Renegade and I, neither of us perfectly positioned, but enjoying each other's company.
“Any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings.”
Nobel prize winner Wislawa Szymborks was right. “I don’t know” is a powerful phrase.” Ten years ago, I would not have called it that.
For most of my horse training career, I have suffered from imposter syndrome. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s the idea that everyone around you knows more than you, and that they will eventually figure out how incompetent you really are, at which point you will be expelled from the club you so desperately want to belong to. I was always too dressage-y for the world of western horse shows, and too western for the dressage world. I did not fit in anywhere. Even though my barn was full and my clients - both horse and human - seemed happy with my work, I was convinced I was less skilled than other trainers - less experienced, less qualified, less knowledgeable. I used to cover up this dark secret as best I could, not always very successfully. I used to waste a lot of time and energy pretending I was confident, pretending I did not suffer from serious attacks of self-doubt that, in reality, gnawed at me almost every day and shredded me from the inside out at shows and clinics.
Bergfee and I, performing a half pass, ca. 2010. Not perfect enough. Not enough bend. And my left toe is sticking out. Time to armor up and pretend!
I pretended because I was afraid my clients and colleagues would respect me less if they realized I didn’t know as much or ride as well as I thought I should. I feared their judgment. I felt like admitting I wasn’t perfect would make me vulnerable, like a dog who rolls over on his back, exposing his jugular vein to the predators waiting to tear him apart.
Over time, I found out that there’s a high price to pay for covering up how you really feel. The armor you wear is heavy. It weighs you down. It eventually cracks and breaks. I still enjoyed my work. I never stopped loving horses, but began having panic attacks at shows and clinics. I tried quitting horses, which felt worse than the panic attacks. I went back to working with horses, but anxiety persisted. I felt like a fraud, like a photoshopped copy of who I really was. What could I do? The solution was staring me right in the face, though it took me a long time to see it.
Maleficent, four years old, at her first recognized show, 2019. My shoulder is dropped. My left leg is too far back. But guess what? She is relaxed, happy, and listening, which is more important.
I remember the day I stopped pretending. I remember the day a client asked me a question about why her young horse was more difficult to bend to the right than to the left, even tough until very recently he had been hollow to the right. I knew how to deal with the issue, but didn’t know the answer to her question, the “why?” part. I was reaching for my armor - a casual version of “Oh, sometimes they just switch sides.” I felt the familiar hollowness and stopped short. I took a deep breath and answered with a plain, unapologetic “I don’t know.” After a brief pause, I added “But I will think about it. Ask me again when you come for your next lesson.”
A classic. I know it by heart.
The world didn’t end. My client seemed happy with my answer. I rode her horse, felt what she was talking about, and played with counter flexion and leg yields, which improved the horse’s body alignment. When I got home that evening, I pulled a couple off my old dressage books off the shelf where they had been gathering dust. The next day, I called one of my dressage mentors and had a long conversation about one-sidedness and bend. The next week, I was able to give my client a much better answer than “They’re horses. They just do that.”
I was surprised to feel more competent, not less. I also felt more authentic, like the person I was, instead of like a stand-in for the real me. I began to realize it was ok to admit I didn’t know what I didn’t know. No, it was more than ok. I became vulnerable, but, paradoxically, exposing my jugular made me stronger instead of weaker. It made me a better teacher, at least according to my students, who commented on how much more empowered they felt. Our relationship changed to something more level, more equitable. I may have more experience than my students, but ultimately we are all in the same boat. We are all learning. I said “I don’t know” more often because saying it made me I feel liberated from the need to pretend.
We are all in this together.
I still tend to armor up around people who criticize me. It’s still a struggle to stay real in environments I perceive as judgmental or hostile, but at least I now recognize what I’m trying to do. My seat will never be perfect. I will never know everything. My training and teaching style will never appeal to people looking for someone who just tells them what to do, no questions asked. But my clients, I found out, are looking for more than that: they are looking for guidance and shared experiences on their - no, our - journey to better connections with our horses. And guess what? I enjoy the journey a lot more without the heavy armor, without the panic attacks, without the anxiety of pretending to know everything.