i was messaging with a friend recently and they told me that they admired my strength. they said other nice things, too, and i was flattered. this is a person whose opinion i value, because they’re open, kind, and honest.

i aspire to strength. i can tamp down all the inconvenience of being unsure or afraid and just be strong instead.

i suspect that’s true of all people with a reputation for mental strength and a strong work ethic: we get things done. we don’t ask for help. we’re solo animals, tireless and practical. and those are mostly coping mechanisms to shield us from having to open up or confront, to be truly present. we work hard to keep from looking too hard at our own demons. if we let people help us, they’d see that we’re just human with fears, inadequacies, and weaknesses. which we are. all of us.

twenty years ago, i adopted a little spotted colt. he was three months old, wholly unhandled. i dreamed of forming this amazing bond with him and raising the horse of my dreams from this tiny, colorful baby. but he wanted nothing to do with me. i spent months working with him and, while he learned lessons quickly, he clearly hated them. everything was a struggle. everything he did left me frustrated with myself. nothing worked. he resisted every trick that i knew and every experiment i devised. he was smart and strong-willed. so was i. and so we danced.

the most challenging work we did together was halter training. i could put the halter on him, but he lashed out at any attempt to lead him. he was getting bigger, more confident, and i was waiting for the day when he smashed me with his head, killing me instantly and running away up into the hills.

on one particularly snowy morning, with mountains of fresh fluffy powder, i completely lost my patience leading him from the barn to the paddock. forgetting every safety lesson i learned in years of horse work, when he reared up, i let him go right over onto his back. i had just had it with this colt and i hoped that the deep snow would keep him from getting hurt. up and over. up and over. round and round we went. he’d get up, i’d gently direct him with the lead rope, he’d get pissed off at me and go ass over teakettle again. he flipped himself onto his back five or six times and i was still there on the end of the line. and then he just… stopped. after that morning, he stood quietly in halter. he walked when i asked him. he turned. he backed. heck, he even tied. he knew it all already. it was all stored up in his head from those long months of work. but the strength of his will wouldn’t allow him to use any of it. he always had to fight it. until he didn’t.

now, some people would take that as a sign of their own strength. “i dominated!” but i did not dominate him. i let him have the liberty of his own strength and let him understand for himself that his power was sometimes harmful. it wasn’t me throwing him over onto his back. it was him.

this isn’t a tactic that i recommend. it was just as likely to fail as to work. with most horses, i think it would have failed. with this particular horse, in this particular environment, with this particular person, it worked. and, boy, did it work. once he could put that bravado away, we had such fun. we went on long walks and i let him chase cyclists and joggers (only after they were well away. i’m not out here trying to murder people with a pony). we played on the lunge line and long lines. he was always up to learn something new, to have a new experience, and he trusted me to take care of him. he let me be strong and i let him be strong. we had a balance. and our dance together was more beautiful.

when i look inside myself, i see that headstrong colt. “i will do as i wish, on my own, because i am the boss here. i don’t need anyone interfering. i don’t need softness. i don’t need correction. i don’t need affection. i am enough.” most of that is bullshit. i don’t want to need those things. but i do. we all do.

i still see value in quintessential strength. it’s an excellent sort of crash helmet in an emergency. but i’m beginning to see more value in being courageous, which isn’t the same. courage can be found in relinquishing control, admitting mistakes, being willing to change. you can be just as brave while sitting quietly as you can with your fist in the air.

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