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.