Refuge from the world, or a place from which to change the world?
The barn: a place for escapism, or something more?
We are living in a time of global crisis: a pandemic is raging, the climate is changing, systemic racism is tearing at the seams of our society. Reading the news fills me and everyone I know with an existential dread about what may come next - for me, for my family and friends, for all of us, for our entire blue planet hurling through space into uncertainty. More than ever, I feel the urgent need to do something constructive, to make the world a better place, every day, in whichever way I can.
Connection is important - for the horse's training, but even more for us humans.
And yet, there are times when I feel like I do nothing that matters in the grand scheme of things. I spend my days at the barn, riding horses and teaching riders. It’s my livelihood. It’s also my passion. It’s not an easy job, but I love what I do, except during moments when it feels like a selfish indulgence, a withdrawal into an ultimately meaningless existence. Horses offer refuge from the chaos that surrounds us. I work so much I don’t have time to go out and change the world. There are moments when I feel guilty about my work, when I feel like I’m squandering my time and energy, training horses for a living instead of making a tangible difference.
I’ve felt this nagging unease for years, no, for decades. Like a wise owl, it sits on my shoulder and whispers into my ear that I need to be the change I wish to see in the world. Eight years ago, it quit whispering and started shouting until I quit training horses. I went back to grad school for another MA degree and started teaching at an international school with an idealistic mission statement. Training horses had left me disillusioned. My work as a horse trainer, I felt, had no deeper meaning other than enabling and supporting an expensive pastime for privileged people.
Better horse-rider relationships have a ripple effect.
I started writing a thesis about postcolonial novels. I started teaching English literature to teenagers form all over the planet. But before the thesis was even close to finished, I decided that the academic world wasn’t for me. I was miserable and grouchy. Faculty meetings felt like being stuck in purgatory. I missed being with horses. I missed the smell of horses. I missed the physical exertion. I discovered that I’m a good teacher of English literature, but I also discovered that, more than anything else I am a horse trainer, through and through, for better or worse. After a couple of semesters, I did what I had to do, i.e. gradually quit my “real” job and find my way back to training horses. I eventually did finish the thesis, and the degree, but my diploma now hangs on the tack room wall, among the ribbons. It’s a decoration, an amusing reminder of a midlife crisis. I know where I belong. It’s not a classroom.
Well, maybe a different type of classroom.
I’ve also realized that my work with horses does make a difference in the world. Helping horses understand people and helping people get along better with their horses is a not a waste of time. My clients, who welcomed me back with open arms, keep telling me that the time they spend with their horses is more than a random hobby. They, and I, leave the barn feeling more grounded, more at peace, more serene. They are better equipped to deal with the world, better prepared to face what life has in store for them in the best way they can. They are more likely to spread positive energy because of their horse time. Why is that?
Horses teach us what we need to learn if we let them.
No horse I know has a degree in counseling or psychology, but all horses I know have the unique ability to teach each of us what we need to learn. Those of us who tend to feel discouraged or powerless become more assertive. Those of us who struggle with taking things personally learn to let go of their grudges. Those of us who tend to be arrogant or ego-driven get a reality check. Those of us who tend to be distracted learn to focus on what they’re doing with their horse, right here, right now. Those of us who lack patience will develop it - lots of it. Horses reminds us that angry outbursts lead nowhere, that mistakes are opportunities for improvement, that perfection is not a realistic goal. Maybe more than anything else, horses teach us about empathy and tolerance. At its core, riding a horse is an ongoing, mutually respectful conversation with another being. Spending time with horses reminds us that it’s possible, even enjoyable, to connect with others, even others who are different from us. Being with horses reminds us of who we are when we’re at our best - our most compassionate, most humble, most tolerant. Being with horses reminds us of what it means to be human.
Horses bring out the best version of ourselves.
Because of all this, what I do is not only good for horses, it’s also good for people. Helping riders connect with their horses makes them better humans. I only work with a small group of students. But I hope that, because they spend time with their horses, they show up in a more positive way for their families and friends. I hope that my work has a ripple effect in the world, like a small pebble in a lake.
I still do a lot of soul-searching. I still think horses need to be more accessible to a more diverse range of people. I still think I could do more, but more often than not, I feel at peace with what I do already. The wise owl on my shoulder still talks to me, but in a less accusing tone. Most of the time, she nods her approval.
Finding peace in a chaotic world is not escapism. It's a necessity for our survival.