Mike looked at me with a completely emotionless
expression. I held his gaze. It was not unlike
watching ice melt in the sun. The thin ice of his
emotional barricade was breaking up beneath him. Clearly, his
defenses were beginning to collapse.
Finally, his eyes broke away from mine as all that remained
of the "stronghold" beneath him completely shattered.
After taking a deep breath, his gaze wandered to the side.
It was clear he was struggling with what he was about to say.
Without raising his eyes to look at me, in a voice barely clearing
the horizon of a whisper, he said, "I know that you don't
love me. You just say that 'cuz you're an adult and it's kinda
like your job. But I know you don't really love me ." looking
down at nothing, he absently ran his fingers through his dark
hair before continuing. "No one loves me . because I can't be
loved. I don't . deserve to be loved."
I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. No air coming in, no
air going out. His pain was so crushing that even from an arm's
length away, I could hardly breathe. Suddenly, shoveling rock
in the back paddock of the ranch felt heavier than either one of
us could bear.
Girl, get a grip, I told myself, as I struggled to regain my
balance. Mike had risked a great deal to reveal how he felt.
He would do that only if he truly wished for me to prove him
wrong. Straighten up, girl! If he wants proof . give it to him!
All I really knew about Mike was that he came occasionally
on Monday with a group from a local juvenile justice facility.
like the other boys in the program, he had earned the right to
come to the ranch and volunteer. As with the others, he understood
that the ranch was a privilege, one that he treated with
respect. In general, he was a quiet kid of approximately sixteen
years of age. He appeared to be going through that gawky stage,
where his feet and hands were too big for his rapidly growing
slender body. His bangs were nearly the length of his nose and
he had a subconscious habit of pushing his hair back behind his
ears when he needed to focus. Although his brown eyes were
murky with caution, he was otherwise polite and engaging.
I could only guess at what might have happened in his
life that drove him to this place of ultimate despair. What was
said-or worse, done to him-that would make him believe
he could not be loved because he didn't deserve it? It was certainly
a haunted place that, at the moment, I didn't have time
Fueled by my lack of wisdom, a quick prayer rose from my
heart like a blazing flare: Lord! I need help . now! Thankfully,
God must be used to my Hail Marys, because what followed in
the next hours transformed into something reflecting far greater
wisdom than I will ever possess.
Now it was my turn to take a deep breath . and revealGod's truth.
"Mike . you're both right . and wrong," I began, while
scooping up another shovelful of rocks and tossing them into
the bed of the ranch's ATV. "You're right in saying that what
comes out of a person's mouth might or might not be true. But
you're wrong about your idea that you cannot be loved."
When the bed was running over with cinder, we backed
it up to a very precarious ledge halfway up the pit wall, and
together dumped the load of rock over the edge to help shore
up the road. "You are right in believing that what comes out of
a person's mouth can mean anything. But you have to admit
that it is what comes out of our life that is really true. Mike, our
words mean little; it is our actions that prove what is true. Do
you agree?" I asked.
His silent response was a slight downturn of his mouth
combined with a half-hearted shrug.
"Do you agree, Mike, that it is our actions . not our words .
that reveal what is truly inside our hearts?" I prompted again.
"Maybe," he finally conceded.
"Good, because I have something that I want to show you,"
I said, as I motioned for him to follow me.
Together we entered the main corral and haltered a very large,
paint horse named Hanson. I chose this young horse because of
his remarkably calm and fun-loving nature. After leading him out
to one of the hitching posts, side by side, Mike and I groomed his
chestnut and white patched coat. While combing out his mane
and tail and cleaning his hooves, I asked Mike many questions,
one being that if he could choose, how would he wish for this
horse to feel about him.
"He's big! Dude, I wouldn't want him to be mad at me!"
he quipped. Then, after a moment, he thoughtfully added, "I
would want him to be my friend ."
"Do you think that he wants you to be his friend?" I asked
while glancing sideways at him.
A slight but noticeable "tightness" appeared between his
dark eyebrows. I continued to watch as he silently contemplated
"Okay . are you ready?" I asked, as we led Hanson into the
round pen. His expression revealed that he understood that I
wasn't really "asking." "Together we are going to round-pen
this horse. Since you have never done this before, you have to
trust me to 'puppet' you from behind. Okay?"
His look was intent; he was with me.
While standing in the center of the round pen, Mike took
in his new surroundings. I watched him turn in a complete
circle, as if to confirm that the pen wherein he stood was in
fact, round. In every direction rose a solid eight-foot high wall.
Answering his question before he asked it, I explained, "The
walls are solid to help the horse concentrate on the trainer, and
are also a bit safer for his legs as he travels in a circle around
us." Mike's gaze was focused on Hanson as he absently nodded
in response to this new piece of information.
"You will need to relax and just let me push you from
behind. Hey, you should be used to life pushing you around
by now!" I laughed as I reached down in the sand to pick up a
lunging crop. "We are going to use this crop as an extension of
our arm to help communicate with Hanson what we would like
him to do. We do not ever use these to whip horses with. Got
it?" I asked, as I placed the crop in his right hand and stepped
Using a round pen to train horses has taught me so much
about my own life. Here at the ranch, we use "resistance free"
training methods. This means that the horse is free to leave the
trainer whenever it wishes. No ropes, leads, or lunge lines are
used to connect the horse to the trainer within the circle of the
round pen. Because horses are so incredibly sensitive to physical
pressure, it is a wonderful way to communicate with them.
Although far more complicated, the basic principle boils down
to complete simplicity, including which direction you step.
For example, if you step toward a horse, you are pushing
them away. If you step away from a horse, you are inviting
them into your space. If the horse does not understand you, is
stressed, willful, afraid, or playful, it can leave the center of the
circle any time it wishes and walk, trot, or canter away in circles
around the pen walls.
The down side of leaving the trainer is that the horse must
work more. Walking, trotting, or cantering in circles might feel
like freedom at first, but once the newness wears off, it just
boils down to pure effort that isn't much fun.
Even for a horse, it becomes immediately clear how easy
it is to do the right thing and how much more difficult, how
much more work it is to do the wrong thing. When the horse is
ready to try again, it is free to return to the trainer, because it is
here, in the center of the circle, where all the rest, love, peace,
joy, and forgiveness are.
Rarely has there been a time in my life that I have worked
horses in the round pen when I have not thought how remarkably
similar this must be with God's heart and mine. He never
stops me from bolting away and running in circles, all the while
trying to do things in my own strength. Eventually I become
exhausted and realize that my plan just isn't working. It is then
that I turn back toward the center of the circle and head back
to the space that waits for me . right next to God. Because it
is here . by His side . where all the rest, love, peace, joy, and
With one hand gripping his left shoulder and the other
around his right wrist, from behind I began to move Mike
forward toward Hanson. As I raised Mike's right hand with the
crop, right on cue, Hanson began trotting around us. Together,
by stepping toward Hanson and raising our crop, we were effectively
telling him, "We are gentle but dominant, and would
like you to move your feet away from us." As Hanson trotted
in a perfect circle around the pen, I asked Mike to look at his
eye and ear that was closest to us. "Can you see that his eye is
completely fixed on you? look at the direction of his ear; he is
holding it just on you. Right now you have all of his attention.
He is waiting for you to tell him what to do next. He's allowing
you to be the boss."
Like satin ribbons floating beside him, his long white mane
rose and fell with every stride. He was beautiful-there was no
denying it. Mike was completely captured by him.
As Hanson continued to move around us, I could feel that
Mike's mechanical stiffness was beginning to soften. He was
starting to relax not only in my presence but in Hanson's as
well. Still puppeting him from behind, I could see vignettes of
his profile and that his lips were slightly parted. I leaned forward
and spoke very gently near his ear, "Did you know that
horses are smarter than people?" Gripping his wrist tighter, I
slowly raised the crop within Mike's hand to ask Hanson to
continue trotting. I proceeded by carefully stating "A horse cannot
lie . did you know that?"
Even from my awkward position, I could see that he looked
as if he was completely mesmerized by this beautiful creature
circling around him. Even blinking seemed to be an interruption
for Mike; his gaze on Hanson was completely steady,
Our lesson continued. "Because a horse cannot lie, that
means that they can only tell the truth." Hanson's circles around
us shrank from thirty feet to twenty-five, to twenty, his actions
clearly asking if he could join us in the middle. From behind I
slowed Mike's walking pace in response, and lowered his crop-laden
hand. Still holding his wrist, I extended both of our free
hands toward the horse, and together we took a few steps backward,
inviting Hanson to come in and join us.
Hanson, who was perhaps twenty feet away, slowed to a
stop. He lowered his head slightly, hesitated momentarily then
began to slowly walk straight toward Mike. From behind Mike,
I slipped the crop out of his hand and silently backed out of the
round pen, leaving him in the center with Hanson, alone. They
stood face to face, young horse and young boy. Without instruction,
Mike instinctively raised his hands and began to rub the
giant gelding's forehead. I watched from outside the gate.
It was time.
God, please show Mike the truth, I silently prayed as I stepped
almost completely from Mike's view behind the round pen
wall. "Mike," I called out. "Remember what you said earlier?
That you couldn't be loved, that you didn't deserve to be loved?
Do you remember saying that?" In this situation, I didn't wish
for any subtlety; I wanted this answer for him to be black and
Even though he didn't really acknowledge my question, it
was still clear by his posture that he was listening to me.
"Mike, when you finish petting this horse, I want you to do
something for me. I want you to turn around and walk away."
At this strange request, he rotated to look directly at me, his
eyebrows crunched together in complete confusion.
"Trust me, Mike. Just do it."
His body language totally changed. He did not want to do
this. His formerly relaxed manner began to stiffen against what
I was asking him to do. As if to add emphasis, he pushed his
hair behind his ears in a very fast, deliberate motion.
"Come on, buddy, this is part of what I need to show you,"
Lord, everything is riding on this moment. A young man's heart
has been stolen. Will you please . in your love . return it to him .
Like a condemned man trudging toward the gallows, Mike
walked away from Hanson.
When he could go no farther, he stopped and just stared at
the sand that had pushed up against the base of the round pen
wall. His body language gave witness to the loveless void that
he believed he deserved. In the long shadows of the afternoon,
with the world behind him and a solid wall in front of him, he
had reached the end of his journey . completely alone.
I wondered if his deserted heart was ringing with the dry
echoing of all the abandoned attempts of love that had failed.
His chin was so low that his hair fell forward, concealing
most of his face. He stood very still . waiting . perhaps waiting
for love to find him. The moment stretched on. Slowly, it began
to feel too long, dusty, and parched with anticipation.
Piece by piece, all the world seemed to go completely
Silent . as if holding its breath in a unified hope that a young
man's belief in a lie . would be broken.
Suddenly, Mike jumped as if he had been electrocuted! Two
huge, damp nostrils had momentarily pressed against the back
of his neck. Hanson's choice had been made . and he chose
love . through the companionship of a broken young man.
Mike let a startled swear word fly as he jerked around to
find Hanson looming directly behind him. With one hand on
his heart, he exhaled in relief, "Dude! You can't sneak up on me
like that!" As Mike regained his composure, he began to pet the
giant who had chosen to follow him.
With a big sigh, I, too, realized that my hand was covering
Lord, let your truth fall like a hammer. Break the lies that
bind . let Your light pour into the darkness . so blind eyes can see, I
prayed before I continued.
"Since you said that you don't really believe that I love you,
maybe you will believe someone else." I paused to let this concept
settle in his heart. "As far as your idea of not being able
to be loved, I think that Hanson has something to say to you
about that." I took a deep breath. "Mike, this horse is completely
free to go anywhere he wants to, and since you believe
that you 'don't deserve to be loved,' I want you to walk away
from him . again."
As before, Mike walked with arduous steps nearly as far
away as he could . nearly. Without hesitation, Hanson turned
and walked closely behind him. "Mike, turn around and look,"
I said softly. He knew that the horse was following him, and
without a word, turned and reached up, running his hand
under the horse's mane.
I clarified the scene: "He cannot tell you how he feels with
words . so he is telling you with his actions. Again, Mike, I
don't want you to have any doubt . so walk away again," I quietly
This time, he left his hand resting on the top of the gelding's
neck and they walked away together.
"He is a horse . he cannot lie . he can only tell you the truth,
Mike . and he is telling you something right now. He is clearly
saying without a word that you are wrong; not only can you be
loved . he is choosing to love you . because you are worth it."
I wondered, when Mike stopped, if he had not purposefully
turned his back toward me. With his face turned away, he
stood leaning heavily against Hanson's neck.
Let your hammer fall, Lord .
"Mike . keep walking . I want you to keep walking away
for as long as it takes for you to really believe what is true .
because honestly, what is true . your proof . is following you.
With every step he is proving you wrong . with every step he is
asking to be your friend . to be in your herd . to be your family.
Keep walking until you are ready to let go of your belief that
you cannot be loved. Then you can stop . and embrace what
you now know is true."