I just read a saying by Wayne Dyer, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” I suppose this can also be said for the words we use to describe our horse’s behavior. If you change the way you describe your horse’s behavior, the horse’s behavior changes. Case in point: I used to think of my horse as being stubborn. The Google dictionary describes stubborn as “having or showing dogged determination not to change one's attitude or position on something, esp. in spite of good arguments or reasons to do so.” It also lists plenty of synonyms that I could have used to describe my horse: “obstinate, headstrong, willful, strong-willed, pigheaded, inflexible, uncompromising,” etc. One day, coming back from a trail ride, my horse didn’t want to load, and I said to my friend, “She is so stubborn.” My friend corrected me by saying, “She is not stubborn, she is just apprehensive.” Let’s see what the dictionary has to say about apprehensive: “anxious or fearful that something bad or unpleasant will happen.” Synonyms are “anxious, worried, uneasy, nervous, concerned, tense, scared, frightened,” etc. Seeing my horse’s behavior as being apprehensive has made a big difference in the way I deal with her.
Not that I ever used any force on her to break her “stubbornness.” I never thought of that as a useful way to make a horse do something, but I did use to get frustrated and impatient and my horse knew it. The more my frustration would grow, the more my horse would tense up. Ever since I’ve interpreted her behavior as apprehensiveness, I have a hard time being upset with her when she does not do what I ask her to do. I am more inclined to find out what it is I can do to make her feel at ease and to do anything I can to instill confidence rather than display displeasure. Has it made a difference in her behavior? Certainly. She is more trusting and more willing. Not that she now jumps willingly into the trailer or does anything I ask her to do without hesitation. Far from it, but the process of learning is less painful and successes feel like conquering fear rather than breaking through pigheadedness. We are much happier.
It also keeps bringing back something a former instructor used to say to me. “When the horse doesn’t do what you want her to do, do not ask ‘Why is she acting like this?’ Ask instead, ‘What am I doing wrong?’” It helped me a lot back then to change my relationship with my horse and to work on my skills rather than dwell on my frustration. My horse continues to be my mirror and my teacher – reflecting my impatience right back at me and making me a calmer, more insightful person.