I have become addicted to the Inspector Gamache mystery novels by Louise Penny. I love the characters, the little town much of it takes place in, but even more I love the philosophical layers Penny unearths through the characters in each novel. In the most recent book I finished (A Great Reckoning) there is a movement in the Sûreté du Québec (provincial police force in Quebec) Academy to begin corruption at the student level. In one scene a cadet is asked of the villainous head of the academy Serge (The Duke) LaDuke (who had been murdered): was he was feared or respected.
Respected of course! Came the reply.
Then what was he respected for? A follow up question.
When the cadet couldn’t answer it became clear that the disgraced high level corrupt character was indeed feared and The Duke used fear to manipulate the young officers in training. This scene visited me today while I was working with my herd as I asked myself a similar question. I want my horses to respect and even like me, but do I know the difference as clearly as I had thought? The student was certain, but when pressed came up hollow.
In the novel, the corrupt instructor was using fear and manipulation to gain control over the potential officers early in their careers so they would be easier to control once they were in the system. This made the systematic corruption easier to propigate indefinitely. Shut down their voices before they become officers officially, and if any cadet wasn’t maleable enough to be controlled by fear, they would never make it to graduation and a job. Find their fears and weaknesses, and exploit them from the very start.
What an ingenious and effective plan. Fear saves time opposed to respect and trust, which must be gained over time and is a balance that must be continually nurtured through integrity and transparency.
As I was hiking Khaleesi up the mountain yet again in early training for our season, she was incredibly distracted. I am increasingly aware of her thoughts and feelings in recent months. That is where I now begin everything. It is time consuming. She was more distracted than usual today with the second herd on the property, and they were running around bored on a rainy day trying to draw her attention. It was working beautifully. For them.
For me… not so much.
She would stop walking up the trail (away from the herd); I knew by the time her feet stopped she had already been stuck in her mind. I also knew I had the quick tools to get her feet moving. I could drive her with my lead rope and insist that her feet get moving again. It is effective. It works every time, and it doesn’t take much anymore- just a threat would probably move her feet.
And as I looked at her… distracted horse with her feet stuck in the soft ground and her brain stuck more… I thought:
What I really want is for you to come WITH me, together. I want to invite you to come up the mountain with me, and what I really want is for you to decide to come along. How can I encourage you to decide? How can I change your MIND?
I have heard great horseman say we must move the feet to get to the brain. I have also observed more often that horses can do a great many things with their feet and body and not have much shift in the brain. Sometimes it works, especially when in expert hands, but moving the feet does not guarantee the thoughts will shift.
If I were to drive her forward in that moment (as I have many times before), it was clear to me that I would be engaging her flight response. She would scoot away from the driving pressure- either implied (threatened) or if need be actually making contact with the rope if she was stuck that hard. That neurological response that produces flight-fight-freeze is a fear response even if it’s a very mild fear. So am I truly building trust and respect if I have to revert to a fear response?
I don’t think anyone ever put that question to me before in quite that clear of terms.
The scene returned to my mind: Do they respect or fear?
Have I been at it for this long and now am only seeing the subtle difference? Fear does not always look the way we expect. Sometimes fear looks like respect. Sometimes it is hard to see the difference.
In the novel, the cadets in the academy said The Duke cared about them and was making them better, stronger, more courageous. The truth that came out in the book was it was psychological torment that over time hardened them, shut down their individuality, took away their freedom to think, compromised their ability to know right from wrong, and even the students didn’t realize what had happened to them until the system was changed (and counseling for many who had been there the longest). To the casual observer they looked like intelligent, well-trained, young adults. There was order and high marks in the classroom. It took enough cadets entering the force to see a trend, it took someone who could see subtle cues and recognize that something dark was at work under the surface.
Is it possible that even in my good intentions I had been using more fear in my training than I realized?
Honestly I think so, and it’s Wyoming who is the one who forced me to see it for what it was. She could not function in that system. It was the wild red mare that kept me searching for truth in my training plan. She didn’t have to be wild. She’s simply a statistic. In any population there are going to be the ones that to the system seems “broken.” The ones that don’t fit the mold, can’t comply, are never “safe” or can’t be “trusted.” Is it possible these horses that most people move on down the line because they are problems are actually the real gifts. If we looked to them to show us, if we were willing to let go of the system we want to maintain, would they in turn give us the understanding of an even better way?
I’ve had this mare for years now and she hasn’t often felt like much of a gift! She’s been the source of much frustration. Why were none of the “normal” ways not working for her? Especially since she was still willing to try. And she was also smart. Why would things that work for other horses fall apart in time with her? She hadn’t given up on me. The honest truth is I would have given up on her had I been able to. But since she refused to ride on a trailer, it was easier to just keep trying! I am also somewhat stubborn and driven to believe there must be a way if we persist. I don’t give up easily.
I tried many things, some had value but weren’t a complete answer, and I kept funneling somehow until I stumbled into some ideas that were just different enough but not off the map where they made sense to me, in fact it was like a language that was able to describe what was going wrong for the first time that really made sense.
I began shifting my approach and first I was able to recognize massive cracks in the relationship and connection with Wyoming and her ability to be “ok” with very simple pieces (like accepting the halter and being led). She liked me, but she didn’t trust me. I got busy digging deeper to change how I worked with her and gradually I am seeing a change. It’s a real shift with real changes happening though too early to say we are home free quite yet. I am not yet living the dream of riding Wyoming hands free in a mounted archery competition… Baby steps…
I also shifted my approach for the entire herd. And I have seen Hope who has been struggling to regain her health (she would be one of those poor tormented students who need counseling. She is incredibly shut down in her mind, body and spirit. Her spine was literally compressed when I brought her home and had a roach in it, her shoulders are overdeveloped and her hind end almost non-existent, her immune system also virtually shut down as well.) I have watched her opening up more in the new herd system, her eyes are less dull and she is engaging both with me and the herd on a new level and her physical health began to shift more dramatically.
I am most grateful to see what the change is bringing out of Khaleesi. She has never been much trouble for me. The naturally compliant child. As those who’ve followed our story for long know, I started her myself as a four year old local feral mare- and I knew nothing at the time. So she has been forgiving and cooperative though she will occasionally voice conflicting opinions. In the end, she cooperates and I’d even go as far as to say pretty willingly. This is my lucky horse, the one who has given me the grace somehow to know I’m trying to do better all the time, and I’m worth not giving up on. She fills in for me constantly. Maybe my saving grace is I regularly acknowledge and thank her for it. She knows I know how much she does. And she knows I value her highly and appreciate what she does.
This change in approach away from direct pressure has opened up a new layer of softness between us. It isn’t perfect because relationships aren’t. However, I see a new kind of calm in her demeanor. I see increased confidence and trust in me and how I will honor her. I see a higher level of willingness, and I thought she was pretty willing before. This willingness is a more thoughtful and soft willingness, not a rough concession to comply.
It is like a teenager who is asked to clean their room. Previously it might have looked like: Fine, I’ll clean up my room.. whatever (mumbling their way up the stairs while wearing earbuds to tune out the annoying rest of the world). Today it’s more like: Sure, that’s probably a good idea… there’s a strange smell coming out of the closet and I guess I also need to do laundry. Hey when I finish would you mind taking me to the mall? Of course both of these scenes are preferable to the one where the teenager flips you the bird and says make me.
The second question… does it matter?
I think it does.
The annoyed teenager who is probably only in compliance because they know if they argue or refuse the punishment is not worth it (fear), they are going to do the minimum requirement and probably cussing you under their breath as they smile to your face that cynical smile that doesn’t quite reach the eyes. They are going to stuff things away and not get it done at a level of excellence. As a horse this is going to get the job done but without softness, flexibility and that higher level of athleticism and brilliance that comes with a soft mind. This is the horse that needs specific tools in order to perform because the mind isn’t truly with the body- not always due to poor attitude or unhappiness, but can be brought on by being asked more than they can handle or understand at the time. Trust can be breached when the horse is asked to do something before she’s truly prepared for it on all levels (physical, mental and emotional). That is another kind of pressure that breaks down a horse often not intended maliciously.
The willing teen is going to need some guidance still, but is going to put in more effort and in their heart they want to do it right and are being asked something within their ability to do well. They care about the relationship, but they probably also know they are cared for and valued. That matters to them. There is more mind and heart involved in the process even if they might sometimes rush because they are distracted or make a mistake trying too hard. There is a mental softness that brings a higher level of performance for that horse if tapped into.
And the one who flips us the bird… she’s probably headed to reform school (30 days of training anyone? Does that really help or just force more training layers on? I suppose it depends).
So in that moment when K was distracted and stuck in her mind and body. I stopped with her. I slowed down because I do value her and I factored in enough time that we could have some conversations if she needed to. (Are you the always the busy parent on a schedule with never enough time? I was, now I just say no. I change my thinking and my priorities and now there is always time for her to ask a question. I just make time- I take it off my end somewhere. Period) I gently picked up the lead rope first seeing if she would redirect to connect with me, here and now, on the trail, asking her to come up the mountain with me. She remained stuck. The brace in her head and neck telling me what her eyes already said: I’m not with you really, I want to be with them…
I held a moment, and paused again. Then I reached out to touch her face where she had some dried eye boogers. And she began to rub her itchy head on my hand, and I rubbed her face all over and got the eye goop cleaned off and then some. I laughed and smiled at her.
She looked at me. Now reconnected to the moment, she and I here on the trail. Together. There you are. And I lifted the lead rope gently and she took a step toward me, down the trail. And we did walk together. Without fear. When her mind came loose so did her feet. I didn’t need to train her what the lead rope means, I needed to find a way to engage her to be present with me. She even stayed with me past the intersection where she might have asked to return back toward the herd again. Connected. More than I had hoped for.
There were a few more moments she paused to listen, to look down the path through the trees. Each time was easier to reconnect and redirect. Each time the invitation was answered sooner.
Yes. I will climb the mountain with you in the cold January rain. I suppose. But then can we go to the mall?
This is more than a philosophy. This is how someday we will keep going in a single-day 100 mile ride. She will have to agree: Yes, I will keep going even though I’m tired and it’s dark and it’s raining… I’m with you.
Not from pressure. Not from fear. I believe by then I will more consistently recognize the difference.
3 thoughts on “Respect or fear? Does it matter?”
As always, thank you for sharing all this, it really helps crystalize things I’m grasping towards as well. Broadly stated, one of the many reasons endurance is my horse sport of choice is it requires this relationship building on such a deeper level than most others. To go such distances in a set timeline requires all the physical and metabolic prep, but also the relationship and trust and beyond just functional communication. I’ve started a habit of asking Tarma “Ready?” when I reach her in pasture, when we go to load into the trailer, when it’s time to change gaits from walk to trot to canter and back down. She has to be in the frame of mind to hear me, to agree with that, and if she’s not either of those two things I have my answer we’re not ready and there’s work to be done in the moment, futzing with tack, a longer break, or just a pause and asking again.
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I love that! You should check out Mark Langley. I find his material really helpful in connecting with the mind! Just Google search him he’s got a website, a great video library for members and I started by listening to his podcasts which are rich with ideas! Thanks for reading!
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I’ve been following a lot of Mark Rashid and Warwick Schiller and Millstone Equestrian, I’ll look up Langley, hadn’t heard of him, thank you!
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