Three Ways To Ride a Horse

I recently coached a client about a work issue; namely, how to work with people whose style and approach is markedly different than one’s own. This difference in style became vexing to my client, to the point where he was not sure how to get his point across and conduct himself in work interactions. Should he push forward with his ideas? Hold back and adopt a different style? It begged a bigger question: How could he use skillful awareness of himself and others to be most effective?

We explored how skillful awareness can be a powerful tool to manage oneself and improve interactions with others. It led to a metaphor I’ve used about managing daily life: riding a horse. Your typical thinking and responses to what is happening in your environment constitute the horse, something outside of yourself that you are closely connected with, like a rider atop of a horse. You ride this horse – your thoughts and responses – continually, day in and day out, but often without much control. For example, a thought or idea comes to you – filtered through all your prior experiences, prejudices and beliefs – and it instantly is churned into something eerily similar to all your prior thoughts. The same holds true for responses to what you perceive is happening in your world. Our habitual responses are so strong and, in many cases, so unrelated to what is really happening, that we fuel misunderstanding between us and others more often than we do understanding. We are not skillfully riding our horse.

Consider a masterful horseman. He appears to be one with the horse, able to read the animal and use that information to direct it where he wants it to go. He is continually aware of what is happening under the saddle, and holds the reins (ie, directs the horse) based on what he is picking up from the animal moment to moment. He is present as well as smart and skillful.

Now imagine managing your daily thoughts and responses as riding your horse. The challenge this creates is simple: Am I leading the horse or is the horse leading me? My observation is that most of us are being led by our thinking and automatic responses. We find ourselves frustrated with others and at times misunderstood, all because we are not fully aware of our thought patterns and subsequent behaviors.

The solution to determining who is in the lead is learning how to ride your metaphoric horse. In my experience, there are three ways to do it:

  1. Hold the Reins Loosely: It’s tempting to hold the reins loosely, letting ourselves be so engaged in what is happening that we forego the opportunity to discern what is really taking place. Suddenly, our thoughts and responses (the horse) lurch forward, bumping us harshly in the saddle and causing us to respond quickly and without much thought. It’s crazy, uncomfortable and fraught with fear. Once the horse eventually slows down, we are in strange territory, wondering how we got there and confused as to how to find our way back again. Essentially, we ceded control from the start, resulting in emotionality, confusion and discord.
  2. Grip the Reins Tightly: The opposite position makes us feel we are in control, yet we are no closer to mastery. Holding the reins of our thinking and responses too tightly means that no new information or understanding can come in. The horse figuratively stops in its tracks, frozen in place and not advancing forward. The fear of riding a wild horse is replaced with the fear of movement or advancement of any kind, lest you cannot control it. You find yourself stuck in a cycle of interactions and beliefs that appear endless, defeating and unproductive.
  3. Hold the Reins Confidently and Firmly, Modulating the Grip as Needed: The third way is the most demanding and most effective. This is what it means to be in the moment, holding an observant posture that translates into using your thoughts and responses to strengthen interactions and advance your thinking. At times, the grip on the reins is tighter to maintain better control. Other times, conditions allow you to loosen up. The point to remember is this: modulate the grip based on what the “horse” is telling you, the terrain you are traveling in and the potential dangers around you. It is in this posture that you are leading the horse, not the other way around.

Admittedly, learning to hold the reins confidently and firmly is a skill requiring practice, failure and continual effort. It takes times to learn how to play with tension and use it to beneficial advantage. Ultimately, the time and effort is worth it. Mastering a skill occurs when it moves from practice to instinct. Be patient and dedicated. After all, who wants to be led around by a horse?


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