This article was co-authored by Katie Purdie.
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Recently, my daughter, Katie, was in charge of a teen retreat for the Utah Hemophilia Foundation. As part of their experience, the young people were introduced to a technique of taming a wild horse called gentling. During the process, she learned something about the way God might gentle us into a relationship of trust to tame our “natural man” and thus reach our potential.
The day began by observing a skilled master trainer work with a wild, three-year-old filly. The young horse had never been ridden and was on high alert, skittish to any movement or noise. The master explained that fear is the obstacle to be overcome. Why? Because wild horses instinctively interpret their environment through the filter of fear. For instance, a sudden noise or a slight touch could be a snake, or the appearance of a man could represent a predator, like a mountain lion. Understanding the horse’s innate fears of being isolated in a corral away from its herd and how it processes foreign sounds, touches and sensations help the master patiently reduce the animal’s apprehension and eventually gain its confidence.
Gentling is light-years removed from the method of breaking a horse shown in westerns. Whereas19th century techniques were violent, abusive and forced, causing the horse to fear its master, gentling is loving, patient, and understanding, allowing the animal to use its agency to learn to obey and trust. Ultimately, the horse chooses to submit to the gentle persuasions of its master. The horse master described gentling as “TLC”—trust, learning and communication. The master and the horse must first learn to trust each other before the horse can learn the most basic of commands. In the process, the horse and master discover how to communicate with each other.
The training had already begun about three weeks before Katie and her group arrived that day to observe the final steps. During the ensuing weeks, the master had started with the end-goal in mind: to be able to saddle and ride the horse; to become one with the horse. Understanding that the end-goal could not be achieved unless the filly felt comfortable with him, the master had begun the painstaking process of desensitizing the animal to its fears in order to gain its trust.
The training process began by placing the horse in a circular corral so it could not cower in a corner and feel trapped. Then introductions ensued; the master and the horse had to get to know each other. This was not so easy. Remember, the horse instinctively sees the master as dangerous. Therefore, to neutralize the animal’s fear, the master had employed a non-threatening strategy to help the filly become used to him.
Standing a distance away, the master first climbed into the corral and stood at the opposite end. The horse was upset at first, but when she settled down and accepted him into her space, the master began a slow approach toward her as he spoke in a quiet, reassuring voice. If the horse bolted, the master would stop and retreat a pace, allowing her to accept his presence and nearness; then the master would try taking a few steps toward her again. With each approach, the master respected the horse’s agency and yielded to her desire to allow him to draw near. Now, after three weeks of becoming acquainted, Katie’s teens would watch the master perfect his work.
Accepting the Master’s Touch
By this time, the master could place his hands upon the filly, softly at first, then he applied more pressure as she would allow. The act of touching and applying more and more pressure served to establish a trusting connection between the two. Next, the master employed a long rod that acted as an extension of his arm. To the end of the rod, he tied a sack. Then, as if to simulate a snake, he drew it close to the horse’s hind quarters, rattling the sack around near the ground and sometimes brushing against the legs. Later, when he had desensitized the horse from this supposed danger, he rattled the sack near or touched it on other parts of the horse’s body.
The master made no sudden moves, but spoke comfortingly as he gently brought the sack close. Beyond desensitizing the animal from its instinct to interpret the sounds and motions of the sack as that of a snake, the tactic had another purpose: to help the horse learn to trust the master when he placed foreign objects in the horse’s proximity.
At first, the filly hated the sack. For an hour, she shied, bolted and ran the circumference of the corral before she settled down. Finally, she seemed to realize that the master could be trusted and that the sack was not dangerous. Then the master would introduce a new object: a rope or a saddle, for instance. Each time the master presented her with something foreign, the filly had to start all over again with learning to trust the master with this new object.
And the timeframe was essentially the same each time. The time it took for the filly to get used to the rod and the sack approximated the time it took for her to accept the rope and the saddle. Only the gentle patience of the master helped her through this essential process. Unless she could trust the master when unknown objects or sounds burst upon her environment, she could not prove trustworthy or safe to ride. Eventually, she allowed the master to introduce a number of objects and sounds to her without fear.
Increasing the Level of Trust through Advanced Learning
Next, the master discarded the rod and sack and introduced a rope, an object that the horse would have to learn tolerate every day of its life. Of course, the rope looked very much like a snake, so the animal’s immediate reaction was fear, especially when the master swung the rope around his head. Again, the master made no threatening or sudden movements, but he employed reassuring communication as he attempted to gain the horse’s trust with this foreign object.
At length, when the horse began to settle down, the master let the horse feel the rope on various parts of its body. If the filly reared or bolted at the touch, the master would withdraw until the horse calmed down, then he would approach her again and let her feel the rope until she accepted it. Each time, the horse chose how much it would allow.
Interestingly, the master never let up. If the horse acquired one skill, the master would immediately build upon that skill by introducing a harder skill. The process was exhausting for both the master and the horse, but if the master backed off and didn’t push forward, the horse would regress, become lazy, forget the skill and never arrive at the completion of its training. By design, then, the master could never give the horse a break.
He had to continue to apply the pressure of training for the horse’s sake, introducing progressively tougher concepts, one right after another.
All the while, however, the master allowed the horse its agency and timing; how much and when it would learn were completely a matter of choice. Again, with each acquired skill, the horse seemed to gain more trust in and understanding of the master and become more and more submissive as it progressively let go of fear and resistance.
On the Right Side and the Left Side
Another fascinating observation made by Katie’s teens was that the master taught the horse its skills both on the right side and then on the left side. If the horse only learned to tolerate the sack or the rope on its left side, for instance, she could never be ridden and would forget what it had learned. The skill was not completely perfected until the horse could perform equally well on either side and under any condition. The master’s purpose was to train the horse thoroughly.
Ready for the Bridle
As mentioned, one of the most difficult challenges was for the horse to accept the feel of the rope, especially on its head. For an hour, the master approached and retreated, attempting to touch the rope to the horse’s head. He always yielded to the horse’s choice. When the animal finally allowed the rope to touch the face, the master began the painstaking process of looping the rope over the horse’s head so that she could be lead. At first, the horse resisted the rope around its neck, so the master removed it to let the horse relax and think about its choice. Then he would try again and again.
When the horse finally allowed the rope to be looped over its head, the master moved the rope to the girth and attempted to loop the rope around the horse’s middle. Then he alternatively synched and loosened the rope at different spots to simulate a saddle. As always, the horse decided if and when it would choose to tolerate the new sensation.
Every time that she was presented with a new object or felt a new sensation on different parts of her body, she would buck and bolt then eventually settle down. Finally, when she was convinced she was safe, she would allow it. At the end of the day, the master was able to bridle and saddle her without resistance.
God’s Gentling Work
Have we ever wondered why we never seem to get a break in this life? Often trials come sequentially or simultaneously with no time to catch our breath. Have we ever considered that a Master Trainer is working with us to an end that we cannot presently envision?
How might this training ensue? Might he start by corralling us into a foreign area, isolating us from a comfortable environment and relationships? Now we sense him climb in with us, inviting us to sense his presence and get used to him. Then he takes a step toward us. Do we bolt and grow apprehensive?
Imagine how he patiently waits for us to accept him and the objects and lessons that he places before us. Imagine how he reaches out to us from a distance and finally places his hands upon us, softly at first, then applying more pressure until we fully accept his touch. With any of his approaches, if we react with fear or mistrust, he withdraws a pace to let us regroup, but he never exits the corral. He is always there, advancing and stepping back as needed, speaking reassuring words, always encouraging us to accept him and his lessons, applying increasing pressure, introducing new ideas, helping us to perfect new skills, first on one side and then on the other. Always with the end goal in mind!
All of this training is our choice, of course. How fast we accept him and his teaching is totally up to us. When we finally trust that both God and his ways are neither dangerous nor limiting, we allow him to lay the rope and saddle upon us and lead us to a new life in which we become one with him. This new life and skill set are safe, secure, fulfilling, saturated with freedom and enlightenment.
We discover that we want him in our space. We need him touching us and speaking comforting, encouraging words. We desire his training, which is borne out of love after all. We find that we are so much more with him than without him. Our life will never be the same when we finally recognize and accept the gentling hands of God.
I was so touched by this. I have come to know Him better.
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