top of page
  • Writer's pictureAdele Shaw

Ep 58 // Grief and Shame in Horsemanship

In this episode I am joined by Julia Alexander and Bex Tasker for a discussion about grief and shame in horsemanship.

We talk about perfectionism, getting "lost in our heads", allowing ourselves to be learners and to make mistakes, and so much more. It's a really important conversation that I hope you will take the time to listen to.

This episode was recorded for TWE Academy in 2020, and we decided to release it to the public as a follow up to our most recent podcast episode, Episode 57 // A New Outlook on Equine Assisted Therapy with Julia Alexander, LCSW. To watch the accompanying video and to hear more conversations like this one, join the Academy! Enrolment opens in July, and you can jump on the First-to-Know List today. We would love to have you!

More about Julia Alexander and the work that she does:

Julia provides compassionate therapy, education and consulting services rooted in anti-racist, social justice and liberatory frameworks. She offers a safe and accepting space to alleviate shame, heal trauma and discover inner resilience. Her approach is founded on an unwavering belief in the healing power of safe connection, and a deep knowing that sustained relationship to nature plays a major role in human healing. She specializes in providing eco and equine-assisted psychotherapy in the areas of childhood relationship trauma, coming out, systemic oppression, and shame held by white-bodied people. As a social justice educator, she offers customized consulting, curriculum design and group facilitation to individuals, teams, and organizations who want to understand their experiences and beliefs in the context of systemic oppression. She combines her expertise as a therapist and social justice educator to offer a unique form of equine-assisted psychotherapy rooted in the ethical inclusion of horses in human treatment. Through this work, she loves supporting people in exploring connection, dialogue, choice and consent.


More about Bex Tasker and her work:

Bex lives on a small farm in Western Bay of Plenty, New Zealand with her animals and young family. She runs classes for dogs and their humans, junior animal trainer classes and regular horsemanship clinics from her home property. She also travels around New Zealand and overseas to deliver clinics and lessons to horses and their passionate and dedicated humans. As well as the "real life" teaching, she has a thriving online membership community, and run regular coaching intensives with students from all over the world. In early 2019 she partnered with her good friend and experienced youth worker Brooke Friend to establish a successful youth programme, focused around ethical animal training, life skills and mental health.



Podcast Transcription:

[00:00:00] Welcome to season four of the willing equine podcast, the podcast where we chat about all things, horses and being the best horse people we can be for our horses. My name is Adele Shaw. I'm a certified behavior consultant, and my passion is for creating positive relationships between horses and people.

[00:00:23] Hey guys, welcome back to another TWE podcast episode. This episode is going to be fun and unique. This is actually a throwback to 2020 when I had Bex and Julia visiting me. We did an exclusive conversation slash interview for the TWE academy, but I've decided to release it on my podcast as a great follow-up to my last conversation that I had with Julia in the previous podcast episode. This particular episode is going to be about grief and shame and horsemanship, and just talking about our past experiences and maybe how we've changed and how we feel about some of the things we used to do, or didn't know in our previous time as a horse person, and I really hope you guys enjoy this episode. I'm interviewing Bex Tasker of positively together and Julia Alexander of Julia Alexander counseling. So if you're interested in learning more about them, their bios will be in the show notes, definitely check out their websites and to learn more about them and what they do and their professions. In the meantime, I do apologize for any poor sounding audio. This was recorded in my house, in the living room. And there was a little bit of an echo. So it's not the greatest for podcasts, but hopefully you can still have a lot of takeaways and it's beneficial to you and you can enjoy the episode.

[00:01:38] So I think we should all introduce ourselves just for the sake of the video and everybody is watching. So I'm Adele Shaw and you guys all know me and I know you guys and I run The Willing Equine and I have too many horses, too many horses and I guess you could say my profession is horse training. But I feel like it's so much more than that. And that's part of the reason we're all here is because it is so much more than that. It's so much more, as far as building the relationships with our students and our clients and building community and helping people on their journey. I actually was talking to another trainer and they mentioned that they were a horsemanship mentor and I felt like that was a really good label, like a title. If we were going to pick up a title, I feel like I'm more than just a horse trainer, you know?

[00:02:24] Yeah, totally. Okay. I'm Julia Alexander. That's my last name. And I'm a therapist, so I'm a social worker by trade. But in my previous life, I was an educator. Both of those things seem to go well together. So my area that I work in mostly is around trauma and how we all, we all have a story, right? We all have a story. And you know, a lot of the times we try to separate parts of our story from ourselves and this could happen within a day or that kind of life. And so I worked with people to hear their stories. And I also, I've been riding horses and have had horses in my life for a very, very long time, which is a part of my story, but how that's happened throughout is, there's some shame there and that's something that I had to work through taking my skills as a therapist and playing with myself.

[00:03:19] Oh yes. That's one more thing to teach somebody else. And it was a whole other thing to say, okay, this applies to me.

[00:03:27] Right, right. To take your own advice. So since I've been learning about positive reinforcement, I'm just like blown away by all the overlaps with trauma, where I'm with people and how we create spaces for people. So it's very exciting.

[00:03:47] It is exciting. It's exciting to talk to you and yeah, I'm Bex Tasker. So my business is called Positively Together. And similar to Adele, people say, but what do you do? And I, I always had this lost look up at the sky and ponder before I answered, because the easy answer that people will understand is that I'm a horse trainer, but really I'm a people teacher. And you know, you're talking about being a mentor, I feel that way too. I would almost say that I'm like, at times, I feel like I'm delving into the world of therapy on many levels between humans and the horses, so inspiring and educating humans. The thing that I find myself after all these years becoming the most passionate about really is inspiring and educating the human side. Because I feel like that is the way to reach the most horses. If I can train a horse and I can make their life it's as, as great as I can, but if I can, if I can inspire and educate a human and every animal that they come into contact with for the rest of their lives is going to be affected. So that's, that's the real driving force behind what I do. And yeah, what we're going to sort of talk about today is a big part of that for our students. So, yeah.

[00:04:59] So let's go back Julia, to what you were talking about with just the shame around horsemanship and what we often, as we're going through our horsemanship journey experience, as we recognize maybe something we used to do, isn't what we would do now and how to move forward with that and to kind of be okay with it and, and compassionate towards ourselves and understand that well, for me, at least I want to recognize that that was valuable because I can't be here unless I was there first, like I had to start there to be here. So that has been a major factor for me in being okay with everything I've done to horses in the past that now I would never even like, want to do ever is a very serious situation. But and just how I, we just kind of want to talk to you about. Maybe what you might counsel somebody on as far as that goes.

[00:05:59] I pull in a lot of Brené Brown's work. So I'm trained in her curriculum, which was really life-changing for me, because I was able to start to define the difference, right? Between shame and guilt. So they're very different and they have a different physiological presence in our bodies. And then they're also different because they predict different outcomes for us.

[00:06:23] So guilt is the feeling of having done a bad thing. And it's actually really predictive in the research of, of an increase in changed behavior. So it's adaptive, it's a really adaptive feeling. And I think most of us have felt guilt. Like, oh, I got to work late and I feel bad about it. And so, you know, tomorrow I'm going to set my alarm earlier and that can be applied with anything.

[00:06:49] But shame is this visceral body feeling that there is something that's inside of me, a part of me that's bad. I did this thing and so I am bad, it's very different than guilt. It sits with us differently. And it actually, I mean, we live in a culture that you use as shame often to produce change. But what we see from the research is that it actually doesn't produce change, it produces an inward. Right. So really we just get, we retreat inward, we get quiet. We don't talk about what we're feeling or what we're doing. Right. And so. We first really want to make that distinction between shame and guilt.

[00:07:33] And once we do, then we start to figure out how to identify shame in me. Right. So when I think about, you know, just to put myself out there in a vulnerable way. When I was six, seven, I learned to engage with horses in a way that incorporated a lot of violence. And that was just like what I learned. And I think throughout my life that's come up for me in lots of different scenarios as this very visceral feeling. Right. Of like, is there a part of me that's bad because of this thing?

[00:08:05] Do you, do you think the influence of that is increased by the age that you were at when these things were happening?

[00:08:10] It's a really good question. I think probably I think we do lots of things when we're young, we don't have the answers to, and we are learning from the adults around us that are supposed to protect us and keep us safe and, you know, lead us and, you know, the path that is healthy

[00:08:29] And perhaps if we learned something at that young age, perhaps we struggled to understand that being who we are versus what's been taught to us because we don't literally remember

[00:08:40] Yeah, I think absolutely. And I think for me, my story around trauma was really directly connected to what I was taught. About how to engage with horses, it's really hard to disentangle that. So it's been a really, a beautiful experience for me that my healing has happened as I learned how to engage with horses in a more kind, compassionate way. That's helped to untangle my story too and help me own in different way. So. Your original question was about shame and I, yeah,

[00:09:13] But I, I honestly didn't know the difference between shame and guilt. So that's huge for me to be able to separate because yeah, there are things that I have done and ways I've acted towards my horses or throughout the rest of my life that, that there is that deep visceral shame, but then there's things like, should I work too late? Or I, you know, it was a little short tempered with my kid tonight. You know, that's more of like a guilt and I know I can do better and I can fix. And it's not me. I know. I recognize that it's not me. It was an action, a choice at the time that I can change. That's different than identifying myself as "I was, or am this person," and I don't like that. And it makes me feel terrible about myself.

[00:09:58] Yeah. Shame is just, it's this feeling that because something in me as wrong or bad than I am less worthy of love and belonging, less worthy of connection with people. And that's the biggest fear with shame is that it will lead to disconnection.

[00:10:14] So I'm picturing a scenario where we've done a particular thing that we feel guilt about? Is it, is it therefore fair to say that in one individual that action, right, let's talk about I don't know, we've smacked our horse. One person might feel guilty about that and therefore do something different tomorrow because guilt produces change of behavior. Another person might internalize that as being something wrong with them and feel shame at that. Yeah. So it might be the same scenario, but it's a different way that we are responding to.

[00:10:50] Yes, because we bring all of ourselves to any relationship that we're in, even the relationship with our horses. So the person that feels guilt comes in with a different story.

[00:11:01] So the healthier way to deal with something is to feel guilt over it, rather than shame. Is that true?

[00:11:08] Yeah, I think so. I think that if we have resilience enough to say I did this thing that I don't like, or I did this thing that I feel like is not the choice that I want to make again, or I reacted, or was reactive. If we have enough resilience to say, that's not because I'm that, there's not something inherent in me that's bad, we're much more likely to be able to move to something that feels better, you know

[00:11:34] What's so cool about this. And it's not something that I predicted when we started talking about this, is that all of us have done Dr. Susan Friedman's Living And Learning With Animals course, and, and Dr. Friedman talks a lot about labels and unlabel me, and labels being something which we are putting the blame into the inside of the animal. So your animal is dominant and it's a vicious circle that has no end, versus seeing it as simply a behavior that the animal is doing, which can be influenced or changed. It's the same thing.

[00:12:10] Yes. It's externalized not internalized. Yeah. That's huge.

[00:12:15] Yeah. And there's something about. Dr. Susan Friedman that just really exudes kindness and compassion.

[00:12:22] And peace.

[00:12:22] Yes. And so, you know, I'm not promoting people feel guilty. Right. But it really is important because we all have those sensations come up in us that we really start to get, you know, become detectives of our bodies. Right. And how we piece apart guilt and shame, because we do know that guilt can move us, where shame really keeps us stuck.

[00:12:46] For me, because as you're talking, I'm just like thinking through this helps me identify why some of the stuff in my past was that I'm still holding on to. I might even perform that same action now, but I don't hold onto it the same way, because I'm not identifying myself as that person. It's just, it was an action at the time and I'm like, okay, that was not what I wanted, was to change that and do better. Whereas I look back at my past self and I almost identify my past self by those actions. And so I feel shame over that past self. Does that make sense? So that would, that is interesting to me cause it's, it helps me identify why I'm more resilient now to, I guess that's the right word, to a mistake I might make that might closely resemble something I might've done in the past. But they process different in me. Thinking about past self versus okay, even something I did in the last year, you know, some more current self. I don't have any shame over that. Like I'm like, well, it was a decision I made in the moment. It wasn't the best one. And now that I know better, you know, all of that, but then I look 10 years ago past me and I feel more shame over that.

[00:13:56] So the question then is how can those listening to this conversation make the same journey that Adele has because it's not certainly passive for itself. You've gone through a process to reach this point. So what tools are there or what yeah. How can you, how can people make that journey?

[00:14:13] Well, I mean, I can offer some ideas around shame resilience, but I wonder if, if it would be helpful to just share a little piece of what you felt like you've done.

[00:14:24] Oh, I see. I don't even know if I know. So part of it is like I had, I had no way to identify. I just knew it. I think a knowing that I'm constantly seeking to do better, but, but also understanding that there is no necessarily, like, this is the absolute truth and this is the absolute right, because there was even a middle ground where I did have that sense of, I must do it this way for it to be absolutely right and true. In any slip up in that, created more of a shame feeling. Right. Whereas now I'll do something I wouldn't necessarily promote or agree with. Like, I don't even agree with it and I just did it, type thing. Cause I'm human. I make mistakes. I'm like, okay, that's part of the learning process. Like that was, I didn't set that up the way I wanted it to, you know, I take a step back and I start instantly, or even over time, it takes time to process through what caused that to happen. But I don't identify myself as that mistake.

[00:15:22] If part of the thing that helps is our own education about from the animal's perspective. Right? So, so one thing that I'm super interested in and passionate about is the transfer. Between the humans. So how concepts that we applied to our horses apply to us. So behavioral science theory and whatever applied to how that also applies to ourselves, but because you have become aware in the intervening period, you've become much more aware your fog has lifted, so to speak, around the science, behind learning. You know, and in order to have the knowledge to train with positive reinforcement effectively and well, just to train effectively full stop you've now got much, therefore you must have much more compassion for the animal and you must be looking at behavior because labeling an animal et cetera isn't helpful and acting reactively in the moment isn't helpful. And you know, this consciously now, like I just wonder if, do you agree that maybe that learning about how to train the horse, it's helped you to be more compassionate to yourself?

[00:16:25] Absolutely. Because now I can recognize my own training. Yeah. Even if I'm applying it to myself, like -shine the spotlight on you-. Yeah. There's not necessarily, it doesn't have to necessarily be like an external trainer, like somebody who's, you know, manipulating my behavior. I can, I'm still learning and all of the science still applies and because, you know, the way we think we can kind of retrospectively like, okay, analyze a situation and say, what can I do? Where was the reinforcing factor in that? You know, how was I set up, you know, was I set up for success? Was I not? What are the approximations I could take to the steps I can make to make that better next time? Do I need help? Like, I might need to find somebody to guide me through this. And like you mentioned also it's a process. It's a journey. So when I first started recognizing all that science and all that, it was still super black and white. It's still very right versus wrong. Very, like, this is how it should be versus, you know, and so and then now my learning process is more of like, it's way more gray, like shades of gray. The science obviously is all still the same, but how it applies in a non vacuum situation and to the individual learner and all that changes. And that gives me more grace too , like the ability to say, it's not as simple as this happened, then this happened and you did right. Or you did wrong. It's, there's more layers. There's more layers to the situation.

[00:17:56] It becomes more nuanced. Yeah. And, and because of that nuance, I'm able to be okay with the fact that we may not have gotten it quite right that one time, you know, like what, what changed? What were the factors that made it not quite the way I wanted it to be that time, versus I did right in that time, or I did wrong in that time.

[00:18:15] Well, one thing that you mentioned that I'll bring back to kind of the shame piece is that I think you alluded to the fact that you're, you're not attempting to be perfect, but there really isn't such a thing as perfect. And I think oftentimes when we're learning something new, it needs to be black and white for a little while, so we can really integrate it. And that's okay. But I think that perfection and perfectionism as well, is one of those things that is really it's really a shield, right? It protects us, or it, it seeks to protect us from feeling shame. So if we find ourselves feeling like we have to be perfect, I'm guilty of this. You know, perfection is, is, is just not a real thing. And it's, it's really an armor. It's an armor that we put on to, to avoid that vulnerability of I'm gonna make some mistakes and it's just inevitable in learning. And I create the same learning environment for my horses, or for my clients, for myself, one that's compassionate, one that says, and we don't expect our horses to be perfect.

[00:19:18] Yeah. I mean I use this a lot with my youth, I teach a youth program program and tell them, you know, we talk about how we need to be as kind to ourselves as we are to our horses. So hard to say, and you know, you can take that in a surface layer and say, yes we need to be nice. But so much more than that, right. Yeah.

[00:19:37] So Kristin Neff is she's a researcher she's actually in the area . And her research is on self-compassion and she works closely with Brené Brown. And self-compassion is really hard to do because it kicks up things in us where we maybe didn't do that or didn't get that. And so there can be resistance to it being effective

[00:19:57] And I can definitely see how, I guess I'm like the ultimate, like shield myself with perfection person. Don't give me that look, I know you know. It's been a journey to be okay with not being perfect. But you mentioned the shield aspect and it's so true because in my mind, I'm like, well, nobody else is going to have compassion for me not being perfect. So I have to hold up to it because they're not going to have compassion for it. So I'm just going to have to like, have like no slack for myself because they're not going to be forgiving. It's like, so I'm going to put myself in a very vulnerable situation. They may attack me or hate me or whatever. Because I'm not perfect. And I make a mistake or whatever. In our horsemanship journey, I started to recognize then that as soon as I'm in a situation where there's other people that I feel like are expecting me to be perfect or expecting me to showcase whatever, I put that on the horse. And what do you know? It all falls apart. They don't deal well with the agendas. They don't deal with agendas. So. I especially in group situations with like clinics and things like that. There's so many people and I don't know these people, so I feel super vulnerable. It feels very vulnerable. And I feel like I have to be perfect. And then the horse is doing what I didn't expect them to do. So they're not being perfect, which is making me not be perfect. Now you're, you know, I don't feel safe and anyway, and then I can easily go back to the horse.

[00:21:31] And it can lead to shame spiral. Right? And then it goes back into, I've exposed myself in this way. And you know, then there's this feeling, this, whatever, your shame physiology, as we all have our own, you know, but shame is a physiological sensation. Then it goes back to that and we can get really inward, right? We can, we can want to, everyone has a different reaction to shame we can want to hide and we can want to you know, we move, maybe move towards people and get combative, or we move away, or get people pleasing. You know, there's so many things things that we do, but the reality is, is that vulnerability is so brave, right? It's what leads us to compassion and joy and creativity, both of which you are doing right in spades, right? The bravery of coming out with a different way to engage, a kind way to engage, reinforces it.

[00:22:27] And so when we expose ourselves I think sometimes we have to get really clear on what feedback is important to us. And we talked a lot about this. Yeah. When you're on social media, it gets really hard, but I love what Brené Brown says about feedback. Right? We have feedback from people who are also doing what you're doing, putting themselves out there, being vulnerable, trying, and then we get feedback from the cheapseats. From people that are not you know, walking in, in values that you share or not being brave and that feedback is not helpful.

[00:22:59] And I think too, like, I think we need to guard against imagination of what that feedback might be like. So, I mean, Adele is the master of vulnerability, in my opinion, in terms of the size of your social media reach and the amount, like that's immensely brave the way that you put yourself out there, especially considering what you just acknowledged around, struggling with perfectionism.

[00:23:20] And you know, but, but even, I mean, I see this in clients, even in one-on-one lessons, so there's no one else around, but they are paralyzed with their need for perfection and their need for the horse to be right, so that they can be right. And that's only in front of one person who is completely got their back and created a safe space. So there's that, not only does it happen in these, these really large audiences, but also even in their own heads to ourselves? And so then,

[00:23:47] Like, we were talking about the other day those, where is that coming from? And a lot of times it might be coming from like being in a boarding facility and needing to prove that we can ride our horse or the pressure of trying to keep up with that- me even -who's showcasing some more advanced behavior on social media. Like my intention is never to make somebody feel guilty about what they're doing with their horse. But sometimes, you know I can't not show stuff, but I, you know, just thought it was really valuable and we can talk more about this where just where those sources that are causing you to feel that way. Like, why not? Why are we not just enjoying that process and being there with the horse where they are now, if you're enjoying what you're doing right now, what does it matter? Like why, why are we worried about it being perfect. Or,

[00:24:37] And that can really take some introspection sometimes I think, to identify the source, you know, I like when I start feeling pressure or shame or frustration or anger or any of those kinds of feelings, like, is that really coming from inside of me? Am I putting expectations on the horse? And if so, where are they really coming from? Are they coming from what I think that person over there, who I've noticed is glancing over at me from the other side of the barn. And is that in fact even real, but does that even matter? Yeah

[00:25:07] Absolutely. Yeah. I can think of so many examples of my own life of, and this comes much more strongly for me with my dogs because I've been on that journey with them for a little bit longer, but there's so much shame about past ways of engaging with them. And so I think I catch myself in moments of, oh my gosh, this trainer's coming over and I really need to be perfect and maybe just show them everything. And in reality it's so self-protective for me because there's pain there from the past. Right. Of, of what that process has been like, what that's looked like and, and not, not working through completely you know, that shame, not having shame resilience around past things, which is an ongoing evolution.

[00:25:49] How does, like how does, like, if you are worried you're going to be judged for posting this or like people are being like, oh, she's not a good enough trainer or, or somebody else might say, you know, you're not taking care of your horse the best way that it, according to their mindset, like how does that play into that guilt shame spiral?

[00:26:07] I think it's huge. I think it's a really tough thing. And I, I think it's a different sensation and experience when you are talking about having a public forum where anyone can comment. But people are going to feel it at their barns. Like, I mean, part of the reason, like we brought up this before. You know, they may not feel like they know a whole lot about clicker training, but they're out in the middle of the arena right in front of an audience. Cause they're always right next to the barn and you're clicking and feeding your horse food. And everybody else is like, what is that crazy person doing? Right. And so you're worried about being judged and then your horse makes a mistake. And then you start feeling guilty or shame or whatever it is, I don't know what, or just fearing the repercussions of what are going to happen from this. You know, I mean, it could go all the way up to, in some extreme cases getting kicked out of your barn. So how, how does that play in?

[00:27:02] That's a really good question, so I can speak from my personal experience of just the feeling of extra pressure of needing to get it right, right. Or needing to prove that this is this way of doing things is appropriate and safe and effective. So I can't speak to the logistics in terms of there might be situations where it's just not a good fit, right. In terms of barn and horse and owner. But I have a list of values in the back of my mind ? That lead me in everything that I do. So for me courage, compassion, kindness, and wellbeing. So I say, okay, am I walking the walk here? I am doing this because these are my values. Right? And that's why I am risking, right. Well, that's why I am being vulnerable, putting myself out there being brave, right. Having courage, because that is one of my values. Because I believe this is the kindest way that we can be with our horses. And I, and I believe that it's worth the risk, right. Putting yourself out ther