The Power of Walk


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The Paradoxical Theory of Change: How intentions can impede progress

Mar 14, 2024

As many of you know, I’m passionate about connected, targeted slow walk work and the incredible effects it can have.

A tricky paradox that I come across time and time again is that when people really want the work to help their horse, they unconsciously block progress by the very fact they so much want it to work.
The best progress is seen in horses where their owners have completely accepted the idea that their horse may never be able to do the things they wanted them to. Why is this?

As an Equine Assisted Psychotherapist, one of the concepts which fascinates me is a principle that our human therapy is founded on: the paradoxical theory of change. The more you try to change, the less meaningful and long term change you will be able to make. The more you accept things as they are, the more long term and meaningful change you will make in your life.

Even when we genuinely want the best for our horses.. we are likely to continue to experience resistance unless we can genuinely let go of expectations for the horse to change.

What is change and why do we want it? I’m going to explore two perspectives on change. In both scenarios, the goal is the same. Both owners are caring and loving and want the best for the horse: Both owners want them to be pain free and enjoy doing things with us.

Perspective 1: Seeking change
“I don’t like things the way they are and I want it to change. I want my horse to enjoy fast work again..”
A strong yearning to change is a rejection of “what is”. Often, we are afraid to delve any deeper into whether there is anything about the situation that may be more complex than it seems, or may raise some more hurdles or uncomfortable truths. We often measure success by a narrow set of parameters based on the opposite of what we currently see. Actually, there are often smaller, underlying issues beneath the obviousness of the problem, and these will continue to arise in different scenarios until we are ready to address them. In the meantime, the change we originally desired will either not happen, or will happen temporarily but then go back to how it was.

The issue:
“My horse is sore. I wish my horse wasn’t sore. If my horse wasn’t sore, they would be happy and I wouldn’t feel sad and worried all the time. I would be able to ride them and we would have fun together.”

The solution:
“Let’s try something to see if we can change things. Let’s try some slow work and see if that helps. That seems a little better. Did that work? Can you go faster now?”
“Oh dear, you can’t seem to manage to go faster still. But we can’t carry on doing slow work forever. That might mean you’re not really OK. And you have enjoyed fast work in the past - I’d like to focus on getting back to how things were. Let’s stop this slow work and try some faster work for a minute.”

The outcome:
“I tried the slow work, but it didn’t work. My horse is still able to do faster work, but doesn’t really enjoy it.”

Perspective 2: Seeking understanding
“I want to understand more about the problem and what I can do now.”
When we seek to really accept the depth of the problem, we are often surprised to discover that either the problem or the solution was not quite what we thought it was. Understanding this sometimes leads us to redefine our approach, goals and expectations. This often opens some challenging and complex themes. When we address these real issues, we can find that the originally perceived problem disappears or changes for good.

The issue:
“My horse is sore. I feel sorry for my horse being in pain. I feel sad about that. I feel worried that I might not ever be able to ride and have fun with them. I wonder why my horse is sore? I wonder if there is anything I can do to help today?”

The solution:
“Let’s try something to find out what you need. Does it make you feel better if I do some slow work? You seem a little happier. Shall we do some more of that? What else makes you feel better?”
“I value our relationship, and I value having fun with horses. I love going fast. Let’s embrace the slow work for a while because it seems to make you feel good. Let’s forget about faster work altogether. I don’t really enjoy slow work, but I wonder.. Is there a way that I can feel good as well, doing the slow work, so that I can continue to enjoy our relationship by enjoying doing with you the things you need to do? Is there another way I can meet the needs I have to do also do fun, fast things with horses? Things that don’t rely on you?”

The outcome:
“I’m noticing my horse starting to enjoy their work again. My horse is moving more freely forward and seems to be happier with less pain. I’ve learned some new things about myself and some new skills. I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed this and how it has deepened our relationship. I’m not sure whether my horse will ever be able to do the fast work, and I’m still sad about that. However, for now I am borrowing a friend’s horse to go on fast, fun rides, which really takes the pressure off.”

A key difference I see in owners that have adopted perspective 1 is that they are tempted to keep checking whether the slow work is working. They will ask the horse to move a little bit faster to see if the slow work has made their movement free-er or reduced their pain. They might even be rewarded with a little more willingness than normal when they do this, (because actually it DOES work!) which encourages them to try again. However, to the horse, who has begun to build confidence that the owner is no longer pushing or wanting anything from them, they begin to lose some of that trust and next time they will be a little more defensive in the slow work, so it won’t work quite as well.

The most positive and long term changes I see are in people with perspective 2 who have fully embraced and accepted the slow work and are focused 100% on connection and synchronisation in the moment, and have discovered how beautiful and rewarding the work is in its very own right. They have allowed themselves to experience the full magic of slow.

Instead of “before and after” photos, I felt it fitting to share a “during” photo with this post, because that’s what it’s all about!

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