A label is an identifier. It gives information. When you shop, you look at labels to identify price, ingredients, manufacturer, etc. We also “label” people, places, things, animals, jobs, and professional rank to help us sort out the world. “She’s an inspiring speaker,” “that’s the old dog,” “he’s a perfectionist,” “he has cancer,” all imply certain things. We make assumptions based on labels. But sometimes this can be very dangerous.

Labeling something puts it into a box and a story begins to build around that label. A label may become fixed and not allow for growth or change. If a label is attached to YOU, it comes with a bunch of assumptions about you.

The use of labels was especially apparent to me this weekend. We hosted a 3-day horse clinic with international horseman Lester Buckley. He shattered many assumptions about what folks thought was possible with their horses (and their own abilities). Riders beamed with pride and new learning.

Then it became personal. Lester used my horse Noble for the in-hand (non-riding) demonstration on Friday. Noble is a very sensitive expressive horse with fairly strong opinions. He stomped and struck out and tried to nip Lester several times before he settled down. Lester did a great job with him despite his antics and it was fascinating to watch. Afterwards, a few folks in the crowd asked if Noble was a stallion and if he was a young horse. Hmm, he’s 14 and definitely not a stallion – exactly what were they implying? Someone even came up to me and said, “you must be a really good rider to ride that.” That did not make me feel good.

Based on the demonstration, folks may have labeled him “defiant” or “difficult.” Those potential labels bothered me since I know how sticky labels can be. And I wouldn’t have a chance to shift those labels since I wasn’t riding in the clinic; my elbow injury was just about healed after 3 months but I’d only ridden 15 minutes a few times in the past two weeks. I was pretty frustrated and my ego starting getting crazy.

After spending all day Friday and Saturday watching others ride, learn, and enjoy their horses, I was all stirred up. Darn it, I wanted to ride and I wanted to destroy that label and show the real Noble. The amazing, brilliant, beautiful, and sweet partner I know he can be. We all have many dimensions and to be judged on one experience is unfair. I started getting mad at myself – was this about me or him? Whatever. Clearly I had something to prove. And something to learn.

So on Sunday, I decided to work with Noble for a few minutes during the lunch break. A group was gathered in the viewing area enjoying sandwiches and talking. I suddenly felt a bit nervous to work in front of them, but I focused only on Noble. We did some work in-hand and then I hopped on. We trotted all over and did many of the exercises Lester had taught the others. Noble was a perfect partner and did everything I asked with relaxation and ease despite his herd mate hollering from the field. He felt fabulous. When we were done, several folks asked me if the horse was related to Noble. They couldn’t believe it was the same horse. One person told me privately that watching us together was like art, like poetry. That touched my soul. She saw his greatness. Noble had challenged any label that may have been bestowed on him. Good.

Labels can be dangerous, limit growth and stunt the infinite possibilities available to us all. What have you labeled? Who have you labeled? What are your own labels? Shed the labels and allow your greatness to shine. We’re dynamic, living, breathing beings. Give yourself the grace of a do-over if things are not quite going the way you desire. Life’s too short to be boxed in.