NB: This was set to publish itself yesterday. I must have made a mistake somewhere, because I discovered today that it did not. Timely mistake, timely subject.
Mistakes–we all make them. Things we wish we could undo. Regrets. Minor stuff: giving the wrong cue for a lead or accidentally digging in a spur. Yelling at our kids or spouse when speaking in a softer tone would do just as nicely. Major stuff: losing our temper and whacking a horse with nippers. Yanking hard on the lead when the horse fails to go where you want at the pace you want. Family transgressions we don’t even want to remember. Sometimes we overlook our mistakes, or believe we have been correct in our behavior. Sometimes we are wracked with guilt over them. The Dalai Lama himself has written about how as a young man he aimed his slingshot at a bird. Fortunately, he did not hit it, but he remembers the momentary impulse.
The lucky thing is we have a choice with regard to the mistakes we make: looking back, whether it’s instantly afterward or after some time has elapsed, it’s how we view our mistakes that makes a difference. In our lives and in those of our horses. We can look back with regret and feel guilty and ashamed of what we have done or we can reconcile ourselves with the fact that what we know now helps us make a change for the better. The key to the latter is holding an inner softness, an acceptance of ourselves as fallible human beings. Looking gently and honestly at ourselves. As Pema Chödrön says, “The first step is to dive into the experience of feeling bad. Make friends with that feeling.” Tara Brach (author of Radical Acceptance) echoes this sentiment with this statement: “We cannot be accepting of our experience if our heart has hardened in fear and blame.”
The concept of motivation or intent is most relevant here. Mindful decisions, made with genuine intention to do the right thing rather than take the easy way out should not weigh on us, even if they turn out to feel wrong. A case in point: a friend had her horse euthanized for an episode of colic. A later necropsy revealed euthanasia to have been unnecessary. The colic could have reversed itself with treatment. Her guilt and remorse over this decision was huge. Yet, at the time, under the duress of saving her horse from agonizing pain, she made the best, most informed decision she could. In time, she was able to “make friends” with her mistake, to see that she made it in the best interest of her horse. To allow herself a softness and acceptance of grief over the decision, but to relinquish self-blame and guilt.
Things we do in the heat of the moment, however, without the proper knowledge, forethought or mindful care, are less easy to forgive ourselves for. When I first learned to ride and care for horses, I was taught cowboy horsemanship. I cringe at the terrible things I did to horses in the name of horsemanship. But I have learned to accept them as a part of my experience. I no longer feel guilty about them because I know that the horses hold me blameless and I now know better. Everything is impermanent: even our mistakes.
Animal experts, including Linda Tellington-Jones and Temple Grandin, assure us that animals live only in the present moment. Despite what Disney would have us believe, guilt and grudge-bearing are exclusively human traits. We anthropomorphize our animals when we feel guilt about our mistakes or believe that, for example, a horse is out to get us. Buddhist thought shores up this idea by saying that it is only those us us who have been blessed by a human birth are haunted by images and occurrences of the past, and who separate ourselves from intimate contact with now, this moment, by discursive thought and our judgment of it. Evidence suggests that animals do not.¹ Anthropomorphism is evidence of deep love for our animals. So are guilt and worry about them. But really, they harken back to our own ego, our desire to make our animals “just like us.”
In terms of making mistakes with our animals, feeling that they are “just like us” limits our ability to deal with them realistically, and to deal with our feelings about any errors we may have made. Holding on to our mistakes instead of finding that soft spot in ourselves, accepting that we are human and will err, allows us to move forward and make every moment new, as animals do. Fresh clarity and new opportunities for communication and bonding arise when we let go of our feelings that we have let our horses down. Or that someone in the past has abused out horse.
Right now, it’s just this horse, this person. Two open hearts. Nothing else is necessary.
¹ For those who tend to hold on to even their horses’ previous trauma, because it manifests itself in today’s behavior, experts remind us that it’s not the actual trauma or the memory of the trauma that the horse is holding on to. Any related behavior is a conditioned response to similar stimuli.
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