What Do You Believe?

In my search for the Holy Grail of horsemanship, it strikes me more and more how intertwined learning about horsemanship has, for me, also become about learning about life.   So, I wanted to write a little bit on something that seems to me to be, well, fundamental both to horsemanship and to life in general – our belief systems.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get onto the subject of religion, I’m not that brave!  Belief systems are, though, all around us. So much so that sometimes it is hard to tell what is an actual fact and what is a belief system.

For example, I believe that if I jump out of an aircraft many thousands of feet above the ground and without a parachute, since I can’t fly unassisted, that jump won’t work out particularly well for me. You might say that is simply a belief, rather than an absolute fact (after all, some people have survived doing this!) but actually I’m sure enough that my belief is true that I will, therefore, never attempt jumping out of an aircraft in that situation. That jumping out of such an aircraft without a parachute is likely to end badly is, really, as far as I’m concerned, a fact. I’d say probably most people would agree with me on that, such that you might even say that it would be a generally accepted, actual, fact. A reality.

On the other hand, you don’t have to look too far to find examples where people achieve something way beyond what might have been physically expected of them (even what one might have regarded as a factual, physical, capability) because they wanted it badly enough; this want lead them to believe they could, because they must. The slight woman who lifts a car up by herself because it has fallen on her beloved husband who was working beneath it. The person who beat cancer, against all odds. The spinal injury patient who walks again. And have you ever read Touching The Void?

Science is full of examples of belief systems that evolve over time. One doesn’t have to search too far back in our history to find that heroin was readily available to buy in shops, indeed the general public were encouraged to use it. Look a little further back and scientists believed that a useful regular treatment was to “bleed” a patient. Look even further back and the world was believed to be flat. At any given point in time, the scientists believing these things would have thought their belief was an absolute truth. Hindsight suggests otherwise. In 20, 50 or 100 years’ time, what will the scientific view be of some of what we believe to be true today, I wonder?

Belief systems are amazing things. They can keep us safe (yes, still pretty sure here that it won’t work out for me well if I jump out of a plane without a parachute) but they can also damage us (if we believe the doctors who say the patient won’t walk again, or we believe that our injuries are too severe and that we can’t climb down from that mountain) – or they can inspire us – (do we believe we will walk again? That we will survive the mountain despite our injuries?).

Belief systems go even further than that, though. They shape our world view. Does a person believe they are a good person? Does a person believe they are an unlucky person? Does a person believe they will succeed in life (whatever success means to them)?   Does a person believe their parent’s history is due to repeat itself through them? Does a person believe in the best in all other people – or the worst? I can’t possibly hope to do enough justice to quite how wide ranging and important this topic really is to a person’s life, but hopefully this has at least got you thinking about your beliefs on what you can and can’t do, and why you can and can’t do those things?

So how is this relevant to horsemanship? Well, I would suggest it runs to the heart of it. There are so many trainers out there that will teach you their own particular ways and most of them will teach them to you as if they are fact. I would, however, suggest that a lot of time what they really teach you are their own belief systems, rather than actual definitive fact.  

Let’s take an example. There are certain schools of horsemanship that teach that you need to have a firm “contact” to the bit for the horse to be listening or “connected” to you. There are other schools of horsemanship that teach that a horse should be taught to carry himself with a slack in the rein. There are other schools of horsemanship that teach that in fact you shouldn’t use a bit at all, you should ride bit-less. And so on. Each of these schools believe their own teaching to be correct but there are clear points of contradiction in them. So which one is, definitively, the correct one? Surely they can’t all be correct? Maybe once I have found my own Holy Grail I will know the answer to that. But, then again, I suspect it will still only be my truth. It may or may not also be your truth.

But it goes yet deeper than that. Inherent in having belief systems is that you then have a tendency to fit your subsequent experience into that existing belief system, thus engraining your belief system even further.

For example, I believe that I am a lucky person. I have many good reasons to believe this; I was born into a free country, I have a wonderful other half, I earn a good living, I have a nice house, etc. However, if you were to look a little further, you’d also see quite a lot of not so good things. 2013, for example, contained a lot of not good things, not the least of which being that I dislocated my shoulder coming off one of my young horses and my 5yo chestnut mare, who was just getting ready to start going out eventing, showed up problems eventually leading to a diagnosis of PSD and SI joint pain, for which all surgical treatments have failed. However, because I believe so firmly that I am lucky, I view these not good things through that filter; I have seen these events as lessons to learn from; I have also seen that I have been lucky enough to have people around to help me and that I have my own land so that my chestnut mare can be turned away to Dr Green for an indeterminate period. For me, believing I am lucky is a useful thing and I’ll happily go along believing that. But many other belief systems can be much more damaging. What if I believed I was unlucky?

Many people are so set in their belief systems that they don’t even see them as such. There isn’t really even that level of questioning involved, their belief system is their truth, their reality and that’s that. Perception is reality. However, sometimes things happen to make us question our belief systems, and then we get a chance to learn and to grow. Once we understand the mechanics of our belief systems, and see them for what they are, this is the first step to then looking to change them for something that works better for us, both in life and in horsemanship.

There is a lot more to say on this. Perhaps a book, rather than a blog! But for now I’ll leave you with this thought:

Whether you think you can or can’t, either way you are right. ~Henry Ford



I believe my little eventer, Fin, will always jump his heart out for me.
I believe my little eventer, Fin, will always jump his heart out for me.

2 thoughts on “What Do You Believe?

  1. samsaraequinemuscletherapy August 28, 2014 / 6:41 am

    Totally with you on this. One of my mantras is: “If you want to get different results change what you believe.”

  2. Alison Evans August 28, 2014 / 10:18 am

    Janet, this is a beautifully written piece, I like it a lot. Although my comment doesn’t relate directly to horsemanship I wanted to respond. It happens to be a not good time at the moment for me so it is a well timed piece for me to read – thank you! Even if I can’t right now think how I will learn from this not good and very recent event, I know that I will find a positive from it given a short space of time. In the meantime I can realise the many good things I am lucky to have in my life.
    I hope that your shoulder has healed well, that your chestnut mare is doing well out at grass, and that you, Trevor and all your animals are happy and healthy.
    I look forward to reading you next instalment… which in my opinion should all go towards a fantastic book! Best wishes, Ali x

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