Over the weekend, I took 6 teens and pre-teens out for an all day trail ride at the base of the Rocky Mountains. I knew that it was most likely going to be a challenging day but what unfolded was both awesome and impressive. I watched as a number of girls started on what I would call the "Hero's Journey." There was a problem that needed to be solved, a muddy stream needing to be crossed, an unruly horse that wants to run off, panic from either the horses or riders as they were tossed into a situation they have never been in. No riders broke down and gave up, but it did bring out tears, heavy emotions, feelings of doubt, insecurity, dis-trust, and betrayal. These horses were not just rented horses from the local rancher, these horses were their horses, younger horses that they knew and most of them had never been out in the open space of these trails before. I think riders had hoped that this journey would be smooth, but there was tests for sure.
What amazed me was that the horses and riders that started out the day with immense challenges that they then had to work through on their own, became closer and closer throughout the day. The riders started to deepen into their horse's movements, connect nervous systems, have a stronger and more subtle communication as they rode in the fields, rocks, trees, and hills. I watched from atop my beloved horse as the girls rode down the mountain in silence, horses and riders seemingly reading one another's minds, and I realized that the ones that had the biggest challenges, and embraced them with courage, they were now more connected than ever. The ones that didn't have those challenges, or backed off from addressing the challenge, they missed something in the process.
This got me thinking about all relationships, the idea of "the healthy fight" between two people, or horses and people. I also started to think about teenagers in general, and how they are trying to learn the "healthy fight" as these fights or challenges actually help us deepen more into who we are, they teach us how to cry as we cling on for dear life to our wild horse, and find the determination to get back on and keep traveling.
The next day, there was a sense of completion from the riders that attended the trail ride. They understood the horse better and had a quiet confidence in themselves. The moral of the story is not to back down from the hardships, the hard days, the hard rides. The fight is not with your horse or the people around you but with the bumpy road you take.
Playfulness and pushiness are two sides of the same coin. When we laugh, tease, move our energy in our bodies and our hearts, we can't help but move emotion as well. Emotion is Movement. When we fear emotion, we fear movement - moving forward, backwards, moving in our circumstances, moving towards forgiveness, or moving out of depression. When we decide to move, we also move others and some people will call that 'rude' or 'pushy' as maybe they didn't want to move themselves. When we call someone rude or pushy for moving us, that is the moment where we need to look inside ourselves and see why we are not wiling to feel what they presented. Sometimes laughter brings up intense sadness, anger, hurt, it brings these intense emotions out because they are intense energy inside of us.
You can really see how connected emotion is to our body's movement when you watch horses. Horses have something that I like to call their "play drive" where they like to show off how silly, playful, and athletic they are. When horses play with other horses, they run, buck, rear, bite, and they also show off what we love about them, their elegance, strength, and precision. When we harness that play drive, that energy can turn into beauty and connection, and when we fight and reject that play drive, that energy can turn into almost an equine version of depression. There is a huge difference between someone riding their horse who has squashed the horse's play drive versus someone who has harnessed it. The first horse looks like they hate their job and everything is forced, while the second horse looks like they are having more fun than anyone else in the world! Allowing the play drive in us, the emotions, pushiness, silliness, can allow deeper connection and more life.
And yes, there is a catch. Just like horses with a big play drive can be very dangerous, so can we if we don't harness that energy. By being playful and having emotions, we can physically, mentally, and emotionally hurt someone on accident or on purpose. It is the parents job to help their 2 year old, or 15 year old, learn how to harness their play, but if the parent never got that from their parents or a mentor, then it is the blind leading the blind. Boundaries are key when learning how to play and move without turning into annoyance or abuse or violence. We will never know where the line is until we have come close to it or even crossed it, and if the boundaries are always moving, we will never learn what is too much. We all crave play, we also know it to be dangerous at times. For those who fear being played with, let play move you, challenge you, bring feeling out in you, and don't be afraid to be clear on what is too much and show up for yourself. Play doesn't work if we don't show up with what we want and what it too much for us right now. The more we play, the more we connect and find beauty in our movement doing so.
What if we lived in a way where we insisted making contact with one another?
Some folks might see this question and they might think “Eutopia!” while others see this and think “Hell.”
Contact is defined as those moments when we connect on a deeper level, when we really see someone for a moment. This can look like eye contact with a stranger at a cafe, an honest moment with our partners or family over dinner, or even that moment during a fight when you see yourself clearly even if just for an instant. Contact, happens with yourself first, when you see the reality of your life, the reality of the consequences of the choices you have made, and sometimes we don’t like what we see. When we make contact with ourselves, we start to be able to see others more vividly, and with more clarity.
When all is said and done, everyone wants contact. We want contact, and we are either scared of what will happen, what we will see in ourselves, or we don’t always have the skillful means to ask for it. Others think these moments just happen and they happen out of our control.
In some ways, these moments do “just happen.” They surprise us at times, and they happen when you least expect them. They happen during that moment in the parking lot, or when you sit down for coffee in the morning, or when you think you are minding your own business and out of nowhere, you see someone or something in your environment that brings you into the moment. We never know when these moments of clarity or deep connection will happen, and part of our skill is not to reject them.
When we step onto the path of deciding to make contact with our lives, with others, we start to chose the path of connection over agenda over and over again. When we chose the path of contact, we end up with deeper connections with everything, and intimacy with the world. We feel more. We feel ourselves, our experience, others’ experiences, others’ needs.
Depending on where we are, we either love this or hate it. To be polite, we walk around not asking others to make contact with us. We ask someone, “How are you?” really wanting to know the truth and we settle for “fine” as they look at the ground holding back tears. We learn to shut down, make jokes, give advice, go up into our heads and talk instead of checking in and staying open to what comes next. We have taught ourselves not to see, not to be hurt, not to feel, so we can live a life where we don’t have to be honest, be real, and be vulnerable.
One thing I often see, is that when someone decides to take the path of contact, often because picking any other path has become too painful, they suddenly feel alone. They see that they live in a society that doesn’t connect, that doesn’t hold their hand open and say “when you are ready, take it.” They feel that and they want to hide behind their armor, put on a fake smile and say, “I’m fine.” We want to protect ourselves from feeling alone, from feeling that raw vulnerability, from maybe feeling at all.
We are finding that making contact helps with drug abuse, helps with anxiety, depression, helps us in relationships, in finding more joy in life, and helps us be more clear on who we are. Yet, to step on this path takes courage, in takes the lion in our hearts to step forth and break through stereotypes that we have made for ourselves and what others have made for us.
Do we have the courage to hold our hand open and wait? Do we have the courage to ask for depth? Do we have the courage to step away from anything that makes us unseen in hopes of being truly seen by others?
Healthy horses insist on congruency and contact. They insist that if you are sad, you show it, angry, frustrated, you show it. They want to see you or they don’t trust that you can be a partner, leader, or herd member. They do this so they can rely on one another to be there when they need you. They do this to be safe, to bond, and to stay regulated as a group. They insist on healthy community because their emotional stability depends on it.
I don’t think we are that different. Many have just given up. We have given up living in a way where we do make contact, where we allow ourselves to be impacted by others’ lack of connection, and one where we don’t insist that others make contact back.
If you do decide to take this path, you are not alone. Others will follow your lead in time because they will see the beauty in it, when they are ready. If you want others to make contact with you, you can not force it. You can only take responsibility for yourself and ask that others be influenced by you. Just like Mary Oliver says in her poem, The Journey, the only life you have is yours.
“…there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.”
You have hit a problem that you think can’t resolve. You are standing, looking at a giant wall, unable to see the other side of it, yet that is where you want to be - on the other side. You might go up, bang your fist against it, push it, kick it, then turn that frustration onto yourself. “What is wrong with me that I can’t get over this wall?!” Your frustration turns quickly into sadness, which sometimes turns into defeat. “I can’t get on the other side” so we sit down and wait or we walk away and try to forget.
There are problems in our lives that we simply can’t see the resolution for, either because we have never seen someone work through a problem like this, or our families have gotten stuck in that same place and we somehow learned in our lives that this big problem will always remain a big problem. We learn to be semi comfortable with these walls in our lives restricting where we go and how we decide to live. And when someone tells us that those walls don’t need to be there, we remember the sense of frustration, the insecurity we felt in ourselves, and now we stand looking at someone who claims that they have been over those walls. A wave of disbelief that they could have actually found a way to do so, envy that they are strong enough and you are not, possibly even a sense of anger that they are explaining what is like on the other side of that wall and it is something you have wanted so badly for your entire life.
This is when there are different paths. You can take the path of believing the person who has overcome their obstacles, checking out their story, becoming curious about their wall and what was on the other side. The other option is to hear those old voices inside your head say, “I can’t get to the other side”, “I am weak”, or “this wall is different, there is no getting over it,” and you believe those words.
Your right, everyone’s big problem is different, every wall is unique in that it is your own wall to address. We can learn from one another on how they approached the issue, how they felt when they were up against what they felt like was the end of their existence, but it is up to you to resolve your own.
Friends can be great at kicking our wall along side us, holding us when we become sad, and cheerleading when we get the strength to face the problem again. But this does’t actually help us get to the other side. We are the ones that need to sit with the wall and come up with a new solution, one that is unique to us and the more advice we get, the further we get from finding our own solution. What we need is someone who can teach us to chew on an issue. Someone who can help us see the other side and create a plan to either dismantle the wall, get over it somehow, or come to terms with it depending on what we decide to do. Ironically, sometimes the people who are really alright with whatever side of the wall we end up are the ones that can help us the most because they allow the space for us to figure out where we want to be and how we can get there. Our goal is to see clearly. What is this wall? More importantly, what is on the other side out of reach? How can we stretch ourselves to find a way over what seems like the impossible?
The journey to face our challenges can be a lonely one, as indeed it is something we need to do in our own way. That doesn’t mean we can’t get help, and that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from others by listening to their journey. We get to explore what we think is on the other side of things, what our lives would look like if we overcame our challenges. Would it look the same? Vastly different? Would everything change or just some things? I think in all honesty, many folks are not sure where they want to go. They focus so much on the issue that they can’t see where they are heading.
There is a great metaphor I like when working with horses. Often when we fixate on the problem at hand, the big jump in front of us, the movement we are asking for, we stare at it, analyze it, fixate on it, and the horse has no idea what you are asking for because they are thinking in terms of movement. “Do you want me to ride to the jump or over the jump?” For those that know horses, you know there is a big difference. If we think less about the walls that restrict us and we allow ourselves to be more curious about the journey over them, we can find ourselves in motion to solving our problems. Getting into motion is the hardest part.
When I was around 11 or 12, I was in an equitation class at a horse show. Equitation classes are judged on your riding ability and, in this class, the judge was observing over a dozen riders in the ring. As you can imagine, watching over a dozen good riders ride around the ring for ten minutes can be difficult to score them on their riding ability, so this judge did something different. She had everyone line up and asked us one at a time to, “sit your trot in a straight line to the fence.” At first everyone was able to trot straight to the fence, but them one rider veered to the right so now riders had to make a bend to the right if they wanted to get to the rail. Towards the end, one rider, who was not known for having a great position, trotted her horse straight and stopped behind another horse NOT on the rail. I remember thinking, “she didn’t listen to the directions, what was she thinking doing something different?” The judge awarded her first place and gave us all a speech that has stuck with me over the years.
“Everyone was good, that is why I asked for something to set you all apart. This one rider (who was standing with a big blue ribbon) thought outside from what everyone else did. That took courage and says a lot about her riding abilities.”
Man was I mad. I thought to myself, “if the judge wanted us to be original, why didn’t she just say that!? Why didn’t she emphasize trotting STRAIGHT instead of TO THE RAIL. And why would the rider do something different? She made it all awkward for us!” I think I got third place but I was being a perfectionist and I was learning a lesson.
I now see how impactful that class was on me not only in my riding, but in my life. There is something courageous about doing things differently and either people respond with inspiration or they come with criticism. I find that there is a lot of criticism, the same way I criticized that girl so many years ago. “Why did she make it awkward for us?” At that point, I realized there was no right way to ride, there was my way and either people were going to judge us or not. Some might like the way I do things, and some might not. My point is that if we take the focus off of being perfect and we move from our original self, yes that is courageous, but it also changes the brain from focusing on others’ judgements and helps us focus more on our ability to think outside the box and be creative.
One question I like for either riding students or clients is, “if you lived on a deserted island, would this still bother you?”
This question points to a scary point, that we are in some ways alone. Our opinions, our choices, they are ultimately ours and we can’t keep changing them to make others happy and comfortable. Making others comfortable is not our job, it is theirs. We can listen, experience, and change but we need to “ride” for ourselves and our horse, not for the blue ribbons. The blue ribbons will come if they are meant to come.
Some of my students are around that age of 11 or 12 and they struggle with wanting to be perfect, and I tell them there is no such thing as perfection, and then they talk about engagement and roundness, and distances to their jump and they tell me their job and give an evaluation of how well or not well they are doing at their job. They have a good point, but sometimes I hear that judge’s voice coming from my own, and I say to the girls, “Riding with courage says a lot about your riding ability,” and little light bulbs go off in their heads as they contemplate the meaning of riding perfectly versus riding courageously. Can you imagine what it would be like to ride from our hearts, ride with courage to try new things, to dream about the unknown possibilities, and give up own agendas. Indeed, I wonder what it would be like if we all decided to live our life that way.
"Put some Chi in that lead rope!" I said to one of the members in our weekend intensive workshop. Later the young lady told me she thought I was talking about chia seeds, which was very confusing for her.
"No, I said. Chi!"
My husband is an acupuncturist and so we talk about Chi a fair amount. We mostly use it in the context of, "that person has some serious Chi" but I am also happy to say mojo, energy, chutzpah, really just some presence. To demonstrate what I meant to the members of the workshop, I asked one member to close her eyes, feel into her intuition, and stand in the arena holding a lead rope. I then instructed the other members of the group to, one by one, go over to the closed eyed member and pick up the lead rope. I asked the close eyed member to describe what she felt. It was almost uncanny how her response to these "riders" was basically the same responses the horses had to each "rider."
" I don't feel safe with you."
"I don't feel like you could lead me if I became lost."
"I feel relaxed, like it is going to be ok"
"I feel like you are faking confidence when you are scared too."
Almost every member gave me a look afterwards like, "Oh man. My horse has been saying this to me all along!"
Reality can be a little hard sometimes, especially when we don't want to face it.
I asked every group member to lead my horse, Apollo, who happens to be a wonderful BS detector. He senses right away if you are arrogant, emotionally blocked, not listening to him, or picking a fight and either plants all four feet in the ground staring in your general direction or tries to nibble your feet or neck depending on what is going on for you. He will do this until you address what you need to address. What I have found is that it is not faking good Chi, it is about being honest, and finding your power in that authentic honesty. I tell folks, if you don't feel safe, embrace that. If you don't feel relaxed, embrace that. If you don't feel clear, embrace that. Chi comes from embracing the power of your experience, not trying to change it. The horse isn't looking for the perfect person on the other end of their lead rope, they want to simply feel who you are.
So I ask this, next time you pick up your horse's lead rope, who is on the other end of it?
Kaia Livingstone is a psychotherapist who runs a private practice outside of Boulder, CO. She specializes in helping horses and humans bond in order to help them relate and connect on a deeper level as well as heal and grow.