Danny Silk in his book Culture of Honor explains that coming to place of real transformation is hard for most people because one cannot do it without a sacred cow BBQ.
Just last week I went to the barn early with a limited timeline and a plan to take a mountain walk for both the horses and the dogs to get some exercise before I had to take a couple days off from horse work. My horses need the exercise. And that day so did the dogs as I was dropping them off to a friend and I wanted to leave tired good citizen canines.
I’ve seen some pretty amazing ground taken in my freedom work in the herd this year, and it’s not uncommon for me to take a saddle or bareback pad out to the field and tack up K with no halter in the field. To me this is a pretty big level of cooperation from her. It wasn’t a huge stretch for me to grab the bareback pad after feeding and walk over to her in front of the barn and toss it on. And so I went to do so.
She walked off before I even had a chance.
I pursued her asking again- hey will you work with me?
This often is all it takes, ask again… ask a different way… insist, that yes, this matters to me and I’m going to give you the choice, but also I’m going to keep asking.
That day she was adamant.
She never went very far, but she clearly blocked the on-side to toss the pad, and if I tried to toss from the offside she trotted off.
I said No!
I spent about 10 minutes in this pursuit and could see I was only losing ground. Also not usual. I didn’t particularly have a lot of time that day, and I had to make a decision.
- I could walk back into the barn, get a halter, and take control of her.
- I could keep pursing this until she relented and decided it wasn’t worth the effort.
- I could acknowledge her “NO”, honor it, and leave.
I didn’t like any of these options.
The first one overrides her freedom which I will do but I am VERY choosy about what circumstances I will use force. [***Side note, I don’t have to beat or physically abuse my horse for it to be force. If she is not willing without a halter, then using a halter even if she doesn’t fight me is a form of force. It’s a tool I would be using to do something I could not get done without the tool. That is force. I am not making a judgement on using halter as being wrong or cruel. I use a halter very often. If I had begun by walking up to her with the halter and she put her head in it willingly we may have had a very different morning. My guess is she may well have walked away from the halter as well. It can be used more to communicate clearly and it can absolutely be used to abuse a horse. The truth in this instance was she was clear with me that she did not want to cooperate and if I wanted her to work with me I’d have to “make her.” This is obviously a kind of force even if it’s a very small force. This is where we are in the journey. It goes way deeper than if a halter is a useful tool- I believe it is. It’s about the heart.***] The bar continues to go higher and higher for using force and a mountain walk is not important enough for me to use force for.
The second choice to pursue her until she changes her mind also overrides her freedom in a way, but it still gives her a technical choice. I make her life way less fun if she insist on choosing not to cooperate. I don’t ever cause her pain or fear, I just keep asking until she recognizes I’m not going away and I’m willing to outlast her and she’s not going to have much peace until she works with me. Instead of forcing, I consider it convincing. But this one was going to take time that day I could not spare. I wasn’t willing to blow off my plans to engage in this choice.
That leaves me with the third option, however this one had a sacred cow attached.
Haven’t we all been told whatever you do, don’t allow the horse to “get away” with something? As in: once I ask, I have to follow through until success (at least in some form) because if I don’t the horse has now learned to blow me off and will never work with me again.
I have clearly asked her to accept the bareback pad to most likely take a ride on the property and she said NO and if I just walk away won’t she now realize that she has the power to say NO?
And yet in the face of no good options before me, I took door number 3.
As I watched my horse walk across the field toward the shade and went to hang up the pad, I had the sinking feeling that I had just violated some basic foundational horsemanship rule that was vital for any success in any horse.
Had I just slaughtered a sacred cow?
As I drove off with my dogs to walk a different trail I began to unpack this scenario…
Oh no… I have just taught my horse she can ignore me and say no.
I thought you were working on freedom? The honesty of real choice? If the horse can’t ever say “no” and you accept the answer then is it real choice?
Well… yeah… but still this is scary. Its been ingrained in me that if I allow her to ignore me or say no that now she will think she can ignore me and say no and now she will probably never cooperate with me again!
Why would you think that? Have you ever allowed her to truly say “no” to you in the past? Is this a pattern you’ve developed?
No. I have adjusted the plans I made depending on her responses but I don’t think I’ve ever completely just walked away when she didn’t comply taking nothing… Not that I can remember.
Ok, so you haven’t developed this pattern with her and in fact over the 8 years she’s been your horse you have clearly shown her that you are determined to following through what you start, right?
Yes. I’d say that’s right.
In that case, if that “sacred cow” of always following through on what you start was based on a foundational truth, then today K should not have even considered that saying “no” was a possibility because she has learned the pattern that you will pursue her and stick with it until she responds to you. So how did she ever think to try telling you “no” if have established that is not ever an option?
Hm. That’s a good question. Maybe that sacred cow doesn’t actually work the way I thought it did.
How can you be sure that trying something different, honoring her choice in this case, will result in her refusing to connect with you more often. Is it possible that you just took an opportunity to show her that she does have freedom, she is powerful, and you respect and honor that freedom- for real? Is it possible that she might be MORE inclined to partner with you if she is aware that she truly does have a choice?
I would love to hope that could be true.
How will you know if you don’t try?
Maybe today I took an opportunity to walk out more closely what I hope is possible, and even if I’m wrong I can still adjust and try something differently going forward.
Right, and the fact that you even considered option 3, and then actually chose it is more importantly an indicator of who you are becoming and less about the horse at all in this moment.
Wow. I had not considered it that way. I am coming to a new place of being able to release control over my horses and to find out what happens.
Hopefully this will continue to reverberate through your human relationships too.
In truth I didn’t BBQ the cow. I knocked it off it’s platform and gave it less authority; it’s turning more into a normal cow in the cow herd of horsemanship concepts. I’m not convinced that it’s any better to always take the “no thank you” my horse gives me any more than it’s a good idea to allow a teenager to always decide what she will do all day every day. And yet if you didn’t give your 14 year old any choices, or the power to make some real decisions that came with real consequences then you’d have a person stuck in that mental age forever never maturing.
The journey is in trying to sort out these questions with a real animal and find out what is possible… what brings more connection and what brings disconnection, and how to create connection. Unfortunately this is a process you have to learn and it is unique to each human-horse pair just like it’s unique to each human-human relationship. I can’t make-up a set of rules on how to connect with a horse the same as no one could make a rule that would work for every parent-teenager. If we want it, we have to be willing to try, fail, and grow.
Maybe we have assumed horses aren’t capable of increasing freedom, or if they are capable we wouldn’t like what it looks like because they would increasingly avoid us and any of our plans.
That is a real risk.
It’s the same risk with the teenager. I think we have some influence over the size of the risk, but it takes way more work than just forcing control.
If we are someone who has shown we don’t care about that other person and their thoughts, emotions and needs and only what we can use them for, then it’s likely they will be less inclined to want to connect — forget volunteering to work together with us. If we have not built connection with them over time it’s going to be a hard sell that they should want to carry their part without being somehow forced to. (Although there are some personality types that will buy into that to satisfy their own needs of connection out of performance for acceptance or love so even there you can be successful sometimes even without walking the higher path…)
I believe that if I put in the work and the time to figure out what someone important in my life needs, who they uniquely are, and make an effort to be the person who honors them by showing them in a way they can understand, that I value them, not just for what they can do for me (performance), but because I value a connection with them- and that I will not attempt to control them by force, then I empower my friends— offering them freedom to become more powerful, self controlled, willingly connected and invested. (I fail at this a lot, but I don’t quit trying again)
The parallels between humans and horses is not complete, but it’s also not completely inaccurate. It’s limited but useful in both directions. I’ve been taught many lessons from my horses how to better honor the human relationships in my life, and I’ve learned something from interacting with a human that has made me re-think how I work with my horses for improvement of connection.
What I really want with all the relationships around me are for the other to walk powerfully in freedom knowing they have great value and great responsibility. And I think the life call to anyone who wants that bad enough, is it begins in laying down our own life to pursue it regardless the cost to us. And the only reason anyone would do that is for the faith that on the other side of that is where the magic happens.
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