The Problem with Humility

I’ve gotten sour on a word. Why does it matter? Words are how we understand each other but some words get borrowed as code words for something else. Sometimes they turn into monsters and sometimes they get stuck between your teeth like a raspberry seed. Words impact how we feel, trickle down to how we act, and eventually, we become something we were never meant to be.

When I was a little girl, I quit the Brownies because they were sissies. I didn’t have braids because my mother hacked my hair into a pixie cut with an unintentional asymmetry. It seemed the only way to keep spider webs, mud, and hay out of her house. Once a week I was wrangled into a dress for church, told how to sit, (ankles crossed,) how to be a good girl, (smile pretty,) and how to behave, (don’t say a word.) I’m not the only one who disappointed my elders, am I?

Horse-crazy girls weren’t the sort for sitting still for long. We didn’t fit that good girl mold but we weren’t bad girls either. We did our homework and babysat to buy hay. We were strong readers and did our chores. We are mostly introverts. Some of us preferred the company of dogs to people. Some of us still do.

Along the way, we got the message that even if we got a straight-A report card, we shouldn’t brag. Doing a good job was expected, but never really celebrated, as if it was almost rude to succeed. We shouldn’t like competition because if we won, it meant someone else lost, as if there was a limited number of rewards and we should leave them for others. We learned to keep our victories to ourselves because it would be unsightly to be proud. Being a good girl meant being less, doing less, saying less. Some of us didn’t fit that mold but we still knew being sideways from it wasn’t quite right either.

Meanwhile, boys were going nuts, howling, and doing leaping chest-bumps because one of them caught a ball. Oops. Sarcasm is not a good-girl trait either.

We grew into women who became teachers, health care workers, mothers, veterans, and anything else we set our minds to, not that we bragged. We worked a career and kept a home for our family, and sometimes an extended family. We’re smart and thrifty. Funny and brave. We’re relentless and exhausted and we still think we can do better. We are the original first responders.

On top of all that, we manage to have horses. Add to our amazing ordinary skills, those of throwing bales, bandaging injuries, and building fence. We climb back on when we get bucked off. We cheer our friends on and we don’t ask for help when we should. We’ve seen more than our share of blood and death but we’re not quitters.

The crazy part is that we’ve done it so long that it seems normal. If someone does compliment us, we shrug it off. It’s just our job to make the world run smoothly, even during a pandemic. If anything, we apologize that the pie isn’t homemade. We undervalue the things we accomplish. We’ve been taught humility is a good thing.

hu·mil·i·ty /(h)yo͞oˈmilədē/ noun/ a modest or low view of one’s own importance; humbleness. -Oxford Dictionary

Yes, the world has plenty of arrogant egotistical know-it-all elitist asshats who pontificate endlessly about their own achievements. None of us want to be mistaken for a blowhard. Being forced to listen to them makes us all scurry out to the barn to muck. Does the sort of person who drives us to think manure is a better alternative also work to encourage us, by their example, to sell ourselves short? Do we give them credence by politely excusing ourselves from the conversation?

Why is a horse trainer so wrapped up in this self-inflicted debate about a word? Because of horses, naturally. They are the ultimate in reading our intentions. Horses read bossy dominance and red-hot ego in an instant. Frankly, I don’t work with that sort of horseperson. It isn’t a decision on my part, they don’t ask me.

Most of my clients think it’s honorable to give the horse all the credit for a good ride and take all the blame for a hard ride. It’s a barn definition of humility. A few other things I notice about my clients: whether their horses are high-dollar beauties or rescues, well trained or feral, brilliant young horses or crippled old campaigners, they are concerned for their horse’s wellbeing first. They don’t mention past achievements and you might think they’re beginners, but they have invested in the very best for their horses in every situation. They admit that they are lifetime students of the horse, as I am, and but they have a tendency to forget how far they’ve come. As if a small stumble in the present could negate all the hard work in the past. As if horses don’t know the truth of us.

We let ourselves have vulnerable conversations about confidence, confessing our weaknesses, but almost never sing our own praises. For all we’ve done with our horses to instill some level of confidence in them, we deny our own confidence for fear we’ve confused it with arrogance.

How do horses read humility? Do we seem inconsistent, doubting ourselves even as we ask for their trust? Do we only pretend to have the strength to lead or are we coyly denying the truth of who we are?

This is what I know. It’s a horse trainers’ job to see the big picture. We understand the desire of the person to learn quickly for their horse. We consider the past, with an affirmation about the future. We lay down tunnel vision of what’s being trained because we know that horses must be keenly aware of the entire dimension of their environment. And we aspire to understand the big picture for our clients, too.

I’m overwhelmed with the commitment of my clients to do the right thing. The blind love they have for their horses. The ever-present compulsion to look at the tiny part not quite right that overshadows any previous success. I am in awe of the work my clients are doing improving the lives of their horses. I think the best word I know for how I feel about the work they take on is respect.

re·spect /rəˈspekt/ noun 1. a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements. -Oxford Dictionary

If I was the Word-God, (see me as an old man with a long beard who should really be wearing a shirt,) I would send a bolt of lightning from my slightly pudgy fingertip to burn the word humility from your mental vocabulary. I’d replace it with words like courageous, confident, and dynamic. These words better define you because they are truthful.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

Want more? Visit annablake.com to find over a thousand archived blogs, purchase books, schedule a live consultation or lesson, subscribe for email delivery of this blog, or ask a question about the art and science of working with horses. The Barn, our online training group with video sharing, audio blogs, live-chats with Anna, and the most supportive group of like-minded horsepeople anywhere. Courses and virtual clinics are taught at The Barn School, where I host our infamous Happy Hour. Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

62 thoughts on “The Problem with Humility”

  1. It is about us. In the very best sense. Own your compassion and courage. Do the right thing….no matter what others say or display. The right thing? Be safe. Wear your brain bucket with pride, treat your equine PARTNER in the very best manner you can. Learn to speak horse fluently…figure out the relationship together. And when you are together, hang on every word as though your horse were the only other sentient being on the planet.

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  2. This is so right on!!! And it can cause confusion with other humans who don’t understand that code of conduct- especially other generations who may have been raised differently. I need to do lots of thinking on this.

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  3. Oh Anna – this is a true “hummer”!
    Bet you will get lots of comments on this one because it sure does make me feel right at home and would have way back when I was just a kid who wanted a horse – had no clue what that would mean but REALLY REALLY needed one.

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  4. Ah, they raised us so well….I would bookend “humility” with “forgiveness” which I think is well overdue a serious examination of its actually worthiness for us women who were raised this way.

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  5. If you are the Word-God(dess?), I see you as a silvery-white haired woman with shining eyes and strong shoulders, who holds lightning and also rain in her fingers, and the ability to strike a word out of usage and also to shine light on the words most needed in a moment. A wise woman, a mama bear woman, a woman who can be loud when she needs to and as quiet as something less than a whisper as well.

    Thanks for this today. I needed exactly this message.

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  6. Amen, Anna! And amen to all the comments here as well! Thank you all for the wise words and supportive community! Courageous, partners, consistency, confidence, understanding, unconditional love, forgiveness (of self and others), commitment, dynamic, truthful… I like those words. BRAVO TO US!

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  7. Thank you. This is amazing and I love it. I won a saddle last year in a cutting competition , high point horse, and the only thing I could think to say was “I am so proud of myself”. It was truly weird. I know of arrogance in humility, I know because I fight it daily and have no understanding of either word, so it seems. You have been the biggest help and inspiration and validation to me than anyone I have ever seen. I look forward to meeting you some day. Cordy Coupland, Flagstaff, AZ

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  8. I’ve never considered humility as how it is defined in the texts. I’ve always thought of it as respect. Humility, to me, is not about placing ourselves lower. Rather it is about recognizing the validity of another’s existence, viewpoint, ability and more, before we exhibit our own self importance.It does not exclude awareness of our own accomplishments. Lots of truth and food for thought here.

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    • I think one of the reasons to keep a dictionary around is just this. We don’t all define the words the same way. Have you ever met a trainer who said they trained with cruelty and abuse?? Thanks for your thought time, Jennifer.

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  9. Oh man, this one goes straight to the heart. Thank you Anna, for shedding some light on how some of us were raised and grew into the strong women we are today. I dislike humility, but I do admire humbleness. Truthfully, I think there’s not a lot of difference, but only slightly. I suppose that’s the case because I absolutely abhor arrogance, in any and all forms. Quietly confident shows that you own what you’ve accomplished, and a smile accompanied by a polite nod says so much. And it never hurts to remember why we are who we are. Thank God for the horses…where would we be without them? I dare not think on that.

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    • Thanks, Lorie. Confidence or arrogance. Assertive or aggressive. Words matter so much, the real meaning. Must we be polite about our accomplishments, when do we celebrate? We might be clumsy in our learning process. And that is the point about horses, I guess. Acceptance without judgment, but always an open mind about improving. Great comment, thank you.

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  10. Been doing some thinking on this one, that’s how I know it’s really good ! Pondering- with my limited dictionary at work- the difference between humility and modesty. One source says the 2 words are frequently confused as being synonyms but are no more alike than cheese & chalk.

    Is modesty a more positive attribute than humility ?.Maybe

    But i get the gist of your argument and agree. I have been making it a point lately to speak up about horsemanship, what I have learned, and not downplay my experience & wisdom.

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    • Sarah, I spent some time looking at different words and modesty was the good one. I agree But it has a feminine connotation that’s different too. I notice there are more qualifiers for women in most conversations because of a fear of being judged for success. And I doubt this is a conversation men have. Thanks Sarah.

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  11. Well. I had to sit on this one awhile because it rung too brutally true and hit home — in the gut. I would love some study done on girls who are drawn to horses as children and the psychological attributes those children share. I think some children sense truth and honesty and crave it, much more so than others and certainly more than adults, and that’s what horses give and are at their core. Pure and simple. So why are we humble? Have horses instilled in us that often beautiful characteristic that they embody? Are we/they really so strong that we have no need to be arrogant? It’s kind of the chicken/egg scenario. Do humble and sensitive children seek out and adore horses because they find a kindred spirit, or are arrogant and self-centered children not interested in horses because they perceive that horses have nothing (on the surface) to give? Regarding strength and courage, this is very interesting, as I very often don’t pat myself on the back for having both, but we all do have it in spades, don’t we? Could be on this journey if we didn’t! Maybe we should start giving ourselves more credit. You are a blessing, Anna. Your thoughts and ability to express them do so much for us all.

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      • All really good questions – have had similar thoughts myself. Theres just something about horses that draws me in – even now all these years later. My saddle is wrapped in a blanket stored in a chest even tho I know the likelihood of my ever using it again is zero. Somehow I just cant let go completely. This blog & a couple rescues help to fill that need and help me to feel sort of involved still.
        Humble and sensitive? Yeah, I think youre right.

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    • Such a thoughtful comment, Kathy. Thank you. There have been studies done on girls, horses, being on the spectrum, sexual abuse… Girls go to horses for many reasons and not all good ones. Are horses humble? I’ll be thinking about that for a while. Several comments have been cited arrogance as a bad thing. I’ve been thinking, too. But when I look at my clients, I know they deserve more credit than they give themselves.

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      • Thanks for that, Anna. I think they (horses) are the best of what we should be. Confident (until we take that away), courageous, sensitive, humble, tolerant. Hugely tolerant of us, aren’t they? I understand about your clients because some of that lives in each of us. It is so easy to feel we are not enough, in so many different ways. If we are good enough for ourselves, that’s all that’s required. Maybe you should do another group thing (like the dancing) where we each say in a video what we are proud of about ourselves in relation to our horse. Will make us think, anyway, and perhaps show ourselves how talented and strong we really are. What fear did we overcome? What ability do we posses that we did not think we had? Something like that. Just a thought but there is so much power is acknowledgement. Have a great week.

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  12. Having humility was paramount in my parochial upbringing, codified by society’s expectations for how girls presented themselves to the world. No accolade could be awarded on its own merits; humility had to be its constant companion. Heaped on top of that, humility always shields one from the evil eye that comes with displays of confidence…something to be avoided at all costs! But respect, an opinion of others about who you are, now that was a keeper deserving of secret chest-bumps that no one else should see. Fortunately for us and IMHO, I don’t think our horses concern themselves with these labels. They have more important things they concern themselves with…I am free under her care; she gets me; she keeps me safe; I can be who/what I am!

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  13. This resonates with me so much. My girlhood was similar though I was a ball player who wanted to be a cowgirl. I became a cowgirl as an adult and am having a happy childhood. Respect is where it is at in all aspects of life.

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  14. Even as I sit here trying to think of something to write, to explain how much I enjoyed reading this piece, I consider that whatever I say mustn’t attract too much attention or make anyone else sound less. It has made me think of my feelings of needing to do better as my efforts, as a child, were generally ‘not quite good enough’. Thank you. Maybe I can work on that.

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      • What a happier world it would be, Anna. I will practice that. Throw the weight of our own burdensome expectations off our own shoulders. There. Gone. Lighter already! I was going to apologize for writing this, but I am not going to now. I am good and fine and saying so! Love that! It may actually become my mantra.

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    • Oh, I so get it! Please stop feeling that way and I will, too. I am sure everything we do now is MORE than good enough as it takes being put down many times to truly rise above it.

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      • As a senior citizen (!) its freed me to do as I please – wear what makes me comfortable & not take any crap from anyone!! Not being arrogant – just doing my thing. The “golden years” are far from golden for many of us, but as long as I can stay healthy & on my own AND have a dog & cat to keep me comfortable it works.
        But thinking back when I was a young mother – before I managed to get back into horses – it was rough. Chico and all the other horses I met & got to know (the friends I made, too) just made my life soooo good.
        We, all of us, are really so very fortunate to get to do what we love to do. Whether its trail riding, or whatever we get involved in. Horses just make it better.

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  15. Love love love this one. It makes me think of the women I so admire, and their horses we all admire. And you – as you teach us and guide us towards respect – of our horses, our peers, our mentors, and eventually … even ourselves. Thanks Anna.

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  16. Absolutely wonderful. You described growing up as a girl in the rural midwest to a T. We could have been neighbors in North Dakota. I have tried to tackle this topic in letters to my granddaughters, wanting them to grow up confident and to honor themselves as the bright, amazing human beings they are. You nailed it. As for horses, they read it all in an instant, don’t they? Thank you!

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