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 to explore.
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 reveal God’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 this concept.
“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 behind him.
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 forgiveness are.
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, nearly hypnotic.
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 cropladen 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 white—absolutely concrete.
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,” I encouraged.
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… full?
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 my heart.
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 added.
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.”
Nearly before I had finished speaking, Mike had stopped and turned into Hanson’s mane. Again, his back was toward me. I watched as he slipped one arm over the top of the gelding’s neck and one arm under, encircling him in a silent embrace.
He had come home…to the middle…where all the rest, love, peace, joy, and forgiveness are.
Without a sound, Mike’s shoulders began to shudder. Like Jericho, the once impenetrable walls of his prison began to crumble under the unfathomable weight of truth, love, freedom. Tears of release began to fall.
There, within the privacy of the round pen, the “hammer” fell…pounding into powder the stronghold of deception that had formerly enslaved a boy. The river of truth poured in, enveloping a young man’s heart in a deluge of relief. The flood came and returned that same heart…filled to overflowing… proving that the power of God’s love knows no bounds.
Hanson, without a single word, spoke truth into the life and heart of a young man. What was once broken and empty began to again bask in the warmth of unconditional love. It was a love without price or terms, a love without strings or conditions… arriving in peaceful silence from the Author of love.
Perhaps to all others the scene looked much like a young man holding a young horse…yet, from my perspective it was clear…a young hostage was being set free.