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.