Do you identify as a predator?
I was at a horse show a few years back, helping a client. It was a warm day at an outdoor venue. Participants were all grooming by their trailers, parked parallel to each other in long rows. It was a camp atmosphere; friends greeted each other and shared snacks, while horses were being braided and hand-grazed. Riders left with “Good luck” in their ears and returned to calls of “How’d it go?” There’s a camaraderie at horse shows that’s hard to beat.
The trailer next to ours was different. The rider was a woman; there was also an older woman and a man—he may have been one of those elusive horse husbands. They were all on the far side of the trailer, but the horse sounded especially nervous while tied and the rider spent lots of energy yelling corrections. It was a bit like having a war movie on in the next room. Everyone was aware of this rider but trying to focus on their own horses. It isn’t illegal to have a bad attitude.
When it was time to ride, they moved out to the open area between rows of trailers. The man held the horse’s head tightly and the woman launched herself toward the saddle as the horse jumped around erratically. You couldn’t look away; she landed half-way on the saddle as the horse broke loose from the man, and down the lane they went, buck-prancing as the rider worked at getting her stirrups. A couple of pedestrians darted out of their way. She returned a few minutes later, unhappy with how the ride went. Imagine.
The rider mounted twice more that day, each worse than the one before. The last time, the horse was running backward, rearing and spinning, as the rider yelled and kicked. I scurried to move our mounting block as the horse blindly thrashed backward, toward our trailer.
The rider probably qualified as a danger to others by then, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the horse. The mare had wild fear, with whites showing around her eyes and pinned ears, in a full-body anxiety sweat. She reminded me of that classic painting of a lion attacking a horse. This mare had that same life-or-death look, as if a mountain lion was on her back, claws dug deep into her muscles and huge teeth ready to rip her open. Abject terror.
This is where most of us women shake our heads and frown; so cruel and not good horsemanship. We feel sympathy for the horse and distance ourselves from the woman. I’m going to make a rude and horrible generalization: usually when we see riders like that, they’re men. We take some twisted comfort from that. And maybe we shouldn’t. For all of our study of horse behavior, we might want to take a look at ourselves, as well.
Most of us think we’re kind and compassionate riders; the polar opposite of the rider I described. We work on soft hands and relaxed forward. We train with positive reinforcement. We value the partnership gained by slow and steady work. That’s the ideal.
Reality Check: Even a ninety-pound, blonde, giggling vegan is a predator. We’re born that way; we just aren’t honest about it. The other word for that is passive-aggressive. And it doesn’t have a thing to do with competition.
A passive-aggressive rider keeps all the fighting inside. It starts reasonably with the fear of the things a rider should fear. And there’s no shortage of true danger to consider. Then anxiety creeps in; we think about everything that might happen on the horse but also worry about how we will be judged, especially in our own minds. Then most of us like a little more control than we can have on a horse. But that’s wrong, so we stifle our fear and anxiety. We pretend we aren’t frustrated and that we don’t get angry. We say we have no ego, but instead we have an unsteady center of worry, anxiety, and regret. With a dollop of compulsive apology on top, and the cherry of self-loathing that we all learned as teenagers.
These fears and anxieties soak into every cell of our bodies, just like anger and rage do. They’re just a bit quieter and more insidious. Our muscles are tense and our legs brace tight. Sit-bones rest in the saddle with the suppleness of a cinder block. Our shoulders muffle our ears and breathing is shallow. We try to calm our of need to control the universe by…tight hands pulling on the bit. It’s instinct that almost passes as normal.
Aren’t all of these feelings and behaviors extreme sides of the same coin?
But you love your horse, right? It isn’t about him; it’s your problem. Maybe you can make that separation in your mind, but your horse doesn’t. He just senses your feelings and he doesn’t hear the pronouns. If you feel you can do nothing right, that’s what he feels. Is this any less predatory for a horse? Any less of a lion on its back?
And it’s the farthest thing from your intention to frighten your horse.
Forgiveness might be a good start. Perhaps the true thing for us is that over the course of our lives, we experience all parts of this continuum of predator riding to some degree, while trying to balance the middle peace. We look to define leadership in a way that there are no losers, while hoping to travel from our ego and self-talk, to a place of true compassion for ourselves and our horses. Boss Mare, in the saddle and in our hearts.
Breathe. It’s going to be okay; even better than okay. Women have a special super-power.
Women are in a uniquely interesting place with horses. We are undeniably predators, born and bred. At the same time, most of us have felt like prey–at the work place, in parking lots or dark stairwells–and we’ve experienced both sides of the prey/predator world first hand. We’ve responded both as victims and defiant survivors.
It’s our job to weave all of our experiences into the best version of ourselves, in the saddle and out. It’s how horses help us get better at being people.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.