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.