This isn’t working!
“Marti! This isn’t working!” I bleated. “He’s trying to bite me! Help!”
“Well, don’t let him!” she called out, laughing.
It was a hot and dusty May morning in the central highlands of Mexico. I was participating in an outdoor workshop of ‘horse assisted learning’, primarily for insights into my new book on assertiveness. My friend Marti, who lives with the horses and runs the sessions, had really encouraged me to take part. Marti is a horsewoman and equine guided education specialist.
“You’ll love it.” She promised.
I was a little skeptical. I had ridden horses in my youth, but it had been years since I had been in close contact with one. They seemed awfully big, and not all that interested in doing my bidding.
So far my only task was to get a miniature horse, named Iota, to go with me from his corral down to a paddock about 50 feet away. He had on a halter, I had a lead, and so it should have been easy.
I don’t ever remember being so terrified.
“Marti, he’s trying to nip me, I swear!” I called out again. “And if he’s not doing that, he’s bucking and showing me his hooves. Take over please!” I was literally rigid with fear.
A Tiny Guy Has Me Figured Out
Now, lest you be under any illusion, Iota was not very big. He looks a lot like My Little Pony. He barely came to my hips and was impossibly, heartbreakingly cute, with a charming and determined air. He was of the breed Pit Pony, originally bred to go down in the mines of Wales. Tough little dudes. I don’t know how the miners coped. This Pit Pony had no intention of doing anything I wanted him to.
I was also uneasily aware that Marti used him with children and as a therapy horse in hospices and homes for the elderly. He should be sweet and docile, right?
Let me just say here that I pride myself on being quite assertive, with people anyway—not afraid of anyone—and yet here I was being pushed around by a smallish beast.
I moaned, as Iota firmly took us both over to the side of the road to eat grass. When I tried to get him to move on down to the paddock, he showed me his teeth. I let him eat.
“You’re not enforcing your boundaries” Marti chided me. “You’re giving all kinds of signals to him that you’re afraid. So he’s had to take over and run the show.”
She came over and patiently showed me exactly how to enforce my boundaries with the little guy. She twirled a rope, cowgirl style, in front of herself. Nipper backed off. “He won’t come near me when the rope is being twirled,” she pointed out. “He respects my boundaries, as defined by the rope. Now you try”.
Hesitantly I took the rope and began to twirl. Miraculously Iota stopped moving in on me and stood still. “Now he’s waiting for you to show some leadership”, she said.
“Oh, so I guess I have to show him who’s boss?” I was beginning to get the idea.
“No, you don’t do that. You just have to show him your boundaries and then what you expect him to do. It’s not about control. It’s about respect.” Whoa. Lesson received.
We made it to the paddock, and eventually I got the hang of persuading Iota to do my bidding. He seemed quite content to run around the paddock as long as I gave the appropriate instructions.
What I Gained From Equine Assisted Learning
I was exhausted, but felt strangely exhilarated when it was over. And despite my lesson in humility, quite proud of myself. I felt like I had overcome something important that I couldn’t quite identify. I calmly led him back to his corral. No incidents along the way this time. He followed me quite happily.
So what did I learn? Being assertive is not about controlling others. It’s about controlling your own energy, being sure of your boundaries, and communicating your expectations to others.
The horse didn’t have to hear me say what my boundaries were; he picked up all he needed to know from my body language and my energy. People are no different. We constantly gather information about those around us from the signals they are sending.
If you don’t make your boundaries and expectations clear, then someone else will fill that role. In my case, a Pit Pony had to take over.
If you don’t show leadership, then others will lead you. It’s your choice. Just make sure you’re not being led to the side of the road to eat grass.
Excerpt from my soon to be published book Artful Assertiveness Skills For Women: How to be Calm, Confident, and in Control. Available on Kindle and in paperback soon.
For information on Marti’s and my latest Equine Assisted Learning Workshop, click here.