Choosing Faith Over Fear: Lessons with Mickey the Horse

May 6, 2020

Rebecca Sherrif is at HoneyRock as a graduate assistant as she pursues her M.A. in Outdoor and Adventure Leadership at Wheaton College Graduate School. In this post, she reflects on how working with horses can help us choose faith over fear.

Fear is a tricky emotion.

As it works its way into our minds, it tries to convince us that there isn’t a way out of the chaos. Fear seeks to kill and destroy any sense of hope or optimism we may be grasping for with outstretched hands.

Fear Isn't Uniquely Human

Fear also doesn’t limit itself to humankind. It leaps across species lines and resides in every animal that shares a space with humans. Your household pet, the wildlife outside your window, and even the horses at HoneyRock all have the ability to be fearful. Many people have heard of the “fight or flight instinct” that most creatures possess. This instinct is particularly strong in horses because their very survival depends on their God-given ability to flee when danger is present. When faced with an unfamiliar circumstance or object, a horse first asks, “Do I have to protect myself at all costs in this very moment?” If the answer to that question is yes, they will use their powerful bodies to propel themselves away from the perceived danger. Horses do not have claws or sharp teeth, and so their immediate line of defense is to run – quickly.

Thankfully, horses are also intensely curious creatures with an innate need for community. A living paradox, horses are simultaneously driven to understand the world around them, while also cautiously approaching every new thing. As herd animals, they find strength and safety in numbers, surrounded by their kind who know them at a deep level. If you’ve ever watched a herd of horses interact in a pasture, they appear to move like one body – eating, drinking, running, and relaxing as a core group. A strong leader, typically the matriarch, decides when the herd sleeps, eats, and moves to new grazing land. This “alpha horse” sets the tone for the herd with her body language, letting each horse know how they should be acting in any given situation. Plenty of grass and water nearby? Time for a bit of rest. Foreign animals in their territory? Definitely a cause for concern. The horses lower on the hierarchy look to her for guidance and reassurance. Together they survive in a world that is full of fearful threats.

Even horses that have been domesticated and trained have the seed of fear planted deep within their brains. It cannot be eliminated, and it is a core piece of their identity as a horse. Thus, people who work with livestock must learn to work with the horse’s natural instincts, not against them. A horse exhibits fear and uncertainty in a number of ways. A raised head allows them to scan their environment, looking for threats around every corner. Ears flick back and forth, listening intensely. Shallow breaths and fluttering nostrils search for foreign smells. Tense muscles quiver, ready for departure at any moment.

The Role of Horses at HoneyRock: Reflecting God's Truth

As a human handler, simply reacting to the horse’s fear will not do. Adding anxiety and high energy into an already tense situation only compounds the problem, doing nothing to bring clarity and peace into the interaction. However, by maintaining a calming presence, listening to the horse’s body language, and channeling the horse’s anxious energy into a positive outlet, both the handler and the horse will stay safe.

At HoneyRock, horses are powerful tools for ministry that reflect God’s Truth into the lives of everyone who interacts with horses. Because God has gifted horses with equal parts strength, grace, instinct, and forgiveness, every day is a new object lesson with limitless possibilities. There is much to be learned by watching and listening to these special creatures, and the lessons they can teach people are truly profound. For example, we can see how our own human desires for comfort, security, and control can parallel a horse’s need for safety within a herd and a predictable environment.

Mickey, the horse in the photos below, is perfectly exhibiting the inner battle of “fight or flight.” In order to work with a horse, we must momentarily take them out of a familiar environment. The unfamiliar routine and environment lead him to ask questions such as, “It’s cold and windy today, am I in danger?” or “My herd-mates are over there and I’m all alone, am I still safe?” (Photo 1) These questions are entirely valid. As he works through his emotions and energy, he turns to the people, horses, and environment around him to provide comfort and security. Providing a space that is safe physically and emotionally for Mickey to develop in a healthy way is critical. By allowing Mickey to work through his anxious energy through positive movement, allowing him to scan his surroundings, and not shutting down his willingness to try, the handler can allow Mickey to work through his fear in a healthy way. (Photo 2)

Seeing Parallels: Turning Fear and Anxiety into Trust and Faith at the HoneyRock Barn

The process of turning fear and anxiety into trust and faith is not an easy one. Just as in life, working with horses and helping them to become a stronger, more well-rounded version of themselves takes time, patience, and dedication. With horses, the actions of repetitive movement, training, and conditioning allow them to slowly adopt the positive characteristics of their handlers. For Mickey and all other horses, the lengthy process of development builds a foundation of skills that they need to be successful in every job we give them. Greeting a child on a pony ride, offering a first-time retreat guest a trail ride, or working with a camp in a master’s skill lesson – these are all opportunities for happy, healthy, and well-rounded horses to experience with people by their side.

We can see parallels between the life of a horse and its handler and our own lives as followers of Christ. Just as horses adopt the mindset and energy level of their leader, whether it be another horse in the herd or their human handler, followers of Jesus come to adopt His attitudes, fruits of the spirit, and characteristics. This process of growth and development cannot be forced, just as we cannot force any horse to enter into a trusting relationship with us. In life and in horsemanship, submitting to fear is never the answer. Stepping confidently into the unknown with Christ gives us the ability to face things that make us frightened or uncomfortable. While the process of training for Mickey may be momentarily uncomfortable and uncertain, his handler knows it is necessary for his wellbeing and greater good as a horse living at HoneyRock. James 1:2 tells us, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (ESV).

In developing horses, it is the handler’s responsibility to reassure the animal every step of the way that all is well, that he is taken care of, and that no harm will come to him. With COVID-19, 2020 has been filled with more than enough bad news that could leave anyone’s nerves frazzled. However, we do not serve fear, we serve a God who is mightier than any negative news cycle. He is not surprised by today’s age, and he is not threatened by the questions we ask.

God handles these questions in stride. His Word and Spirit encourage us to look beyond our natural fearful instincts and instead turn to the foundation that cannot be shaken. While circumstances and routines have been flipped upside down, our eternal Savior has never lost His cool. He reaches towards those outstretched hands, removes all the panic and chaos, and replaces it with an everlasting love and the peace that passes all understanding. He reminds us that we find strength in community and in the Church and that coming together as a body of Christ doesn’t end in the age of social distancing.

The Answer: Choosing Faith Over Fear

While we may not know what tomorrow holds, we do know that choosing faith over fear is part of the answer. We also know that leaning into “trials of various kinds” leads to steadfastness and faithfulness that lends itself to us being “lacking in nothing” in our relationship with God (James 1:2.) One question we should be asking is, “Will I simply survive this, or will I allow these circumstances to push me to become a better friend, a better family member, a better student, and a better member of the Church?” We cannot control our circumstances, but we can control how we care for our own souls and how we express love, kindness, and empathy for those around us (human and equine included).—Rebecca Sheriff