Horses are often regarded as creatures of genuine honesty, and they are. I have felt that honesty in the truest sense of the word in my 22 years of working with horses. Their honesty comes through in a straightforward and uncomplicated way. They can be honestly willing, affectionate, and kind. They can also, in the most direct of ways, honestly tell you they are not into whatever it is you might be asking them to do. Horses can respond to you with an honest and unmistakable “no!”
This struck me the other day while I was working with a client and one of our horses here at Shamrock named Wunder. Wunder is the alpha mare, the one who’s in charge, of the herd of five horses that live at Shamrock. She looks out for the herd as a whole and is the boss, both dependable and highly opinionated.
On this particular day, the client was asking Wunder to trot. Like most of us, Wunder would rather do less work than more (this also has to do with horses’ natural tendency to conserve energy, but that is another conversation) and responded with a very honest “NO!”
How were we to handle this situation?
Relationships are complex. A relationship between a horse and a person is a relationship indeed. It is a unique relationship for many reasons, not least of which is their honesty. It is seldom that we get to interact with beings who will give you their opinion in the moment, completely unfiltered and without attachments to past or future.
When I work with horses, there are times I ask them to do things they don’t want to do and they tell me no. Each and every time this happens, it puts me at a crossroads. I could go down the road of getting mad at the horse. I could give up. Or, as a third option, I could be reflective. I could be curious about why the horse is saying no. Is it because the horse is uncomfortable in some way? Am I asking incorrectly? Am I distracted? Stiff? Is the horse just being lazy?
There is a big difference between reacting to something immediately and stepping back for a moment and asking myself what might be going on and how to best approach the situation. It is the difference between being reactive to a situation, or giving yourself a moment to figure out the best way to approach it. How can I stand my ground and not compromise the trust in this relationship?
Back to Wunder. In this situation, she simply preferred to walk than trot. In human terms, she would prefer to lay on the couch than go for a run! There was also the matter that the client had not worked with Wunder before and still had to figure Wunder out. I was confident that Wunder should do what we asked, but I was also confident that it should be done in a fair way. Again, this is about more than just getting a horse to move faster. This is about relationships, and an important part of relationships is trust. Since I have been coming to Shamrock, I have spent time with Wunder and we have gotten to know each other better. We are building trust in each other. One thing I am certain of is that I do not want to make Wunder do anything at the expense of the trust we are building. But, she still needs to do her job. This is where it gets tricky.
The client and I had an insightful conversation about persistence, and about how we deal with the obstacles that life throws at us. Which road do we take? Do we get mad and try to force things to be the way we want? Do we give up? Do we problem solve? All the while, Wunder still said no. At the same time, I made a few technical suggestions about to get Wunder to trot. After several failed attempts and more persistence on the part of the client, Wunder finally broke into a trot! It was a glorious moment, and even Wunder seemed to think it wasn’t so bad.
A few things happened here, and a few things did not happen. We did not get mad at Wunder. We did not give up. The client remained persistent, and in a very fair way that did not compromise the relationships at hand, the client persistently asked Wunder to trot and Wunder finally answered with a “yes,” if a somewhat reluctant one.
Of course, there are times when I would have made a different choice. If, for example, if Wunder had been sore, or if there had been a safety issue, we would have stopped.
One of the powerful things about equine therapy is that an experience with the horse can be translated into how to deal the things that come at us out in the real world. Not only did the client feel the pride of being in partnership with Wunder, but also some food for thought about new way of thinking about how to approach with the metaphorical horses in life who won’t trot, with perseverance and fairness.
And all of this came from a horse who gave an honest “no.”