In her most recent book, Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown talks about speaking truth to bullshit in the quest for true belonging. After attending her talk in Austin, TX earlier this week and reading that chapter in her book, I felt so grateful that I have had the opportunity to personally experience this and witness others experience it through our work with horses
in therapy and coaching. Intense emotion rose up as I began to recall the times when this has happened, as it does for every client I've had who works with a horse. Its always a very difficult experience that brings discomfort, struggle, and an unraveling that begins many clients down the "rumble path", as I like to call it.
The rumble path (inspired by Berne's own words and work) is the fork in the road of your way of being and life journey that has always been there, but that you've either avoided traveling or haven't ever seen before. If you've avoided it, you have for good reason. Its a very daunting and perilous path rife with seemingly overwhelming obstacles, threats of deadly monsters, deep treacherous waters, and the most terrifying of all- dark shadows with unknown creatures, demons, and forces of nature. It is what Brene Brown refers to as the wilderness. Taking the rumble path and entering the wilderness is some of the most risky business we'll ever engage in as human beings, but the pay-off is uniquely and overwhelmingly rewarding to each individual who follows their own rumble path.
Horses, as a species, are adeptly familiar with the rumble path. While we humans like to think we've improved life for horses collectively through domestication, we still haven't thoroughly examined or seen through our own BS in the way we engage with and perceive horses. Because of this, horses have learned to navigate a new wilderness for them which is engagement and life with human beings. When we take a moment to be generous and curious about this, we see that horses have an innate, seemingly easily accessible ability to speak truth to BS.
Horse are (or can quickly become when give the opportunity) masters at speaking truth to BS. They embody the mindfulness, intuition, strength, and attunement that it takes to dig into the biggest, deepest, oldest piles of bullshit. They have the fortitude and courage it takes to set that loaded shovel right in front of your face for examination and discovery alongside you. They have the grace and vulnerability it takes to be civil, compassionate, and forgiving about it. And they have the serene perseverance it takes to help you call truth to your own bullshit and reveal within you the same qualities, abilities, and courage to continue to do so for yourself and others. The story of Quito and Bailey is one of many I have witnessed and facilitated that demonstrates this point.
Quito was a young horse chosen as a therapy partner by an adolescent girl who had been struggling with depression, anxiety, loneliness, issues with her peers and with adults in her life, and had recently begun failing classes and dropping out of some of her favorite activities. This had become a concern for her caregivers as Bailey's one area of constant success in her life was academics. A highly intellectual and creative young woman, Bailey had a masterful way with words and a sharp quick wit that she would often prick you with and move along before you'd even realized what had happened. Bailey's wit would irritate her peers and get her in trouble with teachers and adults whenever she used it. It had become a very useful mechanism for keeping others at bay. Bailey's unexpected violent outbursts also served this purpose well, though Bailey told us that she was convinced it was everyone else who was pushing her away and causing her the pain and loneliness she felt. There was validity to this as Bailey had been neglected and emontianlly abused by her previous caregivers, but as often happens with young experiencers of complex trauma, these patterns of relationship become so familiar and ingrained that they are recreated in all other relationships. This was happening in Bailey's life.
Upon their meeting, Quito approached Bailey and stood right between her and the other horses. In fact, Bailey didn't get much of an opportunity to meet the other horses as Quito demanded all of her attention that session, constantly repositioning himself between her and the other horses. Bailey "chose" Quito as her therapy horse and spent a little bit of time getting to know him before the session was completed. This process looked like Bailey standing against the fence, petting Quito as he pressed her closer and closer to the fence with his body. Bailey said she was comfortable with Quito pressing her against the fence, though the tightness in her jaw and the stiffness of her muscles indicated otherwise. Nevertheless, she continued to pet him. Once the sessions was over, it was time to leave, and Bailey had to find a way to get free from her horse & fence confines. Bailey, squeezed between Quito & the fence, shimmying her way towards his head and finally nudging his head away as she managed to slide between him and the fence. Quito stood calmly and quietly, head down, eyes half opened, seemingly unconcerned about moving his body at all.
As Bailey continued to come work with Quito, the same kind of pattern played out. Bailey maintained a stoic expression as session after session, Quito slowly & gently pushed his way into Bailey's space, nudging her with his head, pushing his shoulder into her body until she moved her feet, and walking past her and brushing her to the side while she was standing in the center of the round pen. One session, Bailey's stoic exterior broke and she began showing anger towards Quito. She pushed and pushed on him as he began his usual shoulder shove, tears in her eyes and rage on her face as Quito moved her over with his shoulder despite her best efforts of pushing him away from her. Quito was never aggressive. He never bit, kicked, or stepped on her. He simply just kept pushing her out of whatever space she was occupying and kept doing so until one day, Bailey began talking about how Quito was reminding her of her verbally abusive caregiver. Bailey recounted ways in which he would manipulate and lie to her, then punish her for speaking up or expressing a need. Bailey admitted after the first session she had decided Quito was just like this caregiver and that she wasn't going to put herself in the position to let him hurt her, so she just tried to act like Quito's pushing didn't bother her. But it did. That day, as Bailey began to realize that behaving with Quito the way she had needed to behave with her abusive caregiver wasn't going to work, she resolved to try a different approach with Quito. That session, as Bailey dug inside and let the BS of the belief system developed by her trauma be revealed and questioned, Quito moved away from her and stood on the other side of the pen with his head and ears pointed toward Bailey. He didn't push her or lean on her the rest of that session. He simply stood watch as she unloaded the BS he had seen from the beginning.
Bailey and Quito's work wasn't done there. They continued digging through the BS together until it was out of the way and a healthy relationship between the two could emerge. Quito continued to call Bailey out on her BS. After one layer was uncovered, another would emerge and Quito would simply adjust and keep calling truth to each new layer in a new and meaningful way. He never gave up on Bailey. He never let her off easy and he never harmed her in the process. And the second she responded to him in truth instead of BS, no matter how ugly that truth looked, he stood at attention, respected her space, and connected with her. As their connection grew and Bailey became more herself, she also called some truth to Quito's BS and helped him with some things that were causing him problems in his life. They traveled down their rumble paths together and the reward for both was pathways to healthier relationship with themselves and others.