The First Indication of Trouble
His name was Clyde. And yes, he came with a Bonnie. That should have been the first indication of trouble.
Or a big red flag.
But I believe when you ask for something in this world, you receive it. My problem is, I always think I know what the answer should look like.
There I go thinking again.
So when I first heard of Clyde, I had one of those inexplicable hits—that jolt of intuition that says, “I got a feeling…”
And I did. That I was his last resort.
He was rescued. From a sale. One of the first things I shared with his owner was, “There’s a reason he was there.” A young, sound, cute little pony doesn’t end up on the chopping block because he’s a joy to handle.
But his rescuer continued with a piece from the story she had written for him. “I think he was abused.”
Any horse whisperer (and I interject that I don’t consider myself one of them) will tell you there’s no such thing as problem animals, only problem people. Or something like that. But the problem I faced was, people created a problem animal and now someone had to un-create it. Or find out if it could be undone.
I was in the same position. I had created some problems. I was immersed in a stress puddle of poo like no other and I wanted out. I wanted to be in a place where I would be viewed as competent because I didn’t feel that way in my relationship, I felt like I had no right answers to every impossible question that was posed by anyone in my chosen career, and I felt like everything was a lose-lose situation that would quickly become a notch on the barrel of shootouts lost. I felt like an old cowboy who had rode into the 21st century with an eye patch, a lame horse and a rusty pee-shooter. It felt real. My despair was tangible.
But I was at a point where I wanted to contribute my energy to something in this world other than my chaos. I wanted to act on a stage where drama wasn’t scripted by me. I needed a diversion, I needed a change. I needed a miracle. What I didn’t know was, all I really needed was presence of mind.
And the one place where I totally embrace the present moment is when I’m working with a horse.
I asked. I received. I volunteered to work with Clyde.
Instantly, I didn’t like the protocol. I was to drive to Clyde’s habitat, be part of a team of handlers, and work under Clyde’s terms, not mine. So I did something I hadn’t done in a long time: I followed my intuition. I made a counter offer.
“Bring him to my barn.”
My barn was familiar to me and I had ponies that would show Clyde a better way. I had a stall, a very small work area and the tools.
This is what I do. This is what I live for. And it was the diversion I needed. It was a way to feel competent.
It was also scary. When she dropped him off, he barely led, he had never lived in a stall (because it was uncomfortable to him) and he couldn’t be caught. Since those are the basic equine skills, it was safe to assume he knew nothing.
Simple enough. At least I knew where to start.
First, I shut him in a stall. He pitched a fit. If he was dumb enough to hurt himself by flailing over a four-foot high solid oak door, I might have sent him home. There is a certain level of intelligence I require in a pony, even one that’s three feet high, and you have to draw the line somewhere.
Then I shut my big pony—my go-to-guy—in an adjoining stall and asked him to keep Clyde company. He did. Clyde relented. Strike one averted. I moved on.
Next, he’d have to work for food. In order to earn anything to eat, he’d have to first take it from my hand. It was immediately evident that he loved food and that was a great sign. A pony that will do anything for food is easy money. But he was smart. He stretched his neck to the max so his muzzle was within a smidge of touching hay, then he retreated and nodded at me. I knew what he was saying.
Put it down.
“Nope, you have to take it.” I talked out loud. He probably thought he did too.
Instantly he hated me. He made this obvious. I didn’t care. He may have not understood that the option for failing to work out his problems with me wouldn’t be a meadow all his own on a secluded resort. It’d be, literally, the chopping block.
Eventually he took the hay, but the first time he did, he grabbed it and spun his butt to me with such quickness, I jumped back in fear.
Fortunately, even at my age, I’m relatively quick, but I couldn’t control the blood coursing through my neck. I swallowed hard. I know horse whisperers say you can’t be afraid when working with an animal, but there’s one thing they don’t tell you: fear will be a factor—surrendering to it is not an option.
I observed. He had expanded on his message.
Put it down and get out.
“No can do, Clydio.”
My diligence prevailed. He surrendered, indignantly. On to the next step.
I called his owner with a question. “Have you ever tied him up?”
“No. Given his behavior I didn’t think he would.”
I found a stout post and tied him low so if he sat back on the rope, he wouldn’t snap the post. Surprisingly, he stood like a champ. He’d stand tied and nibble at the grass through the fence. (Anything for food, remember?) The only thing he didn’t like was me standing beside him. Or trying to touch him. Especially on his right side.
I tied him to another spot where he could see me straight on or only from his right eye to confirm my suspicion. I was right. I love being right. He was left-handed. Entirely.
Then I tied his rope to a spot by my feed-room door where he could watch me go in and out and in and out, repeatedly, from his right. And if he freaked, I let him freak. But he had a soft nose which means he’d fight being tied but wouldn’t care for the pain so would stop before he broke free. I offered him random treats when I passed so he wouldn’t know when he’d get one, but would be curious enough to find me interesting.
Soon, I no longer saw his backside as a greeting.
It became evident he had two assets: he’d do anything for food and he didn’t like pain. I couldn’t have asked for more.
Next, I grabbed a long, stout, cotton rope with a chain on the end that I could cross over his nose for control.
Chain? Isn’t that abusive?
That’s what his owner wondered. When she came to pick him up, I ran through his paces with her. Even as impressed as she was by the change, she said, “Is the chain necessary?”
“Yes,” I answered, “because I only engage it when I need it, and how embarrassing to need it when it’s back in the barn.”
Throughout the relationship, I used that chain because I had one concern: If I asked him to do something he didn’t want to do and he got away from me, he’d have gained a mile by winning an inch. I needed a way to make my demand the only option. I didn’t intend to make the request attractive, just inevitable.
As the days wore on, the more present I was with Clyde, the more present he was with me. The more I listened, the more he tried. The more I pressed, the more he relented.
Finally, the moment came when I pushed him past the circle of comfort he had allowed to grow. I’ll admit we differed here: I thought the circle was small; he thought his boundaries were generous.
In any case, he freaked. And boy did he freak.
He had already learned all the aids and commands while circling me on the end of my rope to the left (counterclockwise)—his preferred side. While doing so, he grew attentive, compliant and relaxed. But when I finally pressed him to give me the same from his right, he whizzed around on the end of an eight foot lead at a hundred miles an hour, the taut line gripped safely by my seasoned leather gloves.
I dug in my heals and held on for dear life.
Normally a horse will run out of steam and give in—do what you asked which is simply to downshift into a walk because they’re exhausted. Then you can praise them. Then they might understand.
Not Clyde. He didn’t like me visible only from his right eye and he was on full emergency mode and wasn’t ejecting. So I engaged my chain and yanked.
He picked up speed. He wouldn’t consider the option. He wasn’t budging.
In my experience, this is the turning point you often reach with an animal. He’s done and he’s sending a clear message: I will not!
Clyde was screaming it at the top of his lungs, scrambling around me in terror. Subtlety wasn’t working so I yanked on my rope with all my might. Then I hauled on it over and over and over. I brought that chain down on the bare bone of his nose so many times he finally stopped, I believe, only to wince in pain. But I had broken through. I’d thrown a stick in his thought process. I had demanded he cease. I insisted he try.
This is what I call the hard stuff. If I had put him away without winning, I’d have lost—in the biggest sense. I could start over, but I’d only encounter this again. Only next time, he’d be more confident. Physically, I’m capable of only so much and had no intention of dying to make my point, so I had one chance.
That chance was now.
He and I had a stare down; I swallowed and summoned my best Clint Eastwood.
He glared. He thought I would buy that he had tried to do exactly that and had been punished. But I wasn’t born yesterday.
“Walk up, Clyde. Walk up.”
No! He reared, he backed, he spun.
I engaged my whip. I knew what I was up against. He’d already won numerous bouts at his old homes through bad behavior against who knows how many people he’d swindled. He’d written the rules for what wouldn’t work for him and that list was a lot longer than the stuff that would. Since he had already deceived everyone everywhere, this, on a battle scale, was War World III. The problem was, I had to conquer to continue. Game over wasn’t an option.
“Walk up Clyde.”
“Walk up, Clyde.”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know what that means because you did it really well from the left. Now, walk up.”
He took off again like he was spooked. I yanked. He stopped and stared.
“Walk up, Clyde.”
I watched his body jerk when the popper struck his ass. But he was sure I only had so much fight in me. He was sure he was tougher.
That wasn’t the first time he had made that mistake.
Now, honestly, he might have authentically been frightened, panicked or victimized. He may have actually suffered abuse or been horribly mishandled by those who misunderstood him in the past. He might have been justified in writing this story and living what he believed was true, but there is one truth about creatures who fail to engage. About living and dying the story. About ponies like Clyde.
I don’t remember her name. Martha, Suzie, Laura… something old school. She, like me, had voluntarily signed on for a weekend outreach organized by the Option Institute, a self-help community somewhere in Massachusetts. Or Connecticut—one of those New England states with a postcard landscape on their website.
I was familiar with Option, had family who had subscribed to their message, so the opportunity to explore my unconsciousness with consciousness professionals intrigued me. Besides, someone else offered to pay. What could I lose?
The philosophy Option taught was based, as far as I knew, on a book called, Happiness is a Choice. I read it so I wouldn’t humiliate myself by expressing in some verbose manner, a belief that would expose my ineptitude. Suffice it to say, my technique was to repress my inner Irish lass (aka keep my mouth shut).
But Martha/Suzie/Laura didn’t. Couldn’t. After a full day of listening to an alien message of choosing happiness barring all circumstances, along with exercises and counseling and outreach and role playing to help us breach the divide between embracing the possibility and embodying our fates, M/S/L went on a tirade. It was a rant of humorous proportions, only because her position was so practiced that her self-deprecation spewed forth like the rehearsed venom of a bitter old comic.
She was ugly, flat-chested and despicable, so she claimed; a physical casualty in a beautiful world, and this was so true to her that the realism was sold as injustice.
We all bought it. We empathized. We tried to make her feel better. We did what any naïve stranger/partner/friend would do when a seemingly worthy person was feeling down.
Not the leader, not the teacher, not the wise among us. They let us analyze the poor soul’s position by using the only tool we had: trying to convince her otherwise. We believed what we were doing was loving and supportive.
“That’s not true.”
“You’re beautiful in so many ways.”
“You shouldn’t think that of yourself.”
“Learn to look at the positives.”
Now, there are many things that can be true in this life, but there are only a few actual truths. And people who see them clearly.
The person who did, told M/S/L why she did what she did (with a wink): “You’re getting mileage from it.”
A pin dropped like a crash. Holy shit went through my mind. It was a complete paradigm shift for me. It was an epiphany.
Of course she was getting mileage from it. Of course it enabled her to earn friendships by garnering pity instead of leading with strength. Of course it was a belief that had festered until ugly become her personification of worth. And of course the complacency she desired was protected by those who would challenge her because what kind of bastard would call a loser a loser?
But the facilitator’s jolt of insight pierced that abscess like a lancet.
I wiped the sweat from my brow. It wasn’t a holy shit for M/S/L, it was an oh, crap for me. How many friendships had I built by playing the victim to the injustices in my mind? How many situations had I manipulated by claiming to be a patsy? How much time had I spent surrendering to my circumstances instead of my intentions?
Clyde was getting mileage from his behavior.
He wasn’t getting off easy.
He heaved his body into a trot. It was still not a walk. He was still testing.
“Unacceptable, Clyde.” I yanked gently for a downshift—a cue he knew. “Walk, Clyde, walk.”
He did, but only for a few steps, then stopped. Celebration ensued. “Good boy, Clyde,” I said, another phrase he knew. “Good boy!” He took a deep breath. “Now walk up, bud. Walk up.”
Again he tried. I needed only a few steps completed in the exact manner I had asked until I wanted a whoa. He delivered. We stopped. I patted him on the head. He got a treat. He went back to his stall. I didn’t touch him for the rest of the day.
That night when I presented his feed dish and waited for him to eat while I held it, he took a quick, resentful bite and pushed the pan to the floor. But that time he didn’t spin his butt toward me when I touched his neck. He might have been thinking, fuck you, but having him authentically hate me instead of selling me his scared bullshit was as much a step in the right direction as those he had taken at the end of my rope.
It was a turning point. It was an epiphany. It was a moment of enlightenment. I pushed him through uncertainty and he understood that quitting was not an option. I had showed him that there’s a better way to be and he agreed.
M/S/L had said she wanted to feel different about herself but did she want it so badly that she wanted the truth as the answer?
I looked at my life. What had happened between that pony and me in that moment was a miracle. And boy did I need a miracle. I needed to know that miracles still happened. I needed to know that as bad as I thought my life had become, there was still the opportunity to hold tight to the end of my rope with gloves made by design and get through. I had created my victim persona and now I had the opportunity to dismantle it.
The past be damned.
It would require transformation, it would require diligence and it would require a facet of discomforts that would factor into change. And the biggest factor was fear.
Oh, and fear will be a factor—surrendering to it is not an option.
Change is painful, change is chaotic and change is uncertainty. It’s also exciting. Clyde was living in discomfort because he was getting mileage from avoiding something different. He used aggression to set his boundaries, believing no one would have the balls to approach. And he succeeded for a long time. He succeeded for so long that the way he felt became his temperament. Then it became his personality. That’s when change seemed impossible.
I didn’t want to end up like him. I didn’t want to be holed up with injustices and abuses. I wanted to end up like something, well, unlike me. I wanted to be fearless and competent and wise. But I forgot that you need to overcome fears to be bold, you need distaste for your own incompetence to seek answers, and you need infinite experience to be wise.
And the only time you get that chance is now. It’s in the present. If you ask for the chance to feel different—to feel amazing and alive, don’t reason it away when it comes along. Don’t say, “Hell, I’m not up for a challenge. That pony is your problem.”
Clyde hopped on a trailer to his forever home in North Carolina. Or South—one of those states with a “Welcome to the Carolinas” postcard. And I’m off on another adventure.
I acknowledged this miracle. I acknowledged my part in it. And I acknowledged that I am one. He was one. You are one.
In the present moment, I acknowledge that if I set my intention, I can’t lose. I will be guided. I can be fearful, I can be uncomfortable and I might hit some hard stuff—really hard stuff. But if I believe that I can prevail just as easily as I believed I could fail, nothing can stand in my way.
You can only witness a miracle when you’re present—when you feel your presence. But wander off into your own script of drama and you’ll only read about them.
Be a miracle. Or better yet, just be.