Many of my generation were raised on TV westerns. We learned that a real cowboy could take a wild horse, put him in a corral, saddle him up, then get on. If the cowboy stayed on, eventually the horse would give up and submit to the authority and dominance of a new master. This was called “breaking” a horse.
Unfortunately, many of us have this image when it comes to submitting to Christ. As I discussed in “Whose Flag Are You Flying?” a true disciple does demonstrate sacrificial allegiance: lowering the flag of ego and replacing it with the flag of Christ and His Kingdom. However, it is important that we do not interpret the lordship (or authority) of Christ as God wanting to “break us” and dominate us into submission. I believed this early on, and it created within me a reluctance to follow Christ.
Fortunately, another method for training horses has emerged and gained traction in the horse world. It is called “natural horsemanship” or “resistance-free training.” Robert Redford’s character demonstrated this process in the movie The Horse Whisperer.
This method of training builds on the understanding of how a horse is wired. A horse in the wild is controlled by fear. Its only protection against predators is to flee. Since anything other than another horse is a potential predator, the range horse is cautious and suspicious of anything unfamiliar.
In addition, horses are herd animals. They desire and seek out companionship. A wild horse that has lost its herd will seek out and attempt to join another herd.
As a young boy watching wild mustangs, natural horsemanship pioneer Monte Roberts observed a process that occurred when a horse approached a new herd. First, the dominant mare came out to meet the newcomer. Through a series of gestures, the newcomer acknowledged her leadership. Once they touched (“joined up”), the newcomer was accepted as part of the herd. Roberts turned these observations into a method for training horses.
The basic idea is to convince the horse that the trainer is not a threat and is safe to “join up” with. The trainer begins by letting the horse run around the perimeter of a round pen. Once the horse concludes it can’t get out and that the person in the center of the round pen is not a threat, it will quit running and turn to face the trainer. The trainer will slowly approach the horse until they can touch: join up. Once that touch has been made, the trainer can walk away and the horse will willingly follow.
Then the training process can begin. It involves desensitizing the horse to its natural fears (surprises, loud noises, fire) and sensitizing it to the desires of the trainer. A trained horse will learn to respond to even the most subtle cues from the rider.
I believe this form of training is what God is doing with us. Rather than trying to break us, He is trying to train us by teaching us to trust Him. Once we overcome our fear and “join up,” He begins the process of desensitizing us to the habits and lies we have grown accustomed to and sensitizing us to the cues He wants to use to develop our God-given potential.
He does not use coercion, manipulation, or force. He simply seeks our trust in the goodness of His character. I picture Christ standing in the center of the round pen and saying to us, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30, NASB, emphasis mine).
A broke horse does what it has to do, but a trained horse does what it can do to please its owner, responding to even subtle cues. “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14, BSB).
A trained disciple learns to focus on Him (Hebrews 12:2), sensitive to the gentle touch, the quiet voice, and the tender gaze that comes from His Word and Spirit. “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you” (Psalm 32:8, ESV).
A wild horse on the range can run, reproduce, and eat, but it is capable of so much more. With the right trainer, it can accomplish many useful tasks. When a horse gives up its “freedom” and learns to trust the trainer, it becomes truly free to be all it was created to be.
Trust is the foundation for God’s “natural horsemanship.” God is not out to break us but to develop us. Learning to trust overcomes the natural response to flee perceived danger. Through trust we learn that our greatest fears are unwarranted. We learn that life under His training is where we can experience our greatest fulfillment and freedom.
Questions for reflection:
Think of a time when you responded to a gentle cue of God’s direction. What did you learn about God and His guidance?
How have you been “sensitized” and/or “desensitized” along your journey of discipleship?
Ron Bennett, senior staff with The Navigators, has led discipleship ministries in many settings in the United States. He and his wife, Mary, are currently serving with Navigators Encore in Raymore, Missouri. While on the national leadership team of Navigator Church Ministries he wrote Intentional Disciplemaking and coauthored The Adventure of Discipling Others and Beginning the Walk (NavPress). This article is adapted from his blog The Adventure of Discipleship, August 16, 2018.