Monday, December 27, 2010

Pass me a mocha, I'm just getting started.

Most of the serious work-time we spend on our horses' backs is, or should be, devoted to warming up. Regardless of the goal-of-the-moment, we have to physically and mentally prepare for the day's new lesson. 

Yeah, it's tedious. 

And no, it can't be skipped. 

Not only does the horse need to be prepared before he's asked to exert himself just a little more, but the rider has to prepare, too. Nobody hits the saddle ready to rock and roll. Even when you ride one horse after another there is a certain amount of adjustment, both mental and physical, that needs to be done with each horse.

What happens when we skip the warm up and plunge into the daily lesson? The warm-up insists on being done anyway. It's like a persistent little terrier. It won't go away. And if you don't pay attention and do what needs to be done, it will get underfoot and trip you up. Count on it. You cannot bully this little dog into submission. It will bite your butt.

The plus side is that the better you prepare, the more conscientious you are about your warm-up, the better the performance of the lesson-of-the-day. The warm-up is where you catch the problems and put into effect the solutions. It's where the questions are cleared up and the groundwork laid for more advanced work.

Are you not accomplishing what you thought you should, despite working hard? Take a look at your warm-up. I'll bet you a double-tall mocha you're leaving something out.

Maybe, just maybe, the success we want to experience in other facets of our lives need the same attention paid to preparation. I'll wager another mocha on that one.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Just Shoot Me Now.

My initial reaction when someone points out that I should have known something specific and didn't is to hoist a huge burden of guilt onto my own shoulders. I'll wonder why I didn't notice that glaring deficit of knowledge before committing the crime of ignorance. To aid in avoiding this situation, I keep a calendar, write myself notes (which are constantly revised), and never go to the grocery store without a list -- even if there's only three things on it. Furthermore, "I forgot," ranks right up there with "I didn't know" for reasons for self-reproach. I'm willing to bet I'm not the only one with that knee-jerk reaction.

Occasionally, I run into a horse who really fears making a mistake. They're nervous, uncertain creatures with little confidence in themselves. Working with them is extremely difficult. It's necessary not to over-face them, and essential not to punish them. If they're to become safe and reliable they have to have confidence in their surroundings and the people who work with them before they have confidence in themselves and their job. It's a long road requiring enormous amounts of patience and skill. A brief unkindness can undo months of work. Lack of consistency will make undermine trust.

Horses aren't as good at hiding their inner feelings as humans. They'll show us the effect we're having on them right away. And, to our credit, a great many of us take lessons, read, listen and watch in order to be better at working with the animals we love. I can't help but think those same efforts would be well applied to our human interactions as well. Who needs all that guilt, anyway?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

How's that workin' out for you?

Progress rarely proceeds in a straight line.

I've heard that before, and always get a mental image of mildly hysterical, to and fro dashing around. Probably because that's what it feels like to me. I generate plenty internal anxiety when I'm learning something new -- often not understanding what the end result is supposed to be, or even why it's important. However, after (ahem) many years I know enough about my own process to be confident success will arrive with an "ah-ha" moment. For me, good guidance involves pointing out errors I didn't recognize myself as well as pointing out correct choices I also may not have noticed. Perceiving disapproval from a teacher can really lock up my ability to make positive progress.

So, when I train a horse I keep a close eye on mistakes of both the erroneous variety and the correct variety. I know the horse is learning when he doesn't make the exact same mistake twice in a row. New mistakes are cause for celebration. The same mistake generally indicates some kind of resistance that is blocking learning. That's where I have to step in and offer assistance. Often the resistance is due to incomplete understanding or misunderstanding of what is being asked. Sometimes it's fear-based. Sometimes there is a physical issue involved. Sometimes it's a combination.

Same thing happens when I teach humans. We make progress when we feel safe enough to try -- when the fear of making mistakes won't cause so much anxiety that we stop looking at what is happening as a result of our actions and start, instead, to protect ourselves, getting locked in a non-productive cycle. Teaching is as much about creating the right environment as it is about imparting information at the right time, asking questions that nudge the student toward the goal, then allowing the student to work through the process.

Maybe "So, how's that workin' out for you?" isn't always a snarky one-liner. I'm thinking it's a good teaching aid, too. Sometimes we need to be reminded to take a look at the results of our mistakes. We could make progress!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Playing Nurse

Eddie got his cast off on Friday…and then got it back on again. That was planned, actually. Even though it's been six weeks since he fractured his coffin bone our vet Ron felt it best we try and keep the joint as immobile as possible for as long as possible since the fracture line extends into the joint. Good thing the cast came off when it did. There were rub spots on the bulbs of his heel that were bleeding. Despite the fact that they are superficial, they needed bandaging and tending. Unfortunately, that also meant the cast couldn't go back on the same way, keeping the joint as still as possible.

Eddie was really good about the whole process -- except he itched. A lot. He doesn't scratch his legs like most horses -- with his teeth -- he crosses one leg over the other and rubs. We each took turns scratching his pastern (the part of his leg just above the hoof) until he seemed satisfied. I know how "cast itch" feels, having had to wear one on my arm several years ago. I used to stick a knitting needle between my arm and cast to deal with it. My doctor wasn't amused, as I recall.

Nevertheless, the reapplication process of the cast went well. Ron wasn't particularly worried that Eddie is still doing some limping. He gave me an assignment; change the bandage over the rub wound every three or four days. Then he gave me detailed instructions.

No problem.


The first bandage change was yesterday. I cut the old bandage away, and that's when the challenging part began. Yeah, the rub spots looked icky, but they weren't stinky or painful. What they were was itchy.

The next half hour progressed with me scrambling to clean and redress the wound, hollering "Whoa" and "Whoa, dammit," and flinging supplies around the barn aisle-way to keep them out of the way. Eddie ended up with half a tube of Neosporin smeared down the front of his opposite leg and a foot bandaged. I'm not even sure it was the correct foot.

What a freaking disaster.

Fortunately my friend Stacey, who owns the barn, dropped me an email later and told me that not only had I managed to bandage the correct foot, but it was still in place. I don't know how that happened.

And to think I have to do this again in three more days. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Stepping Away From The Familiar

Lucky me. I got to ride in a dressage clinic last week with Henrik Johansen, despite the fact that Eddie is still convalescing. One of my students, Anne Christensen, allowed me to ride her horse Fable, a 15 year-old Holsteiner gelding. Although I've trained Fable and Anne for years I've never ridden him in a lesson myself. It was exhausting, but wonderful. Henrik pushed us just enough to nudge us along to new levels of accomplishment. Fable was just as pleased as me when all was said and done. And Henrik was, too. He said he learned a lot watching me ride a different horse. Really? 

I asked him about that.

What he learned was that I really know more than he thought. Cool. Everyone wants to look smart, right? But…um….Okay, July -- our last clinic with Henrik -- wasn't exactly Eddie and my finest couple of hours, but we'd ridden with him before…lots of "befores" -- years, in fact. Didn't that count?

I asked him about that.

Evidently, Eddie and I know each other so well that I spend a good deal of time reacting instead of acting like a leader. I didn't realize I did that, but since he mentioned it, and I've had time to think about it, I have to say he's right.

Depth of knowledge is a wonderful thing. We call it having a "history" with some one -- be it human or otherwise. That history can shape our behavior, our attitudes, and the way we feel about ourselves. While often a comfort, sometime we need to step out of that circle of familiar action and reaction to test ourselves, and find out what we are truly capable of. Fable taught me to be more conscious of my role as leader. Eddie needs that from me and I hope I can bring that back to him when we finally get to work together again.

I'm thinking most relationships can benefit from similar growth. Now I can't help thinking about my kids….

Monday, November 15, 2010


My horses have always supported the spread of happiness, joy and good cheer! With that in mind, today's post isn't so "off topic"!!

Today is Launch Day for my debut mystery novel Death By A Dark Horse

It's available on Amazon and Smashwords for $2.99

Monday, November 8, 2010

Keeping Promises

I've worked very hard at being a Woman Of My Word. It's so less confusing for my horses if I can say to them, "Every time I do this (insert specific aid), it means this (insert specific desired response), and you must do that (insert horse's response). This is how my horses learn to trust me. I become predictable. The rules are in place and there is less stress when one knows what is expected and where the boundaries are.

I can't really say I'm much of a "rules" kind of gal when it comes to my personal life, though. I've been know to negotiate heavily with myself, not to mention invent exceptions to self-imposed rules.

One cookie won't kill the diet.
Five more minutes of sleep won't make a difference.
I really do need that pair of shoes….

It's those kinds of conversations that can whittle away at good intentions and end up really messing up what I might have been trying to accomplish.

You'd think I'd be on to me and my wily ways by now.

I'll admit, though, that I am much better at keeping my promises to others than I am to myself. In light of that I am making good on my promise to deliver my mystery novel, Death By A Dark Horse, free to whoever would like to have it. My intention was to make it available on Amazon at no cost. However, that plan fell through. I can set my price, but it can't be "free." 

Well, okay then.

Drum roll, please.

Death By A Dark Horse is available on my website, free, in the pdf version. It won't be there long, so I hope you'll pop over and grab it. Click on "death by a dark horse" on my home page, scroll to the bottom of the sample chapters and click on the download link.

If you have half as much fun reading it as I had writing it, you'll have a great time!

Yup. It's something I learned from my horse -- keep your promises. My mother told me that, too.

Friday, November 5, 2010

10 More Days!

My debut mystery novel 
Death By A Dark Horse 
will be available in 10 days!

Visit my website to read the first two chapters

Death By A Dark Horse will be available from and
after November 15, 2010 

No e-reader? No Problem! 
Most e-reader software is available to downloand onto your computer for Free from the manufacturer!
Check the website of your choice for details and instructions.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

It's Almost Here!

The countdown has begun!

Death By A Dark Horse
will be available on November 15, 2010 from Amazon and Smashwords.

The first two chapters are available, FREE, on my website
Click on "Death By A Dark Horse" in the blue navigation box.

Death By A Dark Horse story summary

Thea Campbell goes out for revenge when the one person who is simultaneously the most likely and least likely candidate for thief steals her horse. But Olympic hopeful Valerie Parsons is past caring about being arrested. She’s dead. At first Thea’s horse is assumed to have killed the woman, but when the coroner determines it was a human hand and not a horse’s hoof that ended Valerie’s life Thea becomes a person of interest. Now intimidating people with little regard for due process are showing up on her doorstep looking to even the score. Toss in her wrecked love life, a sexy geology professor who stirs up more than dust, and an alleged psychic horse, and it soon becomes apparent that Thea’s predictable life is now out of control. As she takes charge of clearing herself of the murder she discovers the victim had a knack for making enemies—one of whom is Thea’s ditsy sister. She pursues her investigation with more at stake than ever, and in a seedy biker bar comes face-to-tattoo with information that will lead the police to the real killer. She dutifully reports to the detective in charge. But Thea is wrong. As close to dead wrong as she ever wishes to get.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Knowing When To Quit

I know I've talked about consistency before, but it's an important topic and a surprisingly broad one. As riders, most of the time we concentrate on honing our skills so we can use them with reliable results. If our equine partners know that X always means something specific then they're more likely to remember to do that specific thing when we use X. It's simply the communication of ideas, just like a spoken language.

I've noticed, however, that it's possible to dwell on a "topic" too long. Horses, like people, can become bored and inattentive if a topic of discussion is carried past its usefulness. Straight lines become crooked, circles are no longer round, even shoulders-in will cease to engage the inside hind leg. While we, the riders, are busy working on perfecting an aid (or what-have-you) to a classically correct level the other member of our team is falling asleep at the switch, finding ways to avoid the difficulty we're inflicting on them, or looking for something else to occupy their minds.

Ideally, we don't want to get to the point where our partner is done with an exercise before we are, and is now engaged in an activity that is amusing only to them. We want to change the exercise when it has done its job--for example; improved the way the horse is going, or shown him a better way to balance himself.

The problem is that each horse is different. And while Eddie has been laid up I've been reacquainted with that fact. The solution is to pay close attention to the horse, and when he has demonstrated a consistency in the exercise you are doing, then it's time to change to something else--even if he's not perfect because you've probably gotten as much out of it as you're going to at this moment. Does that mean you can't revisit it? No of course not. Just do something else for a while. 

Like everything else one does with a horse, what they teach us is a life lesson. Now I just have to figure out what the aids are to teach teenagers to clean their rooms….

Horses are easier!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Recovering from Reality

On October 16, 2010 a Dream took a direct hit.

I didn't realize it for a couple of days -- thought it was just another inconvenience in the normal course of events. But it turned out that in wrenching the shoe off his foot, Eddie fractured his coffin bone.

The coffin bone is the "hoof-shaped" bone inside the horse's hoof. Sometimes fractures are minor, and heal with little problem. Eddie's fracture cuts diagonally across the bone and has several secondary branches. It's not a pretty sight. I saw the x-rays, listened to what the vet had to say, and struggled to hold my emotions together.

As Eddie stood quietly cooperating with the endless positioning for x-rays, seeming to know he had to be very still, I watched the dream of building on the art we two had worked years to accomplish blink out. In one unfortunate moment the world shifted in a way I'd never prepared for. There was no going back, no do-overs. What I thought I held so surely in my hands was gone.

Over the days that followed, while I waited for a cast to be put on Eddie's hoof, words from people I barely knew, as well as people I knew well started penetrating that dreadful sense of loss. A small bit of hope began to grow. When Eddie's vet came out to put to put the cast on several days later reality met with a plan, and from that plan some strength and confidence grew. Somewhere around the first of March we will be better able to predict the success of his recovery and the very real possibility of his return to the work we both love.

In the meantime, while he convalesces, I will have other horses to ride and the opportunity to work on improving myself. Eddie's and my journey together may not be over. But should he not recover enough to dance again with me, then at least I will still have my friend and the bond we've developed. I will always cherish what he has so generously given me.
"I am strong when I am on your shoulders. You raise me up to more than I can be."
                                                                                              --Brendan Graham, Rolf Lovland

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Bandages & Friendship

Poor Eddie. This weekend didn't turn out quite the way he planned. He was having himself a good 'ol time kicking up his heels in his paddock, but took a misstep and wrenched his front right shoe off. Unfortunately, he also did some damage to himself, the precise nature of which has yet to be determined. For the moment, we're just calling him three-legged lame.

Eddie, bless his heart, has been relatively injury free -- for a horse. They tend to be rather delicate creatures, especially for as big as they are. In my opinion, if someone tells you they're "healthy as a horse" you need to be on your way to the phone to call for help. Horses have a talent for hurting themselves regardless of the precautions you take to protect them.

But I'm used to lame horses, albeit a bit out of practice. I've owned horses who have made careers out of creatively injuring themselves. One big chestnut Thoroughbred gelding I owned for most of his twenty-six years wasn't an accident waiting to happen, he was an accident that continually happened. It got so people were thinking I had a "thing" for my vet. I was thinking maybe my vet ought to issue those cards like espresso stands have where after so many cups of coffee you get one free. It was the horse and I who bonded over those many hours of fellowship over salves, bandages, cold hosing, and prescription meds.

Something special happens when you help an animal through the tough times. A connection is born that wouldn't have existed otherwise. The quiet time you spend together doing the things that need to be done to get past the crisis creates a bridge of companionship that endures. Tomorrow morning I'll drive up to the barn, give Eddie his meds, rewrap his legs and brush his burgeoning winter coat while he stands quietly in his stall without his halter on. We'll have a little chat and he'll spend some time licking me--his way of doing something for me.

With any luck, he'll feel lots better and in a week or so we'll be able to get back to some light work. In the meantime we'll get to know each other on a different level.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


It has been my experience when riding that it rarely does any good to show a horse something he's afraid of. A horse's natural instinct is to move away from Scary Objects really fast. Making the horse stand still (or worse, approach) and look at something he'd rather run away from is akin to saying, "I swear to God, it'll only hurt a little when the lion takes a bite."

I wouldn't believe me either. I'd leave.

And trust me, if they want to go there's nothing you can do to stop them.

So what's the best thing to do since trying to make the horse walk up to the Scary Object puts you on the Scary Object's staff as the waiter who serves the main course?

Stay on the horse's team. Utilizing the horse's comfort zone is a quicker path to restoring calm. Therefore, since two things horses do very well are moving and sticking to a routine, it's a good bet that riding a simple routine he's familiar with and good at will help. Because the routine is familiar he knows what to do, and what is expected. Therefore it's safe. Because he's moving he's cooperating with his ancient fright/flight response.

Pretty soon, as he's doing the safe, familiar job, the Scary Object becomes Just Another Object. This tactic works quickly if the rider starts the familiar job at a distance from the Scary Object where the horse shows only a low degree of tension. Then, as the horse relaxes he can be guided closer if necessary. The more stressed the horse becomes, the harder it is to get his attention and restore calm. Also, the more thoroughly trained the horse, the more comfort there will be in his job—and the quicker the Scary Object loses its power.

Aren't we like that, too? If the unexpected occurs and we can get right into a well practiced routine we stand a better chance of getting our heads back on straight. People in high risk jobs know this. That's why they train so much. Since stress is part and parcel of our everyday lives, we can adapt this tactic to help us manage what life throws our way.

Have you developed any routines that keep your stress level down?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

New Experiences, Old Lessons

Early Sunday morning Eddie and I went with a friend and her horse (also a friend) to a schooling show in our area. This was a new experience for Eddie. He's been to many dressage shows and clinics, but never to a regular horse show where he was required to work in an arena with other horses all doing the same thing in the same direction at the same time.

Horse shows are a bit different from dressage shows. In a dressage show you have an assigned time to ride. You perform a test, solo, in front of a judge who never blinks and gives a score from 0-10 for each segment (called "movements") of the test. There can be upwards of 30 movements in an advanced level test. An error may cost you a few points and affect your over all score, but you may end up scoring well, anyway. High score wins.

Anyway, after warming up, schmoozing with the other folks there, doing some sightseeing, and a whole lot of waiting around (you're never quite sure exactly what time your class will be called in at a horse show). We entered the arena for our first class, and Eddie tossed his concentration aside at the in-gate. Apparently one of us thought it was play time.

After some intense negotiations at the walk and trot in each direction (where I sporadically convinced Eddie that I wasn't going to give up my efforts to direct his energy) the judge called us all in. She divided the class in half for the canter work—good thing, since there were 16 horses in the arena.

We were in the second group. Eddie watched the first group with interest, occasionally neighing his approval (or egging them on—I'm not sure which).

Then it was our turn. Eight of us rode out to the rail at the walk and Eddie may as well have shot me a look over his shoulder and said, "Don't worry, I've been paying attention. I know exactly what to do."

Yeah. Right. I wasn't born yesterday.

Rule #1: Never abandon leadership to the horse. They have fewer skills in that area than the average teenager.

The first part of the canter went fairly well. However, it was the call to "hand gallop" (a faster version of the canter) where things got interesting. Eddie chose to accent that transition (which I hadn't yet asked for) with his own particular flair. He launched upwards, added a couple of twists, and hit the ground with the intention of executing a full-out gallop. The judge stopped the class and—much to the relief of the other terrorized competitors around us—I stopped Eddie within a couple of strides.

…Must have been something to see—a huge, white, ball of fur flying through the air….

Had we been in contention for a ribbon in the class, that one impromptu, free-form interpretation of the transition into hand-gallop blew away any possibilities of an award.

Happily, Eddie is smart enough to figure out that his ad-lib was not the required routine for a horse show class. The second class proceeded in a more conservative manner, and we came away with second place. Good boy, Eddie.

So, what did I learn? Wow, many things—but primarily reinforcing my conviction to keep my shoulders over my hips. You just never know when something unexpected may happen that will challenge your balance.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Essence of Passion

"Forward" isn't just a direction. As a concept, it has a very specific meaning in dressage. When Eddie is properly forward he lowers his croup and his hind legs power him toward our line of travel with rhythmic strides, lifting his shoulders and freeing his front legs to express an elegant gesture. At the same time he is balanced exactly right so the smallest shift of my weight will cause him to do something else—something that came to life in my mind first. Movement is easy, cadenced and relaxed. He blows big long breaths and holds the bit lightly in his mouth.

It is in those moments I feel we can do anything—turn the smallest circle, sweep sideways, change gaits, and all because I thought of it. If you could see Eddie's expression you'd see how soft his eyes are and the way his ears flop sideways, occasionally flicking back as he acknowledges as aid from me. Being correctly forward causes him to be intensely focused, relaxed, and satisfied.

From the very first time a foal wears a halter and learns to lead, he is learning the concept of "forward." Each stage of training adds a layer of understanding for both the horse and rider. Not only does the concept grow with each achievement, but it also grows with the failures. Both horse and rider learn what "forward" is, as well as what it is not. Although it is possible to define the exact mechanics of achieving "forward", each horse has his own distinct feel when he is there, and his own best route to it. Riding more than one horse deepens our understanding of the concept of "forward" through each animal's unique nuances. But even my familiar Eddie is slightly different from day to day. For me, each ride is like opening little presents, and that joy of discovery keeps me coming back for more.

I think much the same can be said for anything one is passionate about—small distinctions and sparks of understanding are the tempting promises whispered in our ear.

Slightly off topic, but...

Okay, so I didn't learn this from my horse, but I had to share. This is the cover art for Death By A Dark Horse the first book of my mystery series that is coming out in February! I love the way artist & writer Tracy Hayes has interpreted my story. Pop on over to my website to find out more about my cozy-with-an-edge mystery and if you want to see more of Tracy's fabulous artwork visit her website Pastiche Studios. She's an amazing artist with a wide range and a delightful sense of humor!

Monday, September 20, 2010

How can I work under all this pressure?

Horses move into pressure. It's instinct. Sure they shift their bodies away when the rider applies the leg aid, but we trainers teach that response. What you may not realize is the training still permits the instinctive reaction--we've just redirected it. The horse is now stepping toward the rider's leg with the hind leg on the same side--more acceptable than moving their barrel into leg pressure. Oh, and as for the line of travel—that has more to do with where your weight is directed than what you just did with your leg.

But what I really want to talk about is the absence of pressure.

Horses will, if you pay close attention, actually respond to an aid (pressure) when that aid is removed. One of the basic tenets of dressage is that relaxation is required for the horse to move with grace, beauty and optimal athletic results. That means all muscular tension not required for remaining upright and mobile must go. Mental tension produces physical tension, so that has to go too. An aid that doesn't let up—that sustains pressure—is going to make the horse wonder what the heck it is the rider wants. Wondering produces worry, which in turn produces frustration and will cause the trained horse to revert to his instinctive reaction and push back.

Wouldn't you?

Have you ever tried to produce good work while under pressure? It's exhausting, not invigorating. I produce enough of my own internal pressure so my tolerance threshold for external pressure is pretty low. It becomes counter productive. I may not push back in the obvious manner my horse would, but my quality of work suffers. And I get pretty crabby.

Like horses, people have their own optimal pressure tolerance levels. When working with someone (equine or human) it's essential to discover what that level is, and then only use it when necessary. Nobody can tolerate sustained pressure. We all do our best work when it's applied intermittently from the one directing our efforts.

It's a rare thing to have that gift of assessment—the ability to know how much and what kind of pressure is required and then have the guts to release it. Perhaps we can learn if we think, observe, and test our bravery.

Have you ever worked with someone who seems capable of helping you achieve your personal best? Maybe they had to learn how.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Call To Adventure

Often when I school Eddie (see white horse in the picture) I'll take a little break and ride out of the arena. We'll hike up and down the gentle slopes around the barn where he lives, or if the dressage-deer are around (they're the ones who stroll through the arena daily) we'll stop and watch them for a little while. Admittedly, I find them more interesting than Eddie. He doesn't care if they go into the woodshed or look like they're planning on walking through the barn. He does, however, think it's noteworthy if they stand on their hind legs to eat leaves off the trees. I'm not sure why. Nevertheless, if we take time out for a little adventure we can return to work with a little better attitude and a renewed effort. Concentration seems to come more readily and the little issues that were plaguing us recede into the background.

This morning my long-time student and friend was talking about having some fun and going to a schooling show. Not the dressage shows we normally go to, but a regular horse show where a group of horses are shown in the arena at the same time at the walk, trot and canter. Neither one of us have done that type of show for ages. Since Eddie and Spirrit, my friend's horse, are good buddies we figured they'd have a good time together. It's something different, something to turn the same old stuff into an adventure.

Evidently the call to adventure was in the air today. When I got home my husband and I swiped our kids' inline skates and drove over to a local walking/biking trail. To appreciate this you should know that neither one of us have skated for (mutter, mutter) years. My recurring thought was along the lines of how much it was going to hurt to break a bone, and how much it would slow my typing down to have a cast on my arm. I'm happy to report that while we both very probably looked ridiculous, and will be very sore tomorrow, we avoided injury. Best of all it gave us a chance to laugh together and enjoy the scenery.

The horse show is in October. I'll let you know how much of an adventure it turns out to be. With any luck we'll laugh, but won't look too ridiculous.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Have a Snack and Forget It

On most days when I crawl out of bed in the morning I refrain from making any predictions about how the day is going to go until I've had a reasonable amount of caffeine and a good, hard look at my to-do list. If I then click over to my e-mail and stare with little comprehension at the subject lines it's a fairly good bet I'll be having one of "those" days.

You know what I mean—one of those days where you have to flog yourself to actually accomplish anything at all. For me, there's usually a direct correlation between motivation and the amount of sleep I didn't get. You'd think I'd plan for that by now.

Horses experience the same thing, except we're their to-do list and e-mail all wrapped up into one, and if we didn't bring it all to them, they wouldn't waste time worry about it. Some days Eddie (my horse) will meet me at the gate, ears up, practically wagging his tail. Other days he'll stand at the far end of his paddock and look at me with complete indifference, if he bothers to look at all. I know exactly how the ride is going to go before I even get a halter on him.

It boils down to this: I care and he doesn't. I want every day to be my best effort. I take it as a personal insult when my body or mind can't seem to get it together enough to cooperate.

Eddie seems to accept the day to day variations. He always makes an effort to do what I ask, bless his heart, but when he's less than sterling he still expects his treats and is just as pleased with himself when we're done as he is on the days when he's wonderful.

It is what it is. Don't waste energy worrying about what it should have been. Make sure you get a treat for your effort because, after all, you did try. And, for heaven's sake, relax. You can't change what's already happened and, who knows, tomorrow might be better…but don't let that interfere with the moment.

If horses had a philosophy that would probably be it. We might do well to try it out once in a while.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Whistling In The Dark

A number of years ago, when my now almost-adult daughter was three, I had the opportunity to put into practice every bit of faked calm I’ve spent a lifetime working to perfect. This is what happened: In between the lessons I was teaching, the teenager whose job it was to be my daughter’s responsible playmate while I was busy ran up to me, grabbed me by the arm and said, “You should know your daughter just caught a snake and is bringing it to show you.”

Ha. Not what you thought, huh? However, if you have even a passing acquaintance with me you’re aware of how snakes will produce instantaneous cold-sweat, leg-weakening, electric terror that zings from my scalp to the soles of my feet.

Thank God for the practice.


Yeah. Practice. With horses. Lots and lots of it, and this is why: Horses require leadership. They’re afraid of pretty much everything that’s different. New additions to their surroundings, the sudden appearance of a squirrel where there wasn’t one before, mail boxes, bags the wind can blow, odd noises, almost everything white…the list is endless. It makes sense, really. For millions of years horses were a nice entre on most predators’ menus. Because of that, horses run first and don’t bother with the questions later. Bolt and live. No need for analysis once the herd is back to munching grass. No one is going feel the need to question why Dobbin started the stampede. They’re alive, having escaped possible danger, it’s all good.

What does leadership have to do with this? It’s the herd look-out (one of the responsible horses in the group) who often signals the danger. The other horses accept this without a thought. When humans stepped into the equine equation we became (essentially) part of the herd. It is our job to be the alpha-horse, to build trust and obedience. Our word is law. Part of achieving this alpha-horse status is the ability to remain calm and not react in a nervous manner, particularly in dicey situations where our horse is tapping into that ancient flight/fight response. It’s a safety issue, too. A frightened horse is very very dangerous. Projecting calm as the alpha-herd-member, particularly when you’re not feeling it, goes a long way to keep a potentially perilous situation under control.

This works quite well with an all human cast, too. The ability to convincingly project calm and rational behavior will promote and encourage the same in others.

How did the snake incident work out? Having a moment’s warning to let me grab hold of my phobia with both hands helped. When my daughter ran up with her new “toy” writhing in her little fist I exclaimed how pretty it was, told her it was a common garden snake, and would probably appreciate being put back where she’d found it so it could play with its friends. She conceded that I was right, since the snake kept biting her and trying to get away, and turned the thing loose in the tall grass. At 18 she still has no fear of snakes. I avoided passing along my phobia. Yay for me! Pretending did the job.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

the Joy of Symmetry

At one point in my life I wanted to be an artist. I still dabble and enjoy it, but it’s not as high on my priority list as it used to be. One of the concepts I learned still sticks with me. It’s about the use of asymmetry. In order to evoke movement, and interest, one should avoid making one’s composition symmetrical. You can utilize this to great effect. It’s fun.

On the other hand, one of the “constant preoccupations” of the dressage rider is the creation of symmetry—straightness. Straightening the horse means they are equally adept, gymnastically, going to the right as they are to the left. Very much like being able to write in precisely the same way with your left hand as you do with your right (if you’re right handed to begin with). Straightness aids the balance of the horse and makes him easier to ride. To achieve it we employ a variety of exercises. Then, as the horse becomes more supple, he also becomes stronger and better able to achieve the high degree of collection we value so much.

No big deal. It’s a process, right?


Except it is a big deal. We must constantly attend to the little clues that tell us we are achieving our goals of straightness—or that we’re missing something. Does the horse feel level under our seats? Does he feel the same against each calf, or is he more present against one of our legs than the other? Does the horse hold the bit evenly in his mouth, or does the contact we feel through the reins seems heavy in one hand and light or absent in the other? Do we feel perfectly mobile, or do we feel a disinclination to go in a certain direction because it doesn’t feel as good? The checklist at times seems endless, and it always seems as though some crookedness or other is sneaking in under the radar.

Symmetry in our lives is important, too. And the balance isn’t any easier to achieve and maintain than it is in dressage. It’s a process that requires attention. Too much emphasis on one aspect and something else goes out of whack. Like riding dressage, I prefer to think of life-symmetry not as a juggling act, but as a state of being that requires exercise and participation to achieve the joy.

It’s a process. Notice, enjoy and celebrate the accomplishments.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Rule of Three

New experiences rarely go smoothly the first time we try them. Sometimes the thing we are attempting doesn’t even happen. We know this, usually, going into the effort. First bike ride, first attempt at cooking, first driving lesson. Even a first kiss. So back we go to give it another shot, and after a while we get pretty good at it.

This isn’t an unfamiliar pattern when we’re learning to ride, either. We get that. The old saying is that it takes two lifetimes to master the art of dressage. We know we can get pretty good in one, though, and a lot of us do. Many of us spend a great deal of time training horses to the discipline we’ve chosen, and there’s a familiar progression of events that go along with a horse’s athletic development.

Unfortunately, there are always problems.

Never mind. There’s time tested ways of dealing with problems, resistances, issues—whatever you want to call them, and people who will teach them to you.

But sometimes the solution to the problem doesn’t seem to work, and we kick harder, push harder, do whatever we think needs attending to more…and we still have the same progress-stopping issue. Often, having tried the chosen solution once, we discard it. Or, we persist in addressing a dilemma with a solution that doesn’t work at all. Either way it’s frustrating for us, as well as our horse.

Over the years I’ve noticed a pattern. If I give the course of action I’ve chosen three separate tries without changing anything about my aids I will know if my horse has understood, and if the solution I’ve chosen needs adjustment or abandonment.

It’s the Rule of Three. It’s very simple. Regardless of my horse’s response the first time the aids are applied, on the second attempt there should be a glimmer of change. On the third try there should be marked improvement—enough to let me know I have been understood and my four-legged friend is grasping the idea and making the effort. If, on the third try, there is no significant improvement, then I must reevaluate what I’m doing and ask myself what specifically isn’t being understood.

If a horse is calm, he will do as he’s asked provided he understands the request and is physically able to do it. When he is allowed to try, without being hammered at, he will often surprise you with his generosity.

It’s our job, as rider and teacher to give him the chance to demonstrate what he understands, abandon a tactic when it is useless, and discover what he needs from us to do what we ask. The Rule of Three is a guide to measure understanding and success, as well as put a limit on frustration.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Learning To Lead

When I started riding lessons at age eleven, I was put on kind horses with smooth gaits next to an instructor mounted on another horse. A lead line tethered my horse to the instructor and all I had to do was stay on. That was plenty at the time. Once I gained some security in my seat the lead line came off. When I proved I had sufficient control not to be a danger to those around me I was put into a class. We followed each other around the arena, nose to tail, doing as the instructor directed. Variations of that scenario are experienced by pretty much everyone who takes formal riding lessons. We learn how to balance, anticipate and follow the movement of the horse. In fact there’s a official name for all of that. It’s a badge of accomplishment to have someone say you have “a good following seat,” or “good following hands.”

Little by little the novice rider is expected to influence the horse; slower or faster, turn here or there, stop and go. Pretty basic stuff. We learn that we follow the horse until we want to change something. Then we apply a specific aid for that change and if all the stars are aligned the magic happens.

But progress and knowledge also happen. We can’t help it, it’s part of our nature to want to improve, discover new things, and open new doors. We expect the horse to take us there, and sometimes they do--if we’re lucky enough to have one who is highly educated. More often, we don’t. And often we expect our horse, who we have been following dutifully for some time, to lead us into that new territory.

However, that’s not a horse’s nature. Their nature is to be the follower. That’s why they like hanging out in herds. Generally speaking, they make terrible leaders and at some point in time we have to realize this as we improve and want to do more. We must become the leader, not the follower. We must ride as though we are working the gaits and movements independent of our horse. The transition for the rider from follower to leader is gradual, and often lags behind the horse’s transition from leader to follower. It’s a confusing state to occupy for both horse and rider. The majority of misunderstandings occur here. Progress bogs down and frustration skyrockets.

We go through a similar progression when we grow up, leave home and build lives for ourselves. We have names for the stages; student, teen, adult, mother, father, and so on. And we mark transitions with ceremonies; graduations, weddings, voting, drivers’ license. But despite our efforts to mark these changes as times of greater responsibility the real change-over is often out of sync with each rite of passage, hence the frustration and struggle. It’s never easy to grow into a leader--whether you’re sitting on a horse or standing on your own two feet--but it’s how we make progress.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Supreme Importance of Balance

As appealing as a horse's back looks to sit on, it wasn't designed to carry people--or anything else for that matter. If somebody built a table the same way a horse is put together chances are you'd think they needed to go back to carpenters' school. As a piece of furniture, it'd be too tippy. Doubt me? Just give one of your Breyer horses a little nudge and see what happens (yes, I know you still have them).

On the other hand, when the real deal is moving he's a wonder of grace and power. Until a human climbs on.

Putting a rider on top alters the balance of the horse. If you've ever been the first one to ride a young horse, you know all about that wobbly, unsteady feel and how many months it takes a horse to adapt. The more skilled the rider is in maintaining her own independent balance, the easier it is for the horse and the faster he regains his natural elegance. A good deal of a horse's first training has to do with helping him rediscover his natural way of going while being ridden. This is why it's so important that a young horse is brought along by an experienced, skilled rider. Put a beginning rider on a green horse and they'll both be scared--and develop some really bad habits, all in the name of survival. In the same way a skilled rider helps a young horse, a well seasoned horse will help a beginning rider.

As we acquire more skills and confidence, we sometimes forget that balance is still an issue. Even at the highest levels, the basic lessons of maintaining accord between our own center of gravity and the horse's is vital if we are to achieve that effortless, relaxed performance we chase like the Holy Grail.

So what is the message I've taken away from this horse-taught lesson in kinesiology? The value of patiently maintaining one's equilibrium while someone else is trying to gain theirs. Sometimes the very best help you can offer is to pay close attention to your own balance while the one close to you regains theirs.

Eventually, you will dance together.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Teaching: The Art of Allowing Failure

Horses are some of the best teachers. They seem to have an innate ability to understand what it takes to learn.

Way back when, I had a teacher (of the human persuasion) who was enamored of that well know, oft used phrase attributed to Vince Lombardi: "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect."

Wow. I challenge you to think of a better way to discourage anyone from trying to improve. He certainly scared the desire right out of me at the time.

When I defied his particular lack of inspiration and became a teacher I noticed a couple of things right off the bat (pardon the almost-pun). One, people learn when they're actually ready for the information, and two, I learned more from my students than they did from me--neither are unusual epiphanies.

Then one day I noticed something else. My students' horses consistently provided the lesson plan. Not only did each horse perform to the exact level of the rider, but they did exactly the things wrong that were my students key issues. Bless their hearts, they were showing me what needed to be taught.

But could I teach it? Sure I could talk my students through the steps to correct the problems, but that's not teaching. The real question was, could I impart an understanding of the process well enough for them to handle it on their own when they practiced between lessons?

And right about here is where that old saying falls flat on its pompous tutu.

Pretending to be perfect, so one can practice perfect generally ends up with the grand delusion disintegrating into a million depressing pieces. One needs to know as clearly as possible what the goal is, sure, but to get there one must seek out the problems and be determined to fail as many times as it takes in order to get it right. When I see a student let go of their insistence to avoid failure and accept and embrace that fact, progress follows. Always. And each time I've seen one of my students make a little progress I've seen their horses respond precisely to that improvement, even when it's serendipitous. Their consistent, accurate feedback makes horses wonderful teachers. And there's rarely one that won't generously allow his rider to make mistakes over and over in their quest to get it right. My job, as the human side of the teaching team, is to prevent mistakes from being too grievous and set up the goals. Then I must make sure my student understands it's okay to try and fail repeatedly. If I can do that, the horse can do his job. And he will. Every time. No matter how long it takes.

It's unflagging patience, accurate feedback and forgiveness of failure that are qualities the best teachers share. Horses have it in spades.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Talking Horses

When my kids were toddlers they would go to the barn with me in the morning to feed the horses. My son (who is going to hate me for telling this story), although insisting on going, didn't like all the whinnying that greeted us despite my reassurances that it was happy noise. He'd cling to my leg and wail, "Mommy, horsies talk, horsies talk!"

Horses are chatty things. Bless their hearts, they don't seem to be without something to say--ever. Most of their language is body language, of course, but hey, most of ours is, too. Ninety-three percent of what we communicate is non-verbal (so I've heard). That should make it a slam-dunk to communicate with a horse, right?

Not exactly.

We don't speak the same body language, so we have to reach a compromise. That's what training is all about--teaching a language that is native to neither the horse or rider. When we ride we make use of our hands, legs, seat and voice--the natural aids--to mean specific things. Each of our aids has two functions; either work in harmony with the horse or step out of harmony. When we function in harmony with the horse we're like the "yes-man." When we use our aids out of harmony it's because something needs to be changed either by restraining or driving--our only two choices.

It seems so simple. Yet for an animal who can react when a fly lights on him, every breath the rider takes is capable of carrying meaning. That's why riding is hard. We can be communicating without even realizing it. And the horse will be commenting on what he thinks we're saying.

When they can't figure out what we want, they'll guess--some of them anyway. Others will tune us out, since it's obvious to them we have nothing important to say. Still others will overreact, bluster against us and argue.

Sounds like daily living with a completely human cast of characters, doesn't it? People and horses will tell us what they understand of the current situation by demonstrating it through their actions. Any way you cut it, it takes practice to communicate effectively.

Oh, and it doesn't bother my son anymore when horses whinny for their food. He can relate to their eagerness for a meal (and I'm going to hear about that comment, too!).

Monday, July 12, 2010

Hey, Mom and Dad, Look at Me!

Every three or four months I ride my horse Eddie in a dressage clinic. I love it. We get cleaned up, dressed up, and chase improvement like it was a year-end award. Henrik Johansen, the clinician and the man whose picture is in the dictionary next to the word "patient," does his magic and viola! Eddie and I have refined our skills, and added to our knowledge. It's a great confidence boost to be challenged and at the same time make positive strides toward my goals. Except this time....

It was a breezeless, 90+ degree, July day. At 4 o'clock I was wringing wet and the lesson had just started. Ten minutes into our session Eddie was radiating heat like my husband's barbecue grill turned up to burn-the-gunk-off level. Even worse, instead of showing Henrik how much we'd improved, I showed him how really awful we could be. Eddie lugged on my hands and was dead to my aids. In essence, we were barely speaking.

I was not looking forward to the second day of the clinic. But lucky me, Henrik rode Eddie first. Good, I thought, he can fix my horse. Instead, he showed me how easy my horse was to ride. Hmm.... Okay. I needed to work harder. I could do that, even in the heat.

Apparently not.

I pondered this on the way home, which is to say I thought up all kinds of excuses why Eddie worked so well for Henrik and so poorly for me. Hey, I tried really really hard, and I toughed out the near-heat-stroke conditions. I deserved something for all my sweat, didn't I? Did Eddie just like Henrik better than me?
(Yes, I was feeling pretty darned sorry for myself) Then I looked at all the pictures my friend took. Eddie looked fairly decent when I was on him, but surely I looked better than that. Why did I look like a boneless bag of lumpy Jell-O? Appalled doesn't even begin to cover my reaction.

Further reflection had me wondering why the things Eddie and I did at home worked well, but fell apart at the clinic. I neatly ignored how well Eddie worked with Henrik and blamed the heat. Had to be the heat. We'd come far in the last four months, and I'd wanted to demonstrate it. I whined to my friend the picture-taker, fellow clinic-rider, and heat-sufferer. She shook her head.

"You were trying too hard to be perfect," she said.

Easy for her to say. Her rides were amazing. But she was right. I should have realized. And I should have listened to Eddie. He was doing exactly what I was telling him to do--all the disjointed, unbalanced stuff I was doing. I'd lost touch with him because I wanted to prove how good I was. I rode him differently than I did at home and lost the focused communication I usually shared with him. Then when things went badly, I just made them worse. I didn't stop to think, I just reacted.

Next time I'll pay closer attention to all the skills I skipped past while trying to prove how close to perfect I was, and less attention to trying to impress. I guess I learned something after all. I hope.

Monday, July 5, 2010

If It Wasn't For My Horse, I Wouldn't Have Understood Hegel

(Or, The Walk Can Fix The Canter)

One of the things I noticed early on in my riding career was that if I had problems getting the canter I magically knew it before hand at the walk. Using that ah-ha, I started paying more attention to my horse's walk asking myself, "if I want to canter right now, could I do it?" Through trail, error, and success I developed a feel for a walk that was sufficiently balanced for the horse to produce an obedient transition into canter. Problem I thought.

Then I started paying attention to the canter--mostly after seeing other people doing lovely canters on their horses and beating me at horse shows. With a better picture in my mind of what I was trying to achieve, I set to work to improve my horse's canter. This wasn't easy. Rocketing around the arena is not as conducive to thinking and analyzing as is the more sedate pace of the walk. Repeated efforts brought little improvement. Besides, it's freaking scary.

To preserve my life, I decided to shorten the duration of each foray into canter. Better--but not great. I shortened the duration further, with some slight improvement. Then I noticed the transition itself. If my horse tossed his head up for the transition, the canter and subsequent downward transition to walk was mediocre at best. Instead, if he raised his shoulders in the transition the canter was soft and lovely and the downward transition effortless. The solution was to have my horse raise his shoulders in the transition...but how could I make it consistent? I tried to keep his head down, hoping the shoulder would rise. Are you surprised things got worse? I didn't think so.

One day I happened to be reading a reference to a German philosopher by the name of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). Besides being touted as the last man on earth to know everything (I seriously doubt that particular boast), and quoted as saying something like, the lesson of history is that man learns nothing from history (what a card), he (reportedly) said something I found useful. Paraphrased, for my use, it goes something like: You can't achieve a goal by doing the goal. I ruminated on this for a bit. Could it be I was trying to fix my horse's canter with the wrong approach? Next time I saddled up, I brought along my powers of observation. Within my fumbling around I noticed my horse's balance, straightness, and acknowledgement of each of my aids. When I addressed each of these items at the walk, and saw that my horse understood what I expected, the canter transformed.


Hegel was right. You CAN fix the canter by improving the walk.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Pay Attention

The arena where I ride has a magnificent view of Mt. Pilchuck. On days like today, when the sky is misty and a few clouds flirt with the summit, it looks enchanted. The forest between me and the mountain appears uninterrupted, inviting. It appeals to the romantic adventurer in my soul, despite the fact that to make a hike through the woods to the summit I know I'd have to hack through the underbrush, ford streams and rivers, and climb impossibly steep, rocky inclines. Dreaming about it is definitely better.

Closer by is Rocky, Eddie's friend, who enjoys being a horse and
has an active imagination. Apropos of nothing, he will scamper around, buck magnificently then look around to see who noticed. Eddie doesn't care. He sees him do that stuff every day for hours and hours. Besides, he's--not so secretly--more impressed with himself. I enjoy watching, though. Rocky is good for a laugh or two. He's such a happy horse.

And then there's the feather that's been lying in the arena for the past few days.

I think it came from a hawk, and I keep meaning to pick it up. Not sure why--it's just cool.

And, oh yes, riding. Which is why I'm sitting on Eddie's back. He'd probably rather
be eating treats over the fence, but we have a clinic to prepare for.

If I don't make an effort and come to the party, I'll not only fail to make progress, I'll regress. I know full well if one doesn't pay attention when one rides all sorts of little things creep in to sabotage one's efforts--a little "crooked" becomes a bigger "crooked," a little "on the forehand" becomes a sincere balance issue with the horse leaning on one's hands. Even when one is concentrating, small issues will slip under the radar until they grow into large, ugly problems.

It's no good beating myself up over it. Since I ride without constant supervision I have to expect it. No, that doesn't mean I get to stop trying. If I stopped trying, stopped paying attention, I'd miss the sheer bliss of those moments when it all comes together, the joy that rockets my attitude into the stratosphere, and makes every cell in my body understand why I ride dressage.

And I'd probably appreciate that view of Mt. Pilchuck, Rocky's antics, and random feathers a little less. What a shame that would be.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Small Expectations, Secret Handshakes, and Magic

Tell me it doesn't frost you to have your instructor, or clinician, or anyone else get on your "Old Pokey" and viola! He transforms into a heart-achingly stunning dressage horse. Tell me you don't long for that level of skill, talent, or whatever magic they possess. Tell me you won't lay awake nights fantasizing about it.

Why is it that without the expert seeming to do anything at all the very thing you thought impossible happens?


And training.

Well, duh. We all know in order to understand the nuances of horse body language, one needs training and experience. The horse has to understand what an aid means and the rider has to be able to be consistent in the application of that aid, as well as the ability to interpret the horse's response.

And, of course, know the secret handshake.

So does the expert know more aids than you? Is that the "secret handshake"? Probably not. What they know is what to expect when a small aid is applied. A really small aid. The kind of small aid that comes from thinking and breathing, from knowing the subtleties of "feel," from knowing the importance of knowing the expected answer to a small request. And that is hard. Really hard. That kind of awareness can only be born through diligent trying, enduring the frustration of failing, and trying again--staying ever-alert for each small flash of ah-ha.

If we try not to make it all happen at once, the horse can become the teacher. He will show us his understanding, and then we can proceed according to that specific understanding, without losing sight of what we want. To lead, to teach, we must look forward and back and inside--simultaneously.

Yeah, it seems ponderous, and there are times when it seems like it would be so much faster to force the issue. But learning to communicate is difficult, and happens in small steps when the parties involved listen to each other. Even if you're the one who has to start listening first. Even if you're the one who has to stay faithful to the small expectations.

That's the secret handshake. And at some point someone will tell you you're magic, and you'll smile and tell them not to give up. The magic takes a while to learn.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

You'll go where you're looking.

The first time I butted heads with this lesson was when I was a teenager and trail riding with a friend. Part of the trail ran alongside a road, and on the shoulder was a discarded pop can. I didn't want my horse to step on it, so I kept my eye on the thing, trying with all my might to move my horse away from it. Sure enough, we kicked the can. The incident dismayed me enough to stick with me these many years. At the time I couldn't understand what happened. I was a good rider, I used the right aids to move my horse to the side, yet the very thing I was hoping to avoid happened. What went wrong?

It was a little while before I really understood what is essentially a maxim for all riders. Hunter and jumper riders know well the saying, "throw your heart over the fence and the horse will follow." When I was jumping I kept that in mind, since I knew if I looked at the ground in front of the fence I would end up laying on it.

It's a physical thing. We've been balancing on our two feet for a number of years by now, and don't give it much conscious thought. We look in the direction we intend to go and shift our balance accordingly. When we ride, that shift affects the horse's balance far more dramatically due to our center of gravity being higher than the horse's.

Funny that an action as innocuous as looking at something can set your course with such certainty. And you know what? I've learned more magical things about direction of gaze, too. I've learned that if something is scary, you're far better off if you concentrate your vision on where you're intending on going than the terrifying object. I've learned if you stop looking, you lose track of what's happening to your horse, and that starts a snowball of frustration rolling down hill.

I've learned to apply this little technique to the aspects of my life that are separate from what I try to accomplish in the saddle. It goes hand in hand with having a goal--kind of like a support technique. You just have to be careful to look where you want to go, because you'll surely go where you look.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Micromanaging is counterproductive

I knew that. But the concept has real-time, instant-feedback, failure-rate statistics from the back of a horse.

How? Look at it from the horse's point of view. If there's somebody sitting on your back fiddling around all the time how the heck are you supposed to know when you're doing the right thing? The answer is, of course, you don't know. Count on two things happening: One, all the fiddling becomes meaningless noise and two, since you never know if what you're doing is right, you're not going to trust the monkey on your back as far as you can throw her.

Some horses will get really cranky in this situation, others get dull, and others become nervous wrecks...uh, sound like people?

Ever work for somebody who micromanages? Live with somebody who does it? Been somebody who does it? Yikes...haven't we all? So, what's the solution?

Do less.

"Do less"? Hey, there are mistakes going on here. I'm supposed to let all that wrong stuff go uncorrected? That doesn't make sense. If I just ignore what's going on how do I get that [fill in the blank] right?

"Doing less" means quit trying to do the job you set up for the horse. Quit holding the horse slow with the reins, quit kicking that inside hind-leg into engagement every stride, quit doing the horse's job. Let him make a mistake. Then correct the mistake, showing him what needs to be done--a "do it this way," correction. The punitive kind of correction only makes the horse afraid to try. Communication is clearer when you show what's expected, keep your expectations reasonable, and then back off. Let the horse do what you asked, and stay aware in case you're needed.

Just like real life with people.

Sure it takes practice...more practice to allow the mistake to happen than it does to stop making them, if truth be told. It's harder to learn not to micromanage than it is to learn a task. This is where the horse is the teacher. Where the student is the teacher. Where the teacher learns to teach.

There you have it. Problem solving, in instant feedback form, from the back of a horse.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Go loses much of its appeal when you can't stop

It's true. But one of the reasons I ride is the sheer joy of being able to cover ground in the swift and athletic manner that is only possible from the back of a horse. Nothing compares to the euphoria of flying along a beach at a dead gallop, the surge of powerful muscles rocketing you forward, the sheer elation in soaring over a five foot oxer, the athleticism of the dance-like sweep of the canter half-pass, until...your life flashes before your eyes as you realize you have no say-so over speed and direction. It's terror on a primitive scale when you know your survival is in sincere jeopardy.

It occurred to me, upon reflection from the safety of my office chair, that the horse isn't particularly happy in those moments, either. He's lost harmony with his closest herd member--me, the rider--and one thing a horse wants is to get along with the herd. It's that survival thing again. The reasons for this unhappy situation can be myriad. That's not the point. The point is, we've gone from a place where we're all having fun, to a point where none of us are. We're each solely concerned with--that's right--our own survival.

It's a lot like life. There is joy and freedom when Go and Stop are both options, and when none of the participants are in survival mode. When we keep an eye out for each other, and stay sensitive to loss of balance, Go is bliss.