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Horses in Ministry

Posted by on in Horses in Ministry
Loving Thy Enemies

Sometimes, the hardest person to love isn't your arch enemy.

When someone is really causing you pain, they're easy to focus on – too easy, sometimes. They're right there in your face, demanding your attention; you concentrate on them and think your problem through so that you reach the path of love and forgiveness. It's not always easy to do, but it's not easily forgotten, either.

But there are other enemies that slip your mind as soon as you turn your back. Enemies that cause only irritation, not pain. Enemies responsible only for hot flashes of anger, not abiding and seething fury. But these need love and forgiveness just as much as anyone else does: just as much as you do.

God has taught me some of His greatest lessons through horses. The latest is a particularly stubborn young horse with whom I do not get along. The reason why is difficult to explain; it's not a bad horse, and we have made quite some progress with its training, but I just don't like it. It's a simple personality clash, but that doesn't give me any excuses. No – I have to love that annoying little horse just as much as all the others, or what kind of a person am I? Even the worst sinners love those who love them. It's loving those who hate us that means we really love (Matthew 5:46).

So I gritted my teeth and plugged on, building a partnership with this horse and swallowing my annoyance when it did something random apparently just to irritate me, but I knew I didn't like it. I didn't like the way it looked, acted or carried itself and I couldn't make myself do it. I was starting to get annoyed with myself for not being able to love the little horse when one evening at feeding time the poor horse was not looking well at all. It wasn't hungry, it didn't want to get up, and once it did get up it just stood with its head hanging and agony in its eyes.

I nursed it most of the evening, giving it medicine, monitoring its vitals, walking it up and down to see if we could get its stomach moving. I knew what it had and it didn't make me happy; colic can turn nasty in moments, and you might never know what you're dealing with until it's too late. I could do what I would, but as usual, it was not in my hands.

So I wrapped my arms around the horse's neck and buried my face in its fragrant mane and prayed, “Lord, please make this little horse better.”

And in my heart, a light went on as I realised that I was not afraid of what the horse's owner would say if I lost it; I was not afraid of what would happen to my reputation as horse trainer if I lost it; I was not afraid of the financial implications if I lost it. I was afraid to lose the horse because, much as I disliked it, I loved it.

Lord Jesus was just teaching me something. Less than an hour later, the horse looked fine again, its stomach was back to work and its vitals were normal. I was riding it again less than twenty-four hours later and it annoyed me half to death, as usual. But this time I could just push the annoyance aside, grit my teeth and keep working without worry.

You see, God just showed me that you don't have to like somebody to love them. You don't have to feel attracted to them or see something good in them to love them. You don't even have to feel a warm emotion when you think about them. All you have to do is make a conscious, determined decision to love them and the Lord will do the rest.

Love's not an emotion. Love is a glorious duty, and one which we can do – which we will do – no matter what the implications, no matter what the obstacles, no matter what the price. Because we have been given this perfect and amazing commandment by the One Who is love, by the One Who loves the most mightily and eternally of all (Matthew 22:36-40).

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Be of Good Comfort

Those who know my little grey mare now might not have recognised her when I first started schooling her.

Lately, the adjective I've been using most to describe her is “brave”. And she is – brave as the day; she'll jump pretty much anything from any angle, run over any ground, and snort at any horse in the warmup arena, no matter how big it is. She'll deal with traffic, trains, runaway youngsters, balloons, music, cross-country fences, water, dykes, applause, anything really (except for baboons, pigs and dressage markers, the worst monsters in the known universe).

But five years ago, the brave grey mare was a terrified little dark roan filly who had absolutely no self-confidence. We had many a battle, she and I, on the driveway as I tried to convince her that she could go on a hack alone and she protested vehemently that she couldn't. There was never any malice in her, but when I pushed her forward, she would plant her neat little front feet next to each other and refuse to budge. Should I insist, she'd rear.

Assuming we did actually manage to get down the driveway, the spooking would begin. Everything was terrifying. Trees, rocks, cattle, leaves, tall grass, holes in the ground – anything even remotely frightening required snorting, leaping, shying, bucking and general blind panic.

In the arena, though, she was totally fine. She did whatever I wanted, however I wanted it, quiet as a sheep. I could put beginners on her. But taking her out just wasn't a safe option.

For years I would keep saying that the little grey mare was simply one of those horses who doesn't like to go out of their comfort zone. Her comfort zone was the arena, and she was okay there and she saw absolutely no reason to ever leave it. It took years of work, carefully pushing the boundaries, showing her that she'd be okay outside, before she would hack out alone.

Now, of course, she hacks out alone snorting like a dragon and telling the world to get out of her way or else. Even after being trailered off to a completely new location, she's fiery and fearless. Perhaps skittish for a few minutes, and then her usual unstoppable self.

“She's stretched her comfort zone so nicely,” I remarked to my trainer, the inimitable Horse Mutterer, after a particularly good cross-country lesson. “It seems as though she doesn't mind having the boundaries pushed any more.”

“Oh,” quoth the Mutterer, “it's not that. You are her comfort zone.”

It was an illuminating moment. And it's true: through the years of working together, the mare and I have become each other's comfort zones. When I'm on her, I know I'm going to be all right because she's on my side. And when she feels me in the saddle, she's comfortable and relaxed, because she knows I won't let anything hurt her.

So today the Lord said to me, “Be of good comfort: make Me your comfort zone.” Would it not be amazing if God was our comfort zone? If we always felt safe with Him around, no matter what we were facing? If we always knew that we'd be just fine as long as He was with us? If we felt brave enough to do anything, to say anything, to take on anything for Him because we knew that He was with us and would let nothing hurt us?

Brethren, this is all true. Our God is our Protector and nothing outside of His will can ever befall us once we are covered by His blood, as we are inseparable from Him (Romans 8:39). He has not left us comfortless; His comfort is with us in the form of the Holy Spirit (John 14:18). He is above all things and has power over all things; nothing can ever stand against Him. And He is on our side.

So let's make God our comfort zone. Let's make Him our safe place, so that no matter what our circumstances, we always know we can stand boldly for Him. Let us let His perfect love cast out fear. For when the Lord is our comfort zone, we will always be in a place where we are brave enough to do His will. Because Jesus is with us always, even unto the end of the world (Matthew 28:20).

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If We Can Love


Last weekend, I took one of my favourite horses in the universe to a jumping lesson off-site. She is a young horse and conditions were not ideal, but she was amazing. Sure, she threw a little buck here and there out of purest excitement, but she jumped everything we put in front of her and tried her heart out. There were several moments in which she was afraid, but I was there with a determined voice in her ear and a firm leg against her side and no hesitation, so she went for me. There were several moments in which I was afraid, but she was there with a powerful thrust of her hindlegs and a forward set of her ears, so I went with her. Our partnership, from the outside, looks unremarkable; just a little grey mare obeying her rider. But on the inside, we are more than partners, we are friends, there for each other, rooting for each other, and working together to achieve our common goal. I may not fall on her neck kissing her each time she pleases me, and she may not neigh joyously at the very sight of me, but we love one another with a quiet constance. It is a strange and unlikely relationship, this mutual respect between man and beast, but one that I treasure.

How strange we are, us humans. We love, with an abiding passion, a half-ton animal that cannot speak; something with four legs and monocular vision. Yet at the same time, we fear and hate members of our own kind if they look a little different. History is pock-marked and scarred by dark deeds done in fear and hatred of those who happened not to be the right skin colour, the right gender, or the right origin; people who didn't look or act or speak like other people who happened to be stronger than them. Civil wars have been raged, concentration camps filled, apartheid declared. And while in many places, many people have made many huge differences, the old hatred of all that is different lingers on.

I am a South African. Born three years after our fondly-nicknamed Madiba and F. W. de Klerk put an end to apartheid, I should know it only as history. Yet one can walk anywhere in South Africa and realise that apartheid still smoulders in hearts and minds all over our country, remaining in an old wound called racism. And with every government survey demanding that you fill in your race (where is the box marked “Human”?), every angry glance thrown across the street, every car window nervously rolled up as the “wrong” kind of person goes past, that old wound's healing slows.

And yet we, the same people who shake their fists, spit as they cross the road, or hug their purses and children nearer at the sight of others, we will walk up to a huge and dangerous animal that doesn't speak any human language, mount up and trust it with our lives.

So if we can love a beast that could kill us in a breath, we can love those who we have warred with in the past. If we can love a creature with a furry coat, we can love those with a different skin colour. If we can love an animal that has no speech, we can love those who speak a different language. If we can love a herd animal that functions in a society we barely understand, we can love the people who have different cultures to us.

In short, brothers and sisters, if we can love the horse, then we can love one another. We are not so different after all. We are all human (Acts 17:26). Let us celebrate the amazing diversity of God's creation and accept what He has so fearfully and wonderfully made. The world is truly divided with only one line; God's children, and the lost; and we as God's children are called to love everybody. There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

Glory to the King.

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On Chastening

Today, my old suspicion has been reaffirmed: an undisciplined horse is just as dangerous than a completely wild one.

It didn't help that the horse in question was well over sixteen hands high, a fiery young filly with plenty of blood. As beautiful as breaking dawn, the filly moved like moonlight on ocean waves; with effortless, rippling grace. She also knew exactly how strong she was, and exactly how small a human was in comparison to her power.

I followed my trainer, the inestimable Horse Mutterer, to her paddock expecting an absolute rebel, judging by the owner's description of her behaviour: she was aggressive and pushy, panicked in the stable, and had a nasty habit of rearing up and flipping over. The filly put up her ears when she heard us coming and cantered over, bright-eyed, friendly, and I began to think perhaps the owner was exaggerating. But she just didn't stop. She thudded to a halt only when her chest hit the top bar of the fence and I took a surprised step back as she nearly headbutted me with a head about the same size as my whole torso. Whereupon the owner diagnosed her own horse's problem in one sentence along the lines of: “She's so nice most of the time.”

We got more background information as the filly was led to the round pen, carefully studying every move made by both groom and horse. The filly had been orphaned at only a few days old; by a gargantuan and most laudable effort, the owner had successfully raised her to a large, strong and healthy young horse. Obviously, the owner cared deeply about this filly. Raising an orphan is no mean feat, but somewhere along the line pity had crept in and discipline had promptly signed out.

Now, the sweet orphan baby had turned into a menace. At first, as the Mutterer lunged her, she seemed just fine; content to trot around the pen for a few laps. Then, bored of this, she came to a halt. The Mutterer moved to encourage her on and she swung around, took careful aim and double-barrelled, both hind hooves flashing out in one deadly movement. Being the Mutterer, he had seen it coming a mile away and the kick failed to connect. But with that kind of vicious, head-height kick, you would be lucky to get away with broken ribs or a shattered face.

The filly was a typical spoiled brat; obviously adored by her owner (or else the owner wouldn't have looked for help when she needed it), but in complete, manipulative control of everyone around her. What had gone wrong? It was evident that she was well loved and well cared for, never roughly handled, yet still she was dangerous. The answer was simple: she needed to be taught respect. She needed to be disciplined – to be chastened.

Most well-behaved horses, mine included, have felt the nasty end of a dressage whip in their lives, with the result that they have a healthy respect for everyone around them. How, I hear you ask, could a good horseman possibly bring themselves to lay a lash upon the horses if they love them? Because they love them. They chasten them because they care about them. For the same reason as the Lord chastens all of us.

Yes, sometimes we can all be just as bratty as that big filly. We can be opinionated and stubborn, demanding our own way and throwing squealing, bucking temper tantrums when it doesn't happen. Sometimes we're so set on what we want that we nearly kill ourselves trying to get it. Other times we don't care who we're hurting, or how badly we're hurting them, as long as we don't have to do what we don't want to. We've all been selfish and spiteful in our lives; ever since the fall of Adam it has been a part of us that we will have to learn to let go of. And God knows that to learn this, we have to be chastened. Just as a loving father reprimands his child, our loving God reprimands His children.

So next time His righteous anger is upon us and He disciplines us with the consequences of our selfish actions, let us not be disheartened or resentful. Let us accept the chastening, repent and ask forgiveness, for He is a generous and loving God Who is quick to forgive. Then let us thank Him for His amazing love and try again, and do it better. If we are being chastened, let us know that this is a sign that He truly loves us. For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth (Hebrews 12:6).

Glory to the King.

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Trusting the Leader

I always dislike giving a horse an injection. Even when I know that I'm just doing my best to care for them, I flinch just as badly as the horse does when I hold up the glittering silver needle. At least my bay gelding makes it easy for me. Shots often involve a couple of forefeet waving around my head, but Thunder has never reared in his life. I grit my teeth, rub his neck to make sure he is nicely relaxed, and push the needle deep into the neck muscle. He stiffens briefly, turns one of his giant, liquid eyes to look at me.

“It's okay, buddy. It's going to make you feel better.”

The gelding can't understand what I'm saying, but the tone of my voice reassures him. He gives a deep, low sigh and then relaxes. In a few seconds, the injection is over and I softly rub his neck to soothe the worst of the sting. Because his muscle was so relaxed, I know that in a few minutes there will be no pain at all, nor any soreness tomorrow morning. And in a few hours, the anti-inflammatory I gave him will have eased the mild lameness in his foreleg.

As I cover the needle and unbuckle his halter, I can't help but marvel at the way our horses trust us. We all know how nasty shots are, but we humans – at least after we're ten years old or so – hold still for our injections because we know they're for our own good. But Thunder has no way of knowing that the medicine will make him better. It would make logical sense for him to fight me when he feels the sting of the needle; I am supposed to be his herdmate, but I'm hurting him for no reason that he can understand. Yet I don't even need someone to hold him while I give him the shot. His lead rein just hangs loosely over my elbow while both my hands are busy with the syringe.

Thunder doesn't know what the sharp stinging pain is for, but there is one thing he does know: I am his leader, and in the four years of his life, he knows that I have acted for his good. Not in every situation – I am imperfect; man, not God – but in enough situations that the big gelding has decided that he can trust me. It only takes my voice or my touch to soothe him because I have become his safe place. He will let me hurt him because he trusts me to help him, and because he knows that I outrank him and therefore know better than he does what he needs to survive.

There is something for us to learn from Thunder and the millions of other horses that trust us. Just as humans cause horses a few seconds' pain in order to help them heal, God sometimes allows painful things to happen to us in order to bring us closer to Him and to the people He created us to be. A parting, a disease, an injury, a rejection, a loss – there is so much in the world that can hurt us. And pain is nothing to be ashamed of; Jesus Himself knew it well. He bled, wept and sweated blood. It's how we handle the pain that matters.

Some young horses will get up on their hindlegs and fight for their lives when anyone approaches with a needle. Usually they are the ones who have some bruising or swelling after the shot because their muscles were tense, or they jerked away and caused the needle to move slightly in the muscle. Sometimes it proves impossible to inject them at all and they end up having to suffer for longer with whatever injury or illness we are trying to cure. And many times we react in the same way to the tribulations we are subject to; we fight God, crying out against Him, demanding how He could possibly let this happen to us. In the meantime, He knows that this brief pain, this tempering of a sword in the fire, is only going to make us better, make us happier, make us stronger and nearer to Him in the long run.

God allows us to feel pain not because He hates us, but because He loves us and wants to heal us. If we will relax and trust His beautiful plan and make no attempt to fight against Him, then He will heal us and help us. Even the pain itself will not be as bad as it would if we fought Him. And He is there for us, to reassure us when we are hurting, to hold us close when we think we can no longer bear it. We are not stronger than we think. We are much weaker than we think. But the mighty God inside us is stronger than anything, and makes us unconquerable.

So next time we're hurting and we want to demand why He would be so unjust as to hurt those who follow Him, remember the bay gelding who stands so still to have his shots, and trust God. Relax, fix your eyes upon Him, and trust the King Who loves you. Glory to the King.

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