Let’s talk about anger for a minute. All together now, what’s it called? The FIGHT or FLIGHT response. Option C is FREEZE. Instinct says in that moment, the three most appropriate choices are (in this order): hunker down under a bush and hope no one notices you, run like hell, or ATTACK. Let’s say you have just been to the gas station where your card has been rejected even though you know there's money in there. Instinct says freeze. Picture yourself standing there like a deer in headlights, nozzle in hand . . . that doesn’t really make sense. Option B: instinct says flee. Picture running screaming away from the pump. Tempting . . . comical . . . but not too practical. The only option left over in your limbic system is to fight. Adrenaline is coursing through you. You’ve seen people do it – kick a trash can (or the gas pump), pound a fist on the roof of the car, or somehow display anger in response to something unexpected. Freeze doesn’t feel powerful. That’s what we do when the consequences for fight are big. Probably you’re not going to slug your jerk boss, though some people certainly do. Freeze is gritting your teeth and holding it in. Flee doesn’t make sense most of the time, though we retreat, throw up our hands and say “I’m done with this” or hang up on someone. Fight is the endgame. We don’t like to feel powerless, that’s for sure. A good angry outburst is awesome for a rush of power.
I had the opportunity to reflect on this a great deal lately. My darling Max has not gotten enough exercise in recent years, and the first time I took him out this spring, he bucked like crazy down the trail. Thank you very much, I made my 8 seconds and then some. Scared the heck out of the people riding with me, though, one of whom was my daughter who got a stern advisement on the way home that she was NEVER to repeat ANY of those words Mommy said. She thought that was hilarious. Ok, so I’m out for Mom of the year and it’s only April. This past weekend, I was reminded of a clinic I attended with Centered Riding clinican Becky Hart in which she suggested that the appropriate response to your horse who spooks at something is to pet him and reassure him. Funny how I never thought about this. From Max’s perspective, he’s trotting down the trail, sees the evil and clearly dangerous WalMart bag, from which he prepares to flee, and then is suddenly subjected to harsh scolding in a foreign language from up above – the position a predator would take. Holy Jimmy Buffett! Fins to the left! Fins to the right! And Max is sure he’s the only bait in town! I can tell you with certainty that it is not the first thing on most rider’s minds after a sudden jolt to praise and soothe their horse. From the rider's perspective, we just had a near miss and want to holler at them!!! Let them know that they are IDIOTS for the shy at the same lousy tree stump that has been at that spot on the trail all 47,356 times we’ve ridden by it. That’ll teach em . . . that every time they see that tree stump, they’re about to be startled by loud unpleasantries from above. You bet they spook the next time. Darnit. In the words of Dr. Phil, “How’s that workin’ out for ya, Karen?”
So on my 18 mile training ride this past Sunday, I concentrated on managing my fight or flight response. Every time he shied (windy day – lots of bags) I took a deep breath, re-balanced in the saddle, and petted him. Instead of jerking back on the reins to stop the shy, I grabbed my saddle for support and urged him forward. By the end of our ride, he was relaxed, responsive, and comfortable. I did take full advantage of his lack of fluency in English, and expressed my frustration by, in the sweetest, most soothing voice I could muster, saying “Sweet darling Max, keep it up and our next stop is Purina.” Who am I kidding? Even if he could understand me he’d know I was bluffing. Felt a little more powerful though . . . I guess I still have some work to do. Anyone know a good therapist?