Bits and tongues, tiny yet potent. Both are devices used in an attempt to control another. Ironically, controlling these unruly little tools themselves is such an arduous task, we often find our use of either utterly inadequate to accomplish anything good. It is natural to want to be in control, yet it is one of the most problematic aspects encountered in horsemanship as well as human relationships.
How can we gain control over these remarkable tools to get better results with horses and humans? Both struggles share a common foundation and therefore a single remedy. Now there is some good news to chew on.
There are three elements to consider when seeking to become a mastermind in control: technique, motivation, and end results. Let’s get the conversation started.
It is not an oversimplification to say both a bit and a tongue can be used in one of two basic fashions, as a refinement tool or crude instrument.
Use of a bit as a crude instrument involves hard, heavy hands, accompanied by rather ugly actions such as jerking and tugging at a horse's mouth. When it comes to tongues, the situation is just as unattractive with yelling, swearing and insulting being a few of the nasty techniques employed. While these methods in milder form may be necessary in extreme situations of immediate danger such as raising a voice to prevent a small child from running into traffic, or firmly lifting a rein to bend a spooked horse to a stop, it is never appropriate to use the more forceful forms.
The converse method is to see both tongues and bits as refinement tools. Bits are to be used to gently correct a horse’s direction, and to perform precision maneuvers, much like holding hands on a walk.
In this way, the bit is merely a tool to enhance a foundation laid through other forms of communication such as body position, energy and focus. The willingness of the horse to be controlled by the bit is coupled to his relationship with his rider and the clarity of these other forms of communication.
Tongues are also refinement tools. As such, they should be used to nurture relationships, encourage and teach. Like the bit, a person’s willingness to be influenced by what you say is linked to the relationship you have built with that person and through other forms of communication such as acts of kindness, time invested, smiles, hugs, tears and example. The benefit you hope to gain with words is merely to augment your already established relationship.
As unsightly a crude use of these tools can be, when used properly, both can produce the most graceful and eloquent results ever beheld. There is little more elegant than a gently guided dressage horse, and seldom will anything out value a word fitly spoken. We all see crude use of bits and tongues as dreadful. We hate seeing this negative conduct in ourselves and others, yet if we are honest we must admit we struggle to refine these behaviors. What causes people to so quickly resort to the use of a bit to control their horse or to their tongue to control another person in a crude fashion? Interestingly, the motivation for both of these behaviors is the same.
The root of the problem is pride. We often don’t think highly enough of our horses or others to warrant our time in learning how to more skillfully live and succeed together. This could be true for any number of reasons but the most common are laziness and fear. We don’t make the investment in developing alternative communication skills, or in developing our relationships, simply because it takes time.
As a leader it seems so much easier to just shout out commands than to have any real consideration for the individual. We are more afraid of losing control, looking like fools, or that somehow the individual will gain the upper hand, or see us for who we truly are to take the time to consider an alternative.
Our pride can allow us to jerk horses and people around for years, even a lifetime, in part because it works. Yes, it works to jerk a horse around with a bit, and people will often do what you command when you holler at them. For example, the child cleans her room, the employee gets the project completed on time, or the horse turns right, so yes, it absolutely works.
The question then becomes, at what cost did it work, and for how long will it work? What happens to the recipient of our actions over time? Do we really get the control we desire most in the end?
When crude skills are the only skills we have, or conditions become stressful, we often resort to controlling others exclusively with our tongues the same way many seek to control their horses exclusively with the bit. Over time these techniques become increasingly harsh with a decreased response from the victim.
In the case of the bit, a harsher style, or one with more leverage is often the perceived answer to regaining control. With the tongue, we simply yell louder, use increasingly harsh language, or elevate our level of insult. The end result is all too often the sale of the horse, the rebellion of the child, or the loss of the employee, friend or spouse. So, the irony is, it works, but it doesn’t.
This realization forces us to ask ourselves if another method would bring out more in my horse, my friends, my children, or my employees.
How can I get control? In both cases, we need to gain control of ourselves first rather than the other person or horse. Emotional control leads to physical control. We need to focus energy on refining our other forms of communication such as body language, time spent, acts of service, smiles, listening, giving, laughter, tears, hugs, holding hands.
With so much time spent using electronic gadgets, our culture and way of life have caused us to lose so much of our non-verbal communication emphasis. Interestingly, the horses’ only language is non-verbal. They rely exclusively on body language to communicate as do many other animals. There are many lessons to be learned from simply getting outside and quietly observing how they communicate and lead each other with neither tongue nor bit.
In short, if you want to control your horse, start with your tongue, which will lead you to build a better you. Emotional wellness; it is the difference in pretending to be in control, and actually being so.
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