A snowstorm is predicted for tomorrow, a Nor’easter, and the horses feel its approach. They’re like that, these animals. They sense the minute changes, the disturbances in the way things are, long before humans are able.
This afternoon I’m riding Elle, a splashy paint Oldenburg mare. Elle suffered a mysterious neck injury overnight in the field years ago. She recovered, but there is lasting damage, a misalignment in the musculature of her neck, a weakness that must be worked around.
After weeks of lessons, our trainer is comfortable letting us work solo today. And so Elle and I circle the indoor arena together as the sun disappears behind the fields and the clouds thicken across the sky.
Horseback riding is a language worked out between two very different animals. There is an intimacy in movement. A slight shift of weight, a tap of the boot, a taut rein or a slack rein. There is a give-and-take and a pause for response. Do you understand? How can I help you understand? In this way, riding reminds me of prayer.
I begin slowly, asking Elle to move forward and lengthen her stride. This will release the tight spaces in her body, the constrictions that hold her back. She needs a lengthy warmup before more concentrated work can begin. There are a lot of blockages in the way. My hands are strong yet soft on the reins, waiting for Elle to accept contact and let me direct her. It can’t be forced, only encouraged.
“Come as you are.” That’s a popular refrain in a lot of Christian churches. And really, it’s all we can do to arrive at church as we are. Like Elle, most of us have accrued past damage that gets in the way. You can’t blame us for being wary, for licking our wounds. “Weaknesses aren’t sin,” the pastor at our church said in a recent message. But they’re not meant to be a way of life either. There are workarounds.
“Weaknesses aren’t sin,” our pastor said recently. But they’re not meant to be a way of life either.
With Elle, I am insistent yet patient. There is a tentativeness in the tilt of her head as we forge on, an uncertainty. She is listening, but she’s not ready to let go. My job is to meet her where she is, as she struggles to reach for me. I believe God meets us where we are, too. There are blockages aplenty in our prayer life—worry, fear, anger—all the barriers that get in the way.
As our warm-up continues, Elle grows more relaxed, and consequently more limber. There are moments when she truly responds. And there are moments when she slams on the brakes, resisting, evading my influence, either out of laziness or indifference. A rider needs training and skill to discern the difference between these motivations.
There is a give-and-take and a pause for response. In this way, riding reminds me of prayer.
There is, after all, a big difference between fearful hesitation and willful refusal—and not just in horses. Denial, deflection, and gaslighting all have deep roots in the human heart. But in the end they, too, are only evasions. They don’t fool a God who knows our secret thoughts. The real work begins when we realize that while God may be willing to meet us where we are, He ultimately wants to bring us to where He is.
Kind of like with Elle. I know you have this problem. It’s real and it’s painful. I believe we can find a way around it, if you can trust me.
Elle dips her head, searching for the reassuring balance of my hands. No more pulling on the reins. She is seeking me. We round a corner, and she bends her body, allowing my legs to guide her. Her back is rising now, and her hind legs are reaching further beneath her body with each stride. Her gait smooths out. Her front end rises. Her neck is freed.
I gather the reins in one hand and pat her neck. “Such a good girl!” The thrill of connection runs through me. I think Elle feels it, too. No gain is too small to celebrate when the effort is honest. I bring Elle down to a walk on a loose rein so she can rest, basking in her accomplishment.
The thrill of connection runs through me.
Elle is from warm-blood sport horse lineage, bred to partner deeply with humans. She wants to work. She just needs some help banishing old ghosts, and she needs to warm up in her own way. I completely understand this.
It occurred to me recently that maybe, in this rough and tumble journey of life, God gives us much more credit than we realize. He knows what we’re up against. Maybe every good impulse, every good deed we muster, resonates louder and travels further than we know.
God knows what we’re up against.
No one was there the night Elle injured herself in that field. She was discovered, suffering, in the morning. But God was there. He saw it happen. He knows her wounded parts, and He knows the way forward even when Nor’easters threaten with snow and ice. I believe that what we need comes to us when we’re ready to receive it. And not a minute before.