Monday, December 30, 2013

New Year's Revolutions

Horse Bound: The View From the Top of Mount Manure

Planning to Make New Year’s Resolutions? Consider These Points | LinkedIn

So, what kind of resolver are you, and how does that impact on your horse life?  I admit to being a negative resolver more often than not.  "I swear I'll stop buying every pair of cute breeches that comes up on Tack of the Day!"  I make that one every year.  And there's one about not getting stuck at the computer doing things like this blog when I could be out riding.  That's habit bordering on OCD that is very hard to change.  At least now that I'm not teaching school anymore, I've lost the "only pee at 10:15 AM" thing, but it took two years.

This year my first resolve will be to make more positive promises to myself.  I've lectured and written endless words about how positive reinforcement works better than negative.  Negative isn't bad with humans, but with animals it's frustrating.  They get thwarted, poked, pushed, and yelled at for exhibiting random natural behaviors without knowing what it is you actually want because they don't speak human language no matter how loudly you yell, "Move over!"  Eventually, if you find a way to show them what you're looking for, they can connect the verbal cue to an action you're expecting and then the positive reinforcement in the form of petting and (more effective) cookies kicks in and the deal is sealed.

The other really important point in the linked article is that one really must start small.  If the goal is huge, then the first step will feel like nothing at all, and lack of a sense of accomplishment is a great way to start on the path to failure.  Cut the goal down to size, and you'll find small successes along the way to keep you going.  Your horse feels the same way.  If you start with the expectation that he's going to bounce happily around in a piaffe after 30 days with a trainer, then all of you are likely to be disappointed and the horse is going to find rewards few and far between.  If you can cut that down to "Okay, today we're going to take three steps in a collected frame without hysteria on either of our parts," then you've got a shot at massive success and a building block for the future.

So in an effort to make my resolutions into a revolution, this is my list:

  1. Add positives instead of deleting negatives.  
  2. Get rid of some of the detritus of former lives that's cluttering my current life, especially those lovely, expensive Ariat Volant half chaps that require about four more inches of lower leg length than I can ever hope to achieve and that can only be worn with the zipper and snap open at the top and flapping in the breeze despite 20 minutes with a pair of pliers and many bad words.
  3. Focus forward, but never hesitate to take a step back when necessary.
  4. Approach everything with a positive attitude, and if that doesn't work, buy  more gin.
That's it.  Only four resolves on my list this year, and only one that I'll probably follow through on.  Might as well start with honesty, huh?

Another important factor is accountability, and with that comes making the outcome measurable.  Generalized fluff like "I'll do better at the next lesson" won't work.  There's no marker for "better" that you can point to and check off on the list.  "I'll go through an entire lesson without crying,"on the other hand, is easily noted and ticked off...or not.  Only one of my resolves has that quality.  Those half chaps will disappear and I'll mark them off and feel good about myself for at least a minute if not the entire year.  I'm easy to please.  

The thing is that making resolutions is a two-edged sword.  On one edge, the act of facing our failures and considering a new approach builds confidence.  Having a plan is always better than not having one.  But on the other edge is the pressure we put on ourselves to meet our own expectations and the depression that sometimes follows when we don't.  

Does that mean it's unhealthy to make a list?  That depends on the individual.  If you're married to the list, spend a lot of time fretting when you screw up, or use the list as some sort of punishment for crimes past or future or to assuage your guilt, then it can be a very bad thing indeed.  Use it wisely as a general guideline, and it's healthy and meaningful.  

Perhaps the most positive thing about this whole New Year's resolution habit is that once a year we--consciously or otherwise--stop to consider our lives.  Even if you aren't buying into resolution selection as a worthy way to spend your time and focus, it still breezes over your brain because the topic is ubiquitous.  That little bit of contact is enough to give each of us a mindful moment, and that's never, never bad.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Waiting Game

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Grandin on Keeping Horses Calm During Handling |
Skip the holiday cookies.  You can give your horse the best gift he'll ever receive if you simply give him time.

Temple Grandin. The name alone evokes the mystery of the inner workings of our bestest animal buddies as this brilliant woman with two PhD's in animal behavior has given us breakthrough insights into how our horses (and many, many other species she has studied and researched) feel about what we do with them.  Not psychic readings; just keen observational skills applied by a brilliant mind with an inside track to animal thought processes due to her position at the severe end of the autism spectrum.

In this article, Grandin lists a neat bunch of suggestions that seem at first reading to be no-brainers, but if you watch horsemen and pay attention to your own behavior with your horses, you'll tip immediately to the fact that we're not all that smart.  We miss a lot.  As I said a few posts back, it's the details that make or break our efforts to relate to these intriguing monster pets.

There's one thing Grandin missed, however, that I'd like to add to her list.

  • Wait for it.

Yes, it's just that simple.  If you're going to ask your horse to do something, you have to wait for him to do it.  Doesn't that make perfect sense?  Sure.  Yet how many times have you watched someone around his horse yelling, pushing, poking, patting, squeaking, treating, brushing...all at the same time.  The result, almost invariably (unless the horse is my big-butted Appy, Dakota, who can tune out everything and focus his entire attention on a mouse in his stall) is a confused animal moving around erratically in an effort to accommodate all the commands he thinks he's receiving.

Ask, then wait.

Zip, at two years, learning clicker training.
Lauren, a former HS English student of mine,
learning about patience.

It might take just an instant if the horse is a very responsive animal.  If I tell my TB mare, Dolly, to "back", she's at the back of the stall before that last glottal stop has left my tongue.  Give the mini, Duke, the same cue, and he'll ask for a kiss first, then back up...unless I'm holding his dinner.  In that case, he's already as far to the back of the stall as he can get, head lowered, motionless, because someone (not I) taught him very well to have good table manners.  Dakota and Leo are never sure the command is meant for them, so they require a poke in the chest ("Yes, I'm talking to you.").

Zip, being Zip, waits.  Not one beat or two but three full beats.  His processor isn't as sharp as it could be, and he's learned 22 tricks, so he always waits to see if there's a string of commands coming.  Rush him, and I'll wind up with his head on top of mine, his foot stretched out where I can fall over it, and his butt on the wrong side of the stall, all part of a line dance I once taught him.  I always say, "Be careful what you teach."  Remember what you taught is more accurate.

So if your goal is quiet, calm interactions with your animal friends, patience and time are key.  Don't turn your interactions into a flurry of movement with little accomplished.  Aim for one thing and get that before you aim for another.  Picture an archer and a target.  If the archer sends one arrow toward the target, odds are he'll get closer to the bulls-eye than if he lets fly a dozen at a time.  Some of those extras are going to wind up on the ground around him, stuck in his foot, in a tree on his left, in the doghouse.  You don't want your commands in the doghouse.  You want them in your horse's repertoire and serving some purpose.

Wait for it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Ho, Ho, Hope!

It has come to pass that we humans have finally and completely lost our minds.  Zip knows this and is worried for us.

Okay, not really.  He's only worried that he'll have to stand in the snow longer than he prefers, which is as little as possible, but like the rest of us, he is ever hopeful that better times await.  And breakfast.

For the past couple of weeks the Interwebs and the TV News have been filling the air with the Joy of the Season.  

Okay, not really that, either.  We've been bombarded not with joy, but with angst manufactured from whole cloth for no reason other than to busy up the 24-hour news cycle, I suspect.  So today we're going to visit what it is that is sending so many little heads with over-sized worry pans over the edge into full-out battle mode.  It would appear that it all stems from one source:  our very human desire to vocalize in an effort to connect with our fellow humans.

The problem with all this vocalization is that many of us are very much sucked up into not just our own heads but the heads of those big-worry-pan types, and for some reason we've chosen (and it really is a choice, you know) to go all "How dare you?"  We're hanging our hate on the silliest of all things, that being the tags we've each chosen to attach to simple offers of good tidings.

I say to you that there is no difference among Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays and Happy Hannukah and Peaceful Kwanzaa and the rest.  None.  They are tags.  Labels.  Chained identifiers that have meaning only within our own small bubble worlds.  I posit that in fact what we are all trying to desperately to communicate is the simple wish...

                                                Have Hope!

There are reasons for our inability to let go of our self-involvement long enough to just be happy that there is still hope available to us.  Hope for peace.  Hope for health.  Hope for a better day tomorrow.  Hope enough to go around.  We, like many large animals, have as our native state Cautious Curiosity.  We want so badly to touch each other, and we are so afraid we might lose something if we do.  And in our efforts to connect, we wish good things for each other.  Then we spin on our egos and blast each other for not engaging in...what?  Mind reading?  Something without a name that would require us to do that impossible thing and enter the sphere of reality of another human (or horse or cat or honey badger or whatever).  We fear that each contact will cause us to move an inch closer to some level of death.  We fear.  We fear fear!  We fear strangeness at the same time that we crave excitement and novelty.  We're nuts on a hard roll.  That's just the way it is.

If there's anything we can learn from our horses it's these things:

  1. There's always another day as long as you're not eaten by a mountain lion during the night.
  2. The one standing next to you is just as likely to be eaten as you are, and there's safety in numbers, so try to stand closer and don't bite each other.
  3. Someone should try to stay awake while everyone else sleeps, but that doesn't require a committee meeting and a vote.  Take turns and don't sweat it unless you're sure there's a mountain lion.  
  4. If you wait long enough, the sun will come up and there will be green grass, but the flies will come with it.  You pick how to react to that news.
  5. If you bite, you might get bitten harder in return, so pick your battles wisely.
  6. Don't be the weakest link if you can help it.
  7. Don't run with snow balled up under your feet.  That's stupid. 
  8. Be quiet more than not.
  9. You can't scratch your own withers, so play nice with your neighbors.
  10. Have hope.
So, Thinking Horsemen and faithful readers, I leave you with that wish, not just for the holiday season (which, if you think about it and activate "holidays" on your Google calendar widget, is all year round).  Unchain your hope from the tags.  We made all this stuff up.  We can make up better ways of dealing with it if we try.

That's my hope.  

Monday, December 09, 2013

Don't sell yourself or your horse short

"Complaining Does Not Work as a Strategy" 

The video is another wonderful presentation by Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon University whose "Last Lecture" went viral thanks to Oprah Winfrey.  Technology Professor Pausch was dying (he passed away in 2008) and had a lot of brilliance yet to share, so he did so with grace and humor.  This lecture is another of his final efforts to let us see what is right there before our faces and missed constantly.

It's a very long lecture--an hour and twenty minutes--and worth watching.

For those readers who choose to watch it another time, there are many take-aways, but the ones I want to focus on here are these:

1.  Don't forget your childhood dreams.  They really can be fulfilled if you just make the effort.

2.  Don't set a bar.  If your students (or your horses) don't know where the bar is, they will just keep trying and might surprise you with the outcome.

The first idea is sweet and touching, and most of us who have horses are, indeed, living out a childhood dream.  Unfortunately, many of us stop at the "I want to ride horses" part and let the rest of our dreams drift away.  I'm willing to bet that we had more dreams than that.  I know I'll never be an astronaut as I am painfully aware of the serious motion sickness I'm prone to, but there are other dreams I intend to fulfill and some I already have.  We need to remember our early desires and try to make a few, at least, come to life.

I'm not talking about a "Bucket List".  I'm talking about the things outside of the horse world that we yearned for and have allowed to slide because our horse lives are so all-encompassing.  Think about the last time someone suggested a whole new direction to you, and your immediate response was, "I can't...the horses, you know."

Well, you actually probably can, and if Randy Pausch's experiences don't invigorate your Can Do attitude, then you will have to figure out what's really holding you back.  There's something blocking your Inner Child and your love of adventure, and it's not your horse or your schedule or your finances.  It's deeper than those and only you can find it.

The second concept is one that seems a little far-fetched.  "If I don't have a goal for my horse, how will I gauge his progress?"  That's the problem with this horse thing.  We become addicted to benchmarks.  We forget that horses are sentient beings with their own agendas, and we short-change them at every turn by setting limits on their behaviors.

I'm not suggesting that Fuzzbutt be allowed to decide for himself whether or not to learn to take off on the correct lead.  We've all had horses who thought they had a better plan and wound up eating dirt when their wrong-lead circle tipped them onto their sides.  And we've all seen the look of surprise cross their faces when it did.  Sometimes experience is the best teacher, and when the alternative is frustration on both sides of the lesson plan, letting experience take over is often the very best choice.

I spent many (many) hours years ago trying to get newly-hatched Zip to walk politely on a lead.  Many hours.  He was an argumentative baby and grew into an argumentative adult.  It wasn't until I stopped arguing and learned to drop the lead and let him take off bucking until he dallied himself to a fence post that the argument became moot and learning ensued.  He figured out for himself that his plan wasn't workable.  Nothing I said or did made as big an impression as that post stopping him in his tracks.  My bar was far too low.  I believed he could only learn from me and only what I wanted to teach him in the order and via the methods the books recommended.   It took a few of those experiences for him to really get that he was screwing up all by himself, but he learned it.  I didn't think he could.  I was wrong.  There was learning on both sides of those lessons, and I learned to let him take the reins occasionally.

I would never have guessed that Zip could learn to read
if I hadn't just let him have at it.  If he had thumbs, he'd be
writing this blog.

As time went by, I let him have more and more leeway in our training routine, and I was very surprised to discover that he had it in him to save my butt over jumps by leaping from whatever bizarre angle or distance he'd chosen or I'd accidentally set up and landing us with great balance and style.  I would not have known that if I hadn't just let him go at it.  He liked the little gymnastics I created, but he loved when I dropped the reins and said, "GO!" and let him do what he wanted.  Left to his own devices, he jumped, ran barrels, and most deeply and sincerely loved our "timed" events (there was no timer, just me counting loudly and excitedly the number of strides he'd taken, for no purpose, in an imitation of a game my daughter devised for her students).

And it wasn't just Zip.  Leo had some issues when I bought him, and he got past them when I stopped trying to get him past them and just had fun with him.  He turned out to be an amazingly talented guy.  Dakota, the reserve champ mounted orienteering horse I bought by accident, didn't believe he could go faster than a slow jog until I showed him that he could, then he showed me that being the slowest pole-bending horse in the county was his colthood dream, and we've had joyous, laugh-out-loud times for eight years since.

The end result of any experience should be a combination of joy and learning.  Let go a little, and you'll find a lot coming back at you that you never expected.  Let that be your resolution for the new year, or just keep it in a corner of your mind.   Just don't short-change your life.  You only get one, and it's a shame to miss any of it.

I'll leave you with a little psych lesson.  If you don't know who B.F. Skinner was, read this article.  Then think about this comment from a course syllabus from Psych 601 at SFSU:

Skinner's theory, like that of Hull's, was a reinforcement theory. But Skinner did not follow Hull in postulating innate drives, reward, and negative reinforcement. Reinforcement, according to Skinner, was any situation which tended to increase the probability of responding at a later time. Skinner did not pretend to know the nature of a drive and he questioned whether any internal force was operating at all. He preferred to explain behavior as a function of the contingencies of the situation. Skinner did not assume that the physical environment got transformed into some internal or intervening variable. There was no absolute reality. Different kinds of realities exist for different kinds of persons . To say that a distorted room is not a reality is, according to Skinner, absolute nonsense . (


Monday, December 02, 2013

Aging Horses and Undereducated Owners

   Just a!


Knowing When to Retire an Arthritic Horse | Video |

The pair of links above are required viewing/reading for horse owners everywhere.  Honestly, I wish the interwebs and the googles had existed back when I got my first horse.  I knew nothing!  I didn't know what I didn't know.  I didn't know where to find out what I needed to know.  I listened to the wrong people because I didn't know there could be wrong people to listen to.

Here's how that went.

My daughter was taking lessons ("lesson" was not yet a verb in 1985) at a really big local barn.  We wound up there because we were new to the area and it was pretty much across the street.  Definitely within walking distance on a good day, and there were a few good days when biking and walking were an option.  We had little money and no real options for getting any.  But as a first-grade graduation gift, the kid wanted lessons, so we bit the bullet.

She knew about horses because I was a rider and was taking my life in my hands a couple of times a week "tuning up" a flighty Arabian for some strangers nearby. They ran an ad, and I answered it.  Done and done.  The kid had watched me hit the ground repeatedly (at three, she had no choice but to accompany me on these deadly forays), and still she wanted to ride.  That, I would guess, reflects the child's inability to predict the future.

So lessons well underway, there finally came a day when I'd had enough of seeing my baby tossed around on strange horses with damage on their minds, and I called my dear dad and said, "I want you to know that because you wouldn't buy me a pony when I was a kid, your daughter is risking life and limb on a bizarro horse that wants to kill her."

He sent me horse shopping, and $850 later I was the proud owner of my very own horse that wanted to kill me..and the kid...and anyone else who did more than look at her in passing.  I didn't find out till long after I'd bought her (and the too-small saddle and the misfit bridle) and traded her in on a less-violent model that she was a senior horse, partially blind (this is where vet checks come in handy), and generally had no desire to be ridden.  She might have been arthritic, but it was hard to check her movement between bucks.

It's hard to tell by looking at them which of these horses is retired.
You have to poke at them a little and see who glares at you.

So it goes.

My low point came the day I fell apart because my  horse was lying in her stall apparently deceased, and I stood shrieking and crying in the barn aisle until the manager came to see what the ruckus was about.  She looked at me, looked at the horse, and proclaimed, "Your horse is sleeping.  She's sleeping because she's exhausted.  She's exhausted because you've been riding the piss out of her!"  With that she stalked out of the barn, and I, humbled, had to stop pretending I knew anything at all about horses.

Riding horses does not equate with knowing about them.  Taking care of horses is a lot more than cookies and rainbows.  Making good decisions about horses in your care is the hardest thing of all because:

1.  They're really big and often hard to handle so it's easy to mistake grouchiness for health issues and vice versa.
2.  We bond tightly with them for some reason as yet unexplained despite generations of exploration.
3.  They cost a lot of money and bad decisions can add a lot to that cost.
4.  We're basically wimps.

As horses age, they start to feel the aches and pains that we all feel as we pass under that cloud.  Wear and tear on joints and muscles can become evident even early on in horses as we ask of them things that their bodies are not actually designed for.  So eventually many owners are faced with the option of retiring a horse that's become creaky, adding supplements to reduce the creakiness and eke out a few more years in relative comfort, or, as one trainer who was banned from my property preferred, ride them till they break down then ship them off or euthanize them.

The choice is a personal one.  It's easy to sit here where your horse isn't and posture about what you should or shouldn't do.  One thing I've learned after 52 years with horses is that owners are as varied as the horses they own.  Different regions of the country espouse different husbandry concepts.  Horses with jobs to do (think ranching, hauling wagons, dragging plows) are going to break down faster and be less likely to stick around as money-sinks.  That's just the way it is.  I'm not going to judge anyone for the choices made, but knowing the options and how to figure the best work-around is crucial no matter what your stance.

Read the article.  Watch the video.  Know that I've got a 27-year-old gelding who's seen and done it all, has massive arthritis in his hocks, and works perfectly sound on a regimen of continual moderate exercise and Recovery Extra Strength.  It's a matter of inches...dropping lateral work so we can do lazy trails, for instance.  So read and think and make the best decision you can for yourself and your horse.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hot-Potato Horses

Remember, holiday shopping!

I'm not going to try to summarize the vast array of stats available for interested parties to search through.  I do hope some of my Thinking Horsemen will read them, at least the ones that relate directly to you.  What I've linked above is one simple fact:  The US has more horses than any other country at approximately 9.5 million, and full-time workers in the horse business number 1.4 million.

That means 1 full-time human for every 8 horses.  Think about it.

I think it's safe to say that the Unwanted Horse problem is about a huge and squirrelly an issue as exists in our society.  Picture the pyramid we use to describe those crazy schemes where the guy at the top derives his massive income from the hard work of the layers of minions below him who he has talked into buying into the program.  The more they sell, the more recruiting they do, the more he makes.

Bear with me while I belabor this imagery.

By all rights, the equine pyramid is reversed.  At the bottom should be a horse.  Poor guy just sits there hoping someone will throw him some hay and put water in his bucket.  See him there?  Now on his back put the family that owns him and all of their expectations.  On their backs you can stack the necessary practitioners without whom they wouldn't be able to keep the horse because they aren't capable of trimming hooves, fixing broken parts, making his teeth shiny and smooth.

Above that is where the fun really starts.  That's where you can pile, in no particular order, the rest of us who are trying to get our due from poor Fuzzbutt down there sagging under the pile.  That includes me, of course, writing my little blog posts and books.  It includes barn managers, kids making a few dollars mucking stalls, hay producers (that's me too), grain companies, farmers, blanket makers, bridle makers, saddle makers, cute horsey t-shirts for the owners to wear makers, people boots, brooms, muck rakes makers, shiny earrings for Western Pleasure riders makers and on and on.

So you have to ask how there can be unwanted horses when each horse is responsible for supporting a few of those 1.4 million people.  If anything, one might posit that horses should be very valuable property to own (not just expensive, but actually having value).  It's a little mind-boggling, right?

What's missing from the pyramid is that the horse population is fluid.  There may be roughly the same 1.4 million humans doing his bidding, but he's only got a limited useful lifespan.  Behind him are younger, fresher, new horses being produced daily.  So it's not really one horse at the bottom of the pyramid, but a stream from which one crawls ashore and pushes the current resident into the mud.

It's that muddy spot that concerns the horse world.  The question arose "where are all these horses coming from?" and the answer is "everywhere".  They're the child's pony that was outgrown and the hunter that can't make the jumps anymore. They're the "culls" from a breeding program aimed at producing Paints with lots of "chrome", and they're the fun trail horse that developed navicular.  They're Every Horse and any horse that can't be cared for any longer.  Mostly, they're hot potatoes.

What do you do with your horses when they reach that point where one more year of use will probably be all they can manage?  Do you sell to someone who may or may not know what it means to keep a senior horse or one in need of constant care?  Do you give it away?  Do you keep it until it dies?  Do you ship it down the road to auction, or do you close your eyes and snivel your way through a rescue placement?  What do you do?

I'm going to refuse to pull the holier-than-thou card.  Yes, I keep my horses till they  I couldn't always afford that, and some were sold to other owners.  That keeps the horse worlds lifeblood pumping.  And anyone else who chooses the high horse of superiority because they can keep theirs instead of climbing to the high road of compassion for the folks who can't, please don't comment here.  There has to be an open dialog and a recognition that in fact my pyramid isn't the reality.

The reality is that that horse is standing on the back of his owner, and the rest of the horse world is balanced on top, grasping, judging, and uncooperative.  A major overhaul will be required before this pyramid crashes.  It's crumbling now.  Are you the one whose decision will bring it down or the one who will find the solution?

Be the solution.  I won't tell you how because I don't know, but figure out a way to contribute instead of merely passing the buck and the hot potato to some unsuspecting glassy-eyed horse lover.  Just do it.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Decision-Making 101

How to Overcome Decision Fatigue

Does the phrase "I'll sleep on it and get back to you" sound familiar?  If you're not using it on a regular basis, you are probably among the millions suffering from "Decision Fatigue"--the loss of the ability to make a good choice because too many choices have been made without a timeout.

World Wide Wiredness makes the planet a tough place to live.  Not only are we all faced with multiple decisions daily, but we're expected to make them in an eye-blink.  If we're lucky, we have time to actually process the options, but more likely than not, we rely on our sixth sense--that niggling little voice that squeaks in the corner of our brain--to make the choice for us.  If you just picked something over something else a minute ago (I picked a handful of Hershey's kisses over an sue me!), can you answer the question "Why?"  Probably not.  I didn't even hesitate long enough to look at the lovely, juicy, fresh apples in the bowl before the voice had me ripping open the bag of chocolates.  Not really a decision; just an action based on nothing in particular.

With holidays of all sorts upon us, Decision Season is in full swing.  We'll decide where to celebrate and with whom, what to eat, who to gift with goodies and who to ignore.  Which goodies to choose is even harder.  For those of us who over-function to a sad degree (me!), this is actually a year-round event.  In my case it always results in a closet overflowing with items I bought because they were perfect for myself or someone on my list only to find something more perfect to replace them at the last minute.  There's a bag of stuff from a book sale at school that dates back some ten years.  I don't recall for whom the stuff was purchased or under what guise of logic, but it's not suitable for anything but a reminder to stop impulse shopping.

You're getting sleepy.....

If you have horses, you are undoubtedly challenged to make some really intriguing decisions.  First, which horse will you buy, rent, steal, or adopt?  Where will you keep it?  Will you still keep it there tomorrow?  What will you feed it?  Who will be your guide when you're lost in the equestrian wilderness of brands and styles and disciplines and belief systems?  What will you use to get the horse crap out of your clothes?

If  you're not frustrated enough, check out the various models for decision making.  Ouch!

It's endless.  And the more choices there are, the more difficult the decision becomes.  This is another face of Decision Fatigue.  There's ample research to support the phenomenon of Decision Paralysis that results from too many choices available.  Some of the studies are kind of funny, so you might want to google that.

In sum, the article linked at the top that launched this thought parade says that decisions are best made after rest.  First thing in the morning, if you're a morning person, is the best time to go look at that new horse or pick from the assortment of saddles you're considering.  Don't shop for groceries when you're hungry, and don't pick a horse when you've got a show next weekend.  Don't make any decisions more momentous than which socks to wear if you've been up all night watching Zombie Apocalypse movies. If you've spent all day doing heavy lifting with your brain at work, that's a bad time to choose where you're going to go on your next vacation.  Sure, Bali sounds great right now.  Put a pin in it and check back with your logical self in the morning.  Never hesitate to "sleep on it."  That could be the best decision you'll make all day.

And of course we make no decisions of any import when we're drugged (pain meds being ubiquitous among horsemen, that's almost a given) or otherwise impaired.  Promise?  There are enough blogs full of funny stories about bad decisions horsemen make.  I don't need any more competition.  Thanks!

This just popped up and deserved a place in this article.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

How big a horse do you need?

FIRST, the shameless self-promotion segment.  My Editor's Choice Award-winning book, Horse Bound, is available RIGHT NOW from iUniverse, Amazon, and all those other book places you like to frequent.  So don't waste time thinking about it, just click one of these links or go wherever you like and buy it.  My other books are available too and they're part of a special purchase deal on Amazon. Woo-HOO!  And those other books at the bottom of the list that don't seem to be mine? Those are anthologies with my stories in them.  Fewer giggles  and more Kleenex.  Just sayin'.

END of self-promotion.

And now, our feature presentation:

Method for estimating maximum permissible load we... [Anim Sci J. 2013] - PubMed - NCBI

Rider weight is a touchy subject.  I have no desire to destroy anyone's body image or self-esteem.  What I do want to do is help all riders understand that there truly is a difference for the horses when they're asked to carry heavier riders.  It's important, especially in this climate of too many horses and too few owners, to keep the horses in the equation from breaking down earlier than necessary and from displaying behaviors that make them unpleasant co-workers for humans.  So, here's a different approach.

Let's begin with the numbers.  The breed chosen for the study--the Japanese native horse--isn't actually a stand-alone breed identification.  There are many breeds native to Japan.  All have some characteristics in common.  They are small (12 -14+ hh ), stocky ponies with necks that tend to grow parallel to the ground.  Those are important points, because horses built like that can tolerate more weight because of their conformation that puts the weight in a better place for balancing.  And they were mostly developed as pack horses, so they tend to be very calm and easy-to-manage.

Not at all like the average horses in the US.  Not even close to what I've got in my pasture.

The average QH weighs between 800 and 1200 pounds.
Zip (right), at a scant 16 hh, weighs in at about 1200 pounds most of the time
except during the winter when he swears the extra 50 is hair.

According to the weight tape (because he's such a diva he won't stand
on the bathroom scale), Dakota, 15.1 hh, weighs in at about 1100 pounds.
So breaking it down, the researchers picked horses that could probably carry weight better and be the least likely to take to bucking, rearing, and other fussiness than the average saddle horse in the US.

What they found was that these wonderbeasts could comfortably carry approximately 29% of their body weight.  Figuring the average 13 hh pony probably weighs in at about 850 pounds (yes, I'm guessing based on adding Duke's chunkiness at 8.5 hh and Leo's sturdy gracefulness at 15 hh and noting that there are two of them...and then math happens and I get 800 pounds and add 50 for jollies), that means the average rider of one of those ponies, plus tack and sandwiches, should weigh in at about 246 pounds.  Deduct 40 for the saddle and pad, and that's 206 pounds for rider and sandwiches and water bottle and cell phone and couture riding togs.

Not too shabby.  I feel better already.

Of course we're not all riding stocky ponies.  Many of us are riding animals that defy description.  The lower on the equestrian totem pole one lurks, the less likely one is to own a horse that fits into an easily-recognizable category.  I, for one, eschew pedigree in favor of big butts and "soft" eyes.  And it's not just because I'm cheap.  That's just my taste in horses.  Give me your tired, your learning disabled, your huddled OT Paints yearning to be left alone....

Digression over.  The average horse in the US has been shown to be comfortable carrying about 20% of its body weight.  So if the average horse weighs in at about 1000 pounds, that's easy enough to figure out.  If you and your saddle and all your necessities weigh more than 200 pounds, odds are you're either going to wind up with a horse with back issues or with a rodeo experience on the occasions when Flufferbutter decides he's had enough and opts to attempt non-surgical removal of his back irritation.

Yes, everyone should be happy within their own skin.  But if that skin is going to be safe on a horse and the horse is going to be safe and happy under it, then it really shouldn't weigh more than 20 - 25% of the horse's body weight.  There's nothing wrong with buying horses that fit one's style and body mass.  There are ample big horses out there in need of homes, and no one will point a finger if the rider's butt makes the horse's butt look big.  Think about it.  Getting in shape is certainly key to riding, but if you're Big and Proud, look around and find a horse that will happily tote you and your stuff into the sunset.  They're out there, I promise.

Monday, November 04, 2013

What do you know about horse welfare?

FIRST, the self-promotion!  My newest book, Horse Bound, is available for order from Amazon, BN, and iUniverse now.  No Kindle version yet, but there will be an e-book version at iUniverse soon.  Shop, my Faithful Readers!  The holidays are nearly upon us!

Examining Modern Perceptions of Horse Welfare and Use |

There are a lot of people entering into discussions about animal welfare online.  That's not news.  Nor is the fact that the discussions often become heated.  It would appear that while the majority of Americans are in favor of better treatment of animals (livestock in particular), few actually have hands-on experience or know much about the animals they're trying to protect.  Watching the discussions rage on, I had the feeling that the people most adamant were the ones least involved with the animals.

This article confirms that notion.

It's not hard to understand why the work of Temple Grandin has been so popular.  Of all animal advocates, this amazing double-PhD animal behaviorist has the ability thanks to her severe autism to actually have some insight into how animals think and feel.  It's to her credit that she has gone public with her situation and shared her fascinating insights with the world.  She is the primary source of information for builders and managers of slaugherhouses across the US, and she has made a difficult (and contentious) situation better for the animals while the rest of us duke it out over the grand morality involved in slaughter.

Just this weekend I came across a comment regarding horses and their training that kind of set me back on my  heels a bit.  The statement that horses don't think but only react based on instinct is not a new concept, but I had thought it was currently popular only in certain countries.  The reason for that belief persisting among some religious folk and some cultures is that there is an underlying belief that animals are unclean, don't have souls, and so are lesser creatures than humans.  Years ago I heard this from a Muslim friend who insisted I couldn't have trained my horses because they simply don't have the ability to process information.  I was surprised to hear this same sort of belief come from a similarly-conformed person*.  It's still alive and well.

It doesn't take much intelligence to figure out what Zip is thinking about here.
Horses think quite clearly about what they do and do not like, and
they're not shy about sharing their opinions.

Regardless of its source, the fact is that this among other beliefs about horses and other livestock underlies much of the rescue and protection effort that is in constant flux.  Yet the reality is that the people closest to the animals have quite a different viewpoint from those who like to look at kitten photos and think horses are simply elegant in paintings.

What I know about horses was hard-earned, and I'll bet most of my hands-on horse peeps can say the same. When I was young, I was all about how pretty horses are and how much I wanted one in the backyard so I could, like Alec Ramsey in The Black Stallion, have an intense relationship with one of these fine creatures.  The reality of horses didn't impinge on my fantasy in any way.  It took years of lesson horses, years of horse ownership with my horses boarded out, and even more years with them on my farm before I began to really understand them.  And I can honestly say at this point that most people should not own horses and have no idea what they're talking about when it comes to welfare issues.  That includes some erstwhile "professionals".

Dr. Karin Bump, who gave the speech on which the article above is based, finds the following regarding horses and human culture:

Sociologists use the term legitimacy to explain how people acquire and accept certain ideas and to show how concepts and beliefs—such as using horses for work or leisure—become “legitimate” within a culture, Bump said. There are three levels of legitimacy, she added, that apply to horse ownership and care:
  1. The pragmatic level: “We need horses in our culture.”
  2. The cognitive level: “Of course we have horses, just like we have air to breathe.”
  3. The moral level: “It’s socially and ethically okay to own and use horses.”
Once we get beyond the "socially and ethically okay to own and use horses" piece, we're lost. As a unit, we humans can't quite get a grip on what horses need and what is okay and not okay to do with them.  The ranting takes on a life of its own barely related to reality in many cases.  And no, I'm not advocating harsh training methods or management techniques that endanger the animals, nor am I building a slaughterhouse in my yard.  I'm saying the real pros need to be the source of our information and our planning, not the social media livestock "experts" who abound.

Before cars and the industrial revolution, society had pragmatic and cognitive levels of legitimacy with regard to horse ownership, Bump said. There was no moral level because people didn’t even ask themselves whether it was right or wrong. They needed horses in order to survive, and in order to survive they had to take care of their horses and keep them healthy.

We are swirling around the drain in the horse biz, and a lot of the circular motion is a result of the focus having shifted from the cognitive to the moral level of concern over animals.  The concern isn't a bad thing, but we need to begin to sort out the equi-reality from the anthropormorphism.  And that's going to be tough.  There are more horse-keeping and training theorists out there than there are horses, and they're more than happy to share (not always nicely) their moral stance with all comers.  

So what do you know about horse welfare?  If the question made you pause, you might want to consider reading some of Grandin's work on the subject.  Her books and videos are invaluable sources of real information that often flies in the face of conventional wisdom.  And it would also be of benefit to double-check any statement that begins with "You should" or "All horses."  Unless you found them in Grandin's books, they usually lead to spurious information.  Spreading such stuff is easy.  Bringing the crowd back to a dull roar in the face of facts isn't. 

In closing, I have to note that any research done with live critters, human or otherwise, is going to be flawed.  The best efforts can be found at the best vet schools and universities around the world who are determined to study these things.  But a control group is never accurately representative of the test subjects because each subject is completely individual in every way.  Add that until someone makes time travel viable, there's no way to retest the same subject, and the problem multiplies.  You can't un-touch, un-teach, or un-kill a test subject and call for a do-over, so we will continue to wrestle with these issues (and each other) indefinitely.  Grab a coffee, have a snack, and go riding.  You'll find us here in the same spot when you get back.

*I'm not pro- or anti-Muslim or any other group, but that's where I heard this belief first and got the explanation, so don't bother lambasting me for profiling.  Culture is what it is.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Rules are made to be bent and reinterpreted and maybe even tossed entirely

There’s Something You Need to Know About The Rules | Mr. Money Mustache

The linked blog post by Mr. Money Moustache is a lovely treatise on elementary school, honesty, and what rules really are about, so I hope you'll take the time to read it.  I especially hope you'll view the chart about midway through that differentiates good from evil and chaotic good from chaotic evil.  Priceless!  It has nothing to do with horses, but a great deal to do with social psychology, which is why we're here.

If there's one thing the horse world has plenty of it's rules.  There are rules for trainers, rules for buyers and sellers, rules for management of horses, rules for comportment at horse-related events (many of said rules involving sherry), and above all rules of fashion.  We are adrift in a manure-spotted sea of self-imposed rules.  It's a wonder any of us ever gets past the first ride, let alone all the way to successful horsemanship, without becoming homicidal.  I've seen riders come to blows over the color of a pair of gloves, so this actually isn't too fantastical to imagine.  And oh, the horror when someone showed up with biothane tack!

Why rules exist is two-fold.  First, we need some rules to keep people from being stupid.  Stupid is our natural state, and it behooves us to have a few sane souls preventing us from doing things that would kill or injure us or our friends and horses.  The second fold involves the desire to belong and at the same time to feel special.  Fraternity handshakes, poodle skirts, piercings, Jimmy Choo strappy sandals...all of these are gang signs that allow us to feel less alone and at the same time to parlay the group's cachet into something that belongs to us as individuals.  Some rules, then, are okay.  Some not so much.

Regular readers of my blog and books know already that I'm not a huge fan of nonsensical rules.  There are plenty of sensical ones, like rules about one having to actually feed and water one's horses and the like.  But we humans simply adore making more and more rules and trying to force other people to adhere to them with often hilarious results.

Dakota knows the rule about not leaving his stall without permission
even when his lax owner forgot and left the door open for two hours.
Some rules need to be left alone. 

The barn owner for whom I worked who withheld permission for one of my students to attend a show with us because the reflection of the ingloriousness of her riding ability would be blinding to all comers made me laugh at the ridiculousness of it all and cry for the poor woman who would have been left behind.  She wasn't because I took her along myself.  There's nothing about a local club show that screams excellence, believe me.  I was a bit more taken aback by a show mom who was delighted that someone had, without permission, removed the braids from the mane of another child's horse at a rated show because they hadn't been done professionally (the girl did it herself, for which I gave her many props) and reflected badly on her barn mates (the woman's daughter, of course, being one).  My rant burned her ears and we stopped being friends.

Rules, rules, rules!

Most recently  there was a continuing push by former Olympian Jim Wofford.  Wofford writes columns and articles for such publications as Chronicle of the Horse and Practical Horseman.  It was in the latter that I found a wonderful follow-up to his firmly stated belief that equestrian sports are dying a slow, painful death in part because 1) no one understands them, including many equestrians, and 2) they compete for corporate sponsors with sports everyone understands, like football and NASCAR.  His biggest drive is to change the style of clothing worn by high-level competitors (which, one might hope, would trickle down to the rest of us) to make the sport more exciting and appealing to crowds of fans who lie just off-screen waiting for us to do something to make them watch.

He, naturally, was beset by the know-it-alls, one of whom, at 13, seems to be a budding picky-ass horse person who believes that top hats and shadbellies and man-tailored jackets on women are all god-given and must not be messed with.  In response, Wofford made the perfect comment.  He asked which of the traditions we should choose.  To wit:

   If we are sticklers for tradition, we might find ourselves riding a dressage test attired as Federico Grisone, the Italian dressage expert of the period, was in the mid-1550s--a huge hat with an ostrich plume, long velvet coat, ruffled shirt, jodhpurs and enormous roweled spurs.  A more recent tradition, between 1912 and 1952, restricted Olympic riding discipline to men in military uniform.  Given that our modern sport is roughly 88 percent female, I doubt I would find many supporters of that now-outmoded tradition.  My point is that our sport has evolved.  If we do not continue to evolve, we risk becoming extinct.  (Jim Wofford, Practical Horseman Nov 2013, p8)

Let me add to Mr. Wofford's rant that body clipping, braiding, and most of all the terrible requirement that the insides of the horse's ears be sheared for English flat and jumping classes and Western pleasure and halter classes are some of the most bizarre requirements ever conceived.  We could do away with all of that and the spangles on Western Pleasure riders and their mounts and have a much happier population of horses and riders alike.  If we're relying on trappings to show our respect for our sport, then we're in bigger trouble than I thought.  It irritates the crud out of me to hear someone say that less white pad showing around a saddle flap would earn additional points from a judge.  Is that really what it's come down to?  Doesn't anyone care whether or not the horse is healthy and we can ride the event better than someone else?

It's obvious that Mr. Wofford is a man to love and one who has the best interests of the sport in his heart.  At least he has the interests of top competitors there.  But really, that's where it all begins.  Much as we plebes might rail against competition (yes, I have) as the be-all and end-all, if competition in the form of everything from local shows to the Olympics to racing and on did not exist, there would be little use for horses in this current era, would there?  Why would anyone keep a pet large enough to beat up an SUV and eat one's paycheck whole for breakfast were it not for the prospect of doing something more exciting down the road?

My daughter, Jessica, looking spiffy in her dressage test....

...but does she look any less awesome in full cross-country-leg eventing regalia?
Why do only eventers and barrel racers and trail riders get to have fun?
Sure, we all love horses.  They're lovely and lovable, and many of us are happy just seeing them romping in our pastures.  But we basic horse owners are not the ones keeping the breeders, trainers, dealers, and manufacturers of horse stuff alive.  So in my opinion, making equestrian sports of all kinds both safer (the helmet thing, and total body armor as needed) and more appealing to more people would benefit us all.

Jim Wofford is a voice in the wilderness.  I'd like to add my very small one in a supportive squeak.  Rules sometimes have to be broken to make the whole machine functional again.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Human Memory: How long does it take for working memory to fill up? - Quora

Human Memory: How long does it take for working memory to fill up? - Quora

First, you should all go to the Quora site and check it out whether or not you read the linked article above.  I happen to know that at least six of you are avid learners of random information, and there's no more intriguing posting place for such than Quora.


Now read the response to the question above that was posted by NASA engineer/instructor Robert Frost.

I found this particular topic fascinating because I used to teach it in my classes at Newton High School.  The kids were always baffled by why some stuff seemed to stick in their minds while other stuff just glided right on through and out the other side into the abyss.  So every year I would start off with a "This is Your Brain" sketch and next to it a "This is Your Brain On English Class".  The first was the standard lumpy picture we all draw when asked to depict a human brain.  The second was the same brain divided by vertical lines.  The images looked sort of like this:

I explained to the kids that when I told them something in class and they just kind of heard it with one ear and maybe wrote it down, that was that information byte's entry into the Memory Game.  Everything goes into Short Term Memory (STM) first, and it's from that file that we pull the information we use in the moment.

Note that there is no actual relationship between the levels of memory and the shape of the brain, but that image was my effort to help the bytes move into Intermediate Term Memory (ITM) which only happens when the new stuff is linked to something already in residence.  Everyone has a basic brain image in their cache, so linking the idea of levels of memory to that ensured that the concept would stick for at least a little while.

In order to get the bytes into Long Term  Memory (LTM), practice is required.  So periodically I would refer back to this first-day lesson.  If the students were actually attending to my lesson (of which I was assured by my threatened pop quizzes and vile punishments for failure to reproduce said information), then the journey of the information to LTM was a done deal.

At the end of the year, once the final exam was over and they were sure they wouldn't have to see me again, they shoved it all past the third line into The Abyss.  I take no responsibility for that.

Kaitlin helping a classmate move "escape back" into LTM through
demonstration and practice and pain inflicted on shinbones

But the article above has a much clearer explanation with a very cool diagram that will help you really understand what happened to that great store of knowledge you got last month from your trainer or from that awesome new book by some Famous Rider, or via video input from a cool two-minute You Tube thing on Facebook.  It's long been known (I learned this stuff back in the mid-60's in college as a psych major) that we can comfortably remember 5 discrete (meaning "different") pieces of information at a time.  We can stretch that to 7 if we really try.  More than that requires some finagling and promises to the brain of a long rest and maybe ice cream afterwards.

Check out the chart that shows how our short-term learning cache fills up, however, and note the comment that new learning can't take place until the cache drains a bit to make room for it.  This is a relatively new concept, and I'm loving it!  It's particularly important to those of us who have been at something (riding included) for a long time and are full up with stuff that we're trying to shove into long term memory.  In fact, our LTM is also full up, and making room for more stuff requires that we remove some of the stuff that's already there.  I, for one, seem to have no problem doing that.  Today I can remember my first-grade teacher's name as if she were standing in front of me.  I cannot, however, remember when it was that I bought that saddle or who borrowed the book from which I'd planned on quoting.  Tomorrow that might change, or it might not.  That might depend on whether I've still got this stupid song replaying in my head.  That's the piece labeled "distraction" on the chart.

I tell you all of this in hope that if you understand how your memory works you won't be so hard on yourself when you can't recall exactly where your hands should be or what combination of aids is required for a special movement with your horsey partner.  And also I am hopeful that you can employ the learning pattern to help you actually remember more than you thought you could.

If you'll excuse me, it's time I figured out where I left my car keys so that I can go into town to get whatever it was I forgot to get yesterday that I can't recall just at the moment but I'm sure I will when I get to where I'm going....wherever that is.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Raging Against the Machine?

How Big is your Circle of Control? | Mr. Money Mustache

In this era of mass communication and instant flashing views into the lives of others, it's easy to get the impression that we are all far more powerful than the facts would suggest.  Note that only 10% of the entire US population agree with Congress's decision to mess with the slow recovery from a major recession.  Note that 90% of the population can't stop the idiocy that's afoot.  I rest my case.

The chart in the linked article is a truly accurate assessment of the reality of our lives.  There are things we can control, and there are things we can try our damnedest to influence with nothing to show by way of results.  Nowhere is this any more obvious than in our interactions with each other and our horses.

For instance, this excellent blog post from The Horse website gives a nice rundown on what a boarder's rights are at the average boarding farm.  Spoiler Alert!  The answer is pretty much none.  Here you thought all this time that by being rude or withholding payment or snarking around behind the barn owner's back you were going to force the hand that feeds your equine buddy.  Instead all along you were simply moving closer to the precipice yourself, rapidly approaching that "Get your stuff and your damned horse off the premises by sundown!" moment.  Now you know that all your screaming about calling a lawyer and suing the owner for all he's worth is just making you look like the loser that you actually are.

In reality, you have full control over two choices.  You can stay or you can go.  Period.

The same goes for a lot of what we try to do with our horses.  We in no way (much as breeders might try) control for a horse's basic physical abilities, let alone for his social or athletic preferences.  If you think this is something we humans have mastered via selective breeding, read anything by Temple Grandin and go rethink yourself.  We may have some influence over the size of the progeny (though we likely gave up something meaningful to get that and just haven't seen the outcome yet), and color pre-selection has become a pretty safe bet in many breeds.  But as much as we'd like to believe that taking two "good-minded" horses and combining their genes will leave us with a like-minded offspring, that's just not a given.

Dolly indicates her opinion of my efforts to control
the herd.

What we do control are these things:

Feeding, which can affect size, health, and longevity within certain limits.

Socialization, which can affect mental health and sometimes limit quirky behaviors.

Training, which, done incorrectly, can have a huge effect on mental and physical health on both sides of the saddle.

Our behavior.  'Nuff said.

That's pretty much it.  Sure, we can control what color blankie our furbaby wears during the cold months.  We can also control whether or not we clip fancy patterns into his rump hair.  We can't control whether or not he will like or even tolerate those choices.  Another bit of equine research just reported that even horses that appear calm are actually very stressed by what we think of as necessary evils.  The study specified body clipping, but I know for a fact that my App gelding, Prince, took serious exception to any blanket on his body and particularly the bright yellow rain sheet that cost me a bite on my upper arm.

I doubt there's anyone who hasn't heard the oft-repeated Doctor Phil-ism that you can't control someone else; you can only control yourself.  It's oft-repeated because it's true, and it applies to your horse.  You can make attempts at control, but that's all they will ever be.  But your own behavior is totally within your sphere.  It's you who decides whether anger, panic, aggression or patience will be your reaction to the uncontrollable equine behaviors that your horse has every reason and right to exhibit.  Your behavior can escalate a bad situation or de-escalate it.  You can make a good time better or ruin it for everyone involved.  You can be strong and healthy enough to do this horse thing, or you can spend time explaining why you can't.  You can be a dancer or a rock.  That's the part you control.

My recommendation for today is that everyone take stock of the things that are actually controllable and stop wasting time raging against the things that are not.  Time is precious.  Horse time is priceless.  Use it wisely.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Memories...can we trust them?

Elizabeth Loftus: The fiction of memory | Video on

I doubt that there's a human on the planet who has never come a-cropper of faulty memory.  There's the small stuff, of course, like a forgotten phone number, the grocery item that always seems to fall off the mental list (toilet paper....either I buy six more packages than I need, or I have not a roll in the house and company coming), the kid (sorry, Jess) left sitting in her horse's stall one night because I forgot she was at the barn.  You know how it goes.

Perhaps the worst thing about memory is its revisionist tendencies.  Of course we don't micromanage our recollections to boost our own self image.  Nah.  Not us.  We humans are perfect little recording devices ready to spew forth details of past events and past transgressions by fellow humans at the drop of an argument.  But how much of what we remember is real, and how much is fabricated from whole cloth in the recesses of our squirrelly little brains?

If research is to be believed, the vast majority of our memories are mental junk mail.  We'll swear to them, of course, but put two people in the same space, let them see the same event, then ask for details without allowing them discussion time to firm up a middle ground, and the stories will be considerably different.  If you're not familiar with the selective attention experiment called "The Invisible Gorilla", you can refresh your stellar memory here.

It is for this reason that I finally concluded that video recording my riding exploits would be an excellent plan.  Video doesn't lie.  Sadly.  I was going to include a small sample here, but I swear the camera wasn't actually taking photos of my ride on Dolly.  That was some other bubble-butted slouch on that high-headed animal.  My ride, as I recall, was spot on. Dolly was on the bit and lifted beautifully.  My position was perfection.  Really.  I swear to it.

Dolly don't pass no judgment on nobody....
unless, of course, it's that one-eyed horse sneaking a bite of her hay
forcing her to be judge, jury, and executioner.

Why do we confabulate and obfuscate to the level that we do?  The answer harks back to my favorite concept, Sphere of Reality.  Even were we each to be blessed with perfect eyesight and a memory worthy of a spotlight on the Science Network, we would still not agree on the details of any event.  Every experience is naturally filtered like spring water through the nooks and crevasses created in our worlds by our individual experiences.  Our histories write part of our stories. We may make up details as we go along, but we see things through the colored glasses given to us with our teething rings and polished by decades of staring through them unencumbered by reality.  Add that we are hard-wired to defend our egos at every turn, and we are toast.

My ride on Dolly (or the other ones I've videoed on various other mounts) felt good because my muscles called on their own memories (also perfect...*hack, cough*) and put me in perfect alignment and balance.  I did exactly as my last instructor bade me to do because I remember every word she said some...uh...three years ago was it?  I know I need to fight the creases in my breeches.

Or was it that I needed to make more creases?  Or were the creases in the wrong place?  Was I too arched or not enough?  I swear I remembered it perfectly last month.

I could go on with examples of times when our attention seems to have been taking a leak behind a shrub while the action is happening.  What exactly did the seller say about that horse's proclivity for bucking?  Was it a yea or a nay?  How old was that horse?  Did she say he was trained by Billy Collins?  No...wait...he's a poet isn't he? What was that guy's name?  She did say she'd throw in the Albion saddle, didn't she?  And something about a dog....

As I was considering this topic, I sparked my memory of an incident at a show a bunch of years ago.  There was an accident, and a horse had to be euthanized.  It took some time for me to recall the owner's name, though the horse's came to me immediately.  And I could clearly see a slo-mo replay of the horror.  But then the details got a little fuzzy.  What did I do?  Was I the one who cut the tie, or was I just standing there watching?  Who was with me?  Why was the horse left standing for so long?  Someone needed to be contacted, but who?  I allowed my mind to fill in the blanks and came up with a passable eyewitness account of the episode, but I'd be willing to bet cash money that not another spectator to the event saw the same things.

When we work with our horses, it's easy for us to overwhelm our senses and wind up filling in the blanks in a most unrealistic way.  Given our tendency to act on our beliefs about what's real and what isn't, this can be a most hazardous approach for us and our horses.  A short video appeared on Facebook this morning showing a mounted officer of some sort having trouble with his horse.  The trouble escalated quickly into a possibly dangerous but highly entertaining crash into the shrubbery.  The video was funny and kind of poignant, but it was the comments that really brought this topic into the light of day.  I was just a bit surprised by how differently the commentors had viewed the episode.  What each of them found of vital importance and worthy of note was different, sometimes in direct conflict with each other, and in each case I found that I had to go watch the video again to confirm that those things had actually happened because I'd missed them entirely.

So, Thinking Horsemen, it's time to fess up and get over the need to be perfect.  How you saw your morning ride or the show you just watched or anything else isn't the same as what the guy sitting next to you saw.  In fact, the guy next to you might well have been texting and missed the whole thing, forcing him to make up a story to cover that lapse.  You just never know.  What you can take to the bank is that judging is not a good thing to do to each other when we can't even remember where we left the cat and whether the milk wound up in the fridge or in the glassware cabinet.  Cut yourselves and everyone else a little slack.  Somewhere in the middle lies the truth, and you can't see it with your nose in the air.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Putting a little polish on the Dress For Success model

Enclothed cognition

Today, horse fans, we are going to discuss why clothing matters.

For the three of you who didn't just click on over to a cute kitten video, let me clarify.  I am in no way going to ride the tide of buying more, better, and pricier duds for yourselves and your mounts in order to please some far-off Famous Trainer (whose name, George Morris, I shall not mention).  First, let's look at the article above and the study reported therein.

The study, in a nutshell, determined that without a doubt, in a statistically significant way, people given lab coats to wear showed more attention to detail when performing a set task than did those wearing non-lab-coat attire, in this case, a painter's coat.  Lab coats meant fewer errors.  Pretty cool.  Here's the graphic:

Full-size image (9 K)

It's hard to read unless you enlarge the page, but the first really big grey block on the left indicates the number of differences found (in other words, more correct answers, longer attention, more precise attention, etc) in the group wearing a lab coat.  Obviously that group did best.

What's equally revealing, however, is the size of the other two bars.  The third one on the right reflects the group wearing a painter's coat.  The one in the middle reflects a group simply seeing a doctor's lab coat while they worked.  Note that that's the smallest of the three bars.

The conclusion drawn by the researchers is that wearing a coat associated with a doctor makes one feel obligated to pay attention to the task at hand and complete it correctly.  I have to admit that I got a giggle out of the second bar showing that seeing a guy in a lab coat not only did not improve scores on those parameters, but resulted in the lowest scores.  My take on that is that 1) seeing a doctor in the room means I don't have to think anymore because there's someone there smarter than I am, and 2) doctors scare the piss out of most people, and their performance suffers as a result of anxiety.

Every inch the equestrian!  Believe it or not, every bit of this...this...uh...whatever
is fully sanctioned from real equestrian clothing manufacturers.
Dolly says I rode just fine despite my questionable sartorial options.

What this all means to us horse people is open to discussion, so let me open by saying that while I do not ride better when I'm dressed in full-bore English Rider Formal, I do indeed perform better when I'm wearing clothing appropriate to the activity in which I'm engaged.  I have been known to hop aboard a horse wearing whatever I have on, mostly jeans or leggings of some sort (rarely a dress, though I did do that once).  Jeans and my English stirrup leathers so something strange to my inner calves that I prefer to avoid.  Explaining the bruising isn't worth the convenience, and I really hate that pinchy-flesh feeling anyway.  When I'm wearing clothing that isn't conducive to my personal gyrating riding style, I'm uncomfortable and not performing at peak.

But there's a bit more to it, and that more is that I do feel kind of special when I'm at least wearing riding tights if not actual breeches.  Since I don't compete anymore, I feel no compulsion to meet the standards set by the current batch of notable riders.  Styles in the ring change annually.  My style changes according to my mood.  I recently bought some very pretty plaid casual breeches, but I haven't worn them yet.  I'm saving them for a day when I know for sure someone will see me in them.

Same half-chaps and paddocks, but with the addition of a fancier jacket
and breeches bereft of racing stripes, I cut a more dashing figure, but
Dolly was equally unimpressed.  The Most Awesome Linnea Seaman
to my left is wearing plain clothes and commanding every iota of my attention
and respect.

The second level of this research is more interesting to me.  We should perform worse as a group if there's someone in the bunch dressed to the equestrian nines.  For my part, that's only the case if the someone is an instructor or trainer who I dislike.  In that situation,  I tend to be more focused on critiquing how his Tailored Sportsman breeches are sagging over his non-existent butt or how her Fits jacket is stretched to the limit across her ample shoulders.  I don't ride well if I'm not actually paying attention to my horse.  If the person in question is someone I already respect, then the rule no longer applies.

Overall, the problem with the entire clothing issue is that we have learned as a society to attribute qualities to the person within the clothing based on the clothing without the person.  Were I to put on mechanic's overalls, someone might make the error of thinking I know more than they do about oil pressure and the like.  They'd be wrong.  Most of the time we're wrong.  That's how scammers get the better of us.  If they dress the part, we don't look farther than the tailored suit before we whip out our checkbooks.  That's not a good thing.

As always, I'm offering a plea for more reasonable equestrian clothing as befits an athletic event that often lands said clothing in six inches of muck or soaked with "glow" (equestrians don't sweat).  But the change will have to begin at the top levels, because the rest of us need permission to stop looking like bankers on horseback and start looking like the extreme athletes we truly are.