Some days I wonder if the ones I love (especially dogs and horses) have lost their minds. They behave in outrageous ways that shock or mystify. My usual first response is to ask, “What were you thinking?!?” (I usually wait for an answer.)
The lesson I’ve returned to most frequently over decades pursuing relationship with horses and Christ Jesus is that every problem is my problem and every error is my error. What’s most infuriating is being reminded that every failure is my failure. Take comfort knowing that most relationship failures are growing pains and not sins. When it comes to horses I am completely good with that. I don’t even have to think about it. Whenever a horse doesn’t respond as expected I reflexively change my behavior. Horses are always right. I know that getting a different result requires some adjustment on my side of the equation.
And then there’s Winston…
“Have you lost your mind?!?”
On a recent morning our youngest dog Winston sat anxiously next to his breakfast bowl waiting for permission to eat. Winston is a canine vacuum when it comes to kibble. Patience is a virtue, particularly with dogs that bolt their food. Now two, Winston has been with us since he was a four-month old pound puppy. He’s smart and he’s attached, but with a curious personality. Winston has the bravado of a junkyard dog with an ego of glass.
Winston inhaled his food as I settled into my office chair preparing to meet with the Lord. After licking his dish Winston calmly walked over to my taupe microfiber recliner, lifted his leg, and then piddled all over the side of it.
“Have you lost your mind?”
Intending to pitch him outside I grabbed Winston by the collar and scolded him in a most serious tone. Yelling is not my thing, but there was no doubt I was appalled. Halfway to the front door Winston slipped free of his collar and ran under the kitchen table.
Purposefully ignoring the little brown monster I gathered rug cleaning materials and tried to erase the evidence of Winston’s apparent insanity. Since most relationship issues are self-inflicted I suggest momentary retreat unless you’re 100% certain about the most effective and productive way to handle the matter. After doing what I could for the side of my chair I decided to extend the moment of reflection and detour to the animal side of our house-barn combo to feed our new rescue cat and six horses.
Walking back to my office I mused, “What is wrong with Winston? What am I going to do now? Is he really THAT emotionally unstable?”
Human nature generally defaults to finding fault in others and I’m no more exempt from reflexive thoughts than anyone else. And so the tape began to play, “Is Winston really more emotionally troubled than I thought? Is he going to be a continuing problem? I’ve noticed little things lately that make me wonder about him…”
Be Responsive not Reactionary
Over many years working with people and horses I’ve acquired the habit of considering matters before taking action that compounds an existing problem or creates a new one that cannot be undone later. Matters usually get worse if you instinctively react instead of thoughtfully responding to relationship issues. Time out from conflict is a good thing. I’ve never had much of a temper, so that part hasn’t been as much of an uphill run as learning how to objectively assess my actions and formulate possible remedies.
My friends know that I routinely talk to myself. Not silently, but out loud. The Holy Spirit usually provides input when I carry on conversations with myself – as long as I remember to listen. When I finished feeding the horses and returned to my chair the Holy Spirit’s voice broke through my me-to-me conversation. The bad news? It was my fault. Again. Whether horses or dogs, responsibility for our state of relationship rightly rests on my shoulders.
Where did I fail? Winston never had one accident in the house since the day we brought him home. He learned the double pet doors the day he joined our family. He’s a very smart, very high energy dog, with a very fragile ego.
Things change when things change.
Winston and I used to spend time together on a daily basis. We had special lessons with training treats when the big dogs were out and about. He loves to trot on the treadmill in the garage, running to it as soon as the door opens. When the weather was pleasant Winston and I explored the pasture together.
NONE of that has happened over the past several months. No treadmill. No lessons. And very few walks. Somewhere along the line our usually morphed into our not-very-often.
During my father’s extended illness and recent passing I was away a lot. Within days of my dad’s death my husband spent an unanticipated extended period in the hospital. It was nip and tuck for a while with him and just getting the two of us back into a routine took another couple of months. The horses, dogs, and cats were well taken care of but didn’t enjoy much quality time with us. Did I really think that wouldn’t take a toll on Winston?
Add to that insult the ultimate rejection. Until my husband came home from the hospital Lexi, our 70 pound yellow lab mix, and 35 pound Winston slept with us. Having those two in bed didn’t work for someone recovering from major abdominal surgery with complications. Even a young person would need to rethink that combination. The pet gate went up in the bedroom doorway and the dogs were locked out. Winston wasn’t only evicted from his bed, but from the bedroom.
Is it any wonder Winston lost his security?
Fluent in the Language of “Horse”
I am fluent in “horse.” I understand most horses and easily read our six horses so keeping them balanced is relatively easy. Also a victim of relationship neglect, my herd leader Bo also needed some extra attention to reinforce his sense of security and confidence in his own authority. I reminded him that I am faithful and expect him to do his job just as faithfully.
My horses and I reflexively communicate so seldom get too out of sorts with one another. Obviously I am not as well tuned in to small changes in dog behavior. “Dog” is, at best, my third language. I’m conversant, but “dog” isn’t as instinctive and automatic as “horse.” The dogs that have been closest to my heart didn’t require me to learn dog because they willingly learned human.
Winston came home to live with an older (and much larger) autistic puppy and an old deaf Aussie. The responsibility for creating balance and security was mine. It worked well enough that I probably took the status quo for granted. A couple of days ago we rescued a stray cat that wandered onto a friend’s porch. She’s now in residence in the barn while she recoups from health issues. Winston knows there’s something new just outside the door. He knows, but hasn’t been allowed out to see what it is.
In recent weeks Winston has become more aggressive toward our barn cats. I missed that sign. I missed a lot of signs. My step-mother moved from Texas to Kansas City a few days ago marking the end of my traveling back and forth to her house. Today Winston let me know – in a way guaranteed to get my attention – that he needed a little more of my time. So, he lifted his leg on my chair and did what he did.
It’s my fault. It’s always my fault. And that’s not a sin. It’s a growing pain.
Whose fault is it when you and the Lord are on the outs? God’s? Hardly. Whether in relationship with a horse, dog, or Christ, the error is always ours. The good news is that He patiently waits for until we take time out from the conflict to soak. We can’t receive His input until we get quiet and ask for it.
God never walks away from us. Winston didn’t leave me or disappoint me. I left him. The only way to put things right is for me to turn around and pick up the pulled threads of relationship and make the necessary repairs.
If you’re having relationship troubles with a family member of any species – or with the Lord – take time to soak. The real problem is you. It’s me. Sometimes life overwhelms. That’s reality. Being overwhelmed isn’t a sin. Holding someone else accountable for our failure exacerbates the error. We can’t be all things to all people all the time. No one can.
Winston knows he did wrong. Just because I failed him doesn’t mean he isn’t accountable for his behavior. The way to fix our relationship is to do the things we did before, like the church of Ephesus (Revelation 2) that lost its first love. Today I’ll sweep the garage and get Winston back on the treadmill. It’s may be 100 degrees, but the rest of Winston’s life begins today. It’s my job to help him regain his security and confidence.
Winston is curled up the chair (the same one he watered this morning) waiting patiently. We’re off to tread!
Winston did not run to the treadmill as he used to, confirming my conclusion. When not reinforced even good habits change. Winston and I have enough foundation that I expect he’ll be back where he was in just a few days. The moment we came in from treading Winston was noticeably different. A bit of weight has lifted from his little shoulders.
Take a few moments to reflect before reacting the next time you look at your dog, horse, or whomever and say, “What were you thinking? Have you lost your mind?” Give the Holy Spirit the opportunity to share His wisdom. The world would have us be too busy to sit and contemplate your relationships because the world is not on your side.
If there is ever a choice to be made between trusting the world and trusting one of my horses or dogs, my four-legged instructors will win every time.
While transitioning this post from one website to another I read the words, “Winston inhaled his food.” RED FLAG! Food insecurities indicate fear. In case you picked up on that as well, let me assure you that Winston no longer inhales all his food. We’re about 90% where I hope to go. It used to take less than 2 minutes to feed him. Now it takes about 20 minutes. But, Winston is slowly building the habit of focusing on me rather than his food. It’s all about commitment. Always has been and always will be.
Originally published in Fall 2016. Updated January 2017.