What Runaway Horses Taught Me About Fear and Control

I heard them before I saw them.

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Forty hooves pounded the grass outside and a huddled mass of colors—horses clothed in shining browns, tans, blacks, and whites—raced and paused directly outside of my home office window. The sweet, well-tended golf course grass was too good to pass up.

The unruly group paused on Hole 8 as two women from the stable slowly approached them, shaking a bucket of food, making a distinct noise hoping to draw some of the loose horses to them.

My mind raced to piece together the puzzle I saw before me. Twenty horses? Loose? No reins? No saddles? No riders? What was going on?

I pulled on my jacket and headed to the golf course. If there were twenty-some-odd horses loose, I knew they would need as many people as possible to help get the horses under control.

The horses had relocated across to the other side of the golf course by the time I arrived.

I walked beside a woman who was also walking in the same direction. Erroneously, I thought she was with the stables nearby who had lost these horses.

“Are you going to help with the horses?” she asked.
“I’m going to try. What happened?”
“I heard they’re from the Skånsta stables,” she added.

To my dismay, she powered off in the other direction on her afternoon walk.

From Skånsta? That was over two kilometers away from where they were now. Quickly, my mental map pulled up.

These loose horses had run freely through quite a few neighborhoods and had crossed a few streets to get to my house from the stables.

You can’t run after a horse

If you’ve never chased down a team of loose horses, you quickly realize that there is no point in running after them.

I was embarking on a humbling exercise in futility and a remarkable display of herd mentality.

I felt incredibly small and weak next to the stallion who was rearing up next to me as a stable worker tried to tie a rope to him.

“Can I help out?” I asked meekly.
“Do you know how to handle horses?” the stable woman replied, not quite sure what to do with me.
“Nope, but I can stand here and hold a rope,” I offered.
“Hmm, let’s find one that doesn’t bite…” she scanned the horses looking for the most docile horse to hand to the newbie.

Doesn’t bite?! Yes, please give me a non-bitey horse, thank you very much.

As someone who has little-to-no experience with horses, the idea of holding a rope (not even true reins because this was not a typical experience) of an animal that was born to run, and had been running for an hour, was daunting.

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Taking responsibility can be terrifying

I was volunteering responsibility to keep this horse calm and under control in a very chaotic, out of control situation.

But first, I needed to remain calm or at least give off the pretense of being calm.

Two police officers were also holding ropes to large horses who were rearing up and resisting control.

One officer shouldered her horse back into line with force. She was calm but forceful.

I took note and kept my hand on the coarse mane running down my horse’s neck. The horse kept turning his large head toward my face.

I didn’t want to get bitten and make the already-tense situation into a medical problem, so I kept my hand on the side of his neck—reassuring us both.

While not knowing the right words to offer to my horse in Swedish (I assumed he understood Swedish), I cooed to him in a sing-song voice and hoped my gentle encouragement made up for the language barrier.

Without enough people to hold every horse, we lined up the roped horses and hoped the other 15 horses would follow, as they generally do.

Following one rogue horse was how these horses got into this mess, and that’s how they’d get home again.

However, the loose horses were more interested in eating the grass on the side of the road than they were in following us, which created a distance between the two groups.

The loose horses would catch up to our group, running at full speed, which would trigger the run response in our horses and spiked my stress levels every time.

Feeling the fear when out of control

I was afraid.

I was afraid my horse would run away, and I’d have to drop the rope.

I was afraid my horse might turn and bite me for trying to control him.

I was afraid of making the situation worse when all I wanted to do was help.

So, I did the only thing within my control. I controlled my breathing, and I talked to my horse.

I told my horse he was so duktig (the best!), and so snäll (nice/pleasant).

In a strange blend of stress and surrealism, we walked the horses back to the stable.

The police officers stopped traffic so we could cross the roads, and additional stable workers/volunteers arrived to guide the horses in.

With my horse safely in his stall, one of the women hugged me in genuine gratitude. I never caught her name, nor her mine—there was too much chaos to exchange pleasantries.

With my good deed done for the day, I walked to pick up my kids from school. We’d be walking home that day.

It was a beautiful and unusual day and we had a lot to discuss on the walk home.

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So, what did this team of runaway horses teach me about fear and control?

A lot of times in my life, I’ve been asked to help out in quite scary situations (much scarier than a bunch of wild horses running around, believe it or not), and I shirked my duty for one reason or another.

“Oh, there’s someone more qualified.”
“What if I mess it up and make things worse?”
“Maybe they’ll sue me if I try to help.”
“I don’t know how to help.”

And other such excuses that I gave myself for not stepping in.

This event taught me that any help whatsoever is appreciated.

You don’t need to be an expert with horses to hold a rope and walk on the road. In almost all emergencies, you, the bystander, need to do your best, and that’s enough.

The experts will take over if A) they ever arrive, and B) if what you’re doing isn’t working. Until then, doing something is better than doing nothing.

Relinquishing control to gain control

I also learned that the best way to gain control of a situation is to relinquish fears and anxieties you have about NOT being in control.

It sounds counterintuitive, but when I focused on the parts that I could control, I stopped worrying about what MIGHT happen, and that allowed me to calm down and slightly enjoy the experience.

“You were very brave to step in and help like that,” my mother-in-law said on the phone. Her comment surprised me because I didn’t feel brave when I was in the midst of it all; I only felt the urge to do something to help.

As it happens, I was the only civilian (non-stable worker, non-police officer) to help out with the horses, so I guess there was something unique about my actions that day.

I thought of all of the times when I didn’t step in to help when I could’ve. Maybe this redeemed me in some way.

Perhaps the most surprising element of this incident is that our local newspapers never covered it.

It’s almost as if 20 loose horses running wild through our little town is a normal occurrence or something. Just another perk of living near nature.

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