The large mare braced her neck in response to a gentle lift of the right rein; the softness of a moment ago evaporating, as she readied for a fight I never intended to pick. Underneath the bareback pad, her muscles clenched and breathing froze. The mare I had just been riding seemed to vanish, replaced by one who had been forced into submission in her past, and wasn’t interested in doing so again. With her brace, my own adrenaline flooded in; and the unwanted response ‘to win’ raised its ugly head.
I stopped, took a breath, and relaxed my hands, my body, my legs. She stopped, breathed, and licked and chewed as she switched from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic side of her nervous system. I took this additional cue from her and did the same, with a deep sigh, reminding myself that she was just trying to survive.
You see, she wasn’t wrong about me. I’m a predator. That’s part of being human. Much as I try, I can’t outrun that legacy. It’s literally in my DNA.
What I can do, is choose. I can choose to follow that rush of adrenaline, and go for the ‘win’, or I can choose to breathe and find another way. Sounds really simple, but like most things that matter, it’s not always easy.
Given our culture, this is less of a ‘choice’ in the moment, and more of a choice in how we think overall, and the work that we do on ourselves when we’re not facing a 1200+ lb flight animal, who is trying to survive.
Maybe in another society, in another time, we were more accustomed to cooperation. I know many who are working to make that a way of life now; in homes, in businesses, in communities, and even out in barns and pastures. But it’s not the norm. Looking to live from a cooperative framework is still swimming against the current.
We are weaned on winning, taught to strive for the winner’s circle. It’s how we measure our worth, and how we learn to feel good about ourselves. It’s the mark of success, and the accompanying fear of losing stalks us, sometimes from the shadows of our unconscious, sometimes right out there in the open.
Of course this goes hand in hand with our penchant for drama. When we’re driven to win, we create drama, engage in conflict, and see the end as justifying the means. Just in case that isn’t enough, there is a biological component to this as well, as winning creates a temporary surge in testosterone (for ladies too), which enhances our dopamine and norepinephrine responses. Bottom line… it feels good to win.
Good news is, it also feels good to live from a cooperative framework. It’s just a different kind of good; quieter, calmer, more grounded, but the change from one to another doesn’t happen quickly.
So how do we climb out of that winner’s circle and find our way into the land of cooperation?
It’s hard to get to a place you don’t believe in, or aren’t sure really exists. I needed to see that there was something out there beyond the winner’s circle. I needed to be around other people who believed in this possibility, because I wasn’t sure if I was deluding myself.
It also helped to recognize that the ‘need to win’, had gotten itself entwined with my own survival instincts. These were survival instincts on a physical level, because, lets face it, horses can be dangerous. They were also survival instincts on a psychological and emotional level; tied to the need to be right, to get it right, to be seen as successful.
Entrenched in that mindset, it felt like a fairy tale to look through a cooperative lens. When I first began exploring this possibility, there was so much pushback from others. They took my journey as a threat, mocking it, and belittling me for looking for a quieter, gentler way to relate with horses. The energy of that pushback was charged with their own survival fears.
I was surprised how heated others got over my choices. I’d get comments like, “Are you ever going to ride that horse?”, and “Looks like you got yourself a pasture pet.”
Just like when I first had my kids, and was following my heart in how I parented, everyone was an expert, and felt it their duty to set me straight on what I was doing wrong.
It was NOT okay to move beyond the pale.
The biggest obstacle though was always inside me. I had a head full of voices from my past, hollering at me that I’d ‘better not let the horse win’, ‘show them who’s boss’, etc.
I didn’t like the voices, and I didn’t really believe them, but that’s a lot of pressure in an adrenaline filled moment.
Even when I’d silenced many of them, I still had my own voice echoing their sentiments, or whispering that I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was a fraud, and should just get out of this whole thing, because I had no business working with horses.
My head wasn’t a very friendly place to hang out back then.
So I continued to look outside myself, to others who were walking this path. I may not have agreed with everything they were doing, but what I hung onto was the hope that there was something more.
I’m going to move beyond horses for a moment, because this ‘something more’, spilled out into every area of my life. I couldn’t change the way I looked at or worked with horses, if that was the only place I changed.
I couldn’t pick and choose where to pursue win/loose, and where to pursue cooperation. As the possibility of a new way of showing up in the world began to seat inside me, it confronted every area of my life.
It showed up around my marriage, which was unhealthy, and as I began to experience a mutually honoring partnership with my horses, I had to see where it was missing at home. I listened to my own voice, and believed myself enough to step out of that marriage, ending 25 years of a life we’d built, but that I was slowly dying in.
It showed up as I raised my boys. We’re taught to discount children’s voices as well, but after believing what my horses were telling me, I was challenged to believe my boys when they said they were overwhelmed, tired, angry, or just not okay. One of the ways I changed was around school. I tried to keep a finger on the pulse of how they were doing, and when they were getting run down, I would invite them to stay home with me for a ‘mental health’ day. They became more important than their performance, and I ended up taking each of my boys out of school in their 10th grade year, to homeschool them for the rest of their high school time. Each one was for very different reasons, but they needed to get out of that environment, and I was able to listen.
It showed up in how I coached my clients, as I believed and trusted the wisdom innate to us all, and helped them work with themselves, rather than pushing themselves harder to obtain an outwardly motivated goal.
It showed up in how I saw my place in the world. There was grace for me. There was room for me to Be. I hopped off my treadmill and found greener pastures. I had never known that before, at an ‘in my bones’ kind of way.
Like everything that matters, it’s an ongoing practice. Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll affirm that I am very much a work in progress.
It’s not about ‘getting it right’; that’s kissing cousins to ‘winning’. It’s about the conversation. It’s about breathing through the adrenaline, through the red miasma that hits when I’m triggered, and gently reminding myself that there’s another way to be… outside the winner’s circle.