Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Not Exactly Picture-Perfect

Don't Let Your Abilities Affect Your Enjoyment of New Activities

...and when you've read that, here's the article to which it links:

How to Enjoy Being Bad at Something

"That can't possibly apply to riding skills!"  I can hear you hollering from here, so take it down a notch, please.  Sure it can.  In fact, it probably will be a relief for the majority of horse owners to read that they need not be perfect in order to enjoy their horse life.

If there's one thing that grates my lemon, it's the stuffiness and judgmental attitude that often pervades the horse world.  There has been an undercurrent of "Thou Must" for decades, and that undercurrent has swept some very nice people out to sea and left some very nice horses without people to own them.  The fact is that we are not all going to the Olympics, and not all of our horses are photo-ready and headed for stardom either.

I'm an okay rider.  I'm a little better than average, mostly because I've been at it for so long.  Most of the time, one can't help but improve with practice, particularly when one has access to instruction at a level that encourages improvement rather than discouraging attempts at it.  The more I talk to (some, not all) horse folks, the more I realize that depression seems to be part and parcel of belonging to this elite crew.  Breathes there a rider with soul so dead who never to herself has said, "Damn!  I really suck at this!"?
Fun finds its own level.

My regular readers are, by now, aware that I am on top of the unwanted horse problem as far as whining and moaning go.  I don't have the muscle to do anything about it besides writing letters and donating money to groups that are more muscular than I.  But I'm on it in my own way.  And part of the problem, as I see it, is that there are an awful lot of perfectly nice horses going by the wayside because they are not "quality" projects.  They're just horses.  They're less-than-handsome, perhaps.  Maybe they're on the small side (the 16+ hh mount is de rigueur right now, dontcha know) or a bit knock-kneed, or too short-coupled for high jumping or too long-backed for dressage.  Maybe they're not the right color (grey) or breed.

The thing that's irksome is that there are a whole bunch of would-be owners who are just as not quite as the horses I just described.  Talk about a match made in Heaven!  But the not-great riders are discouraged from owning the not-great horses because together they'd meet with ridicule and derision at the local Equestrian Enclave du Jour.  I know this because I've seen it happen.

What else has happened is a drop in spectatorship at equestrian events at all levels.  There's no one watching anymore while we primp and  priss and trot out our mortgage-on-the-hoof because we've cut off the adoring noses of the not-quite horsemen to spite our many faces.

Recently Jim Wofford (loff him, by the way, for his ground-breaking thought processes about this very topic and many others) espoused the idea of much better outfits for competitors.  I'm all for that.  Honestly, there's little to recommend the way "great" horsemen dress for competition or in the folds of magazines.  We look stuffy in English and sparkly-but-pointless in Western.  Sharp and comfortable and athletic would be better looks, but we seem to feel the need to mark our territory with painfully man-tailored clothing and glitter that would be laughed off the ranch.  Just today, in fact, a post on Facebook brought some very interesting off-topic comments regarding cleanliness and the acceptability of certain items of equestrian clothing.  We need that kind of discussion.  It's important to see that there are some true nitwits calling the shots and some great horsemen lurking in the background.

But do you know what?  It's okay!  It's okay for a rider to hack out on his or her favorite substandard horse with neither of them looking like they stepped out of the pages of a magazine.  It's okay for us to learn by the seat of our britches.  It's okay if we never progress past the hacking around level.  It's all okay.  And it's okay if we have horses that are not the sharpest noodle in the box.  Really.  It's okay.  And there's a lot less pressure at the bottom of the heap than one might suspect.

We need to enjoy more and nit-pick less, and the depression I hear in the voices of some of my fellow horse folks might be lost in the joy of just plain having fun.  Yes, we all need to at least have enough training (even if it's at the hands of a willing grandparent who rode as a kid) to be safe in the saddle.  We need to know enough to wear a helmet and boots with heels.  And we need to know how to tack up our horses so the tack won't fall off or come apart in mid ride.  But we don't all need to progress to any particular level other than the one that our horse is best at.  Mine range from Very Good to "Why in the hell did you buy that animal?"  They're all fine.  We have a great time together, they soak up my crazy with abandon and without rancor, and we look forward to our days.  That's all we need to do.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

“The Truth Is, Most of Us Discover Where We Are Headed When We Arrive”

May 20, 1990: Advice on Life from Calvin and Hobbes Creator Bill Watterson | Brain Pickings

There can never be too much Bill Watterson.

Horses.  Horse life.  Horse training.  Do you really have any control over where you end up in all this?  My considered opinion from the vantage point of 52 years of horse-craziness is a resounding NO!  More to the point, I agree with Watterson completely.  If you're so busy trying to control the outcome,  you're likely to miss stuff along the way.  Good stuff.  Excellent stuff.  Stuff that will make your life richer and your brain smarter and your skin clearer and what-have-you.  Watterson was speaking specifically to recent grads of Kenyon College, but his words ring true in myriad situations.

For instance, "It's surprising how hard we'll work when the work is done just for ourselves."

I know many horse people have a Grand Plan that includes the adulation of their chosen group of important people, and I admit to have been there early on in my foray into equestrianity.  I started out thinking I'd be a jockey and ride race horses to victory with throngs cheering me on.  That was a brief mental adventure when I was around 12 and thought I'd never break 5-feet tall.  But I did.  I thought, then, that I would be Alec Ramsey of The Black Stallion series.  I'd find me a horse and a boat (the main reason, in case my friends were wondering, for my intermittently and with abandon bursting out in song, to wit:  "If I had a boat, I'd go out on the ocean...." ).  That dream didn't come true either.   I thought I'd be a cowgirl....

...and that's about as close to where I am as my dreams ever got.  Owning horses, owning a horse farm, doing all the horse things that a person can do with limited talent and equally limited funds, my dream fell on me when I was least expecting it, and here I am.

Zip is always open to alternative career choices.

But the point Watterson and I are making is that the experiences along the way were not to be missed.  Not all of them were horse-related.  Some of them pandered to my other dream.  I wanted to be a Clinical Child Psychologist (until I found out how much education was required and opted for a psych degree and a lifetime of teaching special ed) because I wanted to fix broken children.  That was a big dream that I would have missed if I'd been totally goal-directed with only jockeying or cowgirling in my sights.

And there were the other jobs along the way that taught me things about the real world.  And there was college and grad school and endless training in multiple fields just because I could.  And writing.  There was writing all along the way.

So, here's the thing.  It's great to have a goal.  And one must never entirely lose sight of those early goals because they somehow are more honest and true descriptors of the Real You than all the add-ons you accumulate along the way.  And your horse-related goals are important because unfocused riders, trainers, and owners tend to be bad riders, trainers, and owners who do nothing better than confuse their poor equine partners.

Have goals.  Have little ones and big ones, and do what you can to reach them, because you'll feel a sense of completion when you do.  But never lose sight of the other stuff around you, the opportunities for change.  Zoom out now and then and see the big picture and let some of the color out there seep into the picture you're painting up close.  You'll be better for it, and in the end you'll have a richer fabric in which to wrap your horse life.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Attention! You're not in this alone.

This week's reading matter, Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  This is a must-read for humans with or without horses, because humans and stress and crazy just all seem destined to flow together into infinity (and beyond).

Before you get your fur puffed, let me assure you I'm not suggesting your riding life is a catastrophe.  It's your entire life that fits that description...and your horse's as well.

Now that I've got your attention, let's redefine "catastrophe".  This isn't "catastrophe" in the sense of The Day After.  The world isn't ending, aliens haven't invaded, and you haven't made some monumental error in judgment that left you dazed and confused.  This is "catastrophe" in the sense (to borrow Kabat-Zinn's example) of Zorba the Greek, who described his life with all its many folds and wrinkles as "the full catastrophe".  It's a good thing, not a bad thing.

When you chose to live your life in its current format, which we can assume includes horses, a job of some sort, maybe family and friends, you opted for all of the deviations from control that those add-ons bring with them.  Our innate desire to control our environment is thwarted at every turn by reality.  Reality comes in many forms, including the random event occurrences I've been discussing of late, the zooming in and out of focus, the mess that illness or changes in circumstance bring with, and, of course, the catastrophe that is our horses' lives as well.

Touch the Matrix, child!  There's awesomeness there beyond imagining!

Mentally back up a few dozen posts, and you may recall my harping on the concept of "spheres of reality".  I said then, and again now, that no two entities can ever truly experience the same world, because each entity has in attendace to its point of view a whole history of physical, mental, and emotional experiences that color that view.  Your horse is an entity.  He doesn't see the same things you see, and vice-versa.

So when you chose to tie your life to his, you chose to bring two different catastrophes into meaningful contact.  But how often do you really give you horse credit for having a life of his own?  Do you think about how his day was going before you arrived on the scene?  Are his friends supportive? Is his schedule comfortable?  Does he like the dining arrangements?  And how's that squirrel in the tree working out?

Kabat-Zinn asks that we reduce our stress--the stress we create in abundance by desiring so vehemently to control everything around us--by becoming mindful and actually seeing and engaging with the world around us.  Make it real.  Your horse does.  Pick the Famous Trainer you like and take his or her current meme into your heart.  Horses Never Lie.  Horses Don't Misbehave; They Merely Behave Like Horses.  Horses are Made to Be Horses.  There are plenty of them.  What they all have in common (and it's most likely the viewpoint that pushed those trainers at the top of the heap) is that they ask that you look at the whole horse and the whole situation before you jump off the cliff into the Sea of Stupid that seems to surround the horse world.

Appreciating your own catastrophe is hard.  Opening your mind to the possibility that whatever thwarted your plan or upset your apple cart was actually an opportunity requires a level of introspection that is hard to attain.  You may not be able to zoom that far out all at once. Appreciating your horse's is harder still since he doesn't even have the same language and thought processes (much as we love to pretend otherwise).  That new foal lying on the ground feeling up the world around him is not a "little man" who is just "sooooooo cute!"  He's a four-legged prey animal meeting the scariest moment of his life head-on.  Appreciate that for what it is.  He's got legs he can barely find that have to work together right this second, teets to locate, and noises and smells that beggar his nascent imagination.  That he doesn't swoon in a panic is surprising.

Take your time and recognize that you are blending two (or more) worlds, and try to zoom out far enough to see them both and how they might best be put into concert with each other.  It's an effort that can't possibly be wasted.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Bullets, Cannonballs, and Success

This week's reading assignment might be a little tough for some of you, because it's not about horses.  Great By Choice:  Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck--Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, by Jim Collins and Morton T. Hansen is a business book about corporate management strategies and why some work.  The authors did a longitudinal study of what they've dubbed the "10x" companies--those that outperformed their sector by multiples of ten--and what made them different.  If you have any kind of a business or investing bone, you'll want to read it.  Everyone else can just follow my summary of one of the factors and how it applies to horse ownership.

"Sorry about that.  Should have warned you about the cannonball ahead."

Collins and Hansen offer an anecdote regarding success in naval assault, summed up like this:  If you put all your powder into your cannon and fire off one big, uncalibrated cannonball, you're likely to be out a lot of powder and standing slack-jawed while the enemy blasts you out of the water.  What's better?  Fire a series of carefully-aimed bullets first, figure out just how far away the target is and whether or not you have the wherewithal to reach it, then put the remaining powder behind that one big shot and sink the opponent neatly.

This isn't about actual bullets and cannonballs, as I'm sure my Thinking Horsemen readers already figured out.  You're not about blasting your horse (or his competition) out of the show pen.  You're about finding pathways to success that actually work.  "Bullets" are, by Collins's and Hansen's definition, small, inexpensive (in every sense), non-distracting efforts to move forward or change direction.  Cannonballs (and even bigger Bombshells) are massive one-shot changes, do-or-die (sometimes literally) efforts that, on our equestrian playing field, can make or break a horse, a human, and a horse-human relationship.

Here is a reminder of what you're aiming at with all your target-shooting skill:

An example I've heard far too often is the novice horseman who decides s/he has enough know-how to adopt, say, a OTTB or perhaps buy a show horse working outside the new owner's comfort and competency zone.  The well-meaning horseman throws caution to the wind, loads the cannon, and in a matter of hours has thrown an unfamiliar horse into a trailer, deposited it at a boarding facility or backyard, and is stunned to discover that there's no instruction manual.  Chaos ensues.  The horse that was originally the owner's "Dream" (watch the Hempfling video) becomes a nightmare.  The owner is over-faced and doesn't even realize it until, still stupid, s/he takes said animal to the next weekend's competition and finishes not just out of the ribbons, but possibly in an ambulance.

What would have been better?  First, an honest assessment of the horseman's skill level.  We're not good at that, we horse crazies.  And if we are surrounded by voices egging us on, the problem multiplies.  Figure out what you can actually do by trying it on a rental horse.  Lease something above your level, get a trainer to work with you, and test your ability instead of learning on the fly.  Bullet.

An even more common problem is the new owner who believes that any horse can learn any skill and succeed with just the right handling.  Nuh-uh.  Not true.  Know who your horse is and work within those limits.  You brought home a rescue horse and were told he "looks like a jumper"?  Try longeing him over cross rails before you even think about jumping aboard and taking that oxer in the cross-country field.  Bullet.

A lot of this harks back to the "too many variables" discussion I keep throwing in here.  If you are doing too many things at once to try to make change happen, you can't begin to know which of them is working.  Even two is too many.  I know.  I've been there more times than I like to admit, and even now can't figure out whether the final change I'd been working for for so long came about because of the new saddle pad or the new feed supplement.  It would take so long to undo both and retry one at a time, that I simply won't have time to do it before other factors intervene to change the playing field.  It's a lot easier to add one change (bullet) at a time and see how it goes than to undo and reassess when you've thrown all the changes together (cannonball) into a pile and must un-throw them one at a time until the change reverses itself.  Most of us don't have the patience to do that successfully, so don't create that situation in the first place.

Teaser Alert:  I'm also in love with the "Twenty-mile March".  I'll go there another day.  Today I've got bullets ready to go, and I'm aiming to use them.