There is a difference between nice and kind. Let’s say you are out to dinner with friends enjoying yourself without realizing you have a little lettuce stuck in your teeth. Nice is the friend that ignores it so as not to embarrass you, but she keeps glancing at you. You can tell she is staring at something, but you don’t know what and get uncomfortable and self-conscious wondering what her deal is. Kind is the one who leans in for a quick whisper (or catches your attention and shares a subtle gesture suggesting that you check if she is sitting across the table from you) letting you know that you have lettuce in your teeth so as not to cause a scene but helps you out. Of course, you are momentarily embarrassed, but you are also immediately grateful for her being direct so you could fix it.
I heard a great sermon from pastor Kevin Weatherby of Save the Cowboy the other day about nice versus kind in the biblical sense, and it got me thinking a lot about how applicable that is to our horsemanship. Kevin made a great point of how Jesus was kind, not nice. Jesus rebuked people and corrected people in ways that, according to social etiquette of the time and even now, were not nice. Jesus was kind in that this correction came from a place of great love. Jesus loves unconditionally and loves us enough to die for our sins. He gave us extremely specific, clear directions on how to live as Christian men and women. Kindness is loving someone enough to guide them with clear and understandable boundaries to help them succeed.
In the same way, our horses need clear, understandable boundaries to succeed as our partners. Many times, when we work with our horses, we try so hard to be nice that we are unclear to them what we actually want. This then causes the horse to become frustrated as the pressure of our expectation of a response remains with no direction guiding desired behavior. Then it becomes frustrating for the human who then increases the ineffective pressure, and the cycle continues until either the human gives up, defeated and disheartened, or the horse guesses correctly or coincidentally and the human stops. The horse hasn’t learned what we want because he is unable to recognize from the communication offered what is expected of him and the release is not clear enough to tell him that he did what we wanted. Neither one feels better, and the next time is just as difficult or even more so.
So, how do we become effective without becoming “mean” or too harsh? When it comes to relating to our equine partners, we all, I would hope, strive to be as gentle as possible in everything we do. Gentleness is kindness. Gentleness and kindness come from a place of deep love. Clear boundaries can seem harsh at first, particularly to people who struggle to maintain them for themselves in their everyday lives, but effective boundaries are critical to respect and communication. A clear, firm boundary is much more understandable and effective, and therefore kinder, than a weak nagging request for the sake of being “nice” that becomes a nuisance to be tuned out and tolerated.
The secret is in the intent. Giving clear instruction with firm boundaries rooted in great love. Anger and cruelty have no place in good horsemanship. Anger happens when the human feels shame or frustration due to being ineffective. Horses do not have an agenda to undermine us, no matter how many anthropomorphic anecdotes exist from people who have felt shamed by their inability to communicate with their horse. We must remember always that the horse did not ask for this relationship…we have inserted ourselves into their lives and demanded a relationship with them, not the other way around. Because of this, we bear even more responsibility to be kind, always.