we aren’t careful,  we will live and see other people and animals through the dark and cloudy lenses of suffering. It’s the state I found myself slipping into when I began to teach.

Loving horses while disliking people sometimes left me feeling bitter and angry. Something had to shift. I’d had teachers–not just horseback riding instructors–and some of them taught as though they were furious. At first, it was confusing. As I got older, I thought I was the cause of it. Now I’m almost certain it had nothing to do with me.

When I began teaching, I was in my early twenties and started with children. That was fun and it wasn’t difficult. I’d had the pleasure of bringing kids and horses together for years. Adults? At that time, the cartoon bubble over my head would have read: “Clueless and Intimidated.”

I began by remembering how I didn’t want to teach (based on some of my grumpier teachers) and doing something different.  It wasn’t too difficult; I imitated the teachers who were most helpful for me. I began to use the same principles teaching adults that I operated by when working with horses: maintaining a positive state of mind, using as little pressure as possible, and working as slowly as needed.

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Photo: Mike DeCanio


It’s been my experience that putting the same amount of effort into getting along with people as helping their horse, has helped grow me as a person. The less internal baggage I carry into a session with a horse and rider, the more I can practice being a better listener. When you listen at a certain level, all kinds of unspoken information is available, whether it is from the person or the horse.

Thousands of people later (and just as many mistakes), there are times when I feel that believing in people is a radical notion. There are days I don’t want to. Those days are far outnumbered by the days when the words catch in my throat because I’ve just heard or seen or been a part of some incredibly generous act.

For an immovable introvert with almost zero people skills, connecting with people wasn’t a small task for me. Thirty years later, it still doesn’t come easily, but I have the good fortune to know some amazing and inspiring folks. They are teaching me that there is a lot more good out there if we just open our eyes to see it.  I find inspiration from people that adds a richness to teaching. It has become less about me knowing more than my client, and far more about what we can all learn from one other. And the fact that I go to work and my day is spent in the company of people and horses (mules too)? It’s a gift I am deeply grateful for.

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Crissi, Augustus, and Leslie.              Photo: Bo Reich


Postscript: This is a big Thank You to those of you whom I’ve had the good fortune to meet in person, through this blog, or at a clinic. Your presence and trust with your horse (or mule) has grown me as an instructor and person.