November 13, 2013

Managing emotions—your horse's and your own

This blog post continues exploring the key leadership elements that I introduced in the previous entry, picking up with #3:

Don't react emotionally. 
Boy, can this one be tough. There are so many ways that our horses tempt us into doing just this, and since they're pushing buttons in our predator selves that are centuries old, some days, yeah, it's just going to happen. You're going to get emotional. 

You may feel afraid, angry, frustrated, insulted, hopeless, ashamed, inept, impatient, or any of a number of other emotions, but whatever you feel, the underlying reality is that you've wandered off into a space where it's you vs. your horse and you're the one who's losing—the connection, the game, and your sense of perspective.

The first key is to not beat yourself up for becoming emotional, however ugly that emotion in you may be. All that's happened is that you have fallen into a natural dynamic with your over-sized prey animal who, domesticated or not, on some level still considers it his job to frustrate predators so that they will leave him alone. That impulse is just as innate in him as getting frustrated is in us, so frankly it's surprising that we don't spend more of our time in this kind of dynamic with our horses.

A wise friend suggested that when I find myself in these emotional stand-offs with Lupin, I turn to him and say, "Nice one, dude. You definitely got me that time. Score one for Lupin." Because, after all, by getting me emotional, he is being a very clever prey animal. When I acknowledge this, it restores a little perspective and reminds me that, hey, I'm just human, and Lupin's just equine, and we're both just doing what comes naturally to us.

When your horse is being obstinate, snarky, or fearful it may also be helpful to consider, as Pat and Linda remind us, that if horses didn't have these kinds of impulses, they would have become extinct long ago and wouldn't be here for us to enjoy today. (For a deeper appreciation of the psychology of prey animals, the surprising adaptability of horses, and the remarkable gifts that horses have as a result of being prey animals, I recommend Dr. Miller's book: Understanding the Ancient Secrets of the Horse's Mind.)

I've also found it very useful to accept my horse, not just as a prey animal, but for who he is as an individual horse. This is another area where Dan Thompson has been hugely helpful in giving me a different perspective. For example, I was talking to Dan about Lupin coming to me in the pasture, which he does, but only in a slow, uninspired way which suggests that he's thinking, "Oh, all right. I might as well come to you—I haven't got anything better to do." 

I asked Dan if there was any hope of him ever cantering to meet me at the gate. Dan said, "Well, does he canter back out to the herd when you turn him out?" 
"Not very often." 
"And what about you? Do you jump up and down and hug people you like when you see them?" 
"Not very often." 
"Does that mean you aren't happy to see them?" 
"Not at all." 
"Then maybe you need to think about the fact that this is just who Lupin is and how he expresses himself. For him, coming to you at a walk is a really positive thing." 

Now when Lupin comes to me at a walk, I smile instead of wishing for more. (Hint: whenever you're really wishing for your horse to do or be something different, you are setting yourself up for an emotional reaction.)

On another occasion, I played with Dan's right brain extrovert Ricki. I was asking her to go sideways, but man did she want to go forward! A lot. And for a long time. Dan explained that, being an extrovert, forward is easy for her. It's what she does. It doesn't cost her anything at all to try that answer, so she's inclined to try it first and try it often. 

Similarly, what's easy for Lupin to try is getting into my space and being dominant in zone 1. He'll do this same thing for long periods of time with his herd mates, playing the game "I try to bite you, now you try to bite me." (In fact he recently acquired big honking permanent dent in his throat from playing this game.) That's who he is no matter how much respect he gains for me. Over time as he's grown up a little and I've gotten more effective, he does it less often and with less enthusiasm, but it's unlikely that he's ever going to give this behavior up completely.

Part of me, of course, was taking this personally and therefore getting irritated with him whenever he did it. And part of me was thinking I should have "fixed" this problem, or that I'm not a good enough leader if my horse still occasionally gets nippy, so I was also frustrated with myself. 

That's two things I was getting emotional about, when the truth is that that's just a lot of how Lupin both plays and communicates. Unless my leadership is through the roof every moment of the day, he's going to try it on sometimes. I'm not a failure because I haven't changed that in him. It's just him being who he is and doing what comes naturally to him. The more I accept that, the less likely I am to get emotional about it.

(By the way, if you want a quick course in how to think in ways that help you accept others for who they are, have a look at the seriously excellent April '13 Savvy club DVD with Linda Parelli and Patrick Handley. If you have access to it, I highly recommend it. This DVD made such a profound shift in my thinking, in fact, that I'm going to do the course with the two of them in January. I am super-excited about this and will post about what I learn here!)

Another way to find equanimity has been made famous by Linda Parelli: get curious.

When you find yourself in a frustrated huff yelling, "Darn it, horse! Why don't you respect me more? Why won't you just do what I want?" or "How can you possibly still be scared of that garden hose?", try turning those demands-phrased-as-questions into genuine questions. Well, why won't your horse do what you want? Is it fear? unconfidence? lack of motivation? lack of understanding? 

Become really interested in why your horse is acting the way he is, but without being desperate to know the ultimate answer to what his problem is so that you can fix it already. Because it's not a problem; it's an opportunity for both of you to learn. (I realize this last bit can sound like hokey psycho-babble—"Oh right, it's not a problem, it's an opportunity!" But from personal experience I can tell you that never-ending learning, which is what any horsemanship journey entails, is going to be really hard on you if you treat everything you need to learn like it's a problem that must be fixed.)

I've also found it very helpful in general to follow Eckhart Tolle's advice: when you feel yourself getting reactive (angry, defensive, judgmental, fearful, etc.), instead of giving in to that feeling, use it as a convenient reminder that your life could be a lot better right now. How could you shift your perspective to make it so? What would be useful to remember right now? 

My fellow Fast Track student Juliette Watt suggested one option: think about the fact that you're there to help your horse, and ask yourself what you can do in this moment to help him. (It's not, in other words, all about me and my goals.)

Along similar lines, you can remind yourself about the reason you're doing all of this in the first place: is it really so that you can have your horse canter 20 laps on the circle, or is it because you want to have a better relationship with him? What would help with that right now? What could you do to make it fun for him?

And if you're still having trouble backing off your goal, or letting go of your opinion about what your horse *should* be doing, you can usually afford to take a break. Exhale. Sit down. Maybe let your horse eat some grass. Look at the sky. It'll all be okay.

(You'll want to keep your focus here—to go back to some form of what you were doing after you re-group. But if you need a break to de-fuse, that's not the end of the world, and it's more effective to stop and get perspective than to keep going when you're upset. Stopping and re-grouping sooner rather than later—when you first feel yourself starting to lose it—is also a good idea.)

Really release. 
And finally, it happens! Your horse makes a positive move in the right direction. This is it! The moment you've been waiting for for two hours (or for two minutes, which can feel about the same). A feeling of hope rushes into you, and the most natural thing in the world is to want to continue with that feeling by doing more. But, of course, we all know better than that, because Linda and Pat have taught us to stop and reward the try, which is what we do.

Or do we? 

Okay, you've stopped asking your horse to do more, and you're waiting for the lick and chew like a good Parelli student (by the way, if you are doing this, all sarcasm aside: serious props to you!). But while you're waiting, what are you thinking about?

Are you second-guessing whether that was actually a try? Maybe he was seeing if he could get away with doing less and you should have held out for more.

Are you wishing your horse had given you a slightly more obvious sign that he really got it? Maybe he only moved that foot because a fly landed on it.

Or are you happy with the move, but a little critical about his attitude or how long it took him?

If these thoughts are in your head, you haven't really released. You have quit what you were doing physically, but you haven't quit mentally and emotionally. This is the scenario I lived in for a long time, and to which I still regress periodically. I would release, but I would still be thinking very critically, and after a few minutes of deep analysis I would wind up saying to Lupin, "Well, okay, that was pretty good."

Now, granted, my horse is a master at not giving it all up. He rarely gives a really committed, "I'm with you!" kind of answer. Instead, he specializes in giving 80% answers, or just enough to get me off his back (did this phrase originate with left brain introvert horses?). Be that as it may, my standing there giving an 80% release is not going to help the situation. 

Maybe my horse is trying to frustrate me by doing as little as possible; if I get positive and enthusiastic, that's great reverse psychology. Or maybe he did only move because a fly landed on him—he still got the right answer, and if I get really positive and enthusiastic about it, he might get curious about what he can do to generate that response again. (Watch Linda's savvy lesson from June '13 to see how a naughty, uninterested horse became curious and connected when her human started saying "What a good girl!" in response to every answer the horse gave.)

But whatever is going on with your horse, any way you slice it, being critical is not going to help the situation.

Put yourself in your horse's shoes for a moment. Imagine that you do a project for someone and bring it to them, and they say, "Hmmm, well, okay, I guess this'll do. Thanks." How do you feel? Maybe you didn't put your all into it, but is that kind of response going to inspire you to do more next time? Whereas, if you do a half-hearted job, and the person is very enthusiastic and grateful, you don't think, "Ha! I certainly pulled one over on her! She was grateful and I didn't work that hard." No. You think, "Wow, she's so positive, I would like to do more for her next time."

Granted, horses don't care as much about appreciation as we do; to them it's much more important to have the pressure taken off. But for them to feel like the pressure has really been taken off, we have to give a whole-hearted, non-critical release. If you're still standing there nit-picking in your mind, your horse might not fully process it as a release. And he'd be right, because you haven't let go. You're still judging whether or not you should have released, but the moment of judgment has already passed.

So experiment with being enthusiastic about what your horse does, even when—especially when—you don't think it was all that impressive, or you're second-guessing your own timing. I think this shift in attitude is much more important than what your horse actually does, or even than the timing of your release. Because if you're not really releasing, the timing and the horse's degree of try both become largely irrelevant. It is, after all, the release that teaches.

Plus, it will feel better to you to be wholly positive. You'll find that you are more motivated, and that you feel better about the relationship, and that will help your horse as well. 

So tell him he's a good boy, and smile, and enjoy the fact that he's your horse in that moment. After all, if you have a horse, it's a pretty cool, amazing, awesome life that you've been handed, and your horse is a pretty cool, amazing, awesome animal when you stop to think about it. And if you think about that while you're waiting for the lick and chew, you're much more likely to give your horse the kind of release he needs. 

By the by, it's pretty darn likely that your day will get immediately better, too.