Hell on Wheels

This world is like a mountain. Your echo depends on you. If you scream good things, the world will give it back. If you scream bad things, the world will give it back. Even if someone speaks badly about you, speak well about him. Change your heart to change the world. Shams of Tabriz

I came late to parenting, giving birth to my daughter a few weeks after I turned 40. Until then I hadn’t thought much about having children. I hadn’t spent time around families, didn’t hang around playgrounds or schoolyards and I avoided the library during the weekly story time. Too loud. Once I began observing the world as a parent I was often unsettled and occasionally shocked by how many parents called their children names – little shitbig babybratfatty and the ever-pervasive bad – I heard all of those. And I heard slightly more insidious descriptions, too: You are a very irritating childOh, he’s just a rambunctious boy. Epithets were applied when parents described their children to other adults, but also when talking directly to their children. And I wondered then about the lasting effects of those kinds of messages.

I was disconcerted when I caught myself describing my daughter to other people as “shy.” Well, she was: reserved, self-contained, tentative around other children and adults she didn’t know, but put her in a room of aunts and uncles, or close family friends and she would light up like a Christmas tree. She spoke in full sentences by the time she was 18 months old and had a remarkable vocabulary, often noted by adults. I tried to find better ways of describing my daughter’s behaviour so that people who interacted with her, pre-school teachers and babysitters, would understand and appreciate her. And not try to change her. I believed, in that fierce way that mothers do, that she had a right to her own path and I tried as best I could to clear the way so that she could walk it unencumbered by prejudice. 

Examining my own tendency to label my child highlighted the casual cruelty inherent in the way we speak to and about our children. I have always believed that language matters. Human language is not simply a tool or a means to an end, but the fundamental way we express our desires, our fears, our yearning, our love, our very humanness. Language is intimately bound up with our sense of self and our place in our family, our social or cultural group, our world.

We know that children as young as 18 months old are responsive to their parents’ expectations. It goes without saying that if the parent repeatedly labels the child as lazy, the child may well behave as they have come to see themselves: lazy, stupid, good for nothing. When the name calling is normalised, it undermines confidence, promotes discord and stifles our ability to be free from prejudice and self-doubt. 

And of course it’s not just our children. We call our animals names, too. I call my anxious dog The Philosopher, because he will take himself off “to think” when he’s having trouble self-regulating. While this is preferable to calling him a coward or a sissy or a scaredy-cat, The Philosopher is still a label and doesn’t help my dog to be more comfortable in his skin. We’re working on that.

My friend Barb told me she had to stop socializing with a few horse friends who would finish a long trail ride by remarking that their horse was a big dufus, silly, afraid of his own shadow, and so forth. It upset her that after the horses had carried their riders for hours and miles, these women would speak in such an off-handed and disrespectful way. I know how Barb feels. I interact with a number of horse owners who bring their horses to my arena for lessons and clinics. There are a few I try not to engage in conversation, because I know they will say something derogatory about their horse. And I simply can’t take it.  

I got provoked the other day by something someone posted in a large, popular horse group on Facebook. She called her horse a “wanker.” There were circumstances; she’d fallen off. She was mad, or frightened, or embarrassed – or possibly all of these – but she blamed the horse and made it public. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me and I pounded out a rant on the keyboard. It went something like this:

What reality do you want, what actual relationship would you like to have with your horse/dog/child/self? May I make a suggestion? Stop calling them names. Wanker and Big Baby aren’t nice things to call your child, are they? So don’t call your horse that name. Can you pull your head in and have a bit of respect for the animal whose life depends on you? And then — wait for it — can you extend that courtesy to your neighbours, your friends, your children, yourself? Radical, I know. But kindness counts. Start with your animals. They’re stuck behind your fences and have no choice but to take what’s given to them. Make it kind. I dare you.

Of course, I stayed my hand and didn’t hit “post”. I’m developing a pretty good rant-detector, and know that a public airing of my righteous indignation would be unskilful. Instead, I took it to a small, private group of like-minded horse women and asked for input. 

My friend Anna said to me, “what would it take to find the heart of the name caller?” 

As a group, we speculated that a lot of name callers do it because the creature (horse, dog, child) is perceived as a poor reflection on the person calling them names. It’s a shortfall of confidence on the part of the one doing the name calling. We often feel there is nothing we can do for name callers other than trying not to name call ourselves. Perhaps we could have empathy for them.

But it still upsets me, needles me under my skin. 

One friend wrote that she tries to accept the name calling and craft something else from the moment “which typically means withdrawing if I can and if there’s any chance of it, leading by example. If my dander is up and I feel that someone weaker is being oppressed I can be hell on wheels, but I’m looking for a better way of dealing somewhere between the two extremes.”

We all agreed that name calling is normalised. But that doesn’t make it right.

So what do we do?

In some cultures, hiding the good is ingrained as a way to protect goodness. Hiding or obscuring one’s talents is seen as a way of both protecting (hide your light under a bushel) and of being humble (not putting on airs). A woman who says her horse is a big dufus is possibly just being falsely modest, or she may be trying to deflect her own insecurities. Either way, over time, the horse begins to seem more and more like a big dufus and less and less like an intelligent sentient being. This is the tragedy, the thing that makes me cringe. My gut feeling is that if we could accept our horses (dogs/children/selves) as they are, we might be able to have a more authentic partnership. Or at the very least, a bit of a two-way conversation.  

Another friend wrote, “It’s true that silence equals consent, and our voices need to be heard. I don’t rally to forgiveness if it is not being asked for. Horses, and humans for that matter, need our actions as well as our words.”

Damn straight. So, when and how do our words and deeds become skilful?

I had drinks recently with a couple friends. They told me a hair-raising story of an outing with their horses. There was a lot of bashing around and horses with “eyes on stalks” and “jig-jogging, snorting, blowing.” There was a fair amount of name-calling too (big baby, pussy, etc), while what they described sounded like horses being over-faced and pushed to the brink of fear. This was, perhaps, a kind of braggadocio and I tried to shrug it off. When I did talk it was to defend the horses with simple logic — I tried to offer another way of looking at how their horses were responding to the situation. I talked about the autonomic nervous system and how a horse’s ability to process and learn is compromised when in flight or freeze mode. My friends went quiet for a few seconds and then burst back into the drama of their story. I felt earnest and out of place. Later, I felt frustrated and rattled. These kinds of stories don’t entertain or titillate me. They make me sad for the horses. And, if I’m honest, they make me a little angry towards the tellers of such tales.

Someone suggested that my rant could be “re-written, re-framed in a less confrontational manner, that kind words are easier to accept.” And while I agree in principle, looking back on my rant, the only thing I would omit is the last confrontational line, “I dare you.” 

I am trying to practice self-regulation, and I’m doing this with urgency. It’s become abundantly clear that in my own life with horses, I will never become more skilful and confident if I can’t control my emotions. This may be true for my ability to be an advocate for horses, too.

Later in the long thread of conversation, Anna said, “What would it take to heal the heart of the name-caller?”

What indeed? If we can find the heart in our enemy, can we muster the courage to heal it?

The last person to weigh in, did so with characteristic generosity and wisdom. Bex said that the people who name call are often in “a place of less knowledge about (and therefore less compassion for) their horses than we are,” and that they may be “lacking a safe person or “herd” of their own to vent to,” that the name calling often comes from a place of fear and needing an outlet for their uncomfortable feelings. She reminded me that the interpretation of words can differ between people, that there is a cultural aspect to the use of language that must be considered. All true, and the reminder helps to nurture a more compassionate response. 

Finally, Bex said, “none of these factors excuses violent or contemptuous language towards a horse, especially if those words create a perception of the horse that then affects the way humans view him and treat him going forward.” Which is exactly what I feel the casually cruel deployment of name calling does. “But they do give me some compassion for the human doing it,” Bex concludes.  

And this is why I stayed my hand the other night and didn’t post my rant. I know a lot about fear and horses, and I agree: nothing excuses violent or contemptuous language (or actual violence) towards any creature. A lot of misery is created for the lazy horse or the big baby. I believe that language matters. A lot. And in a multi-cultural world, it matters even more. I’m not suggesting some sort of PC cleansing of our vocabulary, but I would like to promote the idea that we could shake ourselves free of the shackles of name calling, labelling and prejudice. Because when we do, we free the animal (child/self) from those shackles and allow them to stand in their own skin with dignity. This has far-reaching implications for the world we live in. It’s not only transformative for horse owners but for everyone. 

This world is like a mountain. Your echo depends on you.

3 thoughts on “Hell on Wheels

  1. Love this post Abby! I have been trying in recent years to not use derogatory terms for my horses, as you say, not least because what I call him influences how I feel about him. Calling him a “jerk” or an “idiot” because he was spooking and playing up only makes me more annoyed. Rather, describing him as being “in high spirits” or “a bit fresh” gives me a better outlook on his behaviour. As a coach, I’ve also found this is really important, and another huge one is teaching riders to reward the “try”. When a horse makes an attempt to do something right, even if it’s very small, we reward them for trying. And teaching kids how to reward their ponies, not just by giving them a pat, but by giving them a long rein, or a walk, or whatever that particular horse will see as a reward.
    I remember one day working with JJ on sidepassing over a pole. He loathes being made to go sideways, as he finds it really difficult, but we were doing some Le Trec and it was something he needed to improve at. He’s a sensitive horse and prone to getting wound up in his head if he felt he couldn’t do it right, or if I corrected him too much (he would often step forward as well as sideways, so I was giving what felt to both of us like lots of aids at the same time to keep him going laterally without too much forward stepping). When he gave me a positive response and tried to do what I asked, even if it was only a step or two, I’d reward him by popping him into a light seat canter on a long rein, what I called “letting him canter off his feelings”. He’d relax and blow out through his nostrils, I’d throw in a few flying changes so he could do something tricky that he was very confident and good at, and then we’d go back to the side passing pole. He eventually got the hang of it and while he never enjoyed it, he had no issue with it at competitions after that.
    Anyway all that to say I completely agree, and love your blog 🙂

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    1. Kate, I have read your response to my blog a few times, and I just want to say that the idea of letting your horse canter off their feelings strikes me as so lovely, so spot on for what a good pony needs. I’m not at all surprised that JJ would relax and blow out when you did this for him. Good pony 🙂

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  2. Oh yes the power of words and the power of the state we’re in when we express them. Even when we don’t say them out loud. I called a friend on this the other day, she’s called a horse a brat. She continued to call him a brat even after agreeing to my assessment of fear. I took a deep breath and decided to let my friend have her array of complexities and contradictions. And hope she’ll accept mine when they show up. And maybe my best efforts at being kind will rub off. On somebody.

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