Being Aggressively Passive, Not Passive Aggressive

Recently, I was having a conversation with my lovely barn manager about an issue that arose at the barn while I was out of town. Everyone was okay, and it wasn’t a terribly dire issue, but there seemed to be some unrest about it and a lot of back-and-forth between her and a group of students. I could see that everyone actually had the same view, but everyone was worried about upsetting each other, and were, at the same time, upset by the situation. Consequently, there was an air of passive-aggressiveness wafting around.

It was, in the scheme of things, a very small deal. If you have a group of boarders and students dealing with the stresses of surviving a New England winter with their horses, you’re bound to have moments that are slightly tense, and everything was ultimately resolved with no hard feelings.

But in the aftermath of that, I felt the need to explain to my barn manager (who is new to the team) that I really, truthfully, do not get angry very often, and I was not angry in this case at all. However, I am intense in my desire to fix things and to communicate, and sometimes that can come across as upset. I address things head-on and talk them out until we can reach an understanding.

She was surprised by this. Basically everywhere else this barn manager has been, people were generally passive aggressive. I explained that I wanted to be the very opposite of that. I wanted to be aggressively passive.

This term came to my mind while I watched Shawna Karrasch in a clinic recently. She was working with a horse that had been incorrectly familiarized with r+ training and had become a pushy cookie monster, and she became the epitome of aggressively passive. The horse was pushing her arm, nudging her (not dangerously, just obnoxiously), and trying to search her for treats. Instead of shoving him out of her space, as many of us would be tempted to do, she just didn’t react; she was almost limp, simply showing him all the ways that his behavior wasn’t working. And then came a split second moment when he moved out of her space and paused - boom, there was the reward.

I think as riders and horse trainers, we struggle with this. I know I have. It’s a challenge to be so committed to seeing something through to the other side that you have to do perhaps the most challenging thing of all: wait. To tell yourself that you’re okay just being there, as long as it takes.

This is why meditation can be so difficult. It’s the epitome of just being.

With hot horses, there’s so much waiting required. Your job as the rider is to set the boundaries and wait. Let them try. You’re choosing to be passive in every moment, to not go there with your emotions, to not let things escalate. Every step, you’re choosing that neutral energy. When you’re letting the horse work it out - you have to be really passive and stay out of their way.

I’m stationed in Florida for the winter and lucky to have the help of Tik Maynard and Sinead Maynard (formerly Halpin) while I’m here. I found myself, unconsciously, arriving in Florida with a bit of a competitive mindset that Albert and I had something to prove – that we’d come all this way, so we really had to put our best foot forward. My sensitive horse must have caught wind of that energy in my first lesson with Sinead - he was tense to the jumps, and I was subconsciously feeding into it, trying to “fix” it.

Sinead offered to hop on to see if she could feel what was going on, and it became a lesson in and of itself for me to watch her. When his tension would come up, she wouldn’t bat an eye. He’d get weird and wiggly in his body, she wouldn’t engage. She would just sit there and wait until he decided to join the party. It was the best reminder for me that we are tempted to do so much fixing, but sometimes, we just need to be aggressively passive. Since I am a visual learner, watching this process was the reminder I needed to turn towards that place in myself when I got back on. That place exists in all of us…we just need practice recognizing it.