Starting points frame a conversation, and it took me a long time to realize one of my most basic starting points revolves around drama. Not over-the-top drama, as I was never comfortable with that, but drama, nonetheless.
We’re drawn to drama. It’s a human thing. We can’t help it. Its siren song calls us, and we dive in, following it in all its iterations.
Every good story revolves around conflict. We flood sports stadiums, binge on TV and movies, and when it comes to politics, it’s just embarrassing.
From the gentle conflict in Winne The Pooh, to games we play as children, to the songs we sing in our teens, to the shows we pile up on the couch to watch after work… from politics, to religion, to the heartbreak of war, we are drama seeking. It’s part of the human dynamic.
Once I recognized this in my own life, and then saw it throughout our culture, I couldn’t unsee it.
Think about it, when drama is missing, we often term things as ‘boring’. This isn’t an inditement, just an awareness.
When it comes to relationship with horses though, it gets pretty eye opening, because they are NOT drawn to drama. Not that they can’t be dramatic, but it flies in the face of their most basic need: to be safe. Let me take you out to the barn with me, back when I first began to notice…
The heavy sky smells like snow, its thin wind picking through my jacket. The oak trees’ bare branches match the underbelly of the clouds, before turning crimson with the setting sun. I take a deep breath outside the paddock, trying to put down the demands of work, the worry about my boys, as my ex and I go through separation and divorce, and the ever-present weight of running a farm as a single mom. Okay, I take another breath, and deliberately let it out all the way.
The cold of the gate latch seeps through my gloves, and I feel the clock in my head ticking. I’ve got to feed the horses, get inside, make supper, help my youngest with his homework, and finally find a way to relax enough to sleep, when the day is over.
I hop up onto the side of the hay manger where Willow is eating, and she turns an ear in my direction. My pulse slows to the rhythm of her chewing, and the sweet smell of hay draws a smile from my chilled lips. We sit together a while before I stand on numb feet and invite her to follow me to the ring.
She’s soft and willing as we walk through the open gate. I’m not totally sure if it’s because she wants to be with me, or she’s hoping for an earlier supper, but I’ll take it. She matches my steps as we weave our way through barrels and poles, and even trot over the tiny cross rail, jumping it together, though she pins her ears as she jumps.
And there it is.
With those pinned ears, Willow is sharing how she feels about the tiny jump… anxious, stressed, ambivalent. But I see a ‘problem’ that I needed to ‘work with’.
Enter drama. Enter conflict. Enter my very human starting point.
As soon as I frame this as a conflict, I stop being ‘with’ her, and start seeing her as something to fix/change/help. I objectify her.
Can you see it?
Sensing the change in me, she flicks an ear to the woods, and wanders off to sniff at the brown grass along the edge of the ring. I’m no longer someone she’s keen to be around.
My brain, drawn to drama, justifies this as a reason to insist that she come back and be with me. We have a louder conversation. Well, not really a conversation. I’m doing a lot of talking, but no longer listening to what she’s saying.
She comes back to be with me, but her eye is hard, her lips pressed together, and when I leave the horses after feeding, I feel like I’ve lost something precious, though I don’t know what.
If I tell you that this went on for months, I wouldn’t be exaggerating. I got more and more subtle in my conversations, but until I recognized my own drama-centric orientation, I wasn’t able to change my underlying framework.
It’s okay that I’m drawn to drama. There are places where it serves me, and places where it’s fun (a good book or movie). But only as I recognize it, can I choose when to dive in and when to walk away.
Years ago I heard someone say that if you’re working with a horse well, it should look about as interesting from the outside as watching grass grow. I didn’t understand it then.
It was about a different starting point.
One that didn’t revolve around drama or conflict.
Horses’ starting points revolve around safety, around cooperation, around connection.
Which of these two starting points, drama or connection, serve us better in relationship – with ourselves, with others? Which serves us better as we move through the world?
So fast forward 8 years. My farm is sold, my horses given away, and my own life more different than I ever could have imagined. As the equine manager at a non profit, I now have 14 rescue horses in my care, who help serve kids in crisis.
Tessa, the 2000 lb Clydesdale is our newest member of the herd. Unlike most drafts, she’s more inclined to move her feet than stand still, and it’s been a long road to get her comfortable at the ranch.
I stand on her ‘off’ side by her right shoulder, as she’s blind in her left eye, and extend my hand, with the slack lead rope, asking her to walk forward. Down the hill, in the commons (my destination point), someone pushes a wheelbarrow through the paddock gate.
All 18 plus hands of her come to attention, and she seems to grow a few more hands standing next to me. Folks at the ranch look up, and I can feel the pressure of an audience. I allow myself a long slow breath with an audible exhale, and let go of everyone but the mare beside me, listening to her end of the conversation.
“Am I safe?”
I breathe next to her for what seems like forever, until she lets out a slow exhale, lowers her head, turns to me a moment to check in, and takes a single step.
Her huge feet plant again. Head up, her ears turn to take in the sound of cars from the adjoining highway, and then a conversation from behind the lodge, near the pond.
And we start the process all over again.
We get about 50 feet that day, nowhere near the commons, with her last offer being almost 5 steps. That is a gift of trust. One I don’t want to break. I turn back to her paddock, and she marches up the hill with me, her long legs outpacing my own, head low, ears soft, as we walk together through the gate and back to the safety of her ‘home’.
This landscape has so much to offer us.
This starting point carries us to the place where healing and growth happens.
For me, this starting point means letting go of my agenda. It means setting aside that ugly committee in my head that forever evaluates me based on my accomplishments. It means meeting the horses where they are. (That alone is a profound growth exercise.)
There’s a Byron Katie quote that I heard years ago and absolutely love.
“When you argue with reality you lose, but only always.”
Our horses bring us their reality. Some quietly, asking us to tune in to hear them, and some loudly, in our face, with lots of energy. But they’re honest about where they are.
I spent SO many years arguing with their reality.
What a relief to believe them, to start where they are, and instead of falling into my drama/conflict mode about our differences, I can meet them in conversation, listen to what they’re telling me, help them feel safe, and create connection together.
When, instead of looking for things to fix, do, or accomplish, I look to create quality conversation and connection, magic happens, both inside me, and between us.
The kind that’s about as dramatic as watching grass grow.