The older mare is tense as I approach her in the pasture to practice some basic groundwork at liberty. She is grazing, and I notice as I get closer that she is ripping the grass up in fierce bites, while eyeing me with wariness. I pause, still several feet from her. When I take another step I see her ears flatten against her head for a quick and severe warning. “Don’t you dare bother me right now,” she seems to be saying, as she carries on furiously grazing. To a casual observer, it might seem that she is ignoring me, but after six years together, I can feel the signals she is sending me loud and clear. Even before the more overt signal of ear-pinning, I can feel the dominant power she is embodying so clearly that I start to feel my own body want to go into flight mode. My challenge is to find a way to engage in this moment, so that she trusts me and opens up instead of shutting down or threatening to lash out.
In the horse world, as in the human world, there are horses who embody dominance, and there are horses who just utilize dominant actions as a way of trying to make themselves feel better. Dominance is usually perceived as a strength in a group of horses, since they can push other horses around, or eat whichever pile of hay they want when they want it. However, these horses are often craving safety and would love a break from being hyper-vigilant and trying to be “in charge of everything.” I have a feeling it is the same way for people who are hardwired to be dominant.
When people are embodying dominance, if it is healthily integrated, it can be a trait that is cultivated into their overall confidence, and they are able to actively and productively engage and negotiate with others. However, there are times when people are embodying dominance in a habitual and defensive a way, just as my horse does. The characteristics I observe in people who embody dominance are: a rigidity in the body – their posture seems tense, often the tension comes through the eyes which are very “hard,” and/or the jaw is firmly set. They have a way of emitting an energy that makes them feel unapproachable, very much like my mare Taj can be. They will often take actions that make themselves physically unapproachable – they will walk away, not answer their phone/email/text, cut others off from contact for long periods of time. Another thing I have observed is, if forced into a conversation confronting something, they tend to say the opposite of what they are emitting that they feel. Common statements might be “It doesn’t matter,” or “I’m the victim.” If pushed further, they may very well become explosive in their words and interaction.
When I have encountered a person habitually embodying dominance in a position of significant influence over me (teacher, landlord, employer, senior family member) I often become triggered by the perceived threat of ostracism, eviction, termination or more generally, disconnection / abandonment. In response to embodied dominance, when I am not able to assert or express myself, I have experienced various forms of somatic illness, lack of sleep, dissociation when a confrontation does “blow up” and become hostile, and the overwhelming longer term suffering of anxiety from the lack of clarity or closure that this person will allow, even as I try to work through the “issues.”
Right after wishing I could run away or dive into the core of the earth, my conditioned tendency is to react to the embodied dominance by freezing / appeasing. I joke, deflect, and avoid confrontation by trying to smooth everything over in the moment. Then, however, if I seek dialogue or discussion with them later, they are the ones who avoid me. In these instances, I have not been able to build trust.
If I fall into this habit of placation with Taj, she simply continues the dominant behaviors, sometimes escalating them, and by no means exhibiting trust in me nor my authority. If I follow the often historically recommended path of becoming more dominant, exerting my will upon her through the threat of force with tools and tack, she submits temporarily, but does not appear to be relieved of her stress, and reverts to the same behavior the next time. What I am learning and practicing now is the art of passive leadership with horses in order to build trust and depth of relationship. This is the art of knowing where to be, when to be there, how to be when you’re there in order to hold one’s own decisive presence and authority. Slowly, choosing new responses to my defensive, dominant mare is creating more and more space in which she can relax.
What does it mean to be a passive leader around other people? Certainly there is an element of “leading by example,” and that means we must be very aware of what it is we are embodying ourselves and how it impacts others and affects the relationship. There is also an essential element which I believe is the compassionate desire to relate to others, and to alleviate discomfort for all involved. As I look back on my life, it seems there has always been at least one person, in a role that is significant in my daily life, who impacts me in this extremely stressful way. I can trace it all the way back to my great-grandmother, a true matriarch who ruled with a white but iron glove. If I did anything to evoke her disapproval, she needed only to give me a look, and I would feel desperately ashamed.
But beyond her opinion of right and wrong and what length my hair should have been, was a world full of possibilities for where to be, when to be there, and how to be while I was there that would lead me to become the being who I truly wanted to be… the being who can embody confidence and commitment, compassion and enthusiasm. We don’t embody only one thing, and neither does my mare.
I walk towards her in the pasture to determine what would be the best activity for both of us this afternoon. She is grazing, and she is taking measured mouthfuls of the short, spring grass. I pause, a few feet from her, and I see her eye on me, watching with a sentiment between wariness and wonder. I take a few steps closer and she lifts her nose toward me, ears forward. I move in closer, scratching the underside of her head. She rests her head on my shoulder and exhales as I scan the woods behind her for what other creatures are out enjoying today.