Friday, November 18, 2011

The Importance of Nothing

Much of our attention when we ride is focused on What To Do to produce the desired result. It occurred to me the other day -- and it always seems like I get these revelations after riding in a clinic with Henrik Johansen -- that much of our time in the saddle should be spent doing nothing.

What? Slouch along like a sack of potatoes? Snooze in the saddle?

No, of course not. I don't mean you, the rider, shouldn't care about what the horse is or isn't doing. "Doing Nothing" means you let him do what he needs to do, give him the responsibility to carry out his part of the task without nagging -- or, as I sometimes think of it, "helping."

Henrik pointed out that when I used continual aids Fable (yes, that "Fable" -- Eddie isn't ready to go back to the work a clinic requires yet) became somewhat sullen and resistent. He also pointed out that when I simply rode in balance and with my plan in mind Fable relaxed and showed the true beauty of his gaits.

Now here's the important part.

At no time was I overtly, much less strongly, driving the horse forward. Of course I was trying to do the exercises Henrik was asking of us, and of course I wanted to be perfect. However, what I wasn't doing was the "Nothing" that not only gave Fable the opportunity to show me he could do his job, but also told him I approved of and trusted him.

I lacked the pure "Nothing" that allowed Fable to shine his brightest.

Think of it this way: Look at a painting of say, a horse. The horse is defined by the lines and brush strokes that depict its body, limbs, neck, etc. But it's also defined by the space around it -- the empty space. Empty space plays an important role, but it is space you don't notice because it doesn't intrude. If there's something wrong with the empty space, it muddies the painting.

Don't believe me? Take a look at some "camouflage" art. Bev Doolittle's paintings are a particular favorite of mine. She hides people and animals in the negative space of her paintings. I went to a talk she gave once, years and years ago, and remember clearly how impressed I was at the complex process, the layers and layers of planning she went through to create a single painting.

That "Empty Space" isn't ever as empty as it seems. It serves a purpose and takes training to get right.

I can't help but notice how much time I spend every day filling space with activity. Less frantic "doing" and more purposeful "quiet" to allow the important things to shine through might be a good life lesson. And likely as difficult to accomplish out of the saddle as in it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

You Can't Make Me

I've had "Fable," a dark bay Holsteiner gelding, in training for a number years. I adore him. He's a handsome fellow with more than a couple of interesting quirks.
Fable -  busy thinking

Let me be very clear that the very first time I met him he oozed attitude. It was a while ago, so I'd be lying if I said I saw something more noble under that sullen and disrespectful demeanor. However, I know myself well enough to say that I must have. I like a challenge, but I'm no fool. I want at least a flicker of hope that I'll succeed before I start a project. Otherwise, why bother? And frankly, with a horse, why put yourself at such physical risk?

Since that first meeting, Fable has taught me well.

He has taught me that cooperation requires respect from both parties.

His "you can't make me" attitude has shown me that "yes, I can" must not only be accompanied by firmness, but also a willingness to change an approach when no progress is noted, coupled with a dogged determination to focus on the clarity of the goal.

He has taught me not to let a moment of disagreement dissolve into a fight where the focus becomes the fight.

No one wins in that situation.

So, what has been the outcome? Has he abandoned his attitude, donned the mantle of submission? Transformed into a shining example of cooperation?

Well … not exactly.

He's lost the sullenness, but he's retained his opinionated personality. Sure, his first reaction is still to argue when he doesn't understand a request, but the arguments are brief (far less explosive) and simply a way of communicating that he is unclear. He knows I'm listening to him -- no need to wage a war.

And here's the really cool thing: Once he understands, he not only does what he's asked, but improves with each repetition. I call that, "generosity." I'd never have known he possessed that quality of spirit when we first met.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Silver Bullets

Last week Eddie's vet came out to see him and check on his progress. He took some x-rays and found out Eddie damaged another joint in his lower leg -- the pastern joint -- when he fractured the coffin bone. The fracture has healed well, but there is arthritis in the pastern joint. Not a good situation. Allowed to progress, it could make him permanently lame. The course of treatment involved injecting both the coffin joint and the pastern joint with steroids. The injections aren't a silver bullet -- Eddie isn't magically (or chemically) healed, but they help limit or arrest the progress of the arthritis.

The good news is that rehab is continuing. We've been allowed to trot -- in a very restricted way -- and although there's some limping in the turns to the left, he seems to be improving bit by bit. We are proceeding very conservatively since, as Eddie's vet says, he's being asked to use parts of his body he hasn't used in about a year.

The rest of the good news is that Eddie is very pleased. He's delighted to show me how good he can be.

However, we still have a long way to go, and the ultimate outcome is still up for grabs.

Isn't that the way progress is usually made? Step-by-step persistence, even when the road looks unbearably long and rough. It's like Woody Allen's famous statement, "80% of success is just showing up." The other 20% is willingness to follow instruction and advice, talent, acquired skill, help from others, and anything else that makes up the mix of what is required to achieve your goal.

Regardless of the goal -- whether it be horse-rehab, writing my next book, or weeding the garden -- I need to remember not to put more mental emphasis on the 20% than the 80%.

I will keep showing up.

I will not quit before I reach my goal.

It's pretty obvious Eddie plans on showing up, too.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Riding Eddie

It's been about a month since the vet told me Eddie could be ridden -- at the walk only, and for a few minutes at a time. I'd been gazing longingly at that strong back since I'd been allowed to hand walk him and wondering if and when I'd be permitted up there. I have to admit, I intended to blog about the experience when it happened but, as most writers know, when emotion hits you it's a little hard to share the experience in any reasonably coherent manner right off the bat.

My husband went to the barn with me, camera in hand. The barn owner, my friend Stacey, was in attendance as well. I'm pretty certain both of them were a little worried about how Eddie might react when I swung a leg over his back. After all, the last time I rode him was October 2010. Even the vet warned me not to get bucked off.

Reins in hand, I stepped into the stirrup from the mounting block, settled into the saddle and … Eddie moved forward as if the confinement of the last nine months had never happened, as if he'd had his usual work-out yesterday, as if he expected me there on his back. He went to work, striding forward solid and strong.

We made it three quarters of the way around the arena before I started to cry.

Even my husband forgot to take pictures.

Next week we may be permitted to trot. I'm fairly certain I won't be crying, but I sure as heck will be grinning.

Here's a picture from a year ago

"I am strong when I am on your shoulders. You raise me up to more than I can be." 
--Brendan Graham, Rolf Lovland

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Eddie Report

I've held off a bit reporting on Eddie's progress in recovering from the fracture he incurred last October because, well, I've been afraid to jinx things. I know, I know. It's silly of me, but I just couldn't help myself. When something is touching-my-soul important I hold my mental breath until I'm very very sure I'm not wishful thinking or jumping to celebrate too soon.

So far, right this very minute, he's doing just GREAT! Walking down hill produces some awkward steps, but if I ask him to stop and take a minute to re-group, he can continue with a good open stride. Progress is being made!

He's been thrilled to get out, too -- and been remarkably well behaved. Sure, he's had a light dose of sedative, but just enough to take the crazy-happy dance edge off. He marches right along, alert and smiling.

I know we've only walked for a week now, and are a long ways away from saddling up, not to mention trotting or cantering, but this is progress. And it feels like that terrible gray cloud that's been following me around has lifted.

Thanks to each and every one of you for your good wishes, kind words, and heartfelt prayers. Eddie is on the home stretch!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Leaning into Joy

I heard a phrase the other day that pulled up such a mental picture that I haven't been able to forget it.

"Lean into Joy" is what the woman said.

The very first thing I thought about was how Eddie leans into a good back-scratch (what we humans call "grooming"). His neck extends, his eyes close, and that upper lip stretches and wiggles like he's returning the favor. When I get to a spot he especially likes, he leans all of his 1200 pounds into the curry comb. He's been known to stagger with the shift in balance. I'm surprised he hasn't fallen down.

What do I do? I do just exactly what every other horse owner does -- I scratch him harder and laugh. I love to see him so blissed out.

That got me to thinking. Do I do that? When something great happens, do I embrace it and, well, lean into it? I used to -- when I was much younger.

I think as we get older we know there's another shoe that is going to drop. It's tough being disappointed, and we try to protect ourselves from it.

But there's something else, too.

Sometimes the good stuff that happens to us is at the same time something not so wonderful happens to the people we care about -- friends, family. Sometimes we get singled out for happiness while other folks have to watch. Personally, I hate to rub other people's noses in my good fortune, but by the same token, just like Eddie's bliss at a good back scratch, I have to remember that the joy of my friends and family lifts my heart. I want to happy dance right along with them.

They need that gift of joy from me, too.

Happy Mother's Day to all. Share the joy -- it makes it that much better.

"Those who joy would win --
Must share it. Happiness was born a twin"
                                        --  George Gordon Noel Byron

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Becoming Brave

Riders are brave people, and not just for climbing on top of an animal that can easily weight 10 times what a human tips the scale at, has a mind of its own and is (potentially) afraid of everything. Riders are brave because the very things that are intuitively the correct means of saving one's ass must be abandoned for the things that are intuitively the last thing one would expect to do and stay alive.

For example; when we humans are on something that is moving and we get scared, we tend to hunch forward and crouch making ourselves smaller and closer to the moving object. If we're straddling something, we grab it with our legs and try to anchor our hands on something solid.

Do that on a horse and you're taking the short way to the ground. Guaranteed.

Therefore, we school ourselves to sit tall, push our chests out, lengthen our legs without gripping, and not drag on the reins like they were our last hope.

Then, as if that weren't enough, we have to learn that when a horse seems out of control we must make him respond to our driving aids. In other words, we must kick him forward. To own a horse's mind, one must own his butt.

None of this is stuff makes much sense, initially. We must listen to instructors and trust in their knowledge and experience. And we must swallow down what we desperately want to do and replace it with something we are sure will kill us. It takes and equal measure of guts and a deep faith that someone else has already figured out how to do this to make ourselves even try.

And don't think this happens over night. There are setback and frustrations when the "right" thing doesn't seem to come close to working. Through all the mistakes, however, we make progress.

Much of what we face in life is the same way. We must gather our courage, have faith in someone else's knowledge, and try and fail repeatedly in order to make progress.

What "horse" are you trying to ride? What knee-jerk "truths" have you found to be exactly the opposite of what you need? What leap of faith have you made in trusting someone else's knowledge?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Faking it

We've had some nasty weather lately. Who hasn't, right? But here in the Northwest, we're never prepared for it. Yeah, it rains -- we get that. But snow … now that's something you'd think we'd never seen before. Generally, it doesn't stick around long. Including lately.

However, there was some left and it was still pretty chilly the other day when I was teaching. Our arena has a roof, but is open on the sides. I like it. Even when the weather is bad we stay fairly well protected. But, the horses can tend to get a little "looky" when things change outside of the arena. With the cold air and patches of white snow here and there my student's horse was -- well, let's call him a little "fresh." My student was feeling a little nervous about riding him, but she's a good rider with a good position and I knew if she got her mind in the right place she could handle her horse just fine.

Horses sense tension in those near them. When you sit on their backs and pick up the reins you can easily transmit tension through your seat, legs, and hands. When the rider is tense, the horse will reflect that and become tense as well.

The solution is not to slump in a casual position, or throw the reins away, but to give the horse a job to focus on, and to be very careful to make your body operate with the same fluid movement you have when you're relaxed.

In other words, fake your confidence.

It worked perfectly, I'm happy to say. My student was able to fool her horse into thinking there was nothing more interesting than the job they were doing together. It took a lot of concentration on her part to be aware of just how and when tension would sneak in to her position, but we worked it through. She got a better handle on faking it. And the really great thing was that she conquered her nerves and found a level of confidence that was not bravado. A level she could access when she needed it. All by pretending.

It's a lesson we can all carry in to those situations where we feel less than equal to the challenge. Don't bluster, or adopt an opposite attitude, but go forward as if you knew what you were doing, being aware of your equilibrium, the nuances of your expression and posture. Fake it until you make it.

It's true. It works.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


What month is this? February? Must be. It was just Valentine's Day. Eddie's been convalescing for four months now. It seems like forever. Considering that he's the one cooped up day after day, you'd think he'd be going a bit nuts -- but he's not. He's the same reasonable guy he always is. He's like a horse-Buddha.

Put a furry winter coat on him, and this is still Eddie's expression after 4 month on stall rest.
I'm not as patient or as accepting of the status quo as he is. I tend toward impatience, or at least a certain single-mindedness. Does the laundry need to be done? Do it! Hungry? Eat! A report due next week? Do it now! And yet….

Life rarely affords one the luxury of being that efficient. Extenuating circumstances seems to pop up everywhere. There are times, more frequent than I care to admit, where my to-do list grows to such proportions that it threatens to topple over and bury me. And all because of those danged extenuating circumstances. They're beyond my control, yet they control me to a degree, and that causes me to fret. I think I need to take a page from Eddie-Buddha and expend my energy more wisely.

It is what it is.

Do that which you can do.

Live wisely in the present.

Thanks, Eddie. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Getting Sidetracked

I'm back! And my apologies for being out of touch. There's been lots going on and only so many hours in the day (although I've petitioned for more, my request seems to have gotten lost somewhere. Go figure). It's been a mix of stuff, too, some happy and some not so happy.

Fable -- deep in concentration
Thank you all for your kind words about the loss of RB. His stablemate Fable is adjusting and has become even more fond of hanging out with the humans. RB's owner has been looking for another companion of the equine variety, and I'm sure one will turn up soon.

The color-coordinated section of our Peaceable Kingdom
Jasmine (who passed last year), Tal, and Eclaire

My own old kitty, Tal, passed on to the rainbow bridge last month, too. He was another senior citizen who led a full life. Although we are now cat-less, we still have the bunny and bird, and of course Eddie.

Eddie -- without his winter coat
Eddie is still on stall rest, but is doing well. He continues to be an excellent patient, and the last time his vet took x-rays he said the fracture was healing beautifully. There's every chance he will recover and be able to go back to the dressage work we both love so much. He's now sporting a special shoe instead of a cast, and the places on his heals where the cast rubbed have also healed -- thanks in large part to Stacey, the stable's owner and my good friend.

On the writing front, Death By A Dark Horse, has been doing well, and it made Amazon's Hot New Release List for both mysteries and women sleuths! That was a thrill! The list is updated hourly and it hung in on those list for well over a week!

The Blog Tour de Force in January was a huge success as well as a lot of fun. It was work, and a bit confusing at times (from my end, anyway), but well worth it. I'm sure there are more than a couple new readers here who found their way from that tour. Welcome, to all of you!

The second in my mystery series, Levels Of Deception will be out in e-book form this month. Phew! Edits are still being worked on, but I see light at the end of the tunnel. It's a longer book than DBADH, and takes place not only in Western Washington, but Montana, too. Stolen dinosaur fossils are the focus in this story, in addition to a murder -- all of which Thea must solve. For those of you who are Blackie fans, don't worry. He's there, too!

So, what have my horses taught me to deal with this flurry of activity (you knew I was going here, right?)? Mostly, that no matter how orderly you strive to make your life, the unplanned and the unexpected will arise. In those times of need, if you pause for a moment to scratch someone else's back when they need it, you'll find they return the favor.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

RB - 1985 to 2011

Yesterday, January 17, 2011, a long-time and very dear friend of mine passed away. RB was an Appaloosa gelding, and for almost his whole life belonged to my friend Cheryl. He was just two days shy of 26 -- a long life for a horse.

Although he'd been retired for several years, RB was always in the center of social activity. He never failed to greet me -- or anyone else -- when arriving at his barn. He continued to boss around his best horse-friend, demand treats and attention from the humans, and issue orders. It was impossible to ignore RB and equally impossible not to be taken in by his outgoing personality.

Although he could be a challenge, requiring his rider to stay alert and be a strong leader, he was talented and athletic. He had a cadence to his trot that was both lovely to watch and sit, and he excelled at lateral work. Dressage suited him, keeping his intelligent mind busy and focused.

I will miss his bright eyes and loud, friendly whinny, but I believe he is romping in green pastures now with my own Tiki and Brinn.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

It's The Little Things...

Training is often a process of breaking a goal down into its essential pieces. What is required of me, as the trainer, is that I understand the steps my horse needs in order to accomplish what I'm asking. The steps are basic, even simple. If they can be done correctly and in proper order then my horse can accomplish the goal I have set down for him. It also helps if my horse is rewarded for those steps. He stands a better chance of understanding them, and therefore repeating them, if there's something in it for him.

When Eddie was a youngster I learned very quickly the value of bribery. Punishment didn't work with him -- he'd just leave. In fact, it wasn't only punishment that would have him exiting stage right. He'd cooperate with me so long as it amused him, or interested him, but once something else seemed like more fun I'd be a bit hard pressed to change his mind.

What I learned from my intelligent, independent horse was to reward all the little steps toward the goal, and not wait until we had a difference of opinion about something. What happened wasn't a spoiled horse, it was a horse who gradually understood it was more fun to be with me than not. He learned to go where he was led, stand when being groomed and behave himself when being ridden. In short, he's become a pleasant, reliable companion -- a quality that can't be overemphasized in a 1300 pound animal.

Of course, not every horse needs Eddie's level of coercion. Most don't. But I was thinking along these lines the other day when I set myself up with the goal of cleaning my kitchen. If you've been following this blog at all, you have a good idea where I'm going with this: I can relate everything in life to training horses (it's a gift, I know). Even cleaning the kitchen. It had reached a state of disaster due to me being involved in too many other things and nobody else seeming to care. If it was going to be cleaned, I was going to have to do it, and quite frankly running away seemed like a good option. I was that overwhelmed. Until…yup, I broke it down into its basic, essential parts. Since I really didn't want to gain back the poundage I have managed to lose lately by eating cookies each time I accomplished one item, I wrote it down.

Wipe down the counters?
Clean under the burners?
Mop the floor?

And so it went. I wrote down every little, trivial thing. By the time I was done, not only was the kitchen clean, but the list I'd compiled gave me a very satisfactory feeling of accomplishment -- as I was doing it.

It's the little rewards that help along the way…for people as well as horses.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Remind me again....?

Horses have great memories. They remember places, people, training, where the food is kept, you name it. And they remember for a whole lot longer than we do -- or so it seems.

Years ago I owned a gelding and a mare who were stabled together until a significant injury had me move the gelding to a barn where he could rehab and possibly retire. Two years of pasture rest seemed to do the trick -- he recovered. I moved him to the new stable I was working out of to put him back to work. The first day I led him out to his new paddock we passed one of my students leading my mare to the barn. Both horses stopped and did a double take. Disney couldn't have done a better job. It was not only obvious they recognized each other, but that they were pleased to see each other, too.

In his younger days, Eddie proved to me multiple times that once he figured out how to work a latch, he'd do it again -- immediately. He kept me on my toes trying to come up with stall and pasture latches he couldn't undo.

When not being entertained by it, I use this great memory of theirs in training. It's part of the communication ground rules: when I do this, you do that. The trick is to be consistent. I know I'm muddling things up when I'm not getting the same response from the horse.

I'm actually envious of that great memory. I could use it sometimes…like when I misplace my keys. Hmm…maybe if I was more consistent with my own habits….