Removing 'But' From My Vocabulary

Jan 7, 2021 - 2:56 PM

Language is by far the most powerful tool at our disposal as a species. The ability to communicate complex ideas through words not only broadens our horizons, but it also brings our ideas into being. There is a fascinating episode of an NPR show called Radiolab that goes into great detail on this point, but to break it down, something literally doesn’t exist in our perception until we learn the exact word for it. Increasing our vocabulary through reading and study not only increases our understanding of ideas and concepts, it literally births ideas and concepts.

With that in mind, how we talk about things has tremendous power. Over 2020, I had the opportunity to listen to many horse-related podcasts that delved into this connection as it relates to our sport and horse behavior. As I listened, I kept thinking about how I talked about my own horses, and how my relationships with them could be changed for the better by the words I used to describe them. I try not to assign emotions to my horse’s behaviors, and that has helped, though it’s not always easy. I try to stay objective and not anthropomorphize. I try to always be positive in my word choices and give the benefit of the doubt.

CallieSophieCoffeyEmmaVanNostrand
“I kept thinking about how I talked about my own horses, and how my relationships with them could be changed for the better by the words I used to describe them,” writes Sophie Coffey. Emma Van Nostrand Photo

The other day though, while rewatching an old lesson that my saintly husband recorded, something jumped out in the audio. I had just jumped Callie around a course and was on a walk break, when I said, “I really love how softly she’s coming to the jumps now, but I wish we could get those lead changes.”  The sentence caught my ear because it showed a habit I’m currently trying to get out of my own personal  life: using the word “but.”

Think about when this word pops up the most: in job performance reviews, or maybe during break-ups. “I really like you and have enjoyed our time together, but…” Think about the usual reactions to it. We’re elated by the sentence until that word pops into it, and then our hearts plummet, and we brace for what comes next.

Why? Because saying “but” negates what came before it. This is why it can be such a toxic word in relationships with other people, or even in our relationship with ourselves. It dismisses the first part of the sentence, the positive part, and places the focus on what comes after, which is usually a negative. It’s why we dread hearing the word or become defensive when it comes up in an argument.

And for 2021, it’s a word I also want to get rid of when talking about my horses and my relationships with them.

So, how do I get around this quandary? I replace “but” with “and.” “And” allows me to accept and hold BOTH statements equally. Now, one is not dismissed in favor of the other. Now, both are true and hold weight. I really love how softly Callie is coming to the jumps, AND I wish we could get her lead changes. I’m extremely grateful to have Quill in my life, AND I hope Callie gets better and returns to her former self. I really love how soft my hands are, AND I need to keep working on my rein length.

This sounds easy to do. It’s not. I still catch myself saying “but” every day when talking to my husband or about work. I’m sure if I read through my old blog posts, I use the word “but” with great proficiency. I’m convinced though that creating this new habit will shift my days at the barn into an even more positive place, so I will persevere.

It’s always a work in progress, and I’m sure that with more practice, it will eventually become my new default.


Sophie Coffey grew up riding by the seat of her pants in Virginia hunt country, and she took a flying leap into the top levels of the sport through sheer will and luck after a cold call landed her a job at Hunterdon, Inc. She continued freelancing as a jack-of-all-trades through her 20s for some of the top names in the industry, getting the best education possible in horsemanship and larger life lessons. After leaving the sport to pursue a career in marketing, she returned in 2018 as an adult amateur with a little APHA mare named Callie, who has a passionate love of peppermints and jumping with her knees to her eyeballs. She resides with her increasingly horsey husband and three cats in Boulder, Colorado.

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