I love my little neighborhood. Even with a shattered heart, this place keeps moving in the most interesting ways without me. The family of five children following like small ducks behind their father who careens his neck to check out my NM license plate, the clouds moving in over brightly colored houses, the screams and yells of people in agony or joy. Despite my own suffering, the world itself keeps moving. Despite my own resistance, I’ve come to love this little 5-block radius where I mostly exist these days.
This is a good reminder, much like breathing is. No matter how bursts of emotion pepper my chest with constriction, or how much I resist or suffer, it comes. I can choose to make it steady, or to let it become erratic with fear. And, today, I did something that actually scares me, or rather, a thing that scares me that has more than just internal consequences. I took a horse-riding lesson. Knowing how to ride a horse is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but I’ve been too afraid. And sadly, there are a lot of things like this in my life, which I need to take a bit more initiative on.
So, today I drove down highway 95 and then into the woods by West Greenwich RI and found my way to a woman named Heidi who teaches people how to ride horses. Immediately, her blue eyes were looking into mine from a small, weathered face and we were talking horses. She asked me to articulate my “goals” which I found to be a hilarious question given that I know almost nothing about horses or riding them. In fact, the goals I have for my entire life are in flux presently. After hearing me say that I didn’t just want to “pay to ride a horse” but rather wanted to actually learn something about how to do that, she led me to the barn.
Not having been in that many barns, which is ironic considering my best friend growing up came from a ranching family, I was struck by the sharp sensations there. The smell is powerful, earthy and almost sweet. The ground is soft underfoot, a mix of manure, hay, and mud. We spent the majority of my lesson talking about how horses behave, how to behave with them, how not to behave with them, how to know how they’ll behave. This was pretty informative I have to say.
Here’s what I learned: apparently one way to look at how horses behave is like a clique of high schoolers. They are herd animals, and prey animals as opposed to predator animals. There is an alpha, and a second in command who secretly would like to be the alpha but will settle for being the right hand man. Then there are the middle horses that kind of just do their thing, but follow the social conventions in order to participate in their herd. Then there are the bottom-rung horses that are sort of the weakest ones who need a bit of protection from someone; usually this is a bully horse or two. The bully horses are the ones who really, really want to be in charge but can’t quite live up to it. And then, there are the loners, who sometimes act like bullies because they just want to be left the hell alone. I can relate.
Heidi explained that it’s important first to know what kind of horse you are dealing with and then to respond to it accordingly and second, to always let this 1200 (?) pound animal know that even if they are the alpha of their herd, you are really the alpha. And of course, while horses can do this with one another physically, you as a human being cannot. You cannot boss a horse with your muscle, but you can show it how to behave with your body language and voice. And this is where I felt the first point of my resistance. I realized I didn’t want to offend the horse. I wanted to do what I always do, in all situations: try to be polite. I’m glad I voiced this because Heidi quickly made me understand that this isn’t how it works with horses. She explained they won’t hold it against you, they will only remember the details of it for about 10 seconds, after that they will just know that either you acted as the alpha or you didn’t. It isn’t that you want to be the bully, but you have to be in charge. Essentially, politeness gets you nowhere, respect does.
She also explained that it’s ok for you to come into the horse’s space but never for them to take charge of yours. This is the first way you show them how to respect you.
I’m guessing there’s a pretty good chance that learning this type of stuff is exactly what I need to be doing right now. I am in the process of walking away from a year and a half long relationship right now and the details of it feel painful. I find myself alternately at peace and feeling so uncomfortable and ashamed and jealous that I’d like tear my skin off at the thought of the one I loved so much in the arms of someone else. It’s almost more than I can bear at times, my emotional self and my obsessive mind expanding and contracting seemingly beyond my will. And much like other situations in my life, I’m so very worried about doing it “right.” I want to be good. And even more so, I want to keep being polite and do as little damage as possible. The problem here is this: it’s impossible to define your own boundaries when you’re living like the beta. They will be defined for you. And I know that if I don’t figure this out, I not only won’t be as happy as I deserve, I won’t make a very good horse person. And, let me tell you, I’d really like to succeed at something right now. I let a “horse” come into my space and walk on me because I thought I could be kind or good enough to make it not happen. I wasn’t honest with myself about what I needed and I didn’t act. I hesitated; I didn’t make a choice and so it was made for me.
Today, Heidi showed me something new. There is a way to do all these important things with horses. She showed me carefully how to brush the horse, clean him, hold his hoof, move his bridle, move him to the side, brush his mane and his tail, talk to him, touch him, move around him, move him, walk with him. She didn’t say it, but I quickly realized it’s all about communication. As much as the instructions were about domination, it wasn’t really that. These ways to communicate are about establishing respect between you and another living being. The most painful thing I realized here is, respect isn’t automatic. Just because I think that I could walk into any situation and use kindness and have all my needs be met, it isn’t actually always true.
Some situations warrant something else. They warrant letting the other being know where you are, being consistent, gentle and firm, staying out their blind spots, talking to them, making contact and doing it with surety and without hesitation. And within that, there might be joy. There might be ease. When I brushed his neck, he extended it upwards and let me scratch him. Heidi explained that this is pleasurable for him, that it feels good. And to make a huge animal like this feel good, well, it felt pretty good for me. I don’t have any illusions that this whole process will be easy. Rather, I gained an understanding of its complexity, its boundaries, the importance of the smallest details being salient in a smooth experience.
And for an hour, I didn’t think about the sound of her name, like glass cracking inside my chest, on repeat. I didn’t think about the letting go I’m trying to do that has me up at all hours just listening to the sounds of my neighborhood for an answer. I didn’t think about the sensation that I am made of paper and floating away in the sky. I felt the sensation underneath that, that I am really ok and always have been. There is a tether to hold me. For a brief moment I didn’t think about the emptiness because I had the smooth, perfect flanks of an enormous horse beneath my fingers and I was just trying to do the right thing with him, which was really, for me too.
When I got in the car an hour later, I had dirt on my hands and face and boots. I smelled of stable, of the sweetness and dankness. My fingers were darkened by the oils and dirt that I had brushed out of his hair. I had even walked him to the pasture and showed him how close he could get, and how close he couldn’t get. I told Heidi I would be back next week. I told myself: I can learn how to do this. I can learn how to be sure of who I am, to do things not with malice, but with love. To know that doing the right thing does mean protecting myself through respect, communication and a firm touch.