I just learned about the annual Extreme Mustang Makeover from the moving documentary Wild Horses, Wild Ride. Mustangs straight off the prairie are randomly assigned to participants, who have 100 days to train their horses before they must demonstrate their new abilities in public. The goal is to auction off the tamed mustangs to good homes. Three months is not a lot of time to gain the trust of a wild animal, but it can be done.
The trainers in the film have varying degrees of success with their horses, although all of them can ride their mustangs by the day of the competition. Some are able to do flashy, crazy stunts, while others have only achieved the basics, but every horse’s performance feels like a miracle because you know where the horse and rider started.
The real magic in this film is in the relationships between the trainers and their mustangs. These people know horses: how they think, how they act, how they react, how to talk to them. They do not break their horses with force.
They train them with love.
I watched the slow, patient, and quiet interactions between each trainer and horse with interest. Given enough time, a once flighty mustang will stand still while the trainer slides a saddle around on its back or flaps fabric all around its body. The wild horses learn to trust their trainers. They lose their fear.
American culture tells us we must push, hurry, rush, get it done. But what do we sacrifice in the process? Some of these mustangs might have responded to breaking methods that use force, but would the results be as good? The animal could end up literally be broken: obedient, but resentful. These gently handled horses were eager to be with their trainers and responded immediately to commands. Each trainer and horse pair worked as a team, not as a tyrant directing a slave, and the possibilities of what they could do seemed limitless.
The same philosophy applies to me and my wild creative self. When I am learning a new skill or struggling to meet my creative goals, I am often hard on myself. I try to whip myself into shape. On the days when I’m feeling tired and writing is difficult, I call myself names and wonder what in the hell is wrong with me.
The way to improve my performance is not to beat myself up for falling short. As the trainers demonstrate, patience and kindness might take some time, but they will get me a lot further in the long run.
Sophy Burnham talks about this counter-intuitive approach to motivating ourselves in her inspiring book For Writers Only*. When she tells a friend that she always speaks roughly with herself when she is not working well, the friend says:
“You must never speak to yourself like that, and especially when you’re feeling bad. No, what you do is put your arm around your shoulder and comfort yourself and talk baby talk to yourself, and give yourself a present, and hold your frightened self…”
Burnham finds this technique effective. Scolding herself just makes her feel worse. But being gentle and kind to herself allows her to get back to work.
I’ve also found that yelling at myself doesn’t work. I just get crankier. I have to be kind, gentle, and patient to make real progress. Treating myself lovingly might not always work quickly, but it is always the better way for me to move forward.
*Despite the title, this is a great read for anyone with creative interests. Most of her stories are about writers, but the creative process and obstacles she describes are true to every art form I’ve ever worked with.