Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How to Tie Your Shoes

  This couldn't have come along at a better time, and not just because I'm starting to fray around the edges and shoe-tying is among the first skills to decline (or so I'm told).  I happened on this video as I was also listening to Healing Shine: A Spiritual Assignment  by Michael Johnson, my new favorite horse writer.  If you're a horse person and haven't read or heard anything by Michael Johnson, well...shame on you!  You're really missing a good bet for getting some sage advice for the price of a book (audio, in my case) that might change your approach to horses for good.

Anyway,  I was listening to Johnson talk about working through his issues with his roping horse, Shine, and of course I found it appealing both on a general horse-lover basis and because so much of it applies to my own trials with Zips Meal Service over the past five years.  You don't need to be hooked on a screwy, too-smart horse to appreciate his cowboy stories, but it sure helps. 

This morning I got to the part where he's hearing voices in his head--the author, that is (we don't know what the horse has going on under that forelock, now, do we?)--and realizing that what everyone has been telling him ever since he left the wing-cover of his old-time, "knock 'em down and teach 'em respect" uncles is that there's only one thing a horse needs.  That's you.  He needs you to listen, to understand, and to not expect miracles unless you've installed the Miracle 2.0 app on your iPhone.  They sure won't happen in the roping pen or the show ring or the cross-country course. 

I'm not going to spoil the book for you if you haven't yet read it (GO! NOW!  ORDERING INFO HERE!).  It's the kind of stuff that makes you want to whisper, "Tell me more, Pa.  Tell me another story" as the lights go out and you cuddle into your bed, and I wouldn't ruin that for the world.  But I will say that what Mr. Johnson has in common with the video above is that he vividly makes the point that the simplest thing can often be best done in a way different from the way you've always done it.  I have a t-shirt that says, "Just because we've always done it that way doesn't mean it isn't incredibly stupid".  Like the day my daughter watched me hauling water buckets to dump and slopping yucky horse-snot water all over my jeans and said, "Why don't you just put it in the muck cart like Cindy does?"


Or the day (mind you, I'm 50 years into this project) it occurred to me that if I wrote the name of the horse and the dose on the lid of each supplement container on the shelf, there would be fewer screw-ups.  Or the day I realized I wouldn't have to take the medication jars under the light and use a magnifier to see the expiration date if I just wrote it on the jars in big magic marker numbers as I bought them.  Or the day I thought, "Gee...Zip might be less likely to nip Pinky on the butt if the shoer did Pinky's trim in his stall out of harm's way."

Duh and DUH!

So maybe next time you go out to mess with your horse (or dog, or child, or other training project) you'll think about how to tie your shoe the right way, and maybe you'll have one of those flashes of brilliance that leave you grinning for an hour because it was such a simple thing and it made such a huge difference. 

PS:  I got the audiobook from the Hoofprints catalog.  Patronize my friend Gina.  She's nice, and it's such a simple thing. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Equestrian Snob Needs a Clue

Mike Rowe of 'Dirty Jobs' wants to promote blue collar work - May. 18, 2011

 don't know that Mike Rowe would make a great President, but he would definitely be high on my list for several other positions currently inhabited by useless oxygen suckers.

It's been bothering me a lot lately, but it wasn't till I read the interview linked above that I could put a name to it.  When did we horse people--muck-stained and foul-mouthed as we tend to be--start looking down our noses at blue-collar horses and the professionals and skilled workers whocare for our equines?  It seems as if somewhere around 1983 we moved from everyone wanting to be a cowboy and just hang out on the prairie spitting tobacco with a horse friend, to everyone wanting Olympic gold and the horses that can bring it home.  Years ago I came across a cartoon that showed two little English-helmeted girls aboard ponies.  One said to the other, "I'm going to be a lawyer when I grow up so I can have a horse."

Nowhere is the split between the white- and blue-collar ends of the horse world more evident than in the way horses are being dumped on the market and the way farriers, vets, bedding and footing guys, barn contractors and the rest of the support team are treated by the owners who couldn't tighten a clinch or build a saddle or a stall if their lives depended on it.  When did those infinitely more necessary people and horses become unworthy of polite treatment and respect by the soft hands that write the checks?

Once upon a time, my lovely daughter told me that she didn't need to pay the big bucks for an AAA membership because her fiance drove a Mercedes and people with Mercedes also had cell phones.  My response, "And who do those people with the Mercedes and the cell phones call when they get a flat?  Mommy, because she's got AAA?"  She signed up soon after.  But that was a telling shift in the social environment.

Mike Rowe makes a statement at the end of the interview that should resonate across the horse world and beyond.  He says, "You've got a lot of very, very smart people standing by waiting for somebody else to do the work. Not a recipe for long-term solvency in my opinion."   Not a recipe for long-term success, either.  There you are sitting in your suit in your office at your job with all its benefits and upward mobility and Vente Lattes delivered on cue, and what's the point?  The point is to be able to afford to pay your mechanic, plumber, contractor, shoer, vet, hay farmer, feed store owner, boarding farm manager, delivery truck drivers, long-haul truckers and all the other working stiffs who make your life, equestrian and otherwise, possible.  Think about it, and wonder what would happen if they all pulled the plug on you.  The richest guy in the world can't find his alligator shoes if the lights won't go on because the electrician opted to play golf instead of finishing the wiring for someone who can't be bothered to pay the bill on time.  And that Maserati won't run with a blown head gasket and no one handy who's familiar with the functional end of a wrench.

In the end, we're all working for the blue-collar worker and the unheralded equine professional.  The richer we are, the more people we keep in our blue-collar stable.

So maybe Mike Rowe's got it right.  It's time for a paradigm shift in this country back to respect for the folks who make it all hum.  Let's have a "Hug Your Plumber" day.  Send a note of thanks to the vet who showed up on a snowy Sunday night because you couldn't flush out your horse's impacted innards on your own, and make a promise to never let things get that far out of hand again.  How about a word for the shoer you never saw before who did a quick tack-on for you at a show?  Did you even bother to get his name?  I occasionally get calls pandering for donations or asking for financial advice, but those callers' voices don't have the panicked, shattered-glass tone of the ones who call my partner, Mechanic Cliff, because their truck or tractor or trailer or whatever is dead in the water.  That's where the real power lies.

And let's take it another step into the barn and stop criticizing owners whose horses are nothing special on the Flash Scale but who haul their owners happily around the trails and let them have the experience of being a little closer to nature.  Let's save that critique for the shiny-booted fools who can't properly groom or tack up a horse, but who can hop aboard and bring home the blue with a sneer and a golf wave.  Let's question why there are so very, very many breeding programs still going full-bore, all in search of the perfect genetic outcome when in reality what we need is sound, solid, well-trained horses that won't hurt themselves or anyone else and will bring as much utility and joy to their situations as any high-end import, and maybe more.

My soapbox is getting creaky, so I'm going to go out and thank my barn hand for putting tires around the new sink hole that opened up in the barnyard so the horses won't be needing the vet today.  Then I'm going to sit and think for a bit about how we've complicated our lives to the point where only doctors and lawyers, bankers and corporate mucky-mucks deserve our respect and how they're able to steal from us with impunity because the stars in our eyes are blocking our view of reality.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Repairing Your Horse's Turboencapulator

Personally, he had me at the announcement of the next presentation on repair and replacement of your car's cigarette lighter and ashtray.

My first thought on watching this--after I stopped snorting yoghurt out my nose--was that this guy sounds remarkably like a vet I used to use.  The guy spoke in tongues, I swear.  That would have been fine if the horses had been sound and healthy, but every visit left someone off, ouchy, lame, crotchety or otherwise indisposed to normal locomotion.  Just goes to show that if you know your stuff, little words don't make you know it any less.  And if you don't know it, big words aren't going to educate you.

That brings me to the horse training portion of this missive.  I recently had cause to watch a training video (the cause being I was awake, and watching training videos is second only to Law and Order reruns), and by the third such viewing I still had no grip at all on the jargon.  It was highly technical in that lexicographical convolution way that some people employ either because they really are that much smarter and more deeply steeped in the technical details and don't notice they've lapsed into conversational Latin, or because they are trying very hard to sound like they've reinvented the wheel in 3-D and Smell-O-Vision.  Fortunately it was a video, so I could turn off the sound and watch the illustrations, which were entirely comprehensible.  I mentally attached my own terms to the things I was seeing, and before long I really got the drift and was able to bring the theory to my Advisory Board in the lower pasture.  But the technical language, much as I love the way "equinesuperstenoticoverreachingsomatotyping" rolls off the tongue (don't bother; I made that up), is beyond most language majors let alone the average Jo Horse Person.

Do you feel foolish when you just don't get it?  When your dressage instructor gets testy because you haven't memorized the pyramid, do you cringe and vow to take up roller derby rather than face another embarrassing lesson?  Well, you're not alone.  I'm here today to ask--nay, beg--the PTB (Powers That Bitch) to please tone it down a notch.  You're not impressing us, and you're making learning more difficult than it needs to be.

When I was teaching high school English as an alternative language choice to teens whose vocab stopped at the four-letter-word/three-word-sentence column on the Fleisch-Kincaid Readability Scale, I learned early on that exercising my own vocabulary resulted in Shock and Awe and a lot of four-letter under-desk texting.  There wasn't a lot of transfer of knowledge afoot.  It wasn't until I started inserting the word "iguana" into every example that I got their attention and watched their test scores....okay, they didn't really soar so much as float slowly upward.  But at least it was up, not down.

Linnea making it real by removing my leg from its socket.
If you are an instructor, trainer, or producer of how-to vids for riders and owners, KISS, okay?  Keeping the concepts simple is one thing, but making the language comprehensible is a much bigger one.  It would appear that everyone wants to be a Famous Something with a Memorable Catch Phrase (like "Pogo Up" or "Light His Tail"--yes, I made that up, too) and there's little concern over the efficiency with which the theories involved are being transmitted and absorbed.  Give us a break.  If the horse's nose needs to point to the rail, say that.  I don't want to hear words like "distal" when I'm focused on avoiding an unscheduled dismount over a jump.  I'm an idiot.  Treat me as such.  Respect me for my ability to be numb from the neck up.  It's my best thing.  Point.  Move things.  Get off your chair, unplug your microphone and retrieve the earbud I can't hear through anyway, and get out in the dirt and trot around so I can see what it's supposed to look like.

By the way--and this is not a plug (much)--Linnea Seaman does that very, very well, which is why I still have my suspenders after four years of only one or two lessons a year.  If she can do it, so can other trainers.

If you are a student/owner/horse lover/advocate, for pity's sake ask!  I may have rankled the instructor who expected me to intuit his meaning and who put his head in his hands and groaned when I "bisected the school" (WTF?) at the wrong spot, but my yelling, "I can't hear a word you're saying!  Can you speak up or come out here and show me where to go?" could not be ignored. It was all okay.  I outplaced him in my first-ever test, so there!  And I did that because I had on hand an adult child who could translate for me (granted, it was betweeen gritted, "oh, MOM!" teeth) so I could actually learn the exercises and practice them with flair and confidence.  Not everyone has one of those, so feel free to interrupt even the most elite of trainers and ask the questions you need to have answered until you get answers you understand.

I hate to think how many horses, how many riders, and how many horse-and-rider pairings have fallen by the wayside because ego got in the way of the open-hearted quest for knowledge.  Let's open the dialog and take it back to the level of the lovely Mrs. Fyfe who explained to my thirteen-year-old self that we "buff the saddle with our britches" when we canter.  In one sentence I had an image that has lasted a lifetime.  That's the ticket to success on both sides of the saddle.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Take Me Back To The Sixties...Please!

Take Me Back To The Sixties

Watching the video linked above is mandatory, especially for anyone under the age of 40.  As usual, I'll wait....

The photo on the left is me, circa June of 1963.  The horse's name I don't recall, so we'll call him Buttermilk.  That would have been a typical horse name in 1963 because Dale Evans was still Top Cowgirl.  Note the "hunt seat" style.  Note the ineffective helmet perched precariously on the back of my head.  Note the skirt-like flare of the jacket.  I was smokin'!  I won all my classes (all two of them, since parents weren't into paying big bucks for kids to show off their skill on school horses back then).  This was an open show, the only kind we had.  There were probably 100 competitors in the entire show, and it was one of the larger ones apart from the Garden State Horse Show that I wasn't allowed to compete in because my parents, for some bizarre reason, thought college was more important than showing off my instructor's horses. 

As this past weekend encompassed Mother's Day and all its attendant memories and the Kentucky Derby numbered 137 and all its attendant memories, I was forced to drift down Memory Lane for a look back at my riding history.  I was forced to think, at least once, "When did the fun stop?"

You're probably all giggling and thinking, "When you got old, b*tch!"  But you're wrong.  It stopped for me when all the rules started.  It stopped when horse kids took a passion and turned it into a lifestyle and an obsession that I couldn't afford.  It stopped when George Morris told us we had to wear $100 breeches for schooling or risk looking shabby in the eyes of....who?  Him?  I don't recall The George ever showing up to my lessons while I was having fun in my Wal Mart leggings and second-hand boots. 
By '64 I was considerably spiffier.

Sure, the helmet thing is a mega-plus.  But back in the day of little metal, velvet-covered pots with elastic bands holding them on our heads, I never suffered a concussion.  That's because I didn't have feisty horses and high expectations that caused me to overreach.  I rode horses that wouldn't hurt me and considered two feet an outstanding jumping effort. 

My point du jour, however, is not to whine about the state of the horse nation.  It's just to suggest that those of us old enough to have memories (and young enough to be sure they're actually ours) should occasionally dust them off and beleaguer our children with them.  Handle them gently, because they are truly priceless.  The cast-metal horses broke off the tarnished trophies years ago in one move or another, but the recollection of the horses in my life, the people who lived through those times with me, and the utter joy of breaching some personal roadblock will remain the guide for my future horse life, such as it will be.

The AQHA was founded in 1940.  The rest of the breed associations are far younger.  The USET goes back to 1912.  The USEF came along in 1917.  But until the Interwebs joined the public marketing plan around 1971, we peons were blissfully unaware of our failings.  In fact, as horse-crazy as I was as a kid, I knew far more about Alec Ramsey and his horse The Black than I did about the ruling organizations in my own sport, and I wonder now where those top riders came from.  They certainly didn't come from the ranks of my fellow horse kids.  I don't think I knew any of those athletes' names until the mid-70's.  I was too busy filling out "Name the filly" contest entries and dancing to my LP (monaural, please) of the Commanders, though I did stop to watch the Derby and the Olympics.  And I didn't get a grip on World Wide Webbing until I'd finally upgraded from a Pentium 75 that allowed plenty of time for bathroom breaks and lunch during chat replies.  That was in the 90's.  Mea culpa.

And that's when the Fun Left the Building.  I liked it better when I didn't know I was doing everything wrong.

So I'm going to spend the day happily reliving my ignorance while I can still remember it.  I hope you all had a fun weekend whether in Derby celebration, Mother's Day gratitude, or just hanging around.  Happy Horse Day!  

Monday, May 02, 2011

A Magic Pixie Eases the Messiness of Horses

"It's neither good nor bad; it just is."

his isn’t going to make sense unless you first watch (and listen to) the embedded lecture, so go do that now.  I’ll wait.

In case you missed it, let me repeat this part for you:  “You know that situation where you get an evaluation from your boss, and she tells you seventy-six things you do really awesome and one thing that’s an ‘opportunity for growth’?  And all you can think about is that ‘opportunity for growth’?”

Raise your hand if you feel a connection to that image.   Mine is scraping the ceiling.

Brene Brown, sociological genius and self-described “Researcher-Story-Teller”, has a bead on the human need for connection.  Where is that need more obvious than in our work with animals?  Okay, maybe in our work with children and maybe in our erratic and unstable love lives, but third on the list has to be our work with animals.  We are so desperate to be Animal Whisperers (which is worth 47 bonus points in our idiosyncrasy file), so defiant about our inability to know every thought and feel all the love we believe our animals are pouring on us, that we sometimes believe the connection has been made even when it hasn’t.

And then the “opportunity for growth” arrives, the moment when we see how we’ve screwed up, and we can’t think of anything else.  Wonderbud may look amazing to the outsider.  He may have perfect conformation, work on the ground and under saddle like the True Champeen we know he is, and he may be our bestest buddy ninety percent of the time.  But there’s that other ten percent isn’t there?  There’s that little glitch, that tiny hole in the fabric of his excellence that we just can’t turn our minds away from.  It grows and festers in our dreams.  It makes us feel embarrassed in front of our co-workers, even if they have no clue that we own a horse and have let him go on this issue to the detriment of his otherwise perfect horse-ness.  We blurt it out at inappropriate moments.

CO-WORKER:  So, I see that Suzette is getting promoted again!  I wonder who she slept with this time to make that happen.


CO-WORKER:  Uh, I need to go refill my stapler….

Thank goodness for the magic pixies in our midst!  Were it not for researcher-story-tellers like Bene Brown, we would not have a clue as to the source of our insanity.  She begins her lecture by pointing out that many people consider researchers a step below blowflies in their meaningful connection to daily life.  Horse people are no exception.  Memetics aside, many of us look askance at news about how our horses think, what makes them tick, what makes them horses in the entirety.  We turn up our noses, announce that our horse doesn’t do that, and off we go armed with the memes we’ve adopted, ignoring the ones we probably should pick up and carry along, and focused entirely on the one hitch in our giddyap, our missed connection with our horse  (NOTE:  replace “horse” with any other animate nominative and the sense will remain).

Meanwhile, back in the Wonderbud world, there’s an animal who feels exactly the same way!  He has worked hard, knows that you are fond of 90% of him and his abilities, but there’s that one thing that you keep harping on that has grown and festered and taken on massive proportions in his mind as well.  And he can’t do any more about it than you can for whatever reason.  He can’t cure it, and he can’t stop focusing on it because every friggin’ time you touch him you remind him that if he would just ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­______________________ (fill in your choice of behaviors of questionable value that you'd like him to perform or not perform), he would be the most perfect horse in the universe.

The irony is that he’s already the perfect Wonderbud.  Horses, like humans, are messy.  They have loose ends and frayed edges and frizzy brain hairs that get worse in the wind or under pressure on show day.  We’re messy, and so are our relationships.  So why do we think we can possibly unmess all of this, and what made that a priority anyway?  When you ask your best horse friend about her horse, does she immediately give you the details of his recent lameness or her unplanned horizontal footing inspection?  Do you sense the shame, the longing for perfection, and the sadness she feels at this little mess in her horse life?

We can make this better.  Brown defines shame as the fear of loss of connection.  It’s the “I’m not good enough for you to love me, be my friend, or even want to be in the same universe with me, and I don't know how I'll live without you” feeling of being vulnerable to loss.  So what is the opposite?  What are we to strive for?

It's certainly not total, unabashed love and respect flowing freely between us and our human friends and acquaintances (and total strangers in line at Super Shop, and that waitress at the diner, and boss's sixth cousin who probably knows all of our foibles because what else, after all, does the boss have to talk about at weddings and funerals?).  That ain't happening.  Buddhists aside, humans like hierarchies, competition, and pummeling others into a platform for our own aggrandizement.  What we have to remember is that we each live in a solitary world of our own devising.  No two human's worlds are alike, though they may overlap on the time-space continuum.  Your best friend in the world actually can't see you, can't see your world, and couldn't care less since s/he's got bigger personal fish to fry (like a horse whose ears she can't clip).

So it is with us and our horses.  Do we really believe that other people care whether or not we can get Moonrover to turn on a dime?  Oh, sure they’ll criticize us.  That’s how people make themselves feel better.  We self-soothe by beating down the competition so we stand out like that lone dandelion that has defied the mower blades.  But in the end, do we really care about the person we’re busy loathing, or are we only tuned into how we feel about ourselves?  Is whatever our equine bud is doing or not doing endangering our bodies or only our self-esteem?  What kind of vulnerability are we really feeling?

Check it out.  Be your own researcher.  Let the Magic Pixie in your head loose and listen as she describes to you what she’s seeing in your behavior.  Then look at your horse.  Do you really think he’s judging you?  Do you honestly believe he’s got an ulterior motive in his behavior or lack thereof?  Or is he just being his emotionally and psychically messy self, and can you just leave him to that? Can you muster the courage to do that?  Can you let your horse, your friends, the world at large, and yourself see who you really are, see your fear and your worry, and just be?  If Road Rash is about to knock your head off with his antics, that's one thing, but if you're more concerned that your friends won't like you because your horse won't do a canter pirouette, well.....

Give it a shot!  What have you got to lose?  Remember that horses don't behave well or badly, they just behave like horses.  We put the labels on the behaviors and the stress that goes with those labels.  Your horse will probably not take advantage of your show of vulnerability as much as he'll appreciate it.  Your magic pixie will still work at controlling and predicting, but maybe you won't have to worry so much about the mess she leaves behind.