On Being a Helper

Today I went riding for the first time in years.  Working with horses has always been therapeutic for me.  It provides a complete mental escape from anything else that might be going on in my life, and forces me to be in the moment, focusing on communication between me and the 1200 pounds of horse beneath my saddle.

This morning, as I drove up to Petaluma to a ranch I’d never been to before, to work with a trainer I’d not yet met, I felt excited in a thoughtful kind of way.  I wondered if my already problematic back could take all the jarring and strain that riding on a regular basis causes.  I wondered if I could once again enjoy riding without becoming addicted to it, as I was years ago.  Horses are funny that way.  They are fright/flight animals, which is survival instinct. They have enormous capacity for communication — as long as you’re open-minded to hear what they’re telling you.

I had some exposure to horses growing up, but unfortunately they were not fond memories.  My Dad was a cowboy from years gone by, working on ranches out west when he was a young man.  He passed his love for horses on to my brother and he too became an accomplished rider.  I was scared off at a very young age when I got dumped from the saddle.  No one insisted I get right back on, and so I didn’t.  My brother had a horse for many years while we were young, though his horse was one not suitable for inexperienced riders like me. So, it wasn’t until I was in my thirties, with three young children at home, that I got hooked.  I began taking lessons with a girlfriend, at a local barn, mainly because she insisted she didn’t want to try it alone.  I wasn’t very excited about the idea, but finally agreed after she badgered me for several weeks about it.  Lucky for me, I was matched with a gentle old soul on four legs, who responded to my ineptness with quietness and respect.  And as I got sucked in to the challenges and skills of becoming an accomplished equestrian, I also got sucked in to a personal vacuum. I learned more about myself during those years than at any other time in my life.

As my confidence grew in the saddle, the challenges of the group lessons also grew.  Our instructor had us working on what I now know to be more advanced skills than we should have been working on at the time.  Soon, I graduated to a younger mount with more spunk and went from taking lessons one day a week to three days a week.  After five months, my friend wanted to buy her own horse, so I tagged along on the search.  The second horse she looked at was the horse I ended up buying.  He was big, beautiful and bold. In hindsight, he was a horrible match for someone like me, still wet behind the ears, because he was also very green, meaning he had little schooling.  But, in the three years I owned him, I experienced some of the highest highs interspersed with the lowest lows emotionally–a virtual roller coaster.  He was a dominant gelding, meaning he was gelded late (no babies for him), and hence displayed stud-like behaviors that were difficult to manage and could be explosive.  He was extremely unpredictable, fleeing from imaginary ghosts, that only he could see. He scared other people with his sheer size, and his occasional nasty temperament. There were times under saddle that his behavior caught me off guard, and as I struggled to regain control, wondered why I continued to put myself at risk.  But there were also times that we worked in concert so well together, I could not imagine feeling any more euphoric.

He taught me about facing down my own fears.  There were days I was so afraid to get in the saddle my knees would shake throughout the entire half hour drive from my house to the barn.  But I wasn’t a quitter.  I learned how to mentally psyche myself up, just before I climbed into the saddle, intentionally changing my demeanor into one that oozed “I’ve got your number, so don’t you pull any crap on me!” I didn’t like having to ride that way, but horses smell fear.  It became the only safe way to do it.  And then there were days I would sing at the top of my lungs all the way home after an especially wonderful ride.  He was tuned in to me, and I was tuned in to him.  We became one.

I developed a love/hate relationship with this horse.  He nickered in greeting when I arrived at the barn, and tried to bite me when I arrived without carrots. I had to stop bringing carrots altogether for a while, and then only offer treats after I returned him to his stall. He was territorial, and pinned his ears whenever anyone else approached us.  He didn’t want to share my attention with others. He couldn’t be out in pasture with the other horses because he terrorized them.  He wasn’t winning any friends at the ranch, and people were afraid to walk by his stall because he would lurch at them if they held carrots and didn’t stop to offer one to him. After three years, I came to the difficult decision to sell him…difficult because those euphoric highs were absolute elation for me.  But the tough days brought on lows that were emotionally draining as well as physically dangerous.  So, when I finally said goodbye, I sobbed inexplicable tears as I watched his new owner slowly pull away, with my horse’s head stretched out the small side window of the trailer, frantically looking around and calling for me.

Oddly enough, as the next several weeks passed, I began to notice a lightness come over me, and only then realized what an emotional burden he’d been.  I no longer had to worry about his well-being, my safety around him, or the financial strain of horse ownership.

His gifts to me, however, were immeasurable.  He allowed me an inside look at the stuff I was made of.  Sink or swim.  Flight or fight. I learned that in times of crisis, I could rise to the occasion. I learned that no matter how afraid I was, I could function if I stayed focused yet driven with a strength that came from deep inside of me, a strength that had been there all along, but used to lurk dormant.  I learned that watching in fear from the sidelines outside the arena was not the role I wanted in life, at least not for the important issues.  I learned to step up front and center, to be strong, and to keep my eye on the ball.  I learned that in order to stay in the saddle, I had to ride every moment without letting my guard down.  Because when you least expect it, explosions happen.

Today, I enjoyed my saddle time.  The barn was spotlessly clean, the horse well trained and responsive.  It was a beautiful warm sunny day and I appreciated the thoughtful coaching from this new (to me) trainer, Amanda, as she guided me through some subtle techniques that applied to the discipline of cutting horses.  Amanda has a quiet way with horses, a gentle touch. Before she saddles up, she watches the horse move in order to observe their breathing while in the presence of humans.  Her theory is that if a horse isn’t breathing fully relaxed as he walks, trots and canters in circles around us, then his state of mind may not be cooperative under saddle either. Amanda has a gift.  She talks to animals.  It isn’t a skill easily learned.  I believe either you have it, or you don’t.  She does.

Upon my arrival at the barn, she had asked me about my riding history.  I briefly told her about my own horse adventures from years ago.  I told her I was no longer interested in the challenge of schooling a green horse, of competition or showmanship.  I was interested to get back to that place within myself that could bring me the highest of highs, not because I was able to hold my own in an explosive situation, but because I could have a wonderful partnership with a well mannered and gentle horse–one that was enjoying his time with me.  I told her I wanted to explore my feelings about getting back into the world of horses after being away for so many years.

As we worked in the round arena, her in the center, me riding in circles along the rail, Amanda made an observation:  “Without knowing you at all, outside of what I see in the saddle now, I would say you are the kind of person who is a huge helper, always the first to offer aide or assistance to people in need”. After I confirmed her assessment with a small amount of humility, she went on to observe that rather than letting this highly trained horse show me his skills under saddle, I was constantly helping him—by using my leg and hands as aides.  “This horse doesn’t need your help,” she said.  “Just settle in, deep into the saddle and let him show you what he knows.” With simply a very subtle shift of my seat bones, or the gentlest adjustment in the position of my hand, this horse could demonstrate that he was able to understand my direction.  To my surprise, I had to focus really hard on not helping.  This was a foreign concept for me.  So now, in order to communicate to the horse that I wanted a change in pace, without using my leg or urging him on with a forward lean of my body, I basically had to think telepathically… and with only the very ghost-like shift in my weight.  And I had to think about breathing. Not his, but mine.

This evening, I’ve been thinking about Amanda’s intuitive observations of me.  As soon as she said the words ‘I think you’re a big helper’, I wanted to blurt out “Yes!  I AM a big helper.  What can I help you with today?”  I made the assumption that she was about to ask for my help in some way. It was rather startling to hear her suggest that I stop helping, even given the unusual circumstance.  Stop helping?

I think when someone like Amanda has the gift of quiet communication with very large breathing souls who don’t SPEAK the language of words, people like her also have the inherent ability to read other humans, even in the briefest of moments.  Their observances are more acute than us average folks.  They can feel what other minds are thinking by simply watching and observing. Yes, I am a helper.  I’ve always been a helper, although until she spoke those words, I would not have thought about myself that way.

And, now that I do, I have a bigger lurking issue on my mind: How do you help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves?

Could it be that my deep rooted anger over events that happened in my life years and years ago, triggered by the actions of my sister, stem from the fact that I couldn’t help her, because she truly didn’t want to help herself?  She was her own worst enemy, and I couldn’t fight her ghosts for her. She was fright/flight. She insisted on living life her way, no matter the emotional expense to others. Just like Sinatra’s song titled “I Did It My Way” which she so loved. So much so, that we played it at her memorial service.

Being a helper, it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around it.  Same parents, same gene pool. Maybe the explanation I needed to hear from my sister is within myself.  Maybe it’s not all that complicated, and it all boils down to hard wiring.  Maybe I need to spend less time helping and more time just living.

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