It’s you and your horse. Sometimes people looking at him think he isn’t much but that’s because they don’t know horses. Anyone can see the beauty of mustangs galloping the rocky terrain or a team of Friesians pulling an antique carriage in a PBS show, or a foal cavorting circles around his dam. Beyond the flash and tickle of a beautiful horse, you can see the unique personality of the not-so-ordinary sorrel Quarter Horse in an ocean of horses who look just like him, you can appreciate the sage wisdom of a rickety old one-eyed mare with a knee the size of a cantaloupe, and you see the infinite potential in keeping an unrideable gray gelding just for the way he looks in a pink sunrise. You demonstrate how you feel about horses every day; do not explain. People will not understand or they are just like you. There is no middle ground. We don’t brag about it because we are equally afflicted by the downside. Horses are heartbreakers.
Do you constantly feel like you’re being watched? Say you’ve just climbed on and your horse won’t walk off from the mounting block. Or you have just led your horse up to an open trailer door and the clock is ticking. Or maybe it’s worming day and you have that nasty syringe in your pocket and your horse would rather play keep-away. That’s when the railbirds begin to gather. You feel their eyes on you, judging your response against their own, leaving a waxy film of doubt and second-guessing on you.
A railbird is a person with an equal amount of passion for horses. Sometimes they offer help and sometimes they are afraid to, which looks exactly like silent judgment. Railbirds can’t win. Horse people are a prickly bunch prone to taking things personally. We feel judged by a court of railbirds but minutes later find ourselves on the same court judging someone else’s horsemanship. We bite our tails, we step on our own feet. We tell ourselves to mind our own business but by then, it’s too late.
Some of you are certain that I stalk you… maybe with a donkey and a goat alongside. That I hide in the bushes watching you and your horse. Or that I place secret cameras and then scrutinize you so I have fodder for my writing. Even when any horse will tell you that a human’s true superiority is that we are the most transparently predictable animal of all. We read like graphic novels.
And this isn’t even the worst part. We even hear the rattle and scrape of railbirds when we are alone. Yes, we hear voices. There is a particular squinty-eyed railbird that lives in our hearts right next to every horse we’ve ever met. If we want to get it right, why do we focus on the fear of being wrong? Half the hesitation I see in horses feels like they worry about getting it wrong. Did they learn that from us?
As much as we dread criticism, even our own, and for all the time that we spend hoping no one is watching, when our horses show a spark of brilliance under saddle, or canter from the far end of the pasture to meet us, or that rickety old mare shifts to her bad knee to pick up a hoof for the farrier, we want the world to see. Crank up the jumbotron for our good horse! Alert social media!
Wait. Are we only proud if they are behaving? You know that isn’t true but why act that way? If that isn’t enough contradiction for a horse to deal with, we decide to act with false calm. We smooth our eyebrows to project a false peace. We tell ourselves that we don’t care what others think. Bad idea because it sows seeds of defiance that our horse can read but not understand. Besides, it’s a lie. It’s our nature to care. In quiet moments, you get a sense from your honest horse, “I’d be more comfortable if you loved me a little less and loved yourself a little more.”
Why are we so sure are the railbirds are critical? What if they are seeing you deal with a problem they have (we all have) in an affirmative way? What if they appreciate the time you give your horse to figure it out? What if they stare because they love your rickety old mare, too? Why don’t we give railbirds the benefit of the doubt?
As for that inner-railbird, congrats on a good imagination. Since this is all in your head anyway, put on a demonstration. Take yourself seriously. Trust your horse to work out a good outcome as you swell with the confidence in waiting. Now have the railbirds to give you a standing ovation. You know you are the one driving this bus right? Practice seeing yourself smile.
This essay is in response to a client who privately asked me what it means to keep an “open heart” to a horse? She said people use the term and she wasn’t sure what they meant. I’ve pondered her question. Is it one of those obscure airy concepts that we all pretend to understand until someone mentions the emperor’s clothes? Being with horses is a jumble of twine, the way we contradict ourselves and them, tangled in extreme passion and a profound desire to do right by our horses. I can’t guess what they meant or in what context.
Here goes: an open heart does not judge, or perhaps more importantly, submit to judgment. Keeping an open heart doesn’t mean ignoring fault, but rather holding an acceptance not burdened by labels of good or bad. It’s embracing every experience with the same affirmation: Yes, while nodding to the perfection of the moment, even if it’s not something you asked for. Yes to the unique individuality of each sorrel horse. Yes to crippled elders with the same warmth as the gamboling foal. Yes to the frightened horse as well as the confident one. It’s seeing the problem as an old friend that you welcome in for tea because fighting doesn’t work. It’s expressing your authentic self, beyond labels and squawks.
Having an open heart is claiming good enough to be total success for today but letting the apology for doing your best die in your throat. Hold your space in the yin-yang balance of dark and light. Sing out, affirming in an authentic voice that you are good enough in every moment. Valuing your self-worth won’t make anyone else less and you might start a fad, even if just for your horse. And maybe a few railbirds who are more like you than you imagine.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.