Dismounting Dead Horses:
A Metaphor for Change
Ron Johnson, Ph.D.
Samaritan Counseling Center
The tribal wisdom of the Dakota Indians, passed on from one generation to the next, says that when you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount. Of course, we may first try other strategies. We might whip harder, or offer sugar, or change riders, or appoint a committee to study the horse. But at the end of the day, we will still be left on a dead horse.
Why would anyone (or any organization) hold on to a dead horse? For many reasons, possibly. We have believed in the horse, hoped for the horse, loved the horse. We doubted or denied the horse could ever die. Perhaps we even relish the hero's role of resurrecting a dead horse, or the martyr's ideal of self-sacrifice alongside the horse. Dismounting seems to mean giving up, or doubting that there will ever be another live horse again.
Actually, discerning our dead horses takes uncommon wisdom, and rarely happens without an intentional process. Perhaps such discernment begins with noticing, not denying, a lack of forward movement. (Others of us must absolutely crash!) The discernment continues as we discover that despite trying harder, or smarter, or more aggressively, we remain at the same place. And we finally acknowledge that the same place is not our desired destination.
Spiritually, the temptation to keep riding a dead horse comes from a misplaced faith. We think our horse is sacred, and we are in ultimate control. Whether the horse is a relationship, a job, a dream, or an ideal, we think we must stay on and ride it out, with our own blinders blocking any other vision.
Paradoxically, sometimes only by dismounting, by letting go of our dead horse, can we begin a new trek. It can be the hardest thing we ever do. As I reflect on my own life, I find myself reminded of a dead horse or two. I think I'll try sugar first.
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