“Regret is unprofessional.” — M, Skyfall
Never say you’re sorry. That was the cardinal rule of wrangling.
In customer service, the customer is always right. Not here. Here, the rules were a little different. If something ever went wrong–and something often did–it was not the wrangler’s fault, it was not the horse’s fault (“Our horses don’t do that.”), and it was quite obviously, but always implicitly, the guest’s fault. All that was usually true. More importantly, in never saying sorry, we tiptoed across the legal tightrope of culpability and lawsuits, safeguarded by our training, first aid and CPR certification, and our trusted ability to make good decisions. To apologize was to accept fault. We did not.
I was amazed by two aspects of this equation: first, the general senselessness of guests and lack of regard for one’s personal safety around large and unpredictable animals (even in the case of some guests with “riding experience”), and second, the failure on the part of the ranch to anticipate and counteract potential problem scenarios with more than a minutes-long orientation of how to control your horse. On the one hand, both parties seemed to have agreed upon enacting this ideal, carefree yet controlled experience of riding horses in the open range–an extension of the “Western fantasy” I touched upon in my last post. The assumption was of an invariable mode of transport, a dually objectified and pastoralized vehicle from which to take in the sprawling mountains and meadows without worry. The reality was, on the other hand, that this blissful and escapist vacation mentality generated an even greater potential for problems than that which already exists in horseback riding, with the combination of the elements, chance, and the unknown, dangers even for experienced riders.
I experienced many incidents that summer in which I felt the urge to apologize (and many more for which I was utterly not sorry and wish I could have reacted accordingly…but that is another story.) Horses spooked sometimes, jostling or sometimes even throwing off their unbalanced riders. Horses, like humans, fear the unknown and react as we do to the unexpected. These were the most inane of situations, typically resolved with words of comfort, moments to regain breath and confidence, explanations of the nature of horses and the unknown, and continuation of the ride. Kids cried a lot. Sometimes horses did more than spook, but of course we were never allowed to acknowledge those situations to guests or in our accident reports. Our guest horses were extremely well trained, and usually rider error factored into instances of misbehavior…too-tight reins, aggressive riding, riding into another horse’s “personal bubble,” or–my absolute least favorite–not securing hats or clothing properly and having them fly off into another horse. Sometimes it really was the horse’s fault. Three times that summer a horse fell over or laid down unexpectedly and seemingly without reason. And for at least two of the falls that occurred on other wranglers’ rides, I questioned the judgment in having those particular guests ride as they did. Perhaps other wranglers questioned my judgement. But I never apologized.
The worst accident to happen on one of my rides this summer took place mid-summer. The accident was a combination of ego, pride, dishonesty with regard to riding ability, unbalance, and bad luck. There was truly no fault on the part of the horse in this instance. It was a beginner/intermediate ride with three middle to older-aged couples, and we had been doing a little bit of loping–that is, running with the horses. Our lopes had been short distance, slow paced, and in single-file, precautions I took with inexperienced riders. One of the men on my ride, drunk with the excitement and feeling of loping, asked to do a slightly longer lope than one we had just done in an open meadow. It was at our discretion to accept or deny guest requests–we were told to always be in control and never let a guest hijack a ride. I was comfortable with the request and the way that lopes had been handled on our ride so far, and so I accepted it. I regurgitated the usual reminders about safety and control for loping, I confirmed want and readiness, and we were off.
Maybe a hundred yards or so into our lope, I noticed the final rider–the wife of the man who requested the lope–starting to veer off course from the line. The next few seconds were a haze of shouts from behind, trying to slow my own horse and the rest of the ride to a stop, seeing the last rider on her horse in one glance and on the ground in the next. Per our training, I dismounted, addressed the other riders to stay where they were and hold the horses, and approached the fallen rider. When I did, she was unconscious. Calmly, I phoned the ranch for help. The rest of the story was an eternity of waiting…for the woman to regain consciousness, for help to arrive–first a ranch vehicle, then others, then an ambulance–for the other wranglers to bring my other riders in. And through the whole ordeal, I played my part. I kept calm and I never apologized. But when my job was done, as the woman was lifted in a vacuum-stretcher into the ambulance, that was when I broke down. I cried because this poor, sweet, old woman was badly hurt, and because her husband hurt for her, because he had asked to lope one more time, because she had gone along with it, because she was to be driven and later airlifted to a hospital, because it was the end of the Western escape, because this was real, and because I was sorry.
I was sorry as a human being. Sorry out of compassion and regret that it had happened. Sorry about the pain, and the fear, and the husband’s regret. Sorry for crying. Sorry that I didn’t say I was sorry.
But I don’t regret not saying so.
Therein lies the key difference: being sorry and having regret.
There is value in not saying you are sorry in a professional setting. One should make decisions she can stand by, and stand by the decisions she has made. Women especially tend to apologize too much. There is, of course, a time and a place for being sorry and saying so–if you make a mistake, do something wrong, or empathize with another human being. Regret is another thing. It is not learning from those situations. It is not having human empathy. I don’t regret my actions or decisions that day. I did my job to the fullest, and part of it was not saying I was sorry.