I don’t know anything about horses. In fact, they scare me to death. Horses are big, powerful, magically trained, and about 10% of the time I’ve ever been on top of one, I’ve ended on my butt on the ground.
But, I also love horses. My dad, ever a certified garbage picker, once rescued two ancient draft horses from slaughter and we had horses on our farm for a year or two. My dad used to break horses when he was younger, but he said he was too old for that by the time I was old enough to be interested. He was. My dad was 47 years old when I was born. His days of agricultural adventure were past. Once I watched my dad drive a friend’s team of Percherons pulling a big green and brass wagon he had picked up somewhere. I had no idea how you got from ignorant kid to knowing what to do with such incredible animals.
I had a horse obsession as a preteen that started with a Horse Encyclopedia at Christmas, and ended with 12 magical lessons. I had the nastiest horse and the most dismissive, grumpy instructor. I couldn’t mount by myself. The boots I picked out had shamefully deep tread, and the concept of posting was explained so poorly, I was sure I was the dumbest kid to ever sit in a saddle. When I fell off yet again, I was told I needed to buy $90 chaps to help. Even I didn’t believe that. I realized that there was a magic to horses that I would never get. I didn’t have the gift, and I was born too late to learn it.
Fast forward fifteen years. Through a series of unusual events, I ended up taking a friend’s son to horseback riding lessons at Beekman Therapeutic Riding Center in Lansing. What I learned there changed my mind and perspective about horses forever.
Yes, I know, you’re envisioning me sidewalking with a physically handicapped kid who overcame the odds to ride on his own one day. Well, they did that, too. But that’s not my story.
What I learned there was that no predator has the right to hop onto the back of a prey animal without establishing trust first. Groundwork. Gentle halters tied to reduce irritation. No bits. Asking permission before saddling. Being gentle with the horse’s body. Being gentle with his heart.
The program was being developed there, and the horses were being trained in therapeutic Natural Horsemanship techniques. The results were honestly frustrating as different instructors taught different methods that first year. But, in spite of that, the concept of natural horsemanship filled my heart. I started volunteering at the riding center, and was even hired to be a work-at-home volunteer coordinator.
Teaching some Kindergarteners about being a good Alpha horse (That’s JR on my back, and that familiar blonde haircut is Cal.)
I still knew nothing about horses, but for the first time, watching my friend’s son take his lessons, saw the magic was still… magic. But it was teachable. Logical. Learnable.
All of the horses were donated. Many of these horses were bored. They were kind, but stubborn and refusing. Yet, under the deliberate, consistent work of a few women and men who wanted to make the idea stick, the horses began to deliberately, consistently, and intentionally yield.
I had no experience at all, but I was allowed to join the Savvy Seekers club, a group of volunteers who wanted to learn more about training our horses’ hearts to watch and learn. I was scared to death. I had once seen the mark on a man’s chest at the fair who had been kicked squarely by a flighty draft pony. Being on the same surface as such a powerful animal made my heart race.
When I picked up the soft loop of rope, I was happy that our first task was only to teach our horse that we were not scary. I had the marked advantage, as I was the terrified one. We made them watch us, while we looked away to reward them. Meat animals (humans) are praised with direct eye contact. It makes horses feel like they are being hunted.
The day of that first clinic, it happened. I stopped a horse dead in its tracks with a look. It was powerful. It was humbling.
What’s more, it was all done in the language of horses: looks and touch. We were not to say a single word, because we would say what we needed to show with our bodies and hands. We adopted the motto: “It takes the time it takes.” I nearly wept at the undeniable rightness of the lesson.
And, I tell you that so I can tell you this:
The most powerful lessons about motherhood were taught to me in a few hours, days, and moments in that underfunded program, in that barely adequate barn.
- When two ways of knowing meet, the person who will be in charge must adapt to the one who must submit.
- The ways of speaking must accommodate the child. The goal of discipline is to teach rather than punish.
- The kid needs to first not feel fear, and then learn that the adult can be trusted.
- The child is a part of the herd.
- The most important goal of my child’s life is to belong. Belonging is safe.
- Every kid is different.
- It takes the time it takes.
In parenting, I am the one in power. I must deliberately keep myself in check to make the kids, who don’t set the course, feel safe. I have to talk to them with my actions, example, touch, eye contact, time, hearts in crayon sent in the real mail, to tell them in their own words that I am not going to swarm them or leave them behind. Discipline is appropriate to the action. I can’t go too far (angrily give punishment) or want to avoid disciplining more than they do. Yes, I know my children have received greater injury being held for the peaceful parenting “time in” than a spanking. Sometime, spanking is necessary. I need the discipline at the moment that will interrupt the behavior, make amends for what went wrong, and repair the relationship.
Cal’s first horseback ride ever. In good hands
Today, I got a frantic call from my neighbor, who was watching the kids for an hour while I went to the doctor to fill out forms. JR was missing. He had pouted, locked the back door, and bolted through the house. They couldn’t find him anywhere. A long, anxiety-filled twenty minutes later, I was on my hands and knees under my bed, looking into the sweaty face of my five-year-old son, who had gotten himself in too deep. His prank had escalated while he tucked himself under my headboard, sweating bullets. I relayed the good news to Mrs. D and her husband, and they were so gentle and kind.
I wanted to throttle the kid.
Instead, I went back upstairs, and gave him permission to end it. Gently. With my hands and my voice. I looked away when he wouldn’t meet my eye. He started crying from the unleashed tension of it all.
I asked if he wanted to talk. He didn’t.
I asked if he wanted a bath. He did.
Thirty pruny minutes later, we decided that he needed to fix himself up with the D’s by bringing them some cookies. His consequence? He lost his dollar for garage sale Thursday.
The thing is, I wanted to spank him. This definitely qualifies as something dangerous. But, it was so obvious that he didn’t need it.
His sweat-covered forehead and relieved tears meant that the punishment he deserved would overwhelm his emotions, and push him straight into fear, out of the reach of learning. So instead, I backed down from my need to punish him for the fear, embarrassment, and grief he caused me and our dear neighbors. Because our relationship has grown so close, I risked the chance that I was wrong, and gave him the lightest of corrections.
I don’t know why this child pushes me to the limits, but somehow I think my response is grounded in those few years at the riding center. Where logic won out over magic. And spurs were beaten out by a look.
The results aren’t always visible right away, but there are little signs that we’re making progress each day.
It takes the time it takes.