A number of years ago, when my now almost-adult daughter was three, I had the opportunity to put into practice every bit of faked calm I’ve spent a lifetime working to perfect. This is what happened: In between the lessons I was teaching, the teenager whose job it was to be my daughter’s responsible playmate while I was busy ran up to me, grabbed me by the arm and said, “You should know your daughter just caught a snake and is bringing it to show you.”
Ha. Not what you thought, huh? However, if you have even a passing acquaintance with me you’re aware of how snakes will produce instantaneous cold-sweat, leg-weakening, electric terror that zings from my scalp to the soles of my feet.
Thank God for the practice.
Yeah. Practice. With horses. Lots and lots of it, and this is why: Horses require leadership. They’re afraid of pretty much everything that’s different. New additions to their surroundings, the sudden appearance of a squirrel where there wasn’t one before, mail boxes, bags the wind can blow, odd noises, almost everything white…the list is endless. It makes sense, really. For millions of years horses were a nice entre on most predators’ menus. Because of that, horses run first and don’t bother with the questions later. Bolt and live. No need for analysis once the herd is back to munching grass. No one is going feel the need to question why Dobbin started the stampede. They’re alive, having escaped possible danger, it’s all good.
What does leadership have to do with this? It’s the herd look-out (one of the responsible horses in the group) who often signals the danger. The other horses accept this without a thought. When humans stepped into the equine equation we became (essentially) part of the herd. It is our job to be the alpha-horse, to build trust and obedience. Our word is law. Part of achieving this alpha-horse status is the ability to remain calm and not react in a nervous manner, particularly in dicey situations where our horse is tapping into that ancient flight/fight response. It’s a safety issue, too. A frightened horse is very very dangerous. Projecting calm as the alpha-herd-member, particularly when you’re not feeling it, goes a long way to keep a potentially perilous situation under control.
This works quite well with an all human cast, too. The ability to convincingly project calm and rational behavior will promote and encourage the same in others.
How did the snake incident work out? Having a moment’s warning to let me grab hold of my phobia with both hands helped. When my daughter ran up with her new “toy” writhing in her little fist I exclaimed how pretty it was, told her it was a common garden snake, and would probably appreciate being put back where she’d found it so it could play with its friends. She conceded that I was right, since the snake kept biting her and trying to get away, and turned the thing loose in the tall grass. At 18 she still has no fear of snakes. I avoided passing along my phobia. Yay for me! Pretending did the job.