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
Want more? Become a “Barnie.” Subscribe to our online training group with training videos, interactive sharing, audio blogs, live chats with Anna, and join the most supportive group of like-minded horsepeople anywhere.
Anna teaches ongoing courses like Calming Signals, Affirmative Training, and more at The Barn School, as well as virtual clinics and our infamous Happy Hour. Everyone’s welcome.
Visit annablake.com to find archived blogs, purchase signed books, schedule a live consultation, subscribe for email delivery of this blog, or ask a question about the art and science of working with horses.
Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.
24 thoughts on “Does it Feel Like Everyone is Watching You?”
“Yes, while nodding to the perfection of the moment, even if it’s not something you asked for.”
I’ll always remember, the first time I talked to you, when you said, “I try to say yes to everything.” That really struck me, made me think of how I tend to say “no” so much more than “yes” in my life. Your advice for working with horses is consistently in tune with the best advice for life I’ve ever heard. Thank you.
Maybe ‘no’ is our natural state. I know it used to be for me but it just didn’t work. Thank you, Kaylene
I think it could be conditioning from babyhood, where more often the child is told no than yes. As conditioning, it can be changed, once awareness is reached.
Yes, those early days impact us forever.
Yes! Yes!! A thousand times Yes!!! Thanks, Anna. I’m in.
yay, me, too. Thanks Lynell.
I guess it is age, but when I hit 40 the opinions of strangers mattered less. Now that I am in my mid 60s, there are maybe a couple dozen people whose opinions matter to me. In other words, railbirds have little effect. The only one I can’t seem to shut up and shut out is the one in my head. Thank you Anna for the much needed reminder that I can’t give that one too much power!
That last voice is the hardest, but what about horses is easy?? Thanks Peggy
I wonder if keeping an open heart with horses isn’t simply aiming to be the best we can be. Aiming — meaning we don’t always hit the mark – but our intentions are consistent. One thing that keeps getting reinforced, the longer I’m around horses, is when we become better humans – we become better horse(wo)men. Thank you for another lovely and thought-provoking post. ❤️
It’s getting harder to tell the difference, isn’t it? Thanks Christian.
What Peggy said! Except that I have far fewer people whose opinion matters to me. Not sure what that says about me….However, my horse’s opinion of me matters greatly, so from this moment forward I will take love myself more (and pretend) to love my horse less! Big sigh of relief. Feels better already!! Thanks, Anna!
Teeheehee. Thanks Kathy. Worth a try.
Re: my comment above, take “take” out! Yikes…
Wait till you get to your 80s!! Fewer and fewer people whose opinion matters. What matters is if they respect, if not understand, my feelings about animals. I still have friends that do. Who will listen to me when I talk about my dog, cat or bird (and how I still talk about horses) whether they feel the same or not. There are my kids and grandkids who all feel the same way (they all were raised right!) Then there are the many gals (mostly) here who get it.
Love to you, Maggie.
I believe I understand, and the fact that you passed down to your children and grandchildren a love and respect for animals means so much. I never had children but I do have a young “niece” (she calls me Aunt Kathy) who has taken a liking to horses and seems to respect all living creatures. I encourage her parents to keep up the lessons (while trying not to be pushy!) and hope they do. The love of horses, and in my opinion, animals, stays with us all our lives. It is magical. Thanks, Maggie, for helping me to see a few years down my road.
Thanks for reminding me to try and stop that inner critic. I remember a writer talking about writing; she said whenever you start, shut out that inner critic, just get on with it. Also, I think we all need to smile more; enjoy our time with our horses.
For all of our contradictions, horses understand smiles. Thanks, Maureen
Love that photo – the “eyes” have it!
Thanks, I crack up every time I see it. Thanks Jeannie.
Being my own worst critic, this piece speaks volumes to me, Anna. I know too well that loving horses and wanting them to accomplish skills that make partnering with humans possible, is a heavy burden on horse and human. I think your shared horse advice of “…loving them a little less and loving ourselves a little more” could really take the pressure off and allow for a level of partnership that is simply meant to be. It is such a gift to be in close proximity to these magnificent creatures, and that really ought to be enough.
Well, love makes us blind deaf and dumb… myself included. Thanks, Laurie
Beautifully written as always. I would love to hear your take from the railbird’s perspective. I know it’s a slippery slope but sometimes advice to someone who is struggling (or letting their temper get the better of them) could really help the horse. I have learned to mostly hold my tongue unless asked to help but sometimes it feels like a cop-out. In particular those moments when you see someone stuck in a loop of negativity, pointing out what the horse is doing right can help. We’ve all seen the trailer loading drama unfold before our eyes and wanted to help. But then the next thing you know there are 8 people giving conflicting advice and the situation goes from bad to worse…
You are right, Shaste. Helping is walking on thin ice… it does intrigue me to write as a railbird though…