Do you set things up for failure or for success?

I experienced something heart wrenching this weekend. I’m visiting Adelaide for work and I love taking walks in the morning in the wonderful parklands that surround the city. The sound of the birds and the scent of the gum trees are what I always take with me when I go back home and I’m trying to enjoy them as much as I can while I’m here. There is a large green area very close to where I live where there are horses. Those of you who know me, know how much I love horses and I enjoy walking over there just to look at them.

On this particular day there were just three horses out in the pasture. They were further off in a different enclosure than usual so I walked towards them to get a better look. I find Adelaideans so friendly that I end up having meaningful conversations with complete strangers every day (this is true), so I thought maybe I could have a chat with the owners of the horses.

As I approached, I noticed that the people there had been saddling up two of the three horses and that they were leading them away towards the gate. The horse without a saddle was trotting alongside them looking very excited to be going on an outing. He (it could have been a she but let’s just say he for the sake of simplicity) didn’t seem to register that he wasn’t wearing a bridle or a saddle, he just knew that his herd was leaving so he was leaving too. A man started waving a stick at him to distract him and in the meantime the other two horses slipped out with their riders and the man with the stick quickly followed.

What happened next was the part that was so heart wrenching.

The horse left behind panicked. Horses are herd animals and this horse’s herd had left without him. He started neighing and he neighed and neighed and neighed. He called after them; it sounded like he was crying and shouting at them to come back. In a complete panic he started galloping from the gate where he was standing towards the fence (where I was standing, but on the outside), which was also towards the direction his herd had gone. He ran around, back and forth and then full speed towards the fence again, grinding to a halt right before he crashed into it. Then the was off again. Then he came back and he neighed and called out to them again. By this time, they were out of sight.

I tried talking to him, thinking maybe my voice would calm him down. Maybe it did, I don’t know. Either way he started trotting back and forth along the fence, stopping to neigh and to have bowel movements (he had a few so I can only conclude that it was caused by the stress). He went back and forth like a caged animal, but with this nervous energy that he would suddenly not be able to contain and then he was off again galloping in a panic.

At one point he came over and reached out to me over the fence, so I put out my hand. He sniffed it and then he was off again. I talked and talked to him, but there was nothing I could do. I didn’t know this horse; he was someone else’s property and I didn’t have a right to touch him. Nor would it have been wise, we’re talking about 500+ kilos hurtling around uncontrollably.

I stood there for a while feeling miserable for this animal. Out of compassion, I was unable to leave. I felt that at least someone should stay with him, but finally I just had to go. Again, I had to remind myself that this was not my horse and there was nothing I could do. The owners/riders would be back soon. I turned to walk away and the neighing that had stopped by then, started again. It broke my heart.

Where I come from and where I horse-back ride, this would never have happened. We have a strict rule never to leave any horses alone in the pasture. If there are two of them and you need to fetch one, you always take both because you can’t leave one behind. And the reason for that suddenly became absolutely crystal clear to me.

One of the things that really bothered me though, was how unnecessary all this was. This horse was subjected to extreme stress and the situation was potentially very dangerous. He could have been hurt in his panic-stricken state. If this happens regularly, which I assume that it must, it invariably has a long-lasting effect on the horse and his wellbeing. So, you end up with a horse with all kinds of issues who might become nervous in different situations, causing even more potentially dangerous situations for no reason what-so-ever. I say no reason because this was a situation that could have been avoided. You can just decide never to leave a horse alone like that and you will have a much calmer, happier and healthier horse that is a lot easier to handle. And a horse that is easier to handle makes you calmer and happier, which in turn has a positive effect on the horse again. See what I’m getting at, it becomes a good circle.

But isn’t this true for most things in life? You can set things up to succeed or you can set things up to fail. By creating situations and doing things in a way that minimize friction and conflict, you enable everyone involved to succeed. By not doing so you potentially set yourself and everyone else up for both conflict and failure. Or if nothing else, it just makes it harder to get anything done.

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