In August, I adopted a wild mustang.
The horse, not the car. Although he is bright red with a racing stripe along his back. And thus his name: Shelby.
(Which also reminds me of Thomas Shelby from Peaky Blinders – bad ass.)
Horses have always been my best teachers, and Shelby is no exception.
Of course, having adopted a wild horse, I’ve learned that most people have no idea we’ve even got them in the US, but have them we do. Descended from the horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish conquistadors, they run free mostly in the western states. Those herds on public land are protected and tended by the Bureau of Land Management.
Since public lands are limited, horses run the risk of overpopulating the territory; thus, they’re gathered at regular intervals to prevent them from over grazing the land and ultimately starving to death. Since the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971 prevents the slaughter of these living legends, the government adopts them out to willing and caring homes who’ve gone through an approval process.
There’s a lot more to it than that and the whole thing is slathered in controversy, but let’s not get into all that right now (if you’re interested, though, I can recommend the movies Wild Horse, Wild Ride and Unbranded, both available on Amazon).
Shelby has been a project. I seem him nearly every day of the week, and we spend hours together. We’ve gone from him running wide-eyed to the far end of the pen if I flicked a finger too fast to me giving him big hugs with both arms around his neck.
He nuzzles my pockets looking for treats and adores long walks through the surrounding neighborhoods (as far as blankets and saddles go, though, he remains skeptical).
Everything is new for this guy. Think about it, it’s the closest thing you could imagine to being abducted by aliens. There he was, out in the wild for three years — his entire life — never interacting with a human. And one day, big noisy helicopters with their whirling propellers chased him and his family into an enclosure where he found himself surrounded by objects and machinery and strange, two-legged creatures.
All of this? Completely foreign. Every sound, every smell is suspect.
Show a domestic horse a plastic feed pan and he’ll come running for the delicious grain he knows awaits him. Wave one at my mustang and he heads for the hills. After all, how can he be sure it’s not going to eat him?
In a world where instant gratification is the constant demand, Shelby reminds me daily not only that patience is a virtue, but that sometimes the long road actually accomplishes the goal faster.
Faster than pushing, gritting, efforting and tensing.
Because as it turns out, hustle doesn’t always help you get what you want.
This runs directly contrary to popular cultural wisdom, especially in the US. Man, if you don’t have what you want already, the whole world tells you to push harder.
Get up an hour earlier, stay up later, pull the all nighters. Get a second (or third) job and work, work, work.
If you’re not getting ahead, every remnant of advice you’re gonna find will tell you to shove. Nose to the grindstone, and all that nonsense.
This mentality applies to every aspect of life because, as it turns out, culture is a way of thinking. It permeates all things. It’s the filter through which you view the world, so like rose colored glasses, it tints your life pink.
(And it turns out that this is a convenient way to keep those who are oppressed busy, overstimulated, exhausted by decision fatigue and ultimately pliant.)
I’m alarmed at the demands placed on our bodies, our brains and our souls in this modern era. There’s no time for respite. I’m hearing from parents of children from primary school through high school that their kids are booked solid.
Booked solid? I didn’t know what an appointment was when I was young.
Hours spanned my afternoons and homework was easily dispatched amongst the flotsam and jetsam of friends and books and random creative projects. Even riding horses competitively and schlepping from horse show to horse show week after week didn’t demand the extensive hours of commitment faced by children today.
I am old enough to remember the vow that computers would facilitate our lives — increase our leisure time. Someone recently quoted this same empty promise to me and I nearly sprayed coffee out my nose.
Because the mechanization of the world? Hasn’t freed us. It has mechanized us right along with everything else.
We’re under constant and unrelenting pressure to squeeze just a a milliliter of extra productivity from our exhausted cells. Downtime is a dirty word.
Not only do we have to have it all, we also have to do it all. And then we wonder why we crap out. Why our bodies collapse in exhaustion, why our necks feel throttled by our own muscles.
I cannot even tell you how many of my clients feel physically, if not mentally, better when they’re away from work. Really. Slowing down has tangible, physical effects.
I am competitive. Don’t get me wrong. There are times for pushing, and I don’t suffer weakness lightly, in myself or others. Strength of character is not to be dismissed, and most often that’s what gets you through the rough patches.
I’m not saying we should all lounge around and eat bacon-wrapped dates all day long.
(Well, okay, once in a while we should definitely do that.)
But let me tell you this: sometimes you get a lot further when you pull back a little.
That competitive me, let me tell you, she wanted to be on that wild horse in like four weeks. Maybe. What are we at now, almost five full months of work? Yeah, I’m laughing at my former self right now. I was so much younger then, and terribly naive.
With a wild horse, every tiny iota of progress is worth popping a cork on that champagne you’ve been saving. And I mean every. single. one.
Touching him on the nose. Getting a halter on for the first time. Picking up his feet. Putting a blanket on his back. Combing his tail.
Everything is new. Every time you interact with him, he’s terrified you’re going to eat him for dinner. And every time you interact with him is an opportunity to prove to him that’s not going to happen.
Sometimes, I would be making so much progress. Shelby was relaxed, accepting of my current folly (standing him next to a horse eating footstool, say, or touching his back with the saddle pad whose ancestors were likely in the cougar family) I’d try for just a smidge more.
And boom. It was like rolling back some cosmic progress wheel. That tiny bit extra? Was just one thing too much. Suddenly we went from something being not a scary object to being an instrument of death forbidden within fifty feet of my spirited red horse.
Your nervous system is not so very different from Shelby’s. Honestly. People think working with horses is different, but it’s not. It’s precisely the same — easier even.
Horses don’t have language. They’re completely honest with you about what kind of bandwidth they’ve got left (if you’re paying attention, unlike some would be go-getter wild horse owners — ahem!).
At least fifty percent of my work with clients is helping their bodies and brains slow down. Because unlike Shelby, you’re not subject to the whims of your nervous system.
You can work with yourself the same way I’m gentling Shelby. Imagine if I just ran at him and threw the saddle on his back before earning his trust. Imagine if I started wrenching his legs and prodding his hooves with horseshoes and nails. Imagine if, when he struggled and shied and, overcome by fear, tried to escape, I just increased the force.
More ropes. More restraints. More pressure. More coercion.
How well do you think that would work out in the long run? Probably not so hot. Sure, I’d get the saddle on him, shoes on his feet, but how long could he cork that fear before we both suffered an eruption?
This is what we’re doing to ourselves. To our highly sensitive, delicate, sophisticated, organic selves.
Your skin can feel a hair dragged across it or the gentlest wisp of a breeze. Why do you think it needs a hundred tons of pressure before it’s willing to release tension?
Constant pushing is making us numb.
Modern humanity is moving at an unprecedented speed. Even neurological research shows that increased cognitive velocity creates incoherence between different regions of the brain.
So maybe next time you find yourself squashed under the grindstone of productivity, wriggling to get free, slow down just a little bit. Strike one thing off your to-do list. Take an hour to stare at the clouds. Or just move your limbs more deliberately.
Like listening to music, pay attention to the spaces between your movements. Feel them stretch and expand, in turn, creating more space for you.
Because, in the end, slow often gets you there faster than fast.
(Said the tortoise to the hare.)