Moving Forward: The Red Mare

by Lisa Allgood, Executive Presbyter

This blog is a bit different, in that it was written by a friend in the UK (with her permission) who also does peace and wellness workshops.  I thought his might be a fun way to hear another voice – and think about how it applies to each of us, and in the situations we find ourselves in, day after day. It’s funny and sweet and oh-so-poignant at the end as she works through what she needed to do to learn the Red Mare. And my challenge to all of you is the same – how do we slow down, take in, and allow ourselves to be taught our own churches? Do we allow our own sympathetic nervous systems to blind us to how to work with God? What humility do we need to exercise to let God work through us, so that we can learn How to Be the Church That God Requires? So in what follows, every time you read “horse” or “Red Mare”, substitute the word “church”.

This may be the sweetest, happiest photograph I’ve ever taken, and what a way to enter a new year. The Scottish sun shone; the whole family gathered for a new year’s day walk; the Top Horse Trainer took charge of the red mare. I thought, as I watched them mosey along together – this was the horse who used to rear and spook and refuse to walk over puddles. She swerved and jinked and hurled her head about. She often wouldn’t go forward. When she got a fright – and in those early days, she was frightened of everything – she’d leap in the air with all four feet off the ground. She had no ability to get herself out of the sympathetic nervous system, so once she was caught in an adrenaline spike she’d spiral up and up, until I thought she’d take off into the stratosphere. (I was so clueless in those days that I thought for a while she might be allergic to adrenaline, she had such a violent physical reaction. It took me a long time to work out that I needed to get into her brilliant mind and help her rewire it.)

What did she need? She needed calmness and steadiness and stillness. She needed a human who was reliable, who had purpose, who could be her place of safety. I was going down to the field filled with jangles, the Not Good Enough gremlins yelling in my head, my monkey mind capering about like a wild thing. This was totally unacceptable to her. It wasn’t fancy horsemanship she needed (although I did give myself a grounding in some excellent and useful methods and techniques); it was a reconfigured human being. So I took myself apart and put myself back together again, piece by piece. It was, I think now, looking back, like enrolling at university, only this time I wasn’t reading modern history, but inventing my own special course – How To Be The Person Your Mare Requires.

I learned things I had no previous clue about, like expectation management and emotional processing and nervous system regulation. I didn’t know that fear lives in the body and that I was carrying it in my muscles and sinews. I had to practise, day after day, radical honesty and flinty realism. I taught myself to look at  the dusty, difficult parts of myself, the ones I tended to believe weren’t there. She needed me to be a whole person, and I couldn’t do that if I was shoving the unwanted elements into the internal Cupboard of Doom.

I had to have conversations with shame. (That was fun.) I needed to come to terms with my desperate desire to please all the people, all the time. I questioned my ingrained habit of constantly trying to prove myself. I began to let go of the old, old stories, most of which were not true.

It took a long time. I made so many mistakes along the way. (I had to learn how to embrace those, rather than run away screaming every time I made a bog.) But gradually, the change came. The red mare started nodding her sage head at me, as if in approval. There were sweet triumphs instead of desolate disasters. I began to catch a glimpse of the light. We walked towards that light together, our steps keeping time.

She was my most excellent professor, keeping me always up to the mark. She would give me horrified Lady Bracknell looks if I tumbled into complacency or hubris. She was a stern mistress, with no time for the shoddy or the second-rate or the slapdash. Back to the beginning I would go, over and over, checking the foundations, honing the basics, throwing away all pride and braggadocio.

I realise, as I type these words, that I tell this story often and often. That’s because it’s important not to forget. It wasn’t a miracle. She didn’t just eat magic beans. I didn’t click together my red ruby slippers. It was slow, daily work. I think of it like being a musician – if you want to play a Mozart sonata, you have to do your scales and arpeggios. I remember the old joke – a man gets lost on his way to a concert and stops a passer-by and says, ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall?’ The  passer-by smiles. He says, ‘Practice.’

It’s not glamorous. It is sometimes dull. There will be days when it is dispiriting. (‘Do I really have to do this, ALL OVER AGAIN?’) The progress can sometimes feel glacial, or seem as if it has disappeared altogether. But if you’ve got a mission, and you know why that mission is your most important thing, that knowledge will carry you through.

My mission, right from the start, was to have a happy horse. That was pure instinct. I didn’t know then that from that happiness everything else flows. When the red mare is contented and easy in her world, she’ll do anything. She is all yes, and yes, and yes. But more than that – and this is the great, unexpected gift – she will spread her happiness. She gives it to me, and I can take it, and feed it back to her. She gives it to the little children, so I can start the new year watching a beaming, dancing smile on the face of the great-nephew, as he croons his love to her and tells me her epic stories and exclaims with delight as she does something that makes him laugh. His happiness spreads through the assembled family, so that his mum is smiling and his dad is smiling and his granny is smiling. In my mazy mind, I think that great thoroughbred mare is smiling too. And so the joy rises into the bright air, all because, on one despairing night, I decided that I would not give up.

Tania Kinserly