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.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Humans and Our Horses and Stuff

The psychology of stuff and things - Vol. 26, Part 8 ( August 2013)

"A man’s Self is the sum total of all that he can call his."                    
William James (The Principles of Psychology, 1890) 

The article's author begins with the quote above, and I can't imagine a better summation of what we humans are all about.  I can probably stop typing now, because I'll bet that, like me, most of the horsemen reading this blog immediately jumped to the sensation of how miserable we feel when we are not finding success with our horse-human interaction.  It doesn't seem to matter at what level we feel we've failed, just that Failure is upon us, which makes our "stuff" inadequate on several levels.

At 19 months, Dillon thought this horse was Da Bomb!
His fondest wish was for teeth.

Level One Fail

Coming at this horse life as a beginner, we immediately confront several realities.  The first of these is that owning a horse gives us some cachet among non-horsey types.  

     NEWBIE OWNER:  Well, I finally did it!  I bought a fabulous horse, and I can't wait to get started riding and showing and talking endlessly about all the horse-related stuff I'm doing.  Would you like to see some photos?  I happen to have forty-seven on my phone....

     NON-HORSEY CO-WORKER:  Sure!  Is that what a horse looks like?  Is it supposed to have--what are those?  Shrubs?--stuck to its head?  

     NEWBIE OWNER:  Uh...well...he needs a little sprucing up, but just wait till you see him in a few days!

     CO-WORKER:  I'll wait.

But there's a great deal to learn at Level One, so it's not long before the formerly awesome horse is revealed to be an unruly, poorly trained cuss happier in the pasture than under saddle.  Oh, the pain!  It's really hard to feel that this particular bit of "stuff" is enhancing our Self.  We begin to grieve almost immediately as the loss of status of our stuff pretty much takes the punch out of our reality.

Level Two Fail

We're a semi-accomplished horseman with some miles in the saddle, and we've begun to notice that there's other stuff involved that we can be accumulating to add sheen to our Self Image.  We become aware that there are other riders in the barn with saddles that aren't duct-taped, reins that aren't made from neoprene, and tossing about names that we've never heard.  Suddenly it's not enough to just have a horse, because everyone who's anyone has one of those.  Now we need to level-up the horse stuff that goes with it. 

     INTERMEDIATE OWNER:  Want to see my new saddle?  I got it on eBay for a third of the retail price!  Isn't it pretty?

     ADVANCED INTERMEDIATE OWNER:  If you paid more than five hundred for that, you got ripped off.  See this rivet?  No stamp.  It's not original.  Someone reflocked this saddle, and it's lumpy.  [snorf!]  If I were you, I'd save up and get something a little better like my Belle Reve Awesome 44.  [poking the flap] It's padded with pure baby lamb fuzz and the leather has been tanned six times by naked Australian men.  You might find a used one for under four grand if you look hard enough.

At this point we realize that not only do we not get to add our saddle to our "good stuff" ledger, but our job is also no longer good stuff.  If it were, we too could afford naked Australians.  We drive home mentally rewriting our resume.  

Level Three Fail

We've moved up to a highly-regarded career, and we've put the excess income into a better horse (or two), better boarding facility, and incredibly cool tack, clothing, and sunglasses.  Our helmet cost more than our first car.  We are coolness personified, and our Self is patting us on the back so hard our teeth are chattering.

Then we discover that our top-notch trainer has moved down to second-notch, and the new Top Dog takes one look at our horse and our not-quite-perfect seat, and his expression clearly says we're done for.

     TOP DOG:  Were you planning on showing this year?

     ADVANCED INTERMEDIATE OWNER:  Well...uh...yeah.  I've been showing and doing very well.  we took a fifth at a rated show just last month, and I've clipped an American flag into his butt hair.

     TD:  [Silence]

Once again, our stuff needs an upgrade in service to our Self.  Once again depression sets in as we grieve the lowering status of our stuff and the resultant damage to our formerly shiny Self.

At what point to we stop all of this?  Never.  Our horse is never going to be good enough.  Our horsemanship skills will never be the best.  Our saddle, boots, trainer, ribbons, house, car, truck and trailer, spouse, education credentials, body shape, list of Facebook friends....none of it is ever going to cut the mustard because that's the way we humans roll.  

If we really work at it, do a little meditating, and try to get past the longing for material proof that we are Good (forget Awesome), we might make some headway.  There are a thousand authors writing a thousand self-help books as I type, and many of them will be geared to getting past the reliance on stuff as a measure of Self Worth.  But the reality is that for most of us, there will always be a voice in our ear telling us "If you just do one more push-up, you'll have shoulders to die for" or whatever.  On the one hand, this is the drive that keeps us moving forward, but on the other, this is the reason for Depression being the highest-ranked mental aberration of the current century.  

Tonight we're all going to go to bed thinking about this and about how we can stop letting stuff rule our minds and our lives.  Some of us might find it a little easier tomorrow to just go out and have a good time with whatever stuff we already have.  The rest of us, well...

There's always better stuff out there, and some of us will die trying to get it all.  

More on this subject next week.  Now I need to take inventory of my stuff because I'm feeling funny about my bathroom wallpaper,  how low my cross-rails are, and about two of my six horses having unclipped bridle paths in plain view of the UPS guy.  My garden has weeds.   I can feel my Self crumbling.  Oh, the horror!

Monday, September 09, 2013

Herd Hierarchies Revisted

'Limited Resource Test' to Measure Equine Social Hierarchies

Figuring out the status rules in the herd your horses comprise can be important.  If you try to pull a lower-echelon member out for a ride, there's a chance the higher-ups will take umbrage and sneak a nip at his butt as he passes.  Pull the herd leader, and you're likely to find your mount expending a great deal of energy looking to see what the underlings are up to. Conversely, you could find the fence lined with horses watching every move the herd leader makes under saddle.  And try riding him or her out of sight!  There's considerable yelling involved from the abandoned herd in some instances.  This is important to know because we often  mistake the motives of our horses and become frustrated and even punitive at all the wrong moments.  Fortunately, researchers have come up with a short and easy way to determine the herd hierarchy for anyone so inclined.

Since the article above is only available to readers who have a login at The, I'm going to quote the most important fact here:

To improve social hierarchy studies, Ahrendt and her colleagues have recently developed a more efficient system called the "limited resource test." By placing three bins of food in the group's pasture, scientists can study the interactions among all the horses for as little as 80 minutes over a four-day period. And according to their research, the limited resource test is just as reliable as the much longer field observation method.
Her study involved a comparison of both methods with the same group of horses: 25 Warmblood geldings age 2 to 3 years old. They had been pastured together in a 19-acre field for two months--long enough to establish their social hierarchy, said to Ahrendt. The researchers recorded 180 interactions during the five-day, 15-hour field test. They recorded 163 observations during the four-day, 80-minute limited resource test. Ratio calculations were made to determine the hierarchy in both tests.
"The results showed a significant correlation between the hierarchical orders obtained by the two methods, suggesting that the less time-consuming limited resource test can provide the same information regarding hierarchy based on aggressive encounters as when determined by field observations," she said.
"This is really good news for horses and their owners because this simpler, less expensive method means more research into social hierarchy, which is fundamental to understanding equine behavior," Ahrendt said.
Can you tell who is in charge here?
Look at Zip's face (left), his lowered head, and
his vaguely assertive stance.  Right!  It's Pokey
in the back who is running this show.

In other words, throw a couple of flakes of hay into the feeder and watch who decides who will get to eat it.  The dominant horse--the one most likely to nip your mount on the way by--will be the one in control.  S/he will eat first, then back away and allow the next-favorite to eat.  Once the first two have had their fill, the rest will jockey for position for the remains of the meal.  The dominant horse may step in and sort them out if s/he feels that someone is being a pig or that there's a weak link that simply shouldn't have anything to eat at all.  A couple of days of observation will give a clear roster to even the least observant.  
If your horse tends toward the wussy end of the scale, s/he may also tend toward being less assertive during your rides.  You may be able to make faster training strides because s/he will be more subservient than pushy.  On the other hand, that same subservient attitude may show up as a negative if you're looking to make waves as a bold jumper in the show ring.  
Time spent figuring out who your horse is and what his personality will mean to his training and performance is never wasted.  I'd bet they spend nearly as much effort figuring out which of the human denizens of the barn are most likely to fork over cookies and which need to be looked out for as they're going to be quick with the whip or the nose chain.  Horsemanship exists on both sides of the saddle.