Two weekends ago, our family went to a nearby community arena to a unique presentation by horsemaster and pastor Lew Sterrett entitled "Sermon on the Mount". In this case, the title doesn't refer to the famous teaching of Christ recorded in Matthew 5-7, but rather to Sterett's method of using the behaviour of an unbroken colt or other troublesome horse to illustrate some crucial spiritual and practical life principles.
I am not a horse person, or even a farm girl generally, but I had heard from several people that this presentation was really fascinating and well worth watching. So when my husband suggested we take the kids and go, I said, "Sure, why not?" I'd had an upsetting couple of days online, plagued by interpersonal difficulties and misunderstandings that I just couldn't seem to resolve, so getting away from the computer and getting my mind off the situation seemed like a good idea.
I had no idea just how good attending Lew's presentation would turn out to be.
As I've mentioned here before, I hate feeling misunderstood. I hate not being able to communicate what is really in my heart toward other people, I hate unresolved conflicts, I hate the thought that there are people out there who dislike me because they've got the wrong impression about who I am and what I stand for. My first impulse is always to explain myself, try and justify myself in their eyes -- and yet, that often just seems to make them even more suspicious and offended. On the whole I try to avoid getting into those kinds of situations, but sometimes they happen anyway, and this was definitely the case a couple of weeks ago. I found myself praying to the Lord for help and guidance, some sense of peace about what I'd done already or some direction as to what else I ought to do, because I really felt myself at a loss.
When we arrived at the racetrack where the "Sermon on the Mount" was being held, we were handed a newsletter from Lew's organization. On the front page was this article, and as I read it, I felt my eyes start to mist over, because so much of what he'd written was exactly what I needed to hear. Then Lew rode out on his horse Spark and began talking.
He began by telling the audience that he uses neither the threat of punishment nor any material reward to train horses. He doesn't intimidate or force them into behaving unnaturally, nor does he bribe them to cooperate, but simply works patiently with a horse until it learns to trust him and work in partnership with him. His own horse Spark was so responsive and attentive that it didn't need a bridle even when performing complex maneuvers around the ring -- just a slight pressure of the thighs and a few whistles and clicks were enough -- and when Lew dismounted and walked around talking to the audience, Spark stayed absolutely still, head and ears swivelling automatically to follow Lew wherever he went.
After Lew had finished his introductory remarks, an unbroken, skittish colt (locally owned, and unfamiliar to Lew) was led into the ring. Lew gently took hold of the colt's bridle and brought it alongside Spark, so that the two horses could walk together. As the colt resisted, either by hanging back or trying to run ahead, Lew talked about the human heart and will, and the difficulties involved in building relationships. Often we try to force people to see things our way, and when they resist or fail to respond as we'd hoped, it's easy for us to become angry or else to give up on them. Lew pointed out that neither response is godly or Biblical.
Most of us know that it's not right to return evil for evil, but withdrawing from people or having a cynical attitude toward them isn't right, either. Instead, we need patience in relating to those who oppose us; we need to be willing to let them work things out in their own way and at their own speed. When they react fearfully or angrily toward us -- as the colt did, shying away from Lew's touch and resisting the pressure on the halter -- we need to give them space and freedom to make their own choices, but at the same time to remain close and try to work positively in their lives. Lew let the colt have his head to an extent, and he never jerked him around or pushed him to do something he wasn't ready for, but he did keep trotting alongside him, using Spark as an example to the colt. He watched the colt's responses closely, to see if he was ready for the next step or not -- and if he wasn't ready, he just kept working with him until he was.
By the end of an hour, that colt had gone from being visibly fearful of Lew and unwilling to have his ears or head touched, to quietly accepting a full-body rubdown, then a blanket, then a saddle, and finally pushing his nose into Lew's hand for comfort while Lew's assistant Nicole mounted him. No violence was used, no bribes or tricks, and Lew had never so much as raised his voice, yet thanks to Lew's patience and Spark's quiet but persistent example, that colt was fully "broken" and willing to work in partnership with the Master.
I realized, over the course of that two-hour presentation, that my attitude toward conflict with others needs to change. Instead of being defensive and standing up for my "right" to be understood and accepted, I need to let self go, and focus on the Lord and His will instead. How can I honour and glorify Him in my life, and act in a way that draws others to Him, even (and especially) when other people step on my toes and make my life miserable? I'm not sure I know the exact answer to that question -- it's bound to be different in every circumstance, and with every individual. But as long as I'm willing to keep asking that question of myself, I know that I can trust the Lord to supply the answers as needed.
I never thought I'd see a horse as a role model, but -- after that presentation, I've decided I want to be more like Spark.