Our annual Circle of Life worship service for people of all ages. We welcome new babies and young children into our community with a child dedication ceremony, hear from our children’s choir, and explore what lessons can be learned from being in right relationship with a horse.
Putting Away My Sharp Spurs Homily by Sarah Gonzalez, Director of Religious Education
Take a look at the front of your Order of Service. Some of you have seen this picture already as I posted it on my Facebook page a couple of days ago. The top two pictures were taken just over a year ago. My horse Swift and I were practicing jumping what is called an up bank out of water, a type of fence I had always found intimidating. A bank is like a wall built into the side of a hill, so when you jump a bank you don’t jump over something, you jump up from lower ground on to higher ground.
Except that isn’t what Swift did. For some reason, on that day a year ago, Swift didn’t see the bank in front of him, and instead of jumping he crashed right into it. He slid along the top of the bank on his knees and belly, and I went catapulting off his back to land face first on the gravel surface.
Amazingly, neither of us were seriously hurt. I broke my helmet but did not have a concussion. Swift had some impressive scraped knees, and I had broken a tooth, but otherwise we were both physically fine. But emotionally, we were far from fine.
Competing in the sport of eventing, what Swift and I do, takes a lot of trust on both sides. It is a very dangerous sport where serious injury and even death are not uncommon. Swift has to trust that I will not ask him to do something that he cannot do or that will cause him pain. I have to trust that Swift will keep me safe. We hold each other’s lives in our hands, or hooves in Swift’s case, and if we do not trust each other those risks are too much to bear. That crash had destroyed our trust in one another. I didn’t understand why Swift didn’t jump that jump, and I because I didn’t understand I had no way of knowing when or if it would happen again. Swift didn’t know how that wall had appeared in front of him out of nowhere with no warning! He not only lost his trust in me, he also lost his trust in himself. If he didn’t see that jump once, he wasn’t sure he could trust what he saw at any time.
In one moment, we went from confident competitors to being unable to set foot in water. Swift would stand at the water’s edge in a panic, going sideways, backwards, rearing up, anything but forward. If you’ve never had a difference of opinion with a 1000 pound animal, let me tell you that if they are set on not doing something, there isn’t much you can do to change their mind! We were at what seemed like an impossible impasse: Swift would not go into the water and I needed us to go into the water. Respecting his boundaries while achieving what I needed to move forward seemed impossible.
I sought advice from a number of very experienced professionals, and many of them told me the same thing: “make Swift more afraid of you than of the jumps”. They recommended I buy sharper spurs, a more painful whip, and do everything I could to force him to listen to me. If I wasn’t willing to do that, they suggested I send him away to a trainer who would, so that they could “fix” the problem for me.
Maybe that would have worked. Maybe if I had listened to them Swift and I would be farther along now that we are. But maybe Swift would have been so upset by my treatment of him that he would have refused to engage with me at all. And whether or not it would have worked, if I had listened to that advice would I have stayed in right relationship with Swift?
What does it mean to be in right relationship with a horse? There is a pretty serious language barrier between the two of us. Even more than that, horses are prey animals and humans are predators. Horses in the wild have to be on their guard every minute of every day, it is why they mostly sleep standing up and only sleep for a few minutes at any time. They are inherently suspicious of new experiences and when they sense danger their instinct is to run away from it as fast as they can. As I predator, I am more likely to face my struggles head on and I am more willing to take risks in pursuit of a goal. Because of this predator/prey difference between us, Swift and I see the world in fundamentally different ways. How could I convince him to trust me again in a way that didn’t involve more pain and fear? How could we rebuild our relationship when we were both feeling so hurt and the stakes were so high?
I decided to take things step by step. Every day at the end of our ride, I took Swift over to the water jump. The first day I walked him along the edge of the water without asking him to step into the water. I patted him on the neck and didn’t ask him to push past his boundaries until he relaxed. The next day, I walked him a little bit closer, so that one foot stepped into the water briefly. The next day we stepped all the way in and then quickly out. As he grew more comfortable, I asked him for more. Step by tiny step, Swift and I started making progress. A few weeks later, we were cantering through the water calmly!
But progress slowed after that. Swift was still afraid to jump in the water, and would throw a temper tantrum every time I asked him to. I began to lose patience and get frustrated. I began to feel discouraged. I remembered where we had been so recently and looked at where we were now and wondered if it was even possible to get back there again. There were days when I thought about giving up and retiring Swift from competition. The work was too hard.
But I didn’t give up. Even when it felt like we were making no progress, even when I didn’t want to, I kept at the plan. And suddenly, eight months after our crash, something changed. One day when I pointed Swift at a jump on the edge of the water, he pricked his ears forward and sped up rather than trying to turn away. Swift no long felt scared. Even though it had felt like progress was crawling at best, all that time Swift had been rebuilding his confidence in me and his confidence in himself. My patience and commitment had paid off, and now we moved forward in leaps and bounds (figuratively and literally)!
The bottom picture on the order of service is from last week. Swift and I went back to where we crashed one year ago and without hesitation or anxiety (well, at least without anxiety on Swift’s part) we jumped the dreaded up bank. Swift was always capable of jumping the obstacle, it wasn’t a matter of his abilities. I could have put on my sharp spurs and forced him up, but if I had Swift might have walked away from our relationship, and for understandable reasons. Even more than the risk of losing my relationship with Swift, the sharp spurs wielding person isn’t the way I want to be with Swift, or with any horse. I don’t believe that is what they deserve from me. So, instead, I choose to support Swift while asking him for more, using love rather than pain, until we could jump up as a team in right relationship with one another.
It was hard to choose this path. It was tempting to pull out the sharp spurs, I think it always is, particularly when we are hurting and when we are so sure we know the right way to go. There were days when I was so mad at Swift. Why couldn’t he just listen to me!? But I refused to give up on the potential I had experienced in our relationship, and we are stronger now than we were before. And I truly believe that the only way to wind up stronger on the other side of conflict is by putting away our sharp spurs and holding on to patience and love.
I see so much potential in this church. I see beautiful babies being welcomed with open arms. I see children asking poignant and important questions and getting meaningful answers. I see incredible youth deeply honored and valued by the entire church in so many ways. I see compassionate, joyful, justice-minded adults who are courageous in the face of change. I see the voices of elders with decades of experience being treasured and appreciated. I see a church with an enduring connection to your Universalist roots, that has known the revolutionary power of love.
This year has been hard. There has been pain and anger and fear and lost trust, but there is so much good here that is worth the long path. This church is worth it. You are worth it. Some days may be hard and frustrating and sometimes it may feel like progress is crawling at best, but I know that in the end you can be stronger than you were before. I cannot wait to see what you will be in the coming weeks,