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Learning from the Horse - Vulnerability - January 2019

Is vulnerability a choice?  

If I suggested to you that being more vulnerable with your horse might be the key to increasing the chances of you both being happier, you would think I was mad, right? Of course, I am not suggesting physical vulnerability, I am talking about the other kind..

Researcher Brene Brown talks about vulnerability and the importance of showing your emotions in order to achieve connection to others. When I first watched her Ted talk “the power of vulnerability” I thought, how can being vulnerable and all the synonyms that go with it be a good thing? The concept of vulnerability automatically leads me to weak, pathetic, needy. But what if vulnerability, as Brene surmises, is the ultimate pathway to realising your true potential?

By saying “I need this”, we show vulnerability. By saying “I feel this” we show that we need. We open the door to our hearts by being vulnerable, we lay ourselves bare to scrutiny when we are honest about what we need and how we feel.

If I told you that I suffered from anxiety, I might assume you would judge me, doubt me, pity me and ultimately distance from me. Those assumptions could lead me to make the choice not to tell you about my anxiety, to continue to present myself as together, strong, winning at life. I would carry on giving a good impression, in an empty way, which kept me safe.

But if I did tell you, you might say, “hey, my brother has that, and I know its really hard for him. How does it affect you…?” And I would feel so much better than the ashamed me who didn’t make the leap to be vulnerable. And this conversation might lead us to connect us to one another more deeply, and that connection might be strong enough to sustain, quite literally, for the rest of our lives.

A conversation about the weather where I didn’t share anything that made me vulnerable to you would be very unlikely to form the same level of connection.

So if the route to connecting and feeling worthy, is to be vulnerable – how does an animal show vulnerability – do they – and is it what makes us want to have them in our lives so much? Because we connect to them on a deeper level.

When my cat runs up to me and jumps onto my shoulders, and splays her back legs out and relaxes around my neck, she is vulnerable. I have to keep myself upright to stop her falling off, she is at risk of me, another species, catching, trapping, hurting her. But she does leap onto my shoulders, and she does lean in so hard and purrs so loud. Is that vulnerability the very essence of our connection? The very reason I forgive her the mess she makes of the house. The very thing that makes me love her, and feel that she belongs in my home and in my life. Because she trusts me, and she trusts me enough to depart from her instincts to fear me. She is allowing herself to be helpless where the only reward is showing and receiving love.

In the same way, a prey animals whose very survival counts on it being suspicious, watchful, and able to take fast evasive action, will let a human climb on its back and sit where the lion strikes, and follow a path which it did not set for itself.

This can be achieved through connection, through mutual trust, which inherently requires vulnerability on both sides. But, it can also be achieved through force. It can be an evasive action in itself – the horse acquiesces to avoid a more detrimental consequence..

If both approaches leads to the same outcome, for example, you riding around an arena, on a horse who is going at the speed you set for it, in the direction that you asked for - why is connection and trust better than force? The horse who fears the whip will maintain a speed for you, a horse who was broken to ride with force, still allows you to climb onto it’s back. So why would you, opt for the arguably harder route to achieve this, by communicating with the horse on their level, and listening to them, and connecting with them?

Those of you who are already converted to empathy based horse care might say well it’s a no brainer, why on earth would you coerce the behaviour you want through fear, when you could make it a positive experience for the horse, which also enriches you at the same time?

I can remember a time when I would chuck the saddle on my pony, which was assumed to fit, and I would force his mouth open to get the bit in because he hated being bridled. And I would fasten up the martingale because he used to toss his head a lot. And I would carry a whip because sometimes he was difficult to get going, and I would “be ready” for him to buck when we cantered because he would occasionally have a bronking session if he was “feeling mischevious”.

And I enjoyed riding him, and he lived to a ripe old age, and he was fine wasn’t he?

Looking back I can see at least four red flags above. It wasn’t until I started having saddle fitter checks, dental checks, and started to piece together the things I took as being “just him” that I started to change everything about my approach to him. For him it happened too late, he was already nearing retirement age when I realised I didn’t need the martingale if I didn’t bit him. That his hocks were better if I didn’t shoe him. That his physio found less wrong when I sorted out his saddle, and that when he had regular physio, and I wasn’t hauling on his mouth all the time, he stopped bronking. But, it was more expensive, led to sleepless nights, and caused me to beat myself up more, than when I had merrily got on and got on with it.

So why forge connection, be vulnerable, and achieve your partnership and whatever you desire from it through love and understanding rather than force?

That horse, being ridden around the arena because it fears the consequence of non-compliance, is still being ridden around the arena, and to a spectator who happened to be watching, it looks the same as the horse who is being listened to and connected with.

Doesn’t it?

A horse’s survival depends on it’s ability to show strength, to mask any issues it might be having, to keep up with the herd. It does these things so that that lion you so closely resemble, doesn’t see it as weak and pick it off as an easy target. So imagine the level of trust a horse has to place in you to show you it is having a problem. Once a problem gets so big the horse cant mask it, for example, a lameness or a drop in condition, it’s a problem which is likely to be harder to fix, than if the horse had told you, and you had listened, back when it was minor.

The horse with the ill-fitting saddle might struggle to canter. The horse trained by force might fear the repercussions of failing to canter when asked, and do it despite the difficulty it represents. The horse with a forged connection with it’s rider, a rider who is listening, might be able to show you the saddle didn’t fit before it’s back became markedly damaged.

The horse with a mild bilateral lameness might be heard by it’s owner before a serious hoof pathology developed, whereas the horse trained by force might try harder to carry on regardless.

And what about you? As an empathy based horse owner you can easily do your own head in. Is he ok? Why did he stumble then? Oh god he moved away from the mounting block does that mean he’s not feeling good about being ridden?

I would ask you to consider the flip side, coming back around to that conversation about anxiety and the connection it forms. If we as human beings ultimately seek connection to feel worthy and have the basis for creativity and wholehearted living, what does having a deeper connection with our animals mean for us?

It means there is a deeper level to everything you do. When you get into your car and drive it, you might feel some affection for the vehicle that safely gets you around, transports you where you want to go. But you cant be connected it to, it cant give you a sense of worthiness, a sense of belonging, it wont inspire you to achieve more, it wont give you a deeper sense of happiness.

When you are vulnerable enough to listen to your horse, there is a good chance you will receive all those things and more. And just maybe, your life will be better for it.