Coercion or Connection

There’s a story about the way elephants are tethered when in human captivity. A simple chain or rope around one leg is tied to something that does not match the strength of the adult elephant. If he chooses, he could easily break the tie and be free. However, when he was a young elephant, he learned that it was useless to fight such restraint. By the time he’s grown up, he remembers not his strength, but the uselessness of the fight.

I was reminded of this story when I faced a series of moments where I experienced sensitivity and trust, not with an elephant, but with a horse who was born free, and now learning to adapt to being in human captivity. Congaree, called ReeRee for short, was captured in a mustang round up when he was about 2 or 3 years old. Bruce Anderson and Julianne Neal adopted him in South Carolina in 2023. My moment of truth came about 208 days after he began his journey with Bruce.

Through ReeRee I saw the unseen – and mostly unconscious - ways we humans coerce each other to get work done together. In a series of catalyzing moments, followed by pure terror, reset and true connection, ReeRee revealed how we put the very stakes in the ground that imprison us.

But first we must start with perception. Not mine, but that of a horse born among horses. His sensitivity to danger far surpasses that of a horse born among people. When I went out to the pasture with the halter and lead rope over my arm, it took a while before I was able to stand next to him. After several minutes of connecting, I had the thought “It’s time to put on the halter.” The second that thought crossed my mind, ReeRee backed away. I immediately shut down that thought and reconnected with him. I was sure I had made some physical movement that caused him to back away. The next try, I consciously decided to be very still before putting on the halter. At that moment, ReeRee backed away. I wasn’t thinking about the halter, I was just thinking about not moving. Then I tried to move without thinking, and again, ReeRee backed away. As soon as I dropped the thought and returned to connection, he stepped back towards me. Now I was confused. How the heck was I ever going to get the halter on if I couldn’t think about putting it on?

ReeRee showed me that my agenda interfered with our connection. His heightened level of perception sensed the exact moment I shifted from the energy between us to doing what I wanted to do. I stood there, now acutely aware of this conflict: Connection good, agenda bad. Again, questions of life roared through my head. How can I get anything done if I don’t think about what I’m doing? Is not doing anything the only way to be with a horse like this? What now?

Without thinking, I found my hands moving smoothly bringing the lead rope under and over, the halter sliding on and Ree standing still, present and connected. Somehow, my body had found a way to move while staying connected. I walked to the front of the pasture with ReeRee, where Bruce stood talking with a colleague I had asked to join us this day. When we work together, Bruce typically shares a “picture” with me. For example, the picture might be as simple as, “Ask the horse to move. When he moves, drop the picture and turn your back.”

This picture was much more challenging on this day. Bruce asked me to drape the lead rope over ReeRee’s back in such a way that it didn’t drag on the ground. Then the picture was: “Start on his left side, with his head next to your shoulder. Walk a few steps, asking the horse to stay connected to you as you walk along. Do not touch the lead rope.”

After we did that for a few steps, Bruce said, “Now, walk to the gate, open it, staying connected as you go. Then bring him outside the gate without touching the lead rope, close the gate and wait for further instructions.”

What?!? Bruce is asking me to take a formerly free horse outside of any confinement and keep him with me, without touching him? It felt like a tall order just to make it to the gate. Nonetheless, I proceeded forward.

I was surprised when he easily stayed connected to me as we walked to the gate and as I opened the gate. He did the same as I walked him out and then asked him to turn and face the fence alongside me as I closed the gate. It’s a tricky gate, and my attention went towards finding the chain, pulling it through and…

Suddenly I was aware that ReeRee was walking away. Our connection had been broken. Oh, how I longed for the coercion of the lead rope!

Coercion is a strong word, and one that I don’t use often. Yet, the truth is, we use coercion to get things done with others. As I’ve been training my dog Piper for the last year and half, I’ve come to appreciate the value of having great recall. She will come to me when I call in most situations. BUT. I still have her on a leash when we go to the park. As connected as she is to me around our house and at Mystic Waters, the pressure of a new place, with new dogs and amazing new people is greater than her ability to stay connected to me. So I coerce her into staying next to me with the leash.

Now, ReeRee was walking away from me and there was nothing -- outside of connection -- that I could do about it. He’s faster than me and knows how to live free. In the moment, the pressure of the situation was greater than my mental tools. When I turned to catch ReeRee, he walked faster. So I walked faster. I felt as much as saw the moment when something inside him clicked, and he began trotting along the fence line. Soon he was out of sight, and I almost crumbled from fear and panic. I cried out to Bruce “I need a little help here!”

It was only on later reflection that I connected these dots about connection – and coercion. What is a job, without the “lead rope” of a salary? What is an education without the “lead rope” of the degree? What makes us get things done with other people? How often are our actions because of a true connection or something more like coercion? In what ways do we coerce ourselves because we put a stake in the ground that has turned into the picket fence of our own imprisonment? (For example, I will never treat my child the way my parents treated me…I am only happy when I’m in front…I have to have all the answers…Time is money…This list goes on and on!)

My challenge to you this week is to begin noticing where you use coercion vs connection to get things done. What are you doing out of obligation or because you know if you don’t, you’ll get fired? These are not easy questions, nor are they black and white. However, every conversation about employee engagement, finding purpose in life and creating commitment over compliance comes down to the leverage point. Is it connection or coercion?

As for what happened a few seconds after I cried out to Bruce…the story will be continued in two weeks.

I know – did I just write a blog without resolution? Did I ever catch up with ReeRee? Was Bruce furious that I lost his horse? What else could I have possibly learned in such a state of panic? Read it in my next blog.