Monday, July 28, 2014

Think Yourself Successful

Recalibrate Your Reality

Sometimes we find ourselves facing down demons that only we can see.  Most of the time, they're demons we, ourselves, have created.

If you think you're stupid (old, miserable, talentless, doomed to failure), you are going to let that color your perception of the world.  In turn, you're going to be stupid (old, miserable, etc) because the world you just created proved you were.

Sounds like a pretty dumb plan, if you ask me.

In a recent online discussion, I touched on the idea that many of us are having a hard time becoming the riders (or people) we'd hoped to be, and we can't put our finger on the problem.  I'm going to put my finger on part of it right now:


Yep, it's right in front of you.  Have you been to Facebook lately?  Gotten a whiff of the excellence of someone else's life and compared it to the stench of your own?  Have you been told via email (or text) that you're not quite cutting the mustard?  The comment might have come from a superior at work or a co-worker or just some schmuck who happened to see you with your horse and had to "correct an obvious error".  

It was bad enough when we only had to contend with people in our immediate environment talking directly to us in language with all the nuance of face-to-face contact.  Now we've also got total strangers---some, believe it or not, aren't even who they say they are (I know, right?)--more than willing to fill our headspace with stuff that undermines our very personhood.

Why do we listen?  Because we're herd animals.  We're always looking for a leader, and we're always alert to a hint that we might be cut out of the herd if we don't shape up.

But where has that lead us in the horse business?  It's lead us to taking advice where none was asked for and from quarters whence none should be coming.  The online discussion highlighted how easy it is for anyone who wants to to become a self-styled "expert" at pretty much anything.  When it comes to learning about horses, listening to one of these folks can be deadly.  
Move along now. No star quality here.

Sure, it's great to spend an hour or seven watching videos of great riders and thinking about how bad we look in comparison.  And it's even more fun to spend time watching the Epic Crashes compilations and the Stupid Human Tricks mashups.  We try not to see ourselves in the bad stuff while we envision ourselves  as stars in our own Best Of....  

I don't know if anyone is still out there just experimenting with learning about horses the obvious way, by spending time with, near, and on them.  Give a moment of thought to whoever taught Xenophon to ride.  Nobody, right?  He just did it, and we're still reading about it centuries later.  Yes, I had lessons early on.  I learned how not to fall off just ambling around a pasture.  I learned a bit about more serious riding skills, including what turned out to have been Cavalry Seat.  I didn't learn enough to safely do a trail ride despite my blue ribbons and trophies.  That took a lot longer and a concussion and broken arm to prove my unworthiness.  It took spending hours getting on and off a horse and even riding around a little.  It took holding my breath while my young daughter, in ballet slippers, tried riding standing on her gelding's back and mounting by flinging herself at his leg...and getting up the courage to try that stuff on my own horse.  And succeeding.  And failing.  And sort of both.  And my proudest moment was when a new employee commented wide-eyed that I have the best-trained horses he's ever worked with.  No, I can't do fantabulous gymnastics with a bunch of naked, free-ranging horses following along behind me, but my horses know a lot of stuff that I spent time teaching them while I was learning. That's what we do when we're not worried.  We succeed in odd ways that won't win us blue ribbons but buy us a lot of smiles.  

It's been 54 years now, and I can honestly say that while I've had a couple of truly brilliant mentors, my best instruction came from my horses.  And my best instructor understood that one lesson a month gave me enough time to go home and practice and experiment and move forward at my own speed.  It's not easy to set aside fear of failure, fear of derision, and fear of, well, death and dismemberment (there's insurance for that, in case you were wondering).  But once shuffled off to a side pocket, those fears turn out to be pretty small.  

Getting a good start on a good horse is key.  If you're going to spend time and energy with a pro on any part of this process, that's the part where it's most important.  A good school horse is worth its weight in anything you can think of.  A good first horse won't be a Derby winner or an Olympic hopeful.  It'll be a nice, quiet, probably older animal with a good attitude and a lot of patience.  

So start there.  Put away the computer and the phone and go find a good horse to ride.  Think about all the successful moments you'll have, and go make them happen.  

Monday, July 21, 2014

Most Respectfully

A Matter of Respect | Considering The Horse.

I am in no way going to mess with what Mark Rashid has so brilliantly written in the linked blog post above.  In fact, I'm going to recommend that you subscribe to his blog right now, because he is, in my opinion, one of the top three equine behaviorists in the world.  And he's got a clear eye when it comes to human silliness as well, so prepare to be a little embarrassed.

I've recommended in the past a book I love written by Jim and Lynda McCall entitled Horses Behavin' Badly.  It is the book that restored (some of) my sanity years ago when I was caught up in exactly the stupidity that Rashid describes in his blog post.  I was taking my horse's behavior 1) as negative, and 2) 'way too personally.  The McCalls were the first writers I came across who stated plainly that there is no such thing as negative behavior in animals.  It is simply behavior.  Period.  Horses behave.  We label it good or bad or aggressive or stupid or whatever because we can't help labeling stuff.  It's what makes us human, but it's one of our less attractive traits.  We just have to make everything in our environment relate to us in some way as if we were the Big Mucky-muck and all forces circle around our egos.

How sad is that?

Stole this from my daughter's Facebook page.
Two guys just hangin', no one upset, angry, or
fearful.  Nature at its best!
Here we are, a species so fragile that most of us can't live a week in high temperatures without dying of heat stroke, having long since lost the ability to rationally choose to drink water and stay in the shade.  Here we stand, unable to deal with each other's quirks without becoming hostile and openly threatening.  And here we stand at the center of the universe?  No.  We're the center of our self-made world, and we need to at least grasp that just saying something doesn't make it real.

The only thing real about what we've created is our thumbs.  Without our opposable thumbs, we'd have nothing built, nothing made, and nothing to suck when things go awry, at which point we rail at a "creator" so involved with our minutiae that it will purposely make our horse go lame before a show because we didn't say thanks for all the fish or whatever.  We blame outside forces that we don't understand for things that aren't within our purview anyway because randomness never is.  Ours.  To control.  That's why it's random.

And we made that up too.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we were discussing the idea that how we move makes a huge difference in how our animals (and friends, and the UPS guy) react to us.  That's the closest thing to real we have, so we'll run with that.  As Rashid says in his blog and the McCalls in their book, horses react to the things around them.  They don't stop to wonder whether we'll be upset by their reactions.  In fact, it's pretty much a given that aside from noting that they need to balance us on their backs and learn a set of communication skills to keep us from being stupid around them, they most likely give us little thought at all.  They see something they consider a threat, and they react first.  As Rashid points out, for a prey animal, not to react immediately can mean death.  They're hard-wired.  We force them to take our dominance as a force to trust by training them that if they don't, the alternative will be far more threatening than the rock at the side of the road, no matter how much that rock looks like a cougar.

And what they most likely can't fathom is that when we're fearful, it's not of some rock or something in a tree but of them.  If they're not actively threatening us (and they most certainly can do that if they're angry or upset enough), then they don't get that we are afraid of what they might do.  They might buck.  They might run off with us.  They might not be on top of our game at a show.  They might behave in some way that they see as what the situation demands.  All of that causes fear and tension in us that they sense and automatically ascribe to an outside force.  So they're afraid because we're afraid, and we're afraid because we might not be able to handle their fear reaction or their "disrespect".


So the movement analysis from last week's post has to include the idea that if we move in a jerky, hard-fisted, stiff manner, they're going to interpret that as aggression or fear and react accordingly.  In turn, we're going to experience (and telegraph) fear.  Talk about a lose-lose!  If we're smooth, calm, and matter-of-fact, they will assume we don't have an inside scoop on something about to kill us both, and they will relax and listen with their bodies and minds.

Slow down; speed kills (relationships)!  


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

You really move me!

I came across a fascinating analysis of the dog trainer, Cesar Milan's, unparalleled success with dogs with behavioral issues.  If you're interested in reading that, you'll find it in the book I made you order last week, What the Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell.  This link will take you to the Amazon "smile" page to order the book (because you didn't finish last week's assignment) and donate part of the cost to a charity of your choosing.

The book, for those who are still waffling, is a collection of articles by the famed economist on varied topics including--TADA!--Cesar Milan and the Laban Analysis of his movements.

It's not enough to just think you know what the horse (or dog, or spouse, or frustrating teen) saw when you were trying to educate him.  You've got to be really sure you know.  I'm all about eliminating variables as quickly as possible so as not to accidentally teach something you'd rather not be learned.  So you're going to learn to apply Laban Movement Analysis in a most rudimentary way.  Real analysts spend years learning how to do this, so don't expect to hang out your shingle after reading this one article, and please leave your friends alone.  Just worry about your movement and how your horse sees it.

I'm going to use classic Educationese and refer to all of the possible student versions as "the learner".  Teachers have to do that in their lesson plans.  Everything starts with "TLW" ("The learner will...").  so suck it up and be the teacher for the next few paragraphs.

The primary part of movement is non-movement, so get up and stand as if you were just, well, standing there.  Look at yourself from the inside.  Are your shoulders square?  Are you completely vertical, or are you leaning forward or back just a smidge?  Where are your hands?  Your shoulders?  Your eyes?

If you're going to have a clear moment of communication with a species that doesn't speak the same oral language (that includes the teen), you need to start with a clear introduction.  How you stand in front of your learner tells him immediately what's on your mind and how you intend to proceed.  If you're leaning slightly forward, you probably imagine that that's a welcoming pose.  "Oh, what a cute horsey!" is what's on your mind. What's on his is "She's going to attack me!"  Not a good foot to get off on.

On the other hand, if you're leaning slightly backward, that's a more submissive, opening pose suggesting that it's okay for the learner  to relax and maybe even approach in some small way.  If it's a horse, you may notice he'll reach his nose forward almost imperceptibly.  If it's a teen, you may find his hand in your purse.  You can lean forward if you do.

Leaning too far backward is an invitation to aggression.  You don't want to telegraph, "Hey!  I'm easy!  Come and poke at me and taste me while you shred my clothing in your search for treats!"  You want to simply say, "Howdy."
Inviting Zip to move with me.
He's accepted the invite and is wondering
whether he needs to bring his own cookies.

Your facial expression will also say something.  A toothy grin, depending on the learner, may be a good thing or a sign of anger and aggression.  Best to start with as few teeth visible as possible while still keeping your face and eyes round and relaxed.  If you're tense and high-strung, there are drugs for this stage.

Hands at your sides and relaxed indicates a non-aggressive attitude.  Hands out to the sides, while you may think mean "I want to hug you!" can come across as making yourself look bigger and more menacing.  A number of species use that ploy to intimidate.  You're not trying to intimidate the learner, so stop doing that.  If you want to indicate that contact is welcome, reach a hand forward slightly, palm up if it's to a horse, palm down if it's to a canine, your choice if it's a human (but avoid a fist at this point).

I was taught by someone a long time ago that the best approach to doing anything with a horse is to be completely matter-of-fact about it.  In movement, that translates into smooth, not jerky.  It also means a normal working speed, not a slow ballet that scares the bejeezus out of the horse and everyone else around you.  You're not teaching yoga, so be as normal as you can.  Move around the horse as if you know exactly what you're doing.  No sudden moves.  No big moves.  Just work around the horse as if you were cleaning your house (only without the cursing about food spawning fruit flies under the sofa).

The title of Laban's 1966 book is Space Harmony, which should give you a good idea about how this is all supposed to work together.  You have a personal space.  So does your horse.  You want to avoid moving too much in his, and you want him to enter yours only on command, so it's important that you demonstrate the outlines of your spaces with every movement.  Since Space Harmony  is not available, try The Art and Science of Dance/Movement Therapy.  I haven't read it, but it got five stars, which makes it worthy of consideration if you're looking to learn more about all of this on your own.

I'm going to leave you here for now. Go find a learner and move for a bit.  See how it goes.  Then come back next time for more specific suggestions about how to use spatial awareness and movement to work out a better relationship with whatever learner you've chosen.

Moving on.....

Monday, July 07, 2014

What the horse saw

You might know the name from The Tipping Point and  Click!  If you haven't had the good fortune to come across Malcolm Gladwell's Atlantic columns, then you don't know "What the Dog Saw".  And if you don't know "What the Dog Saw", your education is sorely lacking.  So go get a copy and read it.  At least watch the linked video that offers a summary and review of the compilation, What the Dog Saw.  

I won't wait for you to read the whole book.  I'm going to pick on one of the concepts that Gladwell, Economist Superb, highlights in the first paragraph of the first essay in the book:  the Other Minds Problem.

There is a commonality among humans (maybe the only one) that we assume with deep conviction that all minds are like our own.  The example Gladwell uses is the toddler who force-feeds Goldfish crackers to his  parent, the assumption being that if he loves Goldfish, then everyone loves Goldfish.  So he puts on a great show of generosity by stuffing crackers into Mom, Dad, the dog, even the goldfish and feels pure delight at sharing his bonanza of awesomeness.

Thing is, I, for one, am not a huge Goldfish fan.

So it stands to reason that many of our efforts to be generous and share our "finds" with others of all species are often doomed to failure, and our frustration and disappointment are strong and painful.  Picture the spouse who had no interest in watching, say, football for an entire afternoon while the opposing spouse thinks creating a Big Thing out of game time is just the ticket to joy and contentment all around.  This isn't gender-based; it's universally human, and it's a pain in the butt.

My ex-hub and I had a sailboat.  And a dog.  We loved both.  So it stood to reason that there would be a time when we would take the dog on the boat.  Dog...water...sunshine...outdoors...what's not to love?  The dog begged to differ, and did so with great enthusiasm.  She flattened herself on the floor of the cockpit so her four feet were touching the sides, and there she lay.  Eventually the "she's going to love sailing" morphed into "she's going to love going for a swim".  No.  Not for an instant.  Yes, she loved playing in the water at the edge of the lake.  No, she did not love being in water over her head.  She swam hard toward DH and ran--literally ran--up his chest and back into the boat.  Lesser of two evils and what have you.

How could she not love it?  How could my current SO not spend every sunny moment on the horse I bought for him?  He loves fussing over the beast, and they have formed a serious bond over a handful of the hens' scratch grains in the AM, but riding isn't at the top of his list of Things To Swoon Over.  I can't wait to get on a horse.  He can't wait to stand in the shade and pet his horse.

We're not like-minded.  Our brains are different.
You can't tell from this photo that
this idyllic scene is set on only a half-acre.
The fields in the background are my
version of trick photography. 

So it goes in the equestrian world.  A recent convo with a contact on LinkedIn could not have made it clearer.  He, an Oklahoma rancher, is completely caught up in the BLM wild horse issue. In particular, he's upset that the BLM has lowered the stipend they give ranchers for feeding the horses.

We don't have the BLM in New Jersey.  We don't have ten thousand acres of land on which, for a price, we can graze our horses.  We are the endgame for all those cheap horses being bred "Out West" and shipped here and resold at ten times the purchase price.  We're the ones trying to keep 20 horses on 5 acres and make it look like a plan.  Our rant (at least in this instant) isn't "The damn GUV'MINT!", it's "The damn BREEDERS!"

There's a chasm between minds there that's hard to bridge.

The same applies to training methods, shoeing regimens, feed, turnout, general management...pretty much any facet of anything ever conceived.

This isn't a post where I'm offering a cure or some steps to rectifying the problem.  This is just a notification that a problem exists. The best we can do is be aware of it.  So now you know.  Pretend to care, and we'll have at least made one step forward.  We'll never all be of like mind on anything, but we can try not to kill each other over our differences.