Monday, May 25, 2015

In Memory of the Horses of Yore

Famous Horses/Smithsonian

I overheard this morning that the Indy cars (those sharp-looking, highly dangerous race cars that just ran at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) all use either Chevy or Honda engines.  Isn't that interesting?  Not a Mercedes or a Ford to be seen.

That got me thinking about  my horses and the horses I have known and loved (or hated) in my lifetime.  I've had a couple of Chevys, a Trans Am, and a bunch of Hondas.  I've got a tank now, a couple of Jeeps and a Cougar.  They're all different in the way they perform.  There have been pushers and go-ers, speed demons and lunks.  They've all been special.

Since it's Memorial Day as I write this, I felt the need to look up some of the famous horses I've never known, though some of the names are household words.  When I was a kid, Secretariat was The Horse.  He ranked right next to The Black, from the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley, as the horse I'd most like to ride.  I wasn't nearly good enough for those horses, but the dream was alive and well as I entered my 50's.  Now I'm happy to ride, period, and I choose the lunk on the days when the Cougar just is a little overly glad to see me and the tank is giving me the stink eye.

Horses will continue, I'm sure, to come and go through my personal space, and they'll all be memorable.  But the horses of bygone days will remain the stuff of dreams.

Images of Famous Horses We'd All Love to Meet

I can't put pictures of all of them in this post, but the link above will take you to a happy few minutes of drooling over beautiful horse pictures.

This image of Napoleon's horse, Marengo, is a fine place to start.  Yes, Napoleon is in the picture too, but who cares?  The riders of the famous horses are generally not as famous as the horses.  Naturally there are exceptions.  George Washington is certainly as famous as his mount, Nielson.  I do love that the artist captured both Washington's steely-eyed stare and Nielson's "there's a bug on my leg" nonchalance in the image below left.

I'm not a fan of comments that begin "All horses will" or "No horse ever", but in an exception to my own rule, I'm going out on a limb to say that horses on the whole just don't give a flying fig about human endeavors.  They are often partners, but generally conscripted, not voluntary.

Horses have served man for centuries, for no reason that we've been able to determine.  We've treated them well at times, badly more often.  We've gone to war on them, killed them for food, used them as labor in the fields, and ridden them on pleasant hacks through fields and woods. We've bred them to be fast, slow, big, small, tough, fragile, pretty and sometimes homely.  I wonder that they have stuck with us for so long given how little they seem to get in return.

Of all horses, the one most well-known and who brings a thrill to the heart of every rider has to be Pegasus, the mythological mount of Hercules.  We still to this day can't quite stop comparing riding to flying.  We love the image of wings and relinquishing our earthbound status for even a few minutes.  Pegasus is the horse that takes us there to that moment when our personal Chevy takes a few perfectly-balanced steps or spins in perfect balance around the barrel or pushes off for a perfect arc over a rail.  We're all Hercules in that moment, and we have history and the horses that fill it to thank for that.  

So on Memorial Day, let's remember our fallen soldiers and the horses that many of them rode in on.  Here's to all the heroes!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Do You Know Where You're Going?

You Can't Achieve Your Goals if You're Never Working Towards Them

The first sentence in the linked post is the one you should print and hang in your barn, over your desk, in your bathroom, and anywhere else you might see it regularly.

Having goals isn't the same thing as working towards them.

We've all been told  that we won't make changes in our lives without setting goals.  We've been told to keep the goals clear, simple, reachable, and quantitative so we'll know when we've reached them.  We've been told to celebrate small victories along the way.  

Rarely does anyone mention that we need to actually put in the work required.  Thank you, Eric Ravenscroft, for stating what should be obvious but often isn't.

Yes, for those of you who are regular readers, I'm off on another rant about task analysis.  This time there's a twist.  I've said over and over that it's important to break down goals into the steps required to reach them.  Working backwards from the goal has proved to be the best bet for me, and it's common practice among teachers.  Start where you hope to end up, then figure out the steps required to get there.  If you want the students to write a character analysis of the protagonist and antagonist in the novel you're going to assign:

  1. They have to have read the book. 
  2. They have to have a copy of the book on hand. 
  3. They have to know what "protagonist" and "antagonist" mean.  
  4. They need to be able to identify who those characters are.  
  5. They need to be instructed in how to write a compare-and-contrast essay. 
  6. They need to be instructed in English grammar and Composition.
  7. They need to show up to class.
You can see that those steps are in roughly reverse order.  First they have to show up.  Then they have to do the other steps in order until they have produced the essay according to the rubric (I love that word!) you've supplied.  If the paper will be due on December 20th, just before winter break, count backwards from there.  How many lessons will it take to achieve each of the necessary steps?  

Now apply that to your horse life.
Goals created and reached!
[Photo courtesy of Jessica Culnan]

It's easier for a teacher to do this because production is expected and required.  Lesson plans are sometimes graded by the administration.  Parents these days expect it all to be online where they can hover over every step and argue the logic.  

But between us and our horses there's no contract.  There's no penalty for failure.  There's no higher power (read "Punitive Trainer") on hand for most of us, so there's no one around to yell and fuss and make us feel terrible if we don't move from Step One to....anywhere.  When we've owned a horse for a year and still can't get him to stop biting everyone who walks by him, we are free to make excuses and blame previous owners (his) or a traumatic childhood (ours) instead of embarking on the repair journey.

You want your horse to take a blue at the next schooling show.  How far off is that?  A week?  A month?  Tomorrow?  What do you have to do to achieve that?  Is it possible and realistic that you'll reach that goal?  When, exactly, will you take the first step and what will that be?
I'm sure there's a goal in there somewhere.

If you're not working toward that goal, someone else is.  Someone else will learn the pattern, train a horse, win a ribbon, do a hundred-mile trail ride, have a horse that doesn't bite anyone.  There needs to be just a hint of competitive spirit, even if the competition is completely internal, in order to keep us moving forward.  That's how we roll.  

If you aren't going to work towards change, then don't pretend you have a goal.  There's no law that says you have to.  Honesty--with yourself and others--is still the best policy.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Riding to Blur Those Age Markers

Markers of Age | Lisa Stowe – The Story River Blog

I prefer Wise Woman too.  And I like to think I can still Run With the Wolves, if only a bit more slowly.  How many of us are misplaced zygotes, living a life that seems to belong to someone else?  Here's one of my favorite passages from Women Who Run With the Wolves:Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes:

But what if you, being a swan, had to pretend you were a mouse? What if you had to pretend to be gray and furry and tiny? What you had no long snaky tail to carry in the air on tail-carrying day? What if wherever you went you tried to walk like a mouse, but you waddled instead? What if you tried to talk like a mouse, but instead out came a honk every time? Wouldn't you be the most miserable creature in the world?

If there's one thing that impairs our aging process as humans and as riders, it's the false belief that we must live up to someone else's standards in order to gain acceptance.  Sure, if you have no tail on tail-carrying day (or, in rider terms, you look like a muffin in those white dressage pants and man-shaped jacket), it's going to come to the attention of the purveyors of righteous horseman style.  It's very hard to waggle your duck tail and pretend to be a rail-thin, 5'10" swan, and your ego can take quite a hit if you've bought into the package of shoulds that come with horses.
TredStep Symphony
knee patch breeches have
just the right amount of
corset feel.  But when did
crotches develop a "low
rise"?  Hate that!

And how much worse does it get when you begin to notice the signs of aging?  Oh, my!  So much worse!

I'm not sure when my search for breeches fabrics that are at once soft and cushy and girdle-tight to hold my flapping thighs still, but it happened.  And somewhere down the line I bought three-step mounting blocks and gave away the two-step versions.  Forget leaping onto the horse's bare back from the top rail of the fence.  I remember it, vaguely, but would find it less than amusing to give it another try.  

The blog post linked above notes such Passages as finding bedtime coinciding more and more regularly with the setting of the sun.  And the lack of desire to change the world when getting a cup of coffee is much more imperative is certainly an age-related change for me.  

One nice thing about life with horses is that the beasts don't care how old you are, nor do they cut you any slack for your obvious shortfalls in the athleticism arena.  As a result, we who ride tend to ignore, at least to a point, those changes that others find so daunting.  

I noticed this during the winter of awful that we just had, when the cold was so severe that there was no hope of doing anything athletic outdoors beyond crawling over the ice to the barn and back again.  As I sat for hour upon hour in my trusty recliner with my current reading fetish in one hand and my tablet/phone/laptop on the table at my side (why move just to recharge when it's easier to have multiple options within reach, eh?), I slowly crumpled into a mess of wrinkly stuff I wouldn't have recognized just months earlier.  Getting up and about was harder.  I have a small gym in my house, but just walking into that room gave me a twinge of anxiety because I was pretty sure that anything I lifted, pushed, pulled, or threw was going to cause me pain the next day.  And I was right.

But as low as my aging body dragged my spirit this winter, it's equally stunning to me how quickly I recovered once the sun melted the snow and ice so I could walk upright again.  The reason for that is simply that I still have the horses to take care of, and...well...I want to ride.  My mind hasn't been aging at the same rate as the rest of me, fortunately.  In my head, I still howl at the moon and ride bareback races on the railroad bed.  In dreams I'm still sitting tall on my Fancy horse and waiting for someone to put that blue ribbon in my hand.

Okay...I know what you're thinking.  We all know about getting senile, and I'm well on my way, right?  Actually, though I might be, the reality is that visualization is an excellent means of regaining muscle tone.  
What I think about on those cold winter
days...rides to remember.

"What ill magic is this?" you ask.  Seriously.  It's real.  If I recall the history correctly, this technique was uncovered among long-term prisoners of war back in the Viet Nam era.  A tennis player of note, having been captured during his service as cannon fodder, spent his long days in solitary replaying his games in his head.  When he was finally released, he discovered that his ability to play tennis was nearly as good as it had been prior to his exercise-free incarceration.

So think about it:  You dream, you think, you tell stories about the great rides of your past, and your  muscles, having excellent memories of their own, tweak themselves back into some semblance of condition so you can continue on your merry, ageless riding path.  Talk about blurred lines..!  

Do that.  Think about it.  Remember how it felt in detail.  Ride your best rides in your head while you're doing other things.   Allow your inner narrative to change back from "Good grief!" to "I can do this!"  Then go saddle up and forget about your age and your aches and pains (there are pills for that), and don't be surprised when strangers deduct a decade from you age because you're far more limber and relaxed and in-control than you "should" be.  You might not be able to swing that ridiculous riding habit (obviously designed by a sado-masochistic dullard), but you won't care.  That's one thing about aging you don't want to let go of...the ability to not have any f*cks left to give.  You can still wrangle a 1000 lb animal into letting you drive it around at your will.  Woo-HOO for that!

Happy trails!

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The Art of Processing

Connecting with Your Horse

The linked article is an oldie but a worthwhile re-read.  Nothing has changed since 2011 when it was written.  Nothing has changed in the thousands of years since man and horse first formed an alliance.  Consider it a reminder that, despite how it sometimes feels, there's more to your relationship with your horse than just getting his feed bucket filled on time.

It's been a long, sub-zero winter, so I've had more than the usual amount of time to spend observing the horses and pondering the observations.  I've noted that every day is the-same-yet-different for a horse.  The weather doesn't seem to affect them as drastically as it does us (maybe it would if they had access to catalogs full of those adorable packable down jackets), but other things affect them more.  It was a tough winter for the scavengers and vermin in my  neighborhood, and the opportunistic dining of some of the larger ones gave the horses cause for brief consternation.  Not worry.  Not panic.  Just a moment's pause while they weighed the danger of becoming the next meal for a bear or a couple of coyotes.
My choice to tack up Dakota (right)
led to a jealous tack-bomb by Leo.
No question what he was thinking.

I've learned to let the horses tell me when there's danger afoot.  They're far better at it.

Without much riding going on and a lot of handling in the barn and outside, they also have adopted a more human-centered behavior pattern.  Dolly, the solitary mare, has made the biggest shift.  Herd leader and cathected object of all the Boyz, Dolly has traditionally (for her entire 10 year tenure here now and before her absence) been a bit of a wanderer.  At least I thought it was she doing the wandering.  Now that the other mare, Pokey, who seemed to be rather innocuous and held what I assumed was a lowly level of power in the herd hierarchy, has passed on, I find that Dolly is actually a homebody.  She will lead her guys to the farthest reaches of the pasture, but only briefly.  I can count on her to return to the area nearest the barn and house at least once an hour.  There's no searching for the herd with Dolly in charge now.

Zip has made a huge paradigm shift.  He's lost the adolescent need to torment me.  He has always been a horse of strict adherence to routine, and change comes hard to him.  He's not entirely settled in the new pattern even though the change is his choice.  I was able to get a clear view of his mental processing a few days ago.  In the pasture he has long held onto a routine surrounding my approach with a halter for a workout.  For 19 years it included his coming to me as if he were delighted to see me, only to veer off and hide behind Dolly or talk Dakota into staying between us.  This isn't a lengthy game, and it's grown shorter over time.  But for the past few rides, he's come to me, started to go past me as usual, then stopped, backed up, and put his head in the halter.  Three times isn't true change, but it's evidence of learning.  The most recent episode was particularly interesting as he nearly forgot his plan and so had to stop short and look me right in the eye.  I could hear the gears grinding in his brain.  He made sure I noted that he could have run past me, that he meant to stop, and that he was sure this new plan was a better one.
Note the gloves on his ears.
Zip will go along with anything if
it means a few minutes of human
Very intriguing to watch.

This morning I had Leo explain to me that he had gas.  If he'd stared at me any harder, my hair would have melted.  No kicking or biting his side or other colicky gestures accompanied the stare.  His buckets were empty and there was ample manure on the ground.  He simply refused to eat and just stared.  Good Owner that I am, I grabbed the thermometer just in case, and applying it to the appropriate orifice, released a gust that blew my hair back.  He said thanks and ate his breakfast.

Dakota has chosen to spend some time standing with his forehead pressed against mine.  I have no clue what he's thinking, but each time he does that, he follows it with a day or two of being glued to my heels.  He's always been a good boy, but sociability has not been his strong suit.  Nor has Dolly's, so her recent choice to walk with her nose in my palm was a little surprising.

Duke never stops talking to me, so there's rarely reason to wonder what's going on with him.  He's verbal to the extreme and has a bunch of behaviors that clearly underline what he's feeling and what he wants.  But after this winter, he, too, has become almost unnaturally chummy.  In part I credit that to my kind-hearted Barn Brat, Melissa, who spent some very cold hours just fussing with him.  He's hard not to fuss with, cute as he is.  And he fully appreciates all the Human Time he can get.

So the processing continues into the spring.  Taking the time to just be around horses is vital to developing an understanding of them and a bond beyond food-source/hungry beastie.  Beyond rider and mount, beyond caretaker and patient there is a place where we stand on level ground and look each other in the eye and say, "Hey!  How're you doin'?" and get an answer.

One of the horse mags recently ran a piece on horses as pets vs horses as athletes, as if there were truly a difference.  I suppose, to a point, there is, as there will always be owners for whom competition is the endgame, and all the rest is left to grooms and stable hands.  But for a horseman it's all one, and so it should be.

Spend time watching, listening, and processing the lives of your horses.  It's momentous, I promise.