I love this quote from Anna Blake, horse advocate, author, speaker, and clinician. “The gift that comes with bad behavior is a chance for positive leadership. It’s a chance to reward his vulnerability and honesty with compassion rather than punishment. Lots of us didn’t grow up in homes that ran by these rules and the help we give our horses heals us a bit as well.”
Learning to see behavior as communication is a game changer. Pausing and creating space for a different response than our often ego-driven reactive patterns takes time and compassion for ourselves when we stumble along the way. We probably won’t get it right all the time, but just noticing a response we aren’t happy with is the first step toward choosing something different in the future.
My little arabian colt Tru started biting when he was about 8 months old. I noticed this behavior was most pronounced when I was up near his head and when I tried to halter him. When attempting to put his halter on, he would swing his head around, grab it with his teeth, bite at the air, or if I was close enough, bite at me. I worked hard to approach this behavior with curiosity and respond productively rather than reactively. I suspected that his biting was actually an expression of anxiety. I tried giving him a little more room, stepping back by his shoulder instead of up by his head. I practiced breathing and waiting. I worked on my patience. When he took the halter in his mouth and held it, I said, “Ok, we can’t go out to the others if you won’t let me halter you.” I left for a while and then came back and tried again. I went slowly, paying attention to his signals that he was ready, or not ready, offering him a choice. Slowly he became less reactive, less anxious and it was easier and easier to halter him.
He doesn’t bite anymore. He is easy to halter and will often show me when he wants to come in by finding me and trying to put his head in the halter. Most of that change came because I worked on myself- responding with curiosity, compassion, and clarity. Of course, it’s not ok to let a horse or a human walk all over us or push us around and depending on the situation, we may need to respond differently or more assertively. But getting angry and reactive, going into “punishment mode”, ultimately damages the relationship, causing more harm than good. We can keep ourselves safe by setting firm boundaries or creating and respecting a need for space while working to understand and ultimately change the behavior. With Tru, I suspected the root cause of his “bad” behavior was actually anxiety. By stepping back and giving him more physical space and time, he learned to calm his nervous system and we continued to build a relationship based on trust and mutual respect.
I have a colleague who set a beautiful example of seeing behavior as communication and responding to an angry colleague in a calm and productive way. When a physician of a patient she had seen called her on the phone, raging out at her about some perceived infraction, she calmly said “Where are you?” and then went to talk with him in person. She recognized his behavior may be expressing many things- a boundary violation she had committed unintentionally, a long stressful day, a lack of sleep, or perhaps even frustration with himself or the patient. She showed up, listened intently with compassion, held her ground, explained her actions without getting reactive or angry in return. The situation diffused, and I believe he respected her more after that beautiful example of true strength.
We are all capable of creating new ways of thinking and new patterns of behavior to become positive leaders for others in our lives. Here’s to the long, hard, frustrating, and beautifully rewarding journey that is worth all of it.