We were in line at the grocery store, next to be checked out. It is Thanksgiving Day in the United States, and the store was filled with shoppers picking up last minute ingredients for their feasts. Most were not in a good mood. Yet, as the cashier turned to our items, and we approached the counter, the previous shopper stopped and turned back to us. She walked over, perhaps seeming a bit embarrassed, and thanked us for waiting until she was completely done before moving forward. It seems she is bothered (as I am) by people who crowd forward before she is even done with her transaction. Our courtesy stood out enough to warrant her stopping on this busy day to express her gratitude. Perhaps she understands the power gratitude has – on both the giver and the recipient.
There has been a lot of research into gratitude, and its affect on us – even at the university where I work. Psychology Today has this to say about gratitude:
“Studies show that we can deliberately cultivate gratitude, and can increase our well-being and happiness by doing so. In addition, gratefulness—and especially expression of it to others—is associated with increased energy, optimism, and empathy.“
Perhaps because I grew up with very little, I feel grateful for everything we have achieved. We lived in a one bedroom apartment for over 20 years, but we now own a small home on property. I had lessons, and eventually a horse, through working for them, and by sacrificing all that normal families around us took for granted – a car, a nice home, nice clothes, the latest gadgets, etc. Occasionally, other kids might tease me for what I did not have – but time at the barn reinforced what was important to me, and what I was truly grateful for. Today I have my own little herd for which I am daily grateful.
For multiple reasons, too numerous to go into, I also grew up being appreciative of things people do for me. That extends to those things for which they are paid. In doing so, it makes their day, and it makes mine as well. For our birthdays, my mother and I went to an expensive restaurant. A family of six came in, dressed in casual attire, clearly well to do enough to take such a gourmet destination for granted. Except for ordering, they never spoke to the staff who served their meals. The staff were silent and stone faced in return.
At our table, and two others nearby, people were dressed up – clearly there for occasions. At these tables, the diners thanked the staff for bringing the bread, for topping off drinks – basically for all that they did. Also at these tables, the staff members engaged in friendly conversation, offered information about the surrounding area … and smiled! We have observed such differences on many dining experiences. We always leave feeling good about the meal – and we are nearly always thanked, sincerely, for coming.
Lack of gratitude can lead to negative mood, and even depression. This year I experienced the toxic effect of focusing on the negative, and not being grateful for what you have. After completion of a massive project, the team focused on those things that were not perfect, rather than recognizing and being grateful for how successful the project actually was. My boss continues to push the staff to do more, while never stopping to be grateful for just how far the department has come in a short time. Not only did this affect the attitudes of the people who failed to find gratitude – it had a toxic effect on me and others around the edges.
So, why am I spending so much time writing about gratitude on a blog that is typically about horses (and sometimes dogs)? It is because gratitude has as much affect on our relationships with our animals as it does our interactions with humans. I have no scientific proof for this – only my own experience.
I have long tried to figure out why I have been able to get through to horses that have stymied other, more experienced riders and trainers. There are only two things that I have been able to narrow it to: one, I am physically comfortable around them, showing my affection in ways akin to how horses themselves interact; two, I am always grateful for the things they are willing to do for me. As an example of how this can affect a horse, I will use one of my Pony Club examinations.
For the jumping test, I was to swap horses with a girl whose Thoroughbred mare had bucked her off three times by that point. The jump course had been fractious, with her banging the mare in the mouth and back over most of the fences. The relationship was clearly toxic, with the mare unhappy and the girl blaming the mare for everything that went wrong.
The general consensus was that I was lucky to have a well trained horse (Ben, whom I’d actually trained myself) – so this would be her chance to shine, and my time to be knocked down a peg. Admittedly, I was not looking forward to the ride. I was only speculating about the problems I saw – perhaps she was just a bad actor.
We had schooling time over poles and a crossbar. I spent most of it on the flat, setting up lines of communication with the mare. For every try she made, I verbally praised her and rubbed her neck. I left myself little time to school fences, but I made the most of it – making sure to stay off her mouth and back, and praising every effort. The result? The mare cantered around that course as if it was a hunter class. Rather than taking credit, I was grateful to her for managing to trust me, after such a short acquaintance.
The balance of power in our relationship with horses is, no doubt, tipped in our favor. Sure, they have the physical power – but we have millennia of experience in exploiting that to our favor. The result is that too many riders take for granted that they are owed their horse’s obedience and performance. You can see this play out in any warmup arena in any riding discipline you choose, and even in the rhetoric of many trainers. But how often do you see riders show their gratitude to their horses? Sure, there is the hard slap when a ride results in the winning time or winning score – but the horse knows nothing of awards.
So, what does gratitude toward a horse look like? It’s the immediate recognition of any small try – the release of the reins, a soft stroke on the neck, a soft word of gratitude. During a break, it’s a neck rub, or a scratch on the withers. When you dismount, it’s a loosened girth, a kind word, and maybe a treat. When the bridle is removed, it’s a welcome head rub. It’s just feeling gratitude in your heart that this wonderful animal is willing to do what you ask of it, and appreciation for how much it has to suppress its own instincts to comply with your requests.
So, on this Thanksgiving Day, whether or not you celebrate it, I hope you will take a moment to be grateful – especially for the people and animals in your life. Studies prove that it is good for you, and you may just find that it improves your relationships with others, as well.
I am grateful to all who continue to read this blog!