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.


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