The unruly path between owner and steward…a personal account…

Image by Marion Cox of Divine Equine Photography

You may have witnessed me waxing poetic about my lofty goal of transforming the perceived experience of sharing space with an animal from owner to steward or caregiver or person or, really, anything other than owner. That word gets under my skin. Owner. It’s like that zit that won’t give me the satisfaction of popping, it just brews and stews and generally acts like, well, terrible. So you might say, the term holds a little charge, and with good reason. Under that title, animals have been neglected and abused and oppressed and, in general, treated like lesser beings for thousands of years.

Owner denotes power, dominance, replaceability, repression and oppression. It speaks of a living breathing feeling being as a piece of property. It screams inequality. You bet your bottom dollar this word and all it represents gets under my skin (and yes, I am a big fan of musicals, but I have a feeling you’re not the least bit surprised).

Show tunes aside, there is a growing trend (thank the Lord) of people who not only love animals, but more than that, they are changing the way they talk about and experience their relationship with said animals. I’m pretty happy about it. Really happy. There are stewards and wannabe stewards and stewards-in-training popping up all over the place. It’s like a field of daisies all in various stages of blossoming. It makes my heart very happy.

And then there are those that are on the brink. You might be one. Where you hadn’t really thought about this before, this difference between owner and steward. But, now that you’re pondering it…well, it makes a lot of sense. And you’re thinking, I’d like to give it a go (I may be pushing it on this one, but if I’m anything it’s optimistic).

Let me lay out what steward means to me (and remember, this is just one definition in a field of thousands upon thousands of daisies). To me, this concept underlies an agreement between said animal and person. This agreement exists by majority in the plane of the mind, meaning it is all about a change in perception. In this agreement are a few key points.

First, as a steward you need to steward – translation: you do what is right for the animal concerned given all the information necessary to make said decision. You take the time to find out what that is by learning to communicate with and understand the needs of your unique animal. You put your own agenda and, sometimes, the agenda of others, aside for the good of the being you are stewarding. Second, you need to stop thinking in terms of a commodity. Any animal that you are stewarding is much more than that. This is a living, breathing, emotional being we’re talking about. Perhaps you’ve told yourself that because their brain is smaller, they have no feelings. But really, that’s just an excuse to act like an asshole. If you really connect in with your own heart and body you know. Animals feel deeply – it is just one of their many superpowers. It is a part of our role as stewards to take this into consideration in all our decisions around their well-being.

Yes, I have re-homed horses before, for their own well-being and the well-being of other animals in my care. It was tough, as it should be. And I took the time to find the perfect homes for each of them with people I know and trust. Both Lily and Dream are living in loving homes where I can continue to participate in their lives and health (they both get a lifetime of sessions with me if they need them) and for good reason. Once a steward, always a steward. If you take on this responsibility, it’s a lifetime thing. Let me repeat that. A lifetime thing. Until that animal is no longer with us.

I’m still learning about this whole stewarding thing. I fall short far more often than I’d like to admit. Like yesterday when I completely lost my temper and stomped around screaming at Diva for, looking back now, no reason at all (other than my own stupidity). Not my proudest moment. The thing is, I’m as human as they come, and therefore, far from perfect. After hundreds upon thousands of years of patterning to the contrary, it’s not at all realistic to think we’ll have this steward thing figured out right off the bat.

I’m schooled regularly on the topic by a long-time client of mine who has it mastered (although she’s far too humble to admit it). Her mares live in a beautiful setting, with fresh hog fuel delivered yearly, deeply bedded stalls that I want to sleep in, lots of space to move, tested hay, and regular energy work sessions (with yours truly). She wakes up at an ungodly hour to begin her routine with her girls, cherishing her connection to them and her luck at being able to care for them and share their company. They live in a state of equality and understanding; her mares have transformed in their time with her in ways that have been beautiful to witness. And the really cool take-away here is this: even though she doesn’t ride, she receives huge value from these horses, and they from her. It is a symbiotic, reciprocally-rewarding, expressive and flowing relationship. She has created true sanctuary for all concerned.

Happily, being a steward doesn’t mean being perfect. Far from it (thank goodness). It’s actually quite the opposite in fact. Showing up as a steward requires humility by the bucketload. It requires admitting that perhaps the way you’d been doing things needs a revamp. It means looking at your own emotional landscape and coming to terms with the scariest thing of all, yourself.

When my mare Diva first came into my world I was immersed in the owner mindset. It was further exacerbated by the fact that she was my first horse. At 23 years of age, I finally “owned” a horse! It didn’t take long to realize that Diva was opting out of any such agreement.

The terms were not to her liking in the least, particularly the pieces around inequality and replaceability. It was only months into our “relationship”, which was a generous term for what we had at the time, before I found myself talking to my horse out behind a barn. My mentor at the time had shared that Diva, who was four at the time, was not willing to connect with me until I made her a promise. Diva, at four, had already had three homes, with me being her fourth. She needed assurance that she was staying put with me, through the good and bad, unless unforeseen circumstances parted us. Being fairly new at the whole “talking out loud to your horse” thing, we made our way behind the barn and I, red-faced and all, proclaimed to my horse that we together until one of us kicked the bucket. At which point she licked, chewed, yawned and proceeded to take her first real step into our relationship. I, on the other hand, and unknowingly at the time, had made my first step away from Diva’s “owner” and into the no-man’s land of being her steward. Fast forward fourteen years and I think I’ve almost got the hang of it (ask me tomorrow and you might get a different answer).

Since practicality is important (I sometimes forget), one of my favourite practices with Diva and all the horses I work with in sessions is to ask permission. You can try it out yourself. Before you get on to work with, ride or trailer your horse, ask them this one simple question “are you all right with this?” Ok, I hear what you’re thinking: Alexa, how do I know what the answer is? Here’s the way I do it. Place your hand on their neck, ask the question in your mind and then let them know (in your mind) that a strong blink means yes and no blinking means no. It’s a fascinating exercise and the only time Diva has said no is when there was something bothering her, like pain in her back or a poor fitting saddle. The change in her willingness to connect and work with me when I take the time to add this one simple step is significant.

Stewardship, like anything worthwhile, is a practice requiring dedication, gentleness and meaningful apologies always followed by real change (because you will screw up). We have been trained to be owners, but we were born to be stewards.

The practice, then, becomes the unlearning of what we thought we knew, the unwinding of our need to be right, the releasing of the desire to use punishment to achieve what we want, the looking within that full accountability requires, and the dismantling of our entrenched cultural beliefs and fears.

What we are creating is a real and healthy relationship, one with two involved parties who are free to express, who are building their skills in communication and clarity daily, who are open to change, who are accountable for their actions, who feel comfortable setting boundaries for the well-being of each other and the relationship and who are able to receive feedback gracefully.

Yep, through your animal, you get to do this completely cool thing – namely, you get to learn how to have healthy relationships! Bonus!