What My Horse Whispered to Me: “Stop ‘Shoulding’ all over Yourself”

Most of my life I’ve lived with free floating-guilt: feeling guilty when I haven’t done anything wrong. It’s triggered whenever I am living in an unpredictable or new situation or when huge changes have occurred and I am struggling with my new normal.

Over the last ten months, my life has been turned upside down. Some changes were made by choice and others happened quite unexpectedly. Living in my new normal means temporarily sidelining my business and much of my social life. When I compare my current situation to my life a year ago, I feel worried and guilty because I don’t have a clear picture of how my life is supposed to look and feel. Frequently, I second-guess the choices I’ve made and question whether I should have done something different?

One of the most difficult challenges has been reducing the time I spend with my horse. Because it is a 2 hour and 15 minute drive, one way, to the ranch I’ve decreased my visits from five to six times a month down to twice a month. I have looked for stables closer to St Helena, but nothing offers the same care my horse receives at Debra’s ranch. So, twice a month I drive out to Lincoln to reconnect with my horse. It’s not ideal, but it is the best I can do for now.

Whenever I go to the ranch, I find Nautic peacefully grazing in his beautiful, lush pasture. When I call him, he gallops to me. We’re happy to reconnect. We hang out for an hour or two, and then it’s time for me to get back on the road before the traffic gets unbearable. I give him a treat and put him away. Often, he’ll whinny as I drive off and then runs away with his pasture mate to enjoy the summer evening. He is a very happy horse. But, I don’t appreciate that my horse is in an ideal environment. Instead, I leave, feeling a little sad and guilty, wondering whether I should have given him more time?

The source of my guilt is anchored in my attachment of achieving the unattainable, perfect ideal; how my life should be. Failing to meet that ideal means I’m screwing up. Things should go this way. It should look like that. I find myself living as though I’m in some grand Dressage competition, striving for the perfect, illusive score of “10” as I move through each transition. My self-imposed guilt trip makes me miserable. Focusing on what should happen keeps me from learning the lesson of this moment and receiving blessing.

If you have free-floating guilt like me, you suffer through frequent attacks of “The Shoulds”: It should be done this way; Life should feel like that; I should know that by now; I should have seen that coming. In counseling we call this kind of thinking, shoulding all over yourself. It’s a very toxic, unproductive use of your energy, driven by fear, is not reality based and rarely, if ever, brings about positive results.

Horses don’t have the same, large cerebral cortex that humans do and, as a result, they don’t overthink anything. They’re intuitive, able to remember, respond and react, but they don’t over-analyze, draw conclusions, criticize or have any notion of a perfect ideal. If I were more like a horse, I’d stay in the moment; accept reality, stop beating myself up because I’m not living according to an imagined, impossible ideal and the guilty chatter in my head would stop. I long to be more like my horse.

I developed a four-step process that helps me practice quieting my guilty thinking as I make my long drive home.


Step One: I clarify the thoughts and guilty beliefs. Where is the should coming from? Have I committed a real offense or am I blaming and second-guessing myself? Has my free-floating guilt habit kicked in again?


Step Two: I challenge my guilty thoughts and feelings by asking: ”Is this true or false guilt?” If its true guilt, I can easily identify what I’ve done or said that was hurtful. I need to clean up my mess, apologize, make amends and learn the lesson. If I haven’t done any harm, I’m in false guilt. I’ve shifted into my not-achieving-perfection mode. Go to step three.


Step Three: I ask myself: Can anyone help me find a better solution? Am I resisting the obvious answer? Have I failed to tell myself the truth? If I answer “yes” to any of these questions, I seek out help (counseling, prayer, meditation, a really good friend) so I can find what thought or belief is driving of my false guilt.


Step Four: The antidote for false guilt: Let go of perfection. Accept and embrace what is happening right now and stop judging, criticizing or over analyzing the situation. Remember, you and everybody else are living in the middle of your life’s movie. You have no idea how it’s going to end. Life is perfect as it is. If we are willing, we learn from it, let it take us to our edges, stretch us and make us more resilient.

As I work through my false guilt, one by one, I experience a deep peaceful connection to my true self. I am in emotional balance. My mind is quiet. It ‘s the same feeling I get when I’m standing quietly with Nautic, stroking his neck, his nose on my shoulder, feeling his breath on my face, knowing that, in this perfect moment, all is well.

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