Wednesday, November 23, 2011


K and I have been talking a lot lately about how much anger seems to be involved in the traditional way of working with horses and how it is often related to our own feelings of inadequacy. I've been using a lot of phrases like "I used to…" and "I remember when I…" - as if all that is in the past for me. But yesterday, Little Love brought me face to face with my own insecurities about being inadequate, and I realized that my path can still sometimes circle back into that old, familiar territory.

To say the least, I was not at my best from the start of the day. I overslept when I needed to get to the barn early, and on the drive there I felt like a cloud of sleep and drowsiness was still hanging over my head. But I knew getting to the barn and Little Love always has a magical effect on me, so I pushed through and hoped it would get better.

Since the muddy paddock has now turned to a hard, frozen, and uneven obstacle course with the overnight low temperatures we have been having, Little Love and her paddock mate Viki have spent the last couple of days separated in smaller, dryer and more level paddocks (actually our little picadero divided in two). I think Lilo has been a bit bored in this new set-up, so she walked the two steps to meet me at the gate as if to say "Let's do something." I put on the long reining tack, because I thought some leg yield and other stretching would do her good after the long ride the day before. Little Love seemed content with the tack on and walked easily out of the barn and down the road.

And then it ended. As we passed the house that sits next to the barn, she suddenly did a strange jump forward and took off at a trot. She quickly did a 180-degree turn and had us heading back to the barn at trot. I managed to get her stopped in a few strides, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out what had scared her. This was a pretty strong reaction compared to what she has done with me in the past, so I chalked it up to a combination of getting startled and having the long reining tack on - maybe she felt especially vulnerable like this.

So we walked back to the barn and did a re-start. This time, I asked for leg yield immediately, and she complied. OK, I thought, we're good to go. Another leg yield, and then she took off again. Now this is really weird, because usually Lilo is OK and willing to continue after she gets over being startled or even more scared. What was going on? I'm still such a beginner at long reining, so I felt like this was holding us back in this situation. So, we walked back to the barn again, took off the tack, and set off to do a walk. I was confident we could get past whatever it was that had scared her, since we have done this so many dozens of times now when we are walking together.

But not so fast - Little Love was not ready to let go of it today, and now that we were in my comfort zone, where I felt confident in my skills, I began to have a different reaction: anger and frustration. In hind sight, I realize that this was directly related to my own feelings of inadequacy. I have done this walk so many times, and K just did it yesterday. So why won't this horse go with me today? And then the need to be in control set in: if I can just get her to do it (walk past the original spot where she got scared) once, because I can't quit until she has done it at least once. If I don't do it at least once, I will have failed as a "horseperson" AND this horse may never walk past that spot with me again. (Yes, here come pessimism and fatalism as well! :-) ) So, for an hour, Little Love and I walked back and forth between the barn and the house, me never really giving up on my "goal" of getting past the house and her never really consenting to do so. Yes, she got the movement she needed, but it did nothing to further our relationship and deepen her trust in me. Since these are my two main reasons for spending time with Little Love, it was pretty much a wasted day. I don't know how Lilo felt afterward, but I felt like an utter failure - and in the end, my feelings of failure had nothing to do with us not walking past the spot and everything to do with me falling back into the old patterns of anger and frustration.

Incidentally, I relayed what happened to K afterwards, and we came up with a new revelation. I realized that, because I got so caught up in my goals and frustrations, I didn't accurately put together all the clues Lilo was giving me. I saw her pee several times while I was at the barn, and the behavior she was showing was more like separation anxiety than fear (I have seen this same behavior once before long time ago when Metku was still at the barn, and the horses were calling to Little Love as we were trying to leave). Could it be that she is starting to be in heat, and this is causing some level of separation anxiety = reluctance to leave her barn mates? Did I read the entire situation completely inaccurately, because I got so caught up in my goals and frustrations over not achieving them?  At least on some level, I think this is true. 

Why is it that, when faced with feelings of inadequacy in trying to "control" another being, we so often turn to anger instead of compassion? And in those moments, why does the control take center stage, overshadowing our ability to feel this compassion - for the animal and for ourselves?

Sorry, Little Love, I'll do better next time! :-)

-- Melissa


  1. I wanted to write something quickly, because how I left this post has bothered me all morning. I didn't mean to say that we should not feel anger or that we should pretend not to be angry when we are. Anger is a valid and important emotion, and we should stay tuned in to and utilize our emotions at all times.

    Our emotions are such important information for us, and especially our reactions to anger (or fear) are sometimes crucial to keep us safe. I believe horses feel and use their emotions, including anger (or frustration is probably a more appropriate word in the case of horses), but the key is that they use the emotion, even sometimes as a physical reaction, and MOVE ON ("go back to grazing" for those of you familiar with Linda Kohanov and the Epona work). What I want to do is to learn to use my anger and frustration in a similar way: be conscience of the emotion, utilize the message it has for me, and then let it go. It is this awareness and letting go that I still need to work on! :-)

  2. Noticing your frustration in the first place is a huge awareness, Melissa. The working it through and coming to the understanding that this was your emotion and perhaps not that Little Love was failing you, or you were inadequate, is even bigger. I so agree with you that anger and fear are important feelings, in fact they act as guidance that something is off. These emotions have saved men and women over the centuries! And it's just as important to talk it out with someone else who sees your experience with different eyes... I remember a blog post of K's that touches on this very subject. Inadequate you say? Not hardly! You noticed Little Love's more subtle emotions ( beyond the bolting), you tried to soothe her. Be kind to yourself, you are a trusted friend to Little Love and she knows this; you both are still figuring out each other's worlds through the eyes of trust and connection, not through dominance, pain, and punishment. This is beautiful stuff.

  3. Thanks Shelby! Your kind words are a great help :-)