Leadership, Rock Climbing, and Horses

A few years ago I was dating someone who was a very ambitious climber.  He urged me to climb with him but due to his intense nature and my fear of heights it wasn't fun and I never felt successful, just scared and out of place.

I swore off climbing after trying it a few times with him - both indoor and out on real rock.  It just wasn't for me and I didn't enjoy all of the pressure I felt during the activity.

Wouldn't you know that I would find myself, once again, dating a climber.  Equally ambitious and talented, rock climbing is Shane's passion.  He eats, sleeps, and breathes the sport.  I can totally relate as I live for horses.  Having a passion is a beautiful thing.  It gives our lives purpose and meaning, something to look forward to after work and on the weekends.  It fuels our daydreams and exercises our imaginations to find the limits of our potential.  Something we've always appreciated about each other is that we each have a "thing".  As someone who's always been utterly infatuated with horses I've had trouble relating to those that aren't passionate about anything.  I can't imagine waking up in the morning and falling asleep at night not thinking about what ignites my spirit on fire, horses.

Shane has come riding with me a handful of times now.   He is not a horse person by any means, nor does he aspire to be, but he comes along so we can spend some time together doing what I love the most.  Naturally, he wanted me to go climb with him.

Shane on Thunder. :)

I shared my past experience with the sport, including my fear of heights.  I came up with every reason I wouldn't be fun to climb with: I was fearful, I was slow, I wasn't as fit as he was, I hadn't been climbing in years, I had done it before and didn't like it.  He patiently explained that he had no expectations of me, just that he wanted to share what he loved - his passion for climbing - with me.

Begrudgingly I agreed to go to the climbing gym with him.  The moment we walked through the door I began to sweat, my stomach was doing flip flops, and I had to go to the bathroom.  Not only was I terrified of climbing up to the top of the tall walls in the gym, I was afraid of what Shane would think of me.

Shane is the definition of a natural athlete - fit, strong, and balanced.  He was born to excel at any and all physical pursuits.  He's confident, mentally strong, and fearless.  I wanted to impress Shane, but I knew it would be hard to impress someone like him when I was so afraid.  Before we even got on the wall I felt embarrassed at my lack of ability, shameful of my fear, and utterly stressed that my destination was very, very high off of the ground.

He helped me get harnessed up and let me belay for him while he ascended the first route.  I was sweating so bad I could barely hold the rope.  When he came down, it was my turn to go.  He set me up on a very easy 5.5 route (basically a glorified ladder).  A blind person could have climbed this.  Not 15 feet off the ground and my heart was thumping out of my chest.  I was dripping in sweat.  I stalled out, looking down and feeling like I was hundreds of feet high.  I expected him to prod me forward, wanting me to hurry, not understanding why I physically couldn't move.  As I gripped the wall in sheer terror, exhausting my muscles and becoming more and more sure I was going to plummet to an untimely death, or at least paralysis, he just gently encouraged me.  "You've got this, babe.  Take your time."

What...?  Did he just tell me to take my time?  I wasn't even making progress!  I had gone static, and as I glanced down at him (despite the vertigo it gave me) I was surprised to see he was just happily smiling, glad to see me trying something out of my comfort zone, and delighted to be doing what he loved - no matter how elementary.  His no-pressure, neutral attitude gave me some relief that I didn't have to hurry and that actually unlocked my mind and therefore my body to climb a little higher.

Me climbing a 5.7 chimney at the gym.

If you've never been afraid of something real (rattlesnake under foot) or unreal (plummeting to your death from 15 feet off the ground) it's hard to relate to that feeling of panic.  As adrenaline pumped through me I found myself thinking, "this is good for your emotional fitness, keep going." (I thank Parelli for the ability to have that mentality in the face of a challenge.)

I promised myself that I would not quit, I would make it to the top, and I would not look down again while I doing it.  When I reached the anchors I was a mess.  Shane told me to let go of the wall and he would lower me down, but I couldn't.  I was frozen.  Rather then get exasperated or angry or rush me he just waited.  I finally let go of the holds and held onto the rope for dear life.  Now, if the rope were to break or the anchors to come loose at the top, holding the rope would do absolutely nothing to save me.  I knew this.  But my emotions had taken over and I was looking for safety and comfort anywhere I could.  When I arrived back to earth I was trembling, weak in the knees, and slick with anxiety sweat.

Instead of Shane telling me I shouldn't be afraid, or could have gone faster, or made me feel bad for taking so long on such an easy route - he congratulated me, hugged me, and told me how proud he was of me!  I was surprised and relieved.

I climbed two other routes that day, each with Shane gently encouraging me and patiently waiting as I sorted through my fear.

Now, a few weeks later I am still scared of being up high, I still don't entirely trust the rope, but I have finally seen a glimmer of fun in this terrifying sport.  Enough of a glimmer that I bought myself a unicorn chalk bag as a reward for not quitting.  I still get a big hit of adrenaline as soon as I step off the ground and onto the wall, and I can't complete all of the routes I try (which drives me nuts), but through all of the trials, I have Shane.  My patient, gentle, kind leader.  Someone I can trust to always put me first, to take care of my emotional and mental states, to be my cheerleader no matter how trivial or small my accomplishment is.  It is purely because of him that I have had any success at all in this sport and in conquering my fear.

Warming up on a 5.7 last weekend, my first outdoor climb in years.

So... why am I writing about this on a horse blog?  Because this is about leadership.  If Shane were frustrated, pushy, impatient, and unsympathetic there is no way I would have ever wanted to go climbing again.  I would have been let down and hurt by him, and would have taken no positive steps to overcoming my fear of heights.  I went from having tried and hated the sport, to buying a chalk bag and setting some personal goals for myself.  I had a huge change in attitude about climbing, credited to Shane's leadership guiding me through the tough spots and instilling in me confidence and ambition.

When our horses are truly afraid of something and we have a negative emotion toward them, we're just adding to the problem.  We live with the past, present, and future in our minds all at once.  Horses live only with the present in mind (though the past may shape how they react to things in that moment).  If we sit there and push on our horses, telling them they should hurry or invalidate their fear by saying "it's only a..." then what reason do they have to trust us?  All they know is that we are driving them deeper into their fear with no relief, with no way out.

As an introvert I can't tell you what it did for me to have Shane 1) not force me or badger me into going climbing with him before I was ready, 2) not invalidate my fear by saying it was stupid or irrational, and 3) not add any pressure to me while I was climbing.  The retreat and relief he offered at every turn allowed me to be brave enough to dip my toes in the water, and then to keep going.

Over the last few weeks as I've approached my fear of heights and retreated from it, and approached again, slowly gaining confidence, I've been thinking a lot about how this will make me a more empathetic leader for my horse.  How can I be that leader to Aspen as Shane was for me?  How can I acknowledge her fears and tensions and worries, without letting them get the best of her - guiding her toward a place of calm and confidence?

I guess that's the secret of horsemanship.  Finding the balance between patience and progression... or maybe because of the patience our horses can make progress...

In Parelli we are taught to respect our horse's thresholds, never sacrificing their confidence no matter the cost (i.e. being late to a show because they won't load in a trailer).  I've known this for a while.  But actually stepping into the shoes of not only a learner, but a terrified learner, caused me to realize all the little "makes" and "forcing" I still do with my horses - sometimes simply through my attitude.  I know I've thought to myself, "oh c'mon Aspen - we've finished Level 4, it's time for you just to be okay with this."  But I realize now how little that's doing for our relationship and her desire to be with me and trust that I have her best interest in mind.

I can only imagine if Shane had projected feelings of impatience or said to me, "oh c'mon - it's only a 5.5 and it's not even 50 feet to the top! Just go for it and hurry!"  I would have immediately felt like he couldn't be trusted to take care of me.  But because he put me first every step of the way I went from reluctantly agreeing to climb one time at the gym to being excited to expand my confidence and set some goals for myself to excel in the sport.

As a horseman I hope that I instill those same feelings of excitement and trust in my horse - to believe she can do more than she thought she could, with me by her side. 

Stepping outside of my comfort zone, in the company of a strong leader, and reflecting on how that vulnerability affected me as a fearful student, has allowed me to become a stronger, better human for my horse.