How a Horse Trainer Trained Me

By guest blogger Lisa Kilian

When I got out of school, I knew I was going to be a writer.

I read all the books on craft and salivated over contemporary fiction novels with pictures of beautiful women authors on the back. I followed all the most important industry blogs; Nathan Bransford, Query Shark, Miss Snark, Writer Unboxed, Renegade Writer, Betsy Lerner, and too many more to name. I spent my fleeting pre-graduation days poring over the publishing job boards, wondering how in the world I was going to break into publishing when all the jobs were in New York and I was stuck in Denton, Texas. I wrote poems, even got two published, and I had an idea for a novel brewing up, a really good one, one that would honor my family, our culture, and our oddities.

When I graduated, I got a job — which I quickly quit because it was awful. (A nine to fiver spent editing aggregated contact information for a phone book company.) I got an offer for a wonderful library job but I turned it down.

I wasn’t kidding about wanting to be a writer. And if there was any time to throw caution to the wind and be poor for a high return, it was now, right out of school, when I had no husband, no children, and no obligations.

I was determined to make it as a freelancer.

I already had some contracts that could bring in a little money. And thankfully, on day one of the phone book job, I knew I wasn’t going to stay so I managed to save up $3,000 to buy myself three months after I quit.

So I had three months to make it or break it. As a writer. Three months. I was 21.

Needless to say, no one can make it or break it as a writer in three months and after two months with my money running down, my book still not written, and my pitches all rejected (not that I was even pitching to the glossy magazines I dreamed of) — I had a meltdown.

A literal meltdown. It was like witnessing a car wreck.

I cried every day for a month, all day long, for no reason. I would cook in the kitchen and begin crying over the chopped tomatoes. I cried when I woke up in the morning, the second I opened my eyes, and I cried myself to sleep. I stopped writing completely, and if I even entered my office where my computer waited, I would begin to shake and cry all over again. It was as if I had Writers Post Traumatic Stress Disorder except there was no real traumatic event — unless you count not making it as a 21 year-old freelancer in two months, and I guess you can.

My boyfriend, P_ and I had just moved in together and he had no idea I was even capable of this kind of grief. I had no idea either. I had never battled with depression before, and I was not someone to really let my emotions get too away from me — at least not this far away. I couldn’t even recognize myself.

P_ hugged me and comforted me and told me everything was going to be alright every single day and every single day I just went further down the rabbit hole, which made me feel guilty that I wasn’t pulling myself out of it for him. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t pick myself up again. I couldn’t snap out of it. The more I thought about my dream of being a writer, the lonelier I became.

I gave up. I rolled over. I finally started looking for jobs. I called the library and asked if their job offer still stood (of course, it didn’t.) I applied for graduate school in library sciences. I waited for something to happen.

Finally, something did happen.

While in college, I worked for a horse trainer named Pete. Pete was no ordinary horse trainer — he was a literal horse whisperer. He told me there were no problem horses, just problem people. The issues were all in the rider’s mind — there was never anything wrong with the horse. So when he received a horse to be trained, he insisted that the rider be present at most sessions. And then in the heat of a session, while the dust kicked up high and the horse and rider began to sweat, Pete trained the rider and let the horse adjust.

Pete had a knack for reading people, for knowing their fears and knowing how to eliminate them. So it was no surprise when Pete appeared on my doorstep asking me to come work for him again.

I said I’d love to work for him. I had nothing else to do. What did he need?

First, he needed his office organized. Then he needed me to write a few emails for him. Then he had a horse he wanted to sell and he needed me to create an advertisement. Then he needed an article for a magazine. That’s when he started calling me his personal writer.

Pete was a very smart guy and when he talked about horses, he went so far out into the universe with it that no one could understand what he was talking about. Miraculously, I could follow him every time no matter how far out he got — probably because of my training with weird metaphors and analogies, but mostly because I had a very odd thought process as well and Pete and I just mirrored each other.

He talked horses and I related it to writing — really, in the arts (and anything you do passionately, even something like horse training, is an art as Pete was quick to point out) everything is relative. It really just comes down to a process. And when you can make sense of the process, understand what it wants from you, then you can really get to work.

We spent our mornings in the stables, brushing horses, wiping down saddles and talking about creativity. Pete would feel “stuck” with a rider and he would talk through it with me, just thinking out loud as I nodded and took it all in. He never talked about technique or riding gear, which was helpful because I knew nothing about riding horses. But when he talked about riding, I just got it, which was interesting, he said, because some of his riders didn’t even understand him.

I knew this was because of Pete’s unique way of looking at riding. Not a lot of people have the ability to think as far outside the box (more like down the street, around the corner and right out of box town) as Pete did. And if I could understand just a little bit of it, I could translate for him.

Which gave me an idea. How about a monthly newsletter with updates on Pete’s projects — and a training focus for the riders? We would let the clients know what was happening and who was new to the barn and at the end, we would have a short, compact training statement that only Pete could come up with and only I could write. Pete jumped on it.

Every month, I would come by and Pete would just start talking. I always had my notebook ready, writing down sentences that could be quotable or anything that made his theory come together for me. It became a famous spectacle for his clients; they would arrive at the farm to find me standing in the center of the corral taking notes, while Pete rode circles around me all the time talking about some obscure something that I knew would only really make sense after I wrote it all out. They all thought it was quite silly — until they read the training focuses.

When our first newsletter went out, Pete soon became inundated with phone calls from clients ecstatic that they finally understood what he’d been talking about. We left free copies of the newsletter at feed stores and Pete began getting calls from the owners saying that all the newsletters were gone, did he have more?

It was overwhelming for Pete and exciting for me. For once, I had written something well, something that proved to myself that I could do it, that I had something other people didn’t have. After the newsletter, I didn’t have a problem telling myself I was a writer. My confidence shot up and I began to look at the training focuses as little works of art I was proud to have helped create. Pete thanked me over and over for putting the newsletter together when really I just waited to thank him for giving me the courage to write again.

We put the newsletter out for an entire year until our lives became too frantic. My jobs kept me from going over to the ranch as much as I needed to and talking to Pete over the phone just wasn’t the same. Eventually the newsletter just tapered off, which saddened us both but we still haven’t been able to start it back up.

I have never cried over my writing again. Sure, it still gets me down sometimes when I can’t figure out a plot or I’m feeling blocked or any of the usual things that come with the work. But it doesn’t get to me like it used to.

Since working for Pete, I’ve had several poems and articles published — I’ve even got a flash fiction story coming out in August 2011. But the most important thing I do right now, the thing of which I am most proud is my blog, What Not To Do as a Writer. It gains more momentum and readers every single day and it has taught me almost as much about the process as Pete did.

But that’s not why I’m proud of the blog. I’m proud of that blog because in a way, each post is my own training focus. The resemblance between the thought process on those posts and the focuses I wrote for Pete are striking. A lot of people tell me they read my blog because of its unique way of looking at things and its ability to make sense of such confusing subjects. And I’m telling you right now that I could never have written any of those posts without being first trained by the training focuses.

I could say that I was lucky to have found someone that saw me for what I was worth and didn’t hesitate to support me. But I could have just as easily written Pete off as a weirdo. When we first met, nothing he said made sense. In fact, I thought he was insane. But I knew he had a good heart and I was willing to learn. And when I opened my mind to him, great things happened — and there is nothing lucky about that.

September Training Focus:

I’m not what you’d call a suit-and-tie kind of person. And you wouldn’t ask me to wear a suit and tie, because you know that’s not who I am. Horses work the same way. Some are born to work trails; some are born to compete in dressage.

Always consider who your horse already is before deciding who you want him to be.

After all, we are the ones with the intellect. It is our responsibility to make ourselves relatable to the horse, instead of expecting the horse to immediately relate to us. We know adaptation; they know flight. Watch for the small cues your horse gives during his relaxation times. Does he yearn to be free in the field, or is he more comfortable in his stall? Does he like lots of brushing or does the brush agitate him? These are all indicators of the kind of work for which your horse is best suited. When you choose work for your horse that you know he will be comfortable with, you’re making it valid for him. But training your horse for a type of work he isn’t suited for is like eliciting a Pavlovian response in a robotic animal — and what’s the point in that?

“Horsemanship is all about knowing horses. I can’t take one horse and make him into another, but I can take one horse and capitalize on everything he’s got. So far, it’s worked every time.” ~ Pete.

Lisa Kilian writes from Denton, TX, which is nowhere near New York but suits her just fine for now. She is the author of
What Not To Do as a Writer, as well as several essays and poems. She treats her life like her stories — bird by bird.

20 Responses to How a Horse Trainer Trained Me
  1. […] the thing I want to brag about is this article I wrote for Fear of Writing.  It is quite possibly the scariest, most revealing thing I have ever written about myself in my life […]

  2. Keri
    April 29, 2011 | 8:45 AM

    Amazing story! I never would have guessed that this happened so recently. You seem like such a successful, confident, “put-together”, professional writer! I’m so happy it all worked out for you like that. Thanks for writing this, it’s so inspiring!

    • Lisa Kilian
      April 29, 2011 | 2:14 PM

      Ha! Looks can be deceiving. I still get down sometimes, but I don’t think I’ll ever get that down again. 🙂

  3. Julia
    Twitter: wordsxo
    April 29, 2011 | 9:33 AM

    Really nicely told story! I love the metaphor of being trained by the trainer! Looking forward to reading YOUR blog now!

    • Lisa Kilian
      April 29, 2011 | 2:15 PM

      Thank you! I look forward to seeing you there. 🙂

  4. Square-Peg Karen
    Twitter: SquarePegKaren
    April 29, 2011 | 10:05 AM

    What a story!

    The way that you understood Pete and were able to translate his wisdom for others is SO interesting (and another lesson in writing!) and I love, love, love that you added a piece of one of your newsletters at the end. As I read along I kept wondering what they were like – and was thrilled to get to read a bit of one – it brought the whole thing together for me!

    • Lisa Kilian
      April 29, 2011 | 2:16 PM

      Oh, I’m glad you thought that (about the focus at the end.) I was unsure whether or not to include it, but I knew I had to. That one is my and Pete’s personal favorite. 🙂

  5. N.M. Martinez
    April 29, 2011 | 10:37 AM

    Wow Lisa! What a beautiful story. I admit I became a little teary eyed there as I read it. Sometimes we do just need a chance, some luck, and some positive reenforcement.

    And I love the training focus you included. It ties in so perfectly to your story. Isn’t it the same for writers? We have to consider who we are before we can know what type of writer we will be.

    I really love this. It won’t fit on a shirt though. Huh, that’s a problem. 😉

    • Lisa Kilian
      April 29, 2011 | 2:17 PM

      Dang! The shirt thing is a problem, isn’t it. I’ll try to come up with some one-liners for you. 🙂

      But thank you for the nice words. You’ve just made me sit back and close my eyes. Have one of those moments, you know? 🙂

  6. Lois
    April 29, 2011 | 10:50 AM

    This is very inspirational. Thank you for sharing!

  7. j
    April 29, 2011 | 11:48 AM

    Oh, Lisa. I know that feeling of writer’s PTSD. Once, I was unable to write for 6 months. I came out of that terrible time with a story that I thought would change everything and the first place I sent it to rejected it with a form letter. A form letter! What a blow.

    Now I know the heartbreak of rejection and the pain of writers block are just more proof that I am (we all are) “real writers.”

    Such a lovely piece. Thank you so much for writing it!

    • Lisa Kilian
      April 29, 2011 | 2:19 PM

      Thank you for accepting it! You know, if you’re willing to cry over your writing, you know you’ve got something special. 🙂

  8. Stephanie Scott
    April 29, 2011 | 11:53 AM

    What a cool story. This is one of those life lessons that is impossible to force to happen. I definitely get your tough-love deadline to make freelancing happen at 21. There’s a lot of pressure once you leave college to keep on acheiving and make those markers, even though the door is wide open and no one is grading you any longer. I think a lot people in their early-mid 20s acutely feel loss of structure after college; there’s so much uncertainty. I’m glad you were able to make the discovery work out of unique situation. You are probably still young, too. Many people don’t figure out life lessons like this until they’re much older. Congrats to speaking out so honestly.

  9. Lisa Kilian
    April 29, 2011 | 2:22 PM

    Ugh, the fallout after graduation was intense and I had no idea it was coming. No one told me! So Pete’s re-emergence into my life was definitely welcome. He’s the epitome of a California Cowboy. 🙂

  10. shamster test
    May 13, 2011 | 10:10 PM

    Thanks for posting this good article!

  11. […] blog, Beyond the Margins. Since then, her essays have appeared on Best Damn Creative Writing Blog, Fear of Writing and she has work forthcoming from Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds. Read more of her work at What […]

  12. Melissa Adams
    July 18, 2011 | 12:34 AM

    So Pete is a writer whisperer, as well as a horse whisperer. As for you, Lisa, I think your real talent is your uncanny ability to pull up a bar stool right next to the reader at the local pub while you ramble on in the most relaxed, conversational voice about the things that concern us all. Your blog is like a girlfriend/soulmate/editorm rolled into one on the laptop screen. Keep it coming!

  13. nehi@how to lose weight fast
    November 28, 2011 | 12:58 AM

    Hi Lisa,
    I have got your this article through surfing, I have same desire as like yours. Your this inspirational article is really so much useful for me to build my career as a writer.
    Thanks again.

  14. horse trainers
    May 23, 2013 | 2:53 AM

    I knew this was because of Pete’s unique way of looking at riding. Not a lot of people have the ability to think as far outside the box (more like down the street, around the corner and right out of box town) as Pete did. And if I could understand just a little bit of it, I could translate for him.

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