Sunday, December 19, 2010

Are you Going to Answer That?

Strangely enough, my love-to-hate relationship with mobile phones began to taper off last week right as a student of mine reached into her pocket, mid-lesson, to retrieve a text message. Right then, my loathsome feelings for these gadgets lessened. Give me a moment to explain this lack of logic.

A few years ago when mobile phones got so prevalent that everyone, including 12-year-olds, began carrying them I found myself constantly battling students' attention spans. Or lack of attention spans, I should say. It was already hard enough for students to make themselves quiet and still in the saddle, well before they had ringing, buzzing, beeping devices attached to them. Suddenly, as an instructor I had to manage not only human minds with attention deficits but also incoming emails, flirty texts, phone calls, and Facebook updates. My only hope was to call in the Dalai Lama for help or to just do the best I could.

Calling upon every thread of limited experiences with zen, I taught valiantly and sharply while limiting my annoyance levels with students' phones. I competed bravely with them, though I can't say I triumphed. In terms of keeping some one's interest, drilling her through a thigh-burning session of sitting trot just doesn't rival a Grateful Dead ring tone erupting in her pocket. Or her next move in a lively iPhone Scrabble game. Nonetheless, I kept barking instructions, repeating them so rhythmically that at time it sounded like I had a stuttering disorder.

For the past 10 years, I made an annual pilgrimage to Portugal to ride and train under the tutelage of Georges Malleroni at Escola de Equitacao in the small village of Alcainca. Initially, these trips felt like traveling backwards in time to a place where chickens roamed freely in the streets and women still washed clothes in communal stone tubs together. The streets were cobbled, the residents poor. There was absolutely no entertainment except the warm sunshine, morning walks, and listening to the village church bell chiming. I loved it. Then along came Portugal's participation in the European Union. Things changed quickly. Most notably, folks started talking faster and carrying mobile phones.

For my trainer Georges, the phone became as much a part of his outfit as his boots and gloves. During lessons, he spent as much time talking into the device as he did addressing us. Which is how and when my conflict with mobile phones first began and flourished. It's not that I minded how George would unholster his cell phone in the middle of me asking him a question or while simultaneously wrangling a young stallion, or that I cared about not having his undivided attention. The problem lied more in the fact that George did expect our undivided attention, which in lessons proved to be a cruel test of our stamina.

Most often during lessons, Georges' phone rang right as we began to school the canter (clarification: this was a group of stallions cantering together in varying degrees of obedience). After revolving around Georges for several circles in a highly collected canter and wondering why he hadn't given me a morsel of instruction in the last 5 minutes, I would glance down to discover that he was on the phone, either selling a horse to someone or booking a breeding. Or just shooting the breeze. This slight movement of turning my head caused my highly trained schoolmaster to begin making flying changes in rapid succession. We were no longer just cantering, which had become exhausting enough itself. Now, we were bunny hopping from one lead to the next. Off guard and out of balance, I tried transitioning to a trot, but my cue was lost in translation. We were bouncing up and down like a corn kernel in hot oil.

I looked over at Georges again. He was still staring at the ground waving his hand around to illustrate a point to his phone receiver. This time, my head turn sent my horse into a half-pass, careening straight towards our distracted instructor. Desperate to avoid crashing into him, I pulled on the outside rein. To my horse, this meant he should tuck his haunches under him and execute a pirouette. So, now we were spinning round and round like a clock hand. By now, exhaustion began to claim me and I gave up trying to steer my mount or to change gears or do anything besides feel sorry for myself. I started to accept the fact that, 20 minutes from now, I might still be cantering or spinning or lead-swapping around the arena with no control. In the middle of my hoping I would survive this relentless cantering without crumpling into an exhausted heap, my horse did an excellent thing. He decided to stop. Suddenly, we were standing still in a welcome cessation of exercise. I thanked him lavishly and then began mopping the sweat from my face.

This brief peace was soon interrupted, though.

"Jec- no, no, no!" my suddenly attentive instructor bellowed. "I did not wish for you to stop the canter. Begin again!" George sounded displeased with me, as if I were not taking our lesson seriously. To be honest, I had temporarily forgotten I was even having a lesson. Knowing my jelly-like legs would not last much longer, I hesitated to launch back into the canter. First, I checked Georges' hands to be sure he had re-holstered the phone; I had his attention again. My horse picked up the canter and glided smoothly across the arena. It felt like he and I were both leveraged by our instructor's rapt focus. We cantered flawlessly, executing the patterns Georges called out. Then, just as I expected him to praise us for such good work, I heard the dreaded ringing of his phone.

No, please! Please don't answer that. P-l-e-a-s-e do not answer.

"Bondia," I heard Georges greet his phone. Darn it, I'd lost him again. He diced and dealt, eyes fixed on the ground in front of him, negotiating the sale of one of his youngsters. I knew there was no hope this phone call might end soon. Exhausted, I gave up trying to ride well and focused instead on just staying on the horse. I let the horse go wherever he wanted, however he wanted. My disdain for cell phones grew to new heights.

Over the last several years since those endless sweaty lessons with Georges, I have watched peoples' attention spans grow shorter and shorter. Nowadays, with text messaging and instant media, our communication with each other has dwarfed into minimal touches on a phone face, the non-verbal equivalent of grunting at each other. It is rapid and efficient, ending nearly as soon as it begins. So, when my student reached in her pocket last week, the hairs on my neck did not stand up as they used to, because I knew she would dab a fingertip to her iPhone as quickly as an eye blink and then carry on with our lesson. Years ago, that fingertip touch would have been a full-fledged 5-minute phone call. I thought longingly for Portugal. I thought of Georges punching an occasional key on his dial pad instead of waving his hands and staring at the ground for endless stretches of time while we suffered. Ah, God bless the evolution of those wretched little devices!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Who Said Anything About Equitation?

Hobbling around today, I couldn't tell which hurt more-- my thigh muscles or my ego. Bolts of pain stabbed at my knees and calves, causing ordinary tasks to seem impossibly arduous. Getting out of my car hurt. Walking to the bathroom took forever. Tying my shoes almost made me cry. But the worst part wasn't just all this agony shooting throughout my lower body. It was the fact that I'd been made this sore by riding a horse, the same activity I do all day every day of the year. I'm a professional, for God's sake. Riding horses is the last thing that should debilitate me. Then why, you might ask, was I in such sad shape?

It's a simple explanation. You see, all of my daily riding is executed with strict adherence to classical equitation and good posture on horseback and all the instruction that has been drilled into me over the last three decades of riding. But that's not the type of riding I undertook on Saturday, which explains the crippled state I'm in right now. On Saturday, I spent 5 hours in what might best be described as a Survival Seat. This is a riding posture not described in instruction manuals or lessons. It's the shape and form that your body adopts when mounted atop a hot-headed snorting Arabian bombing down the trail at speeds that make you whimper. This style of riding is neither pretty nor classically correct. But it does generally keep you alive, so its existence has merit among equestrians.

In the world of endurance riding, every rider at some point finds herself in this seat. Some ride this way for only a few minutes while their horses act like skittish lunatics or when the trail terrain gets harrowing. Others find it necessary to use the Survival Seat the whole time they are on the horse. It depends on the steadiness of your mount, his spookiness, and whether he moves under you like a supple athlete or like a bone-rattling jackhammer.

Saturday, I found myself on the latter. "Gordy" is an off-the-racetrack Arabian whose primary gear is GO! He charges down the trail in a trot so fast and bumpy that the rider can no longer post or remain in sync with his gait. There's nothing to sync up to. Gordy is trying to go faster, faster, faster yanking at the reins. In order to keep from being pulled over, the rider-- who has given up on posting and is standing in the stirrups hovering above the saddle-- has to brace her back and clench her stomach muscles. Even a moderately fit person like myself soon fatigues in this posture. As Gordy streaked down the trail, simultaneously spooking at shadows and darting left to right, I dug my knees into the saddle flap in order to keep my butt in a hovering position over the saddle. In no time, I got a mid-back spasm. It felt like someone had jabbed a hot poker into my spine. To alleviate my ailing back, I squeezed harder with my thighs. This seemed to stabilize me decently enough for now. Gordy continued to bolt down the narrow trails like an equine rocket ship. Around tight corners, I folded over his neck to avoid getting face-slapped by manzanita branches. This maneuver required me to push harder into my stirrups, despite the balls of my feet already being numb.

By the time my right knee cricked, I was desperately starting to wonder when Gordy might ever tire out and want to slow down to a reasonable pace. Surely, he should start easing off the speed by the 18-mile mark and drop into a more rideable gait-- maybe even one that I could sit normally and quit gripping with my back and knees. But, interestingly, endurance horses don't seem to tire out when you want them to. Here I was falling apart but Gordy was fresh as a chilly morning. It occurred to me that fatigue was a long way from claiming my mount. The bone-rattling pace would continue until I lost the will to hold myself upright anymore.

Trying to ease my spinal discomfort, I now held the reins together in one hand while gripping my saddle pommel with the other. Leaning forward onto the pommel like this made my look like a hunchback, but I tried to ignore how unpolished I probably appeared. Soon enough, though, the sun peeked out overhead and threw shadowy reflections of us beside the trail. With sinking heart, I witnessed the lumpy hunched over image of me flopping atop my sleek and perky mount. In the last two hours, all traces of the elegant dressage position I had struggled for years to develop had disappeared. Gone was the honed posture, the educated seat. My reflection portrayed me as a flailing, unskilled, speed demon. A speed demon whose back muscles happened to be cramping badly in that moment.

My friend and colleague rode up beside me as the trail widened to a jeep road. He glanced over briefly. "Everything okay? You feeling alright?" he asked. I nodded in my best attempt at bluffing yes-everything-is-perfectly-fine. I didn't want him- or anyone- assuming that I, a potentially sissy dressage rider, couldn't handle the rigor of endurance riding. "Because I've never seen you look worse on a horse," he added, just in case I mistakenly thought I was acing English equitation in that moment.

Embarrassed, I made one last effort to push my heels down and sit up straight. My inflamed joints prohibited it. I remained stuck in my hunchback position. For the next five miles, I fixated on my dreary situation-- my screaming body and jackhammered spine, my wounded pride, the fact that this ride seemed like it might never end.

Then I recalled the real goal of riding and horsemanship which is to be in harmony with one's horse. Style aside, we equestrians aim to achieve a harmonious union with our steeds. My old trainers used to teach me that true perfection was when horse and rider moved as one, with each of their intentions and efforts aligned as one. Seen from that angle, therefore, Gordy and I were darn near perfect. With me hunched over his neck, grabbing his mane for stability, we were as close to being one as horse and rider could be. Together we formed a ragged portrait of less-than-stylish rider with less-than-controlled steed. And there was no question that our intentions aligned with each other's. From that point forward, we both wanted to get across the finish line as quickly as possible. Myself, I couldn't wait to get there so I could spill out of the saddle and vow never to do another endurance ride in my lifetime. Gordy, on the other hand, just wanted to run fast until the trail ran out.

It felt close enough to harmony for me. In fact, a warm spiral of pride filled me. Hunched over in the Survival Seat on my snorting Arabian, I had achieved perfect horsemanship I told myself. I rubbed my knuckles into Gordy's crest and urged him faster. Run, boy, run! I streaked past my colleague, flopping even worse than when he saw me before. We splattered mud up behind us and slid over wet rocks. We charged against the wind in our faces and pounded down hills until... there it was, the blessed finish line! I sat up the best I could and smiled like a kid at Christmas. I put both hands on the reins and thanked every deity that came to mind. The finish line! We made it! Now, how was that for equitation?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Getting Too Comfortable

My left hand stirred a bucket of soupy bran mash while also using the wooden spoon to swat at the growing population of barn flies. My right hand, meanwhile, grabbed my tuna sandwich from where it rested on a nearby filth-covered bucket. Ignoring the knowledge that mice frequently trotted across my lunch's perch with their dirty feet, I blew off a cobweb and munched away. Then, in the middle of this unsanitary lunch situation, I paused to admit what an unfortunately familiar scene this had become.

Having meals at the barn means stealing bites of who-knows-what from your coat pockets between lessons or sharing snacks with the resident dog, cat, or goat. It involves grimy hands, mouthfuls of horse hair, and standing up. You are always standing on your feet. And you often use only one hand because the other is occupied with separate tasks.

As unglamorous as this might sound to folks who work in clean office buildings with designated rooms for enjoying lunch, it's just part of life at the barn. Soon, it feels normal to be half-slurping, half-spilling a cup of soup as you walk to the arena. Eating is an area of life that we horse fanatics have adapted to fit into our barn routines. It's one of the events that start to feel completely normal in this fly-ridden, hay-strewn place. In time, other things start to feel normal, too.

In my case, that means bringing to the barn services for which that I once drove into town. Consider my former trips to the Farmer's Market, for instance. In order to procure fresh local produce, I used to visit one of our community's abundant outdoor markets weekly. Given that they were in populated areas, this meant that I needed to make myself presentable to the general public. I had to shower, brush the hay out of my hair, and wear real clothes like the other folks (read as: no jodhpurs or chaps, no manure-covered boots). A trip to the Farmer's Market, therefore, required a few hours of time away from the barn, a senseless concept.

Nowadays, though, a dear student of mine with acreage and farming skill brings me a basket of produce from her land each week. Last week, my bounty included beefsteak tomatoes, fresh mint sprigs, and several pounds of Pippin apples. In the past, she has brought free-range eggs, preserved pear slices, and lettuce greens. Every week when she comes for her lesson, she presents me with a box or bag or basket of organic and succulent harvest. It's like a Farmer's Market that comes to the barn. Not only am I deeply grateful for the produce but I am also thankful for eliminating one of the needs to leave the barn.

Most recently, I have also begun receiving chiropractic treatments in the barn aisle. Dr. Michael Agrella, a long-time human chiropractor had completed licensing and begun treating some of my training horses. He got miraculous results with a couple of them; the horses appeared noticeably more comfortable. If his work was good enough for them, it was good enough for me, I reasoned. From then on, we maximized the doc's barn visits by first treating horses and then laying me face-down on his traveling cot. At the end of the day, the steeds and their trainer all felt mighty fine. And I eliminated one more need to leave the barn.

At first, my students and colleagues viewed this as very odd behavior. How legit could it be to have your spine jerked around on a makeshift cot in the barn? they wondered. Sure, at first I missed the adornments that get one to relax in a practitioner's office-- the gurgling zen fountains, the soothing flute music, the gaudy but nonetheless mesmerizing paintings on the wall. In the barn aisle, I had none of that. I relaxed to the sound of horses kicking their stall doors, dogs barking, water buckets filling. But, maybe pathetically, I can't think of a more relaxing setting. These are, after all, the soothing sounds that surround us every day at the barn and part of the scene that we love to occupy to escape the rest of the world. Dr. Agrella adjusts me in my jodhpurs, chaps, and boots. Except for my birthday suit, I can't think of anything more comfortable and natural for me to wear.

As he snaps my neck back into alignment, we discuss horse training issues and crazy clients. A wheelbarrow swerves around us, driven by the young lady who cleans stalls. I lay contentedly looking up at a blue cloudless sky listening to one of my horses slurp at his bran mash. A fellow trainer walks past and casts us a puzzled glance, probably wondering if this large man pushing his knee into my chest is a qualified bodyworker or a disgruntled client.

Immediately after Dr. Agrella finishes, I slip back into my barn jacket, hand him a check, and climb on a horse. No need to drive across town. No sitting in traffic. And this is exactly my point. You see, lots of people think we horse folks are an unkempt bunch. Our appearance lacks the polish of manicures, styled hair, facials. So, others assume that we don't care about any of that; we neglect it all in favor of looking untidy. Let me set the record straight. It is definitely NOT the case that we do not care. It is more the case that all that primping stuff requires A LOT of time away from the barn. Which explains why most of us have trimmed it from our lives. However, if we were able to get manicures and facials at the barn we would be just as polished- if not more- than the rest of our communities. The issue is not whether or not we care or have enough money or find the time. The issue is whether or not we need to leave the barn.

We might all help each other out by brainstorming what services could be adapted to happen at the barn. I'd like you all to ponder this on your next lunch break, or more accurately the next time you're looting crumbs from your pocket to cram in your mouth.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Did you mean that Literally?

Some day, neuroscientists will discover that cultivating affection for animals causes us to speak in euphemisms. As soon as the heart warms, brain function changes somewhere in the speech and communication center. Thereafter, we speak about the object of our affection with adjectives that employ liberties with the truth.

This is similar to when we refer to the behaviors and habits of our human loved ones as "quirky" instead of what they really are, which is annoying or offensive. Or when we call someone who lies compulsively "a great story teller." I believe this comes from wanting to prop up our own egos. You see, imagining that the pain-in-the-butt habits of those we cherish are more unique and special than other people's pain-in-the-butt characteristics allows us to maintain faith in ourselves. Surely, it would not look favorable for us to foster love for ordinary annoyance. No, we prefer to believe that we love exceptional, unparalleled, or even brilliant annoyance.

When you work with animals for a living, as I do, it is necessary to develop competence for reading between these lines. One must become versed in the adaptive qualities of language. Thus, a "very intelligent" horse is translated as one that is clever and quick, overly sensitive and likely to hurt his rider unless she maintains a zen-like mind state combined with the body control of a martial arts master. Whenever a colleague of mine describes a horse by pausing mid-sentence before settling on the word "intelligent," I recognize that he or she is speaking in code. What she actually means is that I should not allow any of my students to purchase the horse because it is volatile and reactive. When one trainer says to another that the horse is "intelligent" it means to be on guard because nothing about this animal is straightforward. Some might be tempted to call it difficult or intractable. But once affection is cultivated, those terms no longer apply. Then, one must use a different language because cultivating love for an animal considered hopelessly not trainable is pretty lame. This is where the flexibility of language helps.

The same goes for saying an animal has "a good work ethic." This generally does not mean what a layperson would expect, which would be that the horse maintains a keen focus on his work without complaint or refusal. Instead, it means that no amount of exercise or rigorous mental/physical activity will tire the beast out. He will zoom around the arena at maximum energy output without any cue from the rider. He will go like this for hours. And, impressively, he becomes more hyper the longer he goes. His system appears immune to fatigue. This kind of horse with "a good work ethic" has a difficult time with anything that requires relaxation or calm focus and prefers raw speed or riding patterns at race tempo.

On the other side of the spectrum are the "very friendly" horses. This is the group disinterested in work. These horses like to lounge around and are so cute doing so that they have become fairly spoiled. A "very friendly" horse crowds your space and bites at your pockets looking for treats. Sometimes, in his pushiness, he will ram you with his head and shove you off balance. Although in the language of euphemisms, this shove would be called a 'nuzzle.' Your bruised sternum is the evidence of how 'friendly' this guy is.

I figure it's just a matter of time before we horse folks write ourselves a new dictionary. It shall be called the Oxford English Pet Ownership Dictionary and will contain no adjectives with deprecating meanings. It will give the owner of any animal possessing ornery and potentially dislikeable traits an array of descriptors to reinvent the pet. Angry and aggressive now becomes rowdy and spunky. Dim-witted becomes sweet or obedient. Disagreeable gets translated to independent, intelligent. And the next time, someone with a lot less affection for your animal expresses annoyance towards him, you can thank goodness for this dictionary. And thank goodness for the English language in general, especially its convenient malleability. It sure makes loving an occasional nuisance a lot easier.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Whose Health is This, Anyway?

My students will tell you I am an incurable skeptic when it comes to nutritional supplements and miracle health products. I scoff at costly ingestions promising to improve your horse's vitality or give him younger joints. My rationale goes like this: supplement manufacturers are just in the business of making money, not helping horses. There is no hard science or drug regulations behind these products and most don't accomplish half of what they claim.

Generally, my students turn a deaf ear to my sound advice, though, and buy all kinds of powders and potions for their steeds. They pretend not to see my eye- rolling and head waggling. At the end of the day, my students are happy with their efforts and that's what counts, not my stern attempt to educate them about nutrition.

Nowadays, any time I begin to tell someone not to buy an unnecessary supplement, I recall an equine nutrition lecture I attended a few years ago. In it, I listened to a veterinarian dispel the benefits of hot bran mashes, which sounded like blasphemy to the audience. Mashes have been touted by equestrians through history as the means to and maintenance of horse health. If one's horse suffered anything from lameness to colic to itchy skin, one gave him a bran mash. By the time he took his first bite, it was believed he was well on his way to wellness.

So, what were we to do with this vet's news?

He went on to explain that it was impossible to heat up a bran mash-- or anything, for that matter-- to a point that would increase a horse's core temperature. It was scientifically untrue that a mash warmed him from head to hoof. Thus, he advised us, we could go on feeding mashes if we liked, but just understand that no benefits would be reaped. A disgruntled audience member raised her hand.

"I would like to disagree," said the local barn owner. "Maybe you should consider that feeding my horse a bran mash makes ME feel good. And isn't that a benefit?"

She spoke wisely. Maybe measurable health improvements are of secondary importance. Perhaps what really counts is that WE feel better when we apply a certain salve or supplement. Or bran mash.

For years, I prided myself for not falling into this trap. One can spend a lot of money on equine supplements and gadgets. All those companies making powders for this and that didn't prey on my checkbook. The rubber balls promising to bring one's horse hours of enjoyable activity in his paddock? Forget it. The $10 peppermint flavored bit wipes? Nope. The granules of vitamins to make his hooves stronger? No thanks.

Then, something strange happened last week. A weakness cracked my normally curmudgeonly ways. It happened on a trip to the local feed and tack store for necessary supplies like fly spray, lead ropes, and leather cleaner. I execute this routine monthly, visiting the same shelves for the same products every time. I bypass the large displays of hokey gadgets and gizmos for horses-- neon stall toys, gourmet heart-shaped treats, garish fly masks with sparkly crystals. As I zoom past on my way to the fly spray shelf, I wonder what fools actually buy this stuff?

On my way to the fly spray shelf this time, I stopped for reasons unknown in the section of the store filled with kitschy things and examined a table display for a new product promising health and vigor for one's horse. Here, where I normally would have rolled my eyes and kept walking past, I grabbed a glossy brochure about Red Rock Mineral Supplement. The display looked to me exactly like a bin filled with chunks of stone blasted from a roadway construction project. For $15, a person could buy one of these rocks and take it home to his or her horse. I stood there reading about the "special" mineral qualities of these very normal looking rocks, the "healing properties," and their "highly balanced electrolyte" composition. It all sounded good.

I grabbed one of the rocks and turned the dusty chunk over in my hands. At first, my inner skeptic wondered what clever cow farmer had harrowed these up while clearing a field and then decided to monetize them on us loose-wallet horse folks. But my newly weak mind countered, no, surely these rocks--while appearing nothing but ordinary pasture rocks-- must have come from a special place and have special properties and be really...well, special. I pictured my horse becoming glossier from head to tail and then turning into a super athlete after such an infusion of minerals and vitamins. Suddenly, I couldn't picture her life without this rock in it. How had she made it this far in good health without it?

I hurried to the checkout counter with my pile of barn essentials and the rock. At first, the cashier looked at the rock like something I carried in from the parking lot. He glanced at it quizzically a few times while tallying my other purchases. Then an expression of recognition pulled at the corners of his eyes and mouth. He stifled a smirk as he asked "So, you're going to try one of our new mineral blocks, eh?" The way he said it made me feel like the first statistic in a store wide betting pool. I imagined he and his colleagues laughing at the display box of rocks when it arrived, slapping each other on the back, chortling about the kind of fool who would buy one.

There I was, the first fool. I clung to the promises in the glossy brochure, though, as I drove straight to the barn. Part of me assumed my horse Harmony would greet me like a kid at Halloween, prancing eagerly on her side of the stall door wondering what I had in my hands for her. She would likely chomp down on the block or lick it insatiably, I told myself. And then, pausing, she might glance up at me as if to say how did you know this is what I needed?

Of course none of this happened. Harmony took no notice of the rock as I put it in her stall. She didn't even sniff it. After five minutes, I went back into her stall and led her over to it. I rubbed the rock with my fingers and then held them to her lips so she could lick off the mineral goodness. She ignored me. Oh well, I told myself, maybe it's just the wrong time of day. Later on, she might experience a mineral deficiency and be grateful for her new rock. I couldn't deny that a few big lick marks on that rock the following day would satisfy me immensely.

Instead, I arrived at her stall and saw one corner of the rock buried in shavings. The other end was under a pile of poop. Rather than admit that the rock was a silly purchase, I maintained hope that magical properties lurked in it. Sure, those properties might be buried under manure right now. But they were there, right? Outside, I hosed it off and scrubbed it clean, then patted it dry and put it directly in Harmony's grain bucket to entice her.

The following day she found a way to tip her bucket and dump the rock. She then pushed it to the corner of her stall and urinated on it. Crestfallen, I began to realize this not-so-magical mineral supplement was nothing but a waste of $15, just like my normal curmudgeonly self would have known. I gave Harmony one full week with her rock and she never licked it once. Eventually I removed it from her stall and tossed it out, feeling low in spirits. Granted, most of what I felt was sorry for myself. I had to concede that all along, I hoped for the enjoyment of the rock not from Harmony's perspective but from my own. It would have given me a little spring in my step to see her lapping something that I--her wonderful, caring, selfless owner-- got for her.

In writing this, I hope to convince those companies that make oodles of money from equestrians buying their useless products to change the labeling on them. They can continue to promise fictitious health benefits if they wish. But they shall also add in bold print: Warning. Using this product may not lead to measurable gains in your own satisfaction and happiness. It is for horses only. For your own mental well-being and pride, you may seek therapy or other means.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Step Away from the Broom and Nobody Gets Hurt

Life in the country means you are a long way down a bumpy road far away from stores where you can buy stuff. And this pretty much guarantees that you are not going to buy very many new things every year. Foolishly, one could assume that farm and ranch folks, therefore, avoid being victims of materialism. One might even assume that with their simple shopping-free lives, these folks have transcended material needs.

But, no. What happens at farms across America is a rare form of object-attachment, the likes of which I've never read in psychology books or sociology classes. In a nutshell, farm owners form strange bonds with their tools. It may derive from the fact that sometimes whole days will pass with barn chores, feeding animals, and zero human interaction. Pretty soon, the farm owner finds herself talking out loud to the pitchfork. I call this The Great Rake Affliction.

Most often, it begins benignly. Over many months of barn chores, an individual begins to favor a particular tool-- pitchfork, shovel, rake, fork. The individual convinces him or herself this loyalty is due to the tool's superior qualities like sturdiness and weight. But in reality, favoring one pitchfork over another has little to do with superiority. It's just what someone gets attached to, like a favorite pair of jeans or chipped coffee mug. As with other favorite things, uncomfortable feelings can arise should someone try to borrow the preferred tool. Eventually, the barn owner stops sharing completely-- no matter how politely someone might ask to borrow it-- and develops a habit of hiding the treasured tool even at the risk of forgetting where she stashed it.

A couple years ago, I helped a friend organize some paperwork for her divorce. An exceptionally generous and affluent woman, she was willing to let most of her beautiful ranch's property go to her husband. She made a short list of the things she felt belonged exclusively to her: Kubota tractor, two Andalusian stallions, two saddles, and the Ames True Temper steel shovel.

"Is this $20 shovel really that important?" I asked. Compared with the equipment and magnitude of expenses involved with her divorce, it seemed so trivial. She wasted no time to tell me how much she loved that shovel. Replacing it with another one just wouldn't be acceptable. In fact, if forced to choose between one of her fancy Andalusian stallions and that shovel, she said she would be hard pressed.


"You know how it is when you have a favorite shovel," she reasoned. "I use it every morning. There's no way I'm leaving it here for other people to use. It's just a...just... it's just a really good shovel."

I let the issue go before things got any more emotional. I should have known better anyway. Not only did both my mother and father hide their favorite pitchforks in secret crannies around the farm when I was growing up but eventually they began locking them up in padlocked closets, safeguarding them even from each other.

This tool loyalty escalated over the years, building up to a high-speed chase after one of our neighbors. Much remains in my memory from that day of squealing tires, mom's use of swear words I'd never heard before, and teeth-clenched terror about her reckless driving. Above all, my 13-year old brain struggled to understand how there could possibly be so much drama over a leaf rake.

It all happened when my mom, who got a bit thirsty while raking leaves, leaned her rake against our mailbox to duck inside the house for some iced tea. As she poured herself a glass at the kitchen table, she saw through the screen door a small red truck slow down by the mailbox and then stop. A young man wearing Wranglers and a flannel shirt darted from the driver's side, tossed her rake in his pick-up, and drove away. My mother slammed down her glass and bolted down the front steps, at this point yelling as if someone had just set fire to her house. Not one to miss out on any action, I followed on her heels as she jumped into her Dodge Ram truck and floored the gas pedal. Spinning gravel and dust in every direction, she got that truck to within 100 feet of the thief in sheer seconds. He spotted us in his rear view mirror and tried to ditch us, foolishly believing he might outrun this crazy 5'2" woman behind him driving her over-sized truck at speeds well beyond her skill.

We skidded around tight corners on our narrow road, launched the front wheels airborne over potholes, racing at speeds typically reserved for law enforcement officials and Nascar drivers. My mom alternated between waving her middle finger out the window and maniacally honking the horn. Whenever she found the chance on a straightaway, she flashed her lights and stuck her head out the window to yell every manner of insult and cuss word. I clenched my jaw and dug my fingers into the seat cushion. The outside world sped by so rapidly that trees, road, sky all blurred together into a bluish gray streak. Now terrified, I wondered how long can a high speed chase for a leaf rake possibly last?

Finally, we barrelled to the three-way intersection of Route 12 and West Street and the rake thief accelerated to blast through it but then thought better and allowed his vehicle to slow down and drift to the shoulder. He exited his truck and sheepishly awaited the berating coming his way. The tall muscular young man hung his head as my mother pounced on him, reaching up to grab his lapels and assuring him eternal bad karma and damnation unless he could scrounge up a very compelling excuse for stealing her rake. The best he mustered was a whimper that he thought nobody would notice if he stole it.

Mom made a few unsavory comments about an obviously low I.Q., sub par morals, and idiotic judgment as she released him and retrieved her rake. With the prized possession, we drove slowly and quietly back home. Mom appeared almost giddy after the drama of the chase and having reclaimed her property. In fact, she was so relieved that I'm not sure it occurred to her how lucky we were to be alive. And therein lies the message of my story. Nothing comes between a farmer and his or her tools. Nothing. Consider this advance warning the next time you consider helping yourself to a seemingly innocuous shovel or pitchfork. You just might find yourself the recipient of cuss words you never imagined a farm tool could inspire.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Herd "Leadership"

I was entranced in a reverent inspection of purple wildflowers on the trail towards John Muir Pass when the commotion ahead caused our hiking party to pause. Beyond us, the trail narrowed to the width of a gang plank, with a boulder-strewn cliff falling away from its right side straight down to the creek 100 feet below. A commotion in that direction meant nothing good.

This rock slope threatened hikers that one wrong step could send them tumbling head over heels in a battering descent. It was all the more reason why the mule pack train that passed us a moment earlier impressed me so much. I pondered what an unusually reliable and well-trained group of animals they had to be. Never in my wildest thoughts would I consider riding down this trail. But I just as quickly shrugged it off as my own paranoia about the hazards of riding horses anywhere outside nice enclosed arenas. You've become too much of an arena rider, I told myself. Horses have been treading through terrain like this for centuries. There's no reason to be a sissy about trail riding. And then I returned my thoughts to the wildflowers bursting in pale colors from implausible cracks in the granite.

Just as I bent over to admire a sharp-edged Star flower, the disturbance caught my attention. Having spent my entire life with horses, it was the kind of commotion one learns to identify from the faintest few seconds of sound. The kind that means nothing good. I looked up just in time to see a brown rump bucking its way down the rocky cliff side. It belonged to the seemingly charming doe-eyed mule that, until a few seconds earlier, had led the pack train I admired moments ago. The very same group of steeds that momentarily challenged my paranoia about riding outside safe enclosed arenas.

At that time, the chocolate colored steed was ridden by a young blue-eyed cowboy in fringy chaps pulling along three smaller mules loaded heavily with boxes of gear for the back country. Obviously, though, in the short time since he passed us, he decided to surrender his role as leader and opt instead for rebellious deflector. Depositing his handsome cowboy by means of one big jump and twist and breaking free of the rope that tethered him to the three charges, he romped his way down to the creek below. Then, he lowered head to knees, gave his body a mighty shake, and slid the saddle forward over his withers onto the ground. Now free of gear, cowboy, and pack train, he curtsied back one step and began nibbling nearby shrubs.

Our party bolted up the trail to see if the rider was okay, which thankfully he was. In fact, it appeared he had chosen an emergency dismount himself, rather than try to ride his broncing mule down the granite pile. This quick thinking indicated it might not be the chocolate mule's first back country rodeo routine. Dusting off his chaps, the cowboy seemed unsurprised by the antics of his pack "leader," the leader we watched break away, untack himself, and decide to chew branches instead of lead his herd. Some leader. The three other mules stood obediently on the trail, docile and unfazed. They awaited the cowboy's next command, standing at attention like well-disciplined school children.

They made me wonder why on earth the chocolate mule (who I now thought of as Bad Mule) had acquired leader status instead of one of them. Wouldn't an obedient, quiet-natured steed be better suited to lead a pack than, say, a feisty bronc that liked to run off the trail? I wanted to query the cowboy with this, suggesting he promote the sage-looking cream colored mule in the middle to leader. This one appeared unflappable and trustworthy. He seemed to understand his job, no questions asked. But I thought better of opening my mouth to offer unsolicited advice.

I recalled not only the ever-changing whims of the steeds we ride but also the number of times passers-by probably had similar questions for me when a normally stalwart mount turned loony under me in a split second. Countless numbers of young horses at their first competitions have played out scenes similar to Bad Mule's cliff side rodeo. In the blink of an eye, they've transformed from the well-trained and capable mounts I know them to be into the world's most unruly beast. And as much as I may want to pommel them in that moment, I admit that this is just how it goes with horses. No matter their level of training or experience, our steeds still have their own whits. Generally, they want to please us. Except for that unpredictable percentage of time when they seem to want to embarrass us, take us down a notch, or simply dump us in the dirt.

In the end, I kept my mouth shut as I hiked past the cowboy figuring out how to get Bad Mule up the cliff and back on the trail. I simply nodded and walked by. I knew exactly how he felt with a combination of ire and humiliation. I pretended we saw nothing.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Room of One's Own

I just returned from visiting a breeding farm a few hours north of here. After trying out a few of the breeder's horses as possible matches for students of mine, I was treated with the luxury to overnight in her darling guest cottage. As far as accommodations go, this self-contained little place was paradise. I awoke the following morning well-rested and comfortable, which isn't always the case when one stays at strangers' homes as often as I do.

Over the last few years, I have averaged five to six nights per month away from home sleeping in other people's guest rooms, couches, R.V.s, and anything else available. Such is the lifestyle of a traveling horse trainer. Succeeding at this nomadic life relies on going with the flow, to borrow from Zen adages. I've immersed myself in all kinds of family dynamics, unplanned events, and sleeping arrangements. I've shared beds with barn cats and shedding dogs, taken showers without hot water, sat uncomfortably through marital spats over dinner, stayed at homes without electricity. When relying on others' generosity and hospitality in its various forms, I've learned to let go of being persnickety.

Equestrians occupy all walks of life and financial hierarchy, a love of fine steeds being the glue that joins us all in the same social category. Staying in their homes allows me to experience the vast differences among this eclectic group, which -- as I stated above-- means I never know what I'm in for.

One time while giving a clinic in Nevada, I stayed in a home so enormous and sprawling that, after dropping my bags in a designated bedroom, I could not find my way back to the center of the house. Eventually, I discovered a hallway intercom and pressed a series of buttons until a human voice told me the directions through various hallways, chambers, and staircases down to a kitchen the size of a basketball court. It took me close to an hour to arrive there, given my need to stare shamelessly at the collections of artwork along the way. I stood in front of an original Picasso, my mouth gaping in awe, realizing I might never be in front of an original Picasso again in my life. This awe was swiftly overturned, though, by a nearby stone horse head dating to the Han Dynasty.

A few weeks later, while training in Portugal, I fantasized about that luxurious home and my bed with sheets whose thread counts I'll likely never again experience except at 5--star resorts. In a drafty three-room cottage in the Portuguese countryside, I was trying to recover from a cold shower (the home's heater fritzed a week earlier) and the damp drizzle outside by curling up on the only uncluttered surface available, a tattered love seat with a bird cage tottering on one end and an unruly cockatoo shrieking at me. Teeth chattering, I pulled my limbs into my chest and sneezed for the next few minutes. I watched the slow moving hands of a wall clock, praying I could speed them forward to morning.

Another time in New England, I awoke so fully covered in dog hair that two showers were required to make me presentable to teach that day. Then there was a morning in northern California that I awoke with a swollen tongue and spinning head after conceding to drink my hostess' homemade wine. It took me two days to recover and rivalled the time I awoke to the bad news that my hostess kept a coffee-free house. What? No coffee? It ranks as one my grumpier and least productive teaching days.

No matter the disparities in amenities, the experience of staying in my students' and colleagues' homes with them allows us to know each other on a more personal level than simply one horse woman to another. I've pitched in during family emergencies, helped catch herds of loose cattle, been present for proms and graduations and weddings. In many cases, I've become a quasi-family member who shows up every several weeks and stays for a few days. And despite the fact that my students' husbands have to suffer the fact that their homes with be filled with nothing but horse chatter for those few days, I tell myself that no easier house guest exists than me.

For the hosts with whom I stay every few weeks through the busy summer horse show and clinic months, I am easy-going, pleasant, and entertaining addition to their homes. Or at least I tell myself this to abate the real truth that I probably wore out my welcome last year. The fact is that I'm actually pretty advanced on the high maintenance scale. Take into account that I am a vegan, a health fiend, and an occasional wine snob, and you've got a pain in the butt. As much as I prefer to believe otherwise, there is nothing easy about hosting a vegan.

I've watched my hosts developing stress disorders right in front of me trying to figure out what kind of non-meat sustenance to feed someone who runs around with horses all day. Doesn't she need more protein?, they ask each other. How can she work with horses all day and not need to eat meat, even just a little? Sometimes when they get very panicky looking about their lack of animal-free products in the kitchen, I'll tell them not to worry because I generally have my own food with me. Which is a polite way of saying I have a granola bar and a seed packet in the dark recesses of my car's glove box.

Neither of these will sustain a grown adult enough to teach all day in the heat, wind, or rain. The result: a crabby, wilted instructor blathering commands of little sense by day's end. Hence, my hostess' stress-riddled interest in feeding me. I watch them pace in circles chanting "protein, protein" to themselves, making sure they'll feed me something to keep me from crashing and burning mid lesson. Meanwhile, I sit nearby sipping a fine coffee or wine, reflecting on what an easy house guest I make (if only I weren't vegan) and casting an investigative glance down the hallway for my next possible Picasso sighting. Or kindergarten finger painting.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What do You Mean By That?

Back in college philosophy class, we learned about the concept of relativism which basically states that truths and values are relative to the person holding them. Nothing is absolute or universally true. But college happened a long time ago and I hadn't given much thought to philosophical truths-- relative, absolute, or otherwise-- until last weekend when receiving a real-life lesson on the fact that we all hold highly individual realities.

My problem arose from equestrians' tendencies to use different terms to describe the same situation. For instance, some folks will call a horse that bucks, bolts, and rears "very broke" while I might choose to call him "a wild beast worth avoiding." I've witnessed riders call their flighty, skittish mounts "bombproof" even while they're spooking at the same spot in the arena for the umpteenth time. I choose to call the same horse "volatile and reactive."

Long before philosophy class, my father tried to educate me about the differing interpretations in the horse world. When someone offered me a strange horse to ride as a kid, I always agreed. But then sometimes right before mounting up, I started to get nervous and entertain second thoughts. Pretty soon, I felt like riding this horse might not be so safe; maybe I should just stay on the ground. As the horse jittered and reared, I voiced my concern to my Dad. "But the owners said he was totally broke. And a really good boy." Why was I starting to doubt all that? I wondered as my nerves soared. At this point, Dad put his hand on my shoulder and explained again that everyone has their own definitions of "broke."

My refresher course on relativism came last weekend when I-- a hardcore dressage queen--was afflicted by an irrational motivation to join my colleague on a 25-mile endurance race. He had a feisty young Arabian for me to borrow and the event was happening right here on hometown trails. It sounded like a fun change from my daily life inside sterile dressage arenas. Arriving at the even, I found my steed tied to his trailer quietly munching hay. He was a handsome grey gelding with intelligent eyes and a strong body. I started to get excited about our ride, imagining the wind in my hair, the morning fog against my face, and the satisfying fatigue of horse and rider after 4+ hours in the saddle. Plus, the camaraderie of winding through the Redwoods with my buddy seemed straight out of a movie. In my eagerness, what I didn't imagine was the icy sensation of submersion in the waist-high San Lorenzo River as my horse raced down the trail without me.

Let me first acknowledge that I did receive a slight warning that my horse was "not real fond" of water crossings but should manage fine. To me, not being fond of something indicates that an animal will undertake the task presented but perhaps be a bit grumbly about it. Or maybe some resistance will surface, but everything will work out okay in the end. In hindsight, I could have researched in fuller detail what "not fond" meant for this particular horse.

Operating with the assumption that all would be fine, I crossed the start line of the race knowing that the river crossing loomed ahead at the 5-mile point. This section of the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz stretches nearly 20 feet wide and is strewn along the bottom with large rocks, making an already hair-raising crossing potentially treacherous.

Knowing my horse wouldn't be a big fan but should manage it well enough, I approached the water steadily without letting him balk and get worried. I kept my eyes up, pushed my heels down, checked my grip on the reins, and urged him on. We kept our momentum and he put one foot in the water. And then another. Admittedly, he didn't love the experience but was handling it decently enough to get us to the other side. With his next step, he dropped down from the rock we were balanced on and plunged into deeper currents where the river rose above his belly. Instantly, I was saddled to what felt like a bucking bull at the rodeo.

My horse jumped so high and so far that we plunged over the two riders in front of is and landed on the opposite bank near spectators who scattered like bowling pins. Pulsing with adrenalin, he sprung in the air again as I madly tried yanking his nose up from between his knees. This time, we jumped straight over the top of a boulder in our path, landed briefly on the other side, and then sproinged over a fallen log. By this time, we were on dry ground with the river well behind us, but my horse-- totally locked into his rodeo routine-- kept bucking and leaping down the trail.

Spectators gasped and shrieked. Race officials radioed for help. I scanned the ground for a soft place to bail off. A miracle from my guardian angel, though, kept me on that wild beast. And we skyrocketed up and down over more debris for a good number of meters more before he paused long enough that I could grab a chunk of mane, regain my stirrups, and yank him to a stop. Anyone who witnessed the spectacle agreed that the fact I stayed on defied both gravity and physics. It was sheer luck. Or so I thought. Then it occurred to me that, since my horse had not gotten rid of me, it meant I had to finish the loop ahead of us and then cross that darn river AGAIN on our way home. Shoot. By now, all that romantic hoopla about the wind in my hair, camaraderie with trail buddies, and blah blah blah drained out of me. I wanted to ride straight to the nearest sterile dressage arena and never leave.

Mustering up some reserves of courage and/or insanity, we sailed around the trail's main loop and refrained from antics that would incite further 911 calls on our behalf. But then, sure enough, there we were at the San Lorenzo River again. I knew I couldn't count on two miracles in one day, so the likelihood of my staying on my horse as he morphed into a wild water buffalo was nil. This time I decided the best option would be to get off and lead him through the water. He seemed to like the idea, standing quietly as I wade into the chilly currents up to my navel. My leather boots filled up like buckets and my wobbly legs froze to the point of not working very well. I tried staggering over the river rocks to give him an encouraging lead. But my legs moved sluggishly, too sluggishly to keep up with my horse as he reared up on his back legs and then blasted past me, jumping like a dolphin at high speed. He tore the reins from my hands and got to the trail on the other side as I was still sliding around on mossy rocks, trying to keep from being pulled under by the river. Treading water faster, I worked my way to the other side as quickly as is possible when you are fully dressed and with boots and wading through water up to your chest. By the time I got there, my horse had disappeared in the distance and I could faintly hear his lightning hooves far down the trail.

As I began huffing after him with water spilling out of my boots and cold wet clothes stuck to me, it occurred to me that I hadn't envisioned this part of the ride experience when I got the idea to participate in this event. Indeed, I imagined doing the whole ride on horseback. The romanticized daydreams I initially concocted about the ride were now lying at the river bottom. I was now engaged in an entirely different sort of morning than I expected.

And therein lies the problem-- one's expectations. Had I not expected the idea of a horse managing a water crossing "just fine" to mean we'd still be together on the other side, I wouldn't be in such shock jogging down the trail while other riders passed me on their nice quiet horses. Yes, the day could have been much less harrowing had I recalled some simple college course material. Our own truths are relative to ourselves. My own definition of my steed's behavior towards water would be: he hates it but WILL cross it, though the rider will likely not be part of the picture by then.

** POST-SCRIPT: my horse was caught by a fellow rider not too far down the trail and we managed to finish the event. And, minus the f$%^&ng river crossing, it was a rollicking good time!**

Friday, June 25, 2010

We Heart Horses

Back in the 1990s, Dr. Gary Chapman wrote a book titled The 5 Love Languages that indicates people express their love in five distinct ways, depending on the individual. Some folks use words of affirmation, others do acts of service, and so on. Since then, it's become trendy to talk about languages of love, and not just in touchy feeling conversations but in everyday chatter on the sidewalk. It's almost as commonplace as talking about the weather. Several other hardcover books have since been published on this topic. Likewise, weekend couples' workshops charging hefty fees for love diagnoses are popping up around the country. Apparently, we humans are plenty eager to plunk down a big chunk of cash on products that promise to psychologically analyze how we treat people with whom we're smitten.

Folks with tangled heart strings could save themselves quite a bit of money and confusion, though, by spending time with a local horse trainer. Trust me, horse trainers have been witnessing the languages of love for centuries. We are no strangers to the expression, expectations, and reception of the nebulous subject of Love. This unfolds nowhere more consistently than in a typical day at the barn in interactions between man and horse.

As a warm-up to this conversation, let's analyze your scribe first. Most psychologists would define my affection, as demonstrated for our purposes in caring for my horses, as a masculine or male style of expression. You see, men bond by doing activities together (read as: sitting silently in a fishing boat, walking through the woods, watching a sports game), whereas women have a need for more measurable connection like eye contact, conversation, expressing their feelings. For a guy, so long as two people are in the same place doing the same activity, they're bonding, no touchy feely about it. Hence, this male version of affection sums up my approach to horses. It's just how I'm wired, I can't help it. What says you love something more than getting out and exercising together? No coddling, no feeding treats, no special grooming. Just some good silent activity.

So, now that we've begun our Horse-Trainer-Turned-Psychologist analyzing, we should acknowledge that there are a few more nuances than just masculine versus feminine languages of love. For your reference and study, I have outlined the major ones. Read closely as you will not find these in a fancy manual at your bookstore.

The Bran Mashers

This is the crowd that likes to bestow affection by adding value to their horses. They spend a hefty sum each month for fancy supplements, powders, minerals, and vitamins that they read or heard somewhere will make their steeds' lives healthier and therefore happier. You will never find them feeding plain old grain and hay, as if those things were only for underprivileged horses without access to a better lifestyle. Instead, this type of owner usually has a supply of the newest organic equine cookie brand on the market in frilly packaging that looks like it came from a bakery. They are quick to buy any edible product that promises to make their horse happier or better in some way, regardless of the science (or lack thereof) behind it.

These folks commonly spend more time mixing up their horse's mid-day meal than they do riding. They will assemble this meal each day from an array of little plastic containers filled with formulas for better hair texture, joint function, digestive processes, attitudes. You name it, these equestrians have a supplement for it.

If questioned, they will swear their horse absolutely cannot function without these supplements, suggesting that it was his good fortune to have ended up with owners like themselves. With every scoop of Grand Skin Formula and MegaFlex Supreme, they pour a little of their love into this beast. So, while the feeding/supplementing routine replaces riding time for this group, it leaves the Bran Mashers with the same satisfaction. For them, soaking a pail of beet pulp and scooping flax powder and dicing apple chunks provides the same enjoyment of horse ownership that the rest of us might get from galloping around in the sunset.

The Bathers

When I bought my first new car, I wanted to take the best possible care of it so that it would last forever. Since I knew zilch about engines, maintenance, or repairs, my desire translated into obsessively washing the car at frequent intervals. I soaped and waxed it every three days for the first summer, feeling the pride of a new mother with each buff. I applied my affection with sponges and window cleaner, and spent more time standing back admiring the spot-free vehicle gleaming in the sun than I did actually driving it. I'm not sure where I got the idea, but it seemed I now equated "taking care" of something with scrubbing, wiping, and polishing it.

A group of equestrians-- that I call The Bathers-- treat their horses the same way. A loved horse is a clean horse, in their mind, and to them, nothing says affection like a bottle of tail detangler and coat sheen.

A Bather's horse spends as much, if not more, time in the wash stall as it does in the arena. For Bathers, discovering a new grooming product at the tack shop is on par with the excitement of learning new skills in the saddle. When asked how their horse is doing or how its training is advancing, they answer with names of new shampoos and hoof polishes. To their barnmates, they giggle and share the satisfaction of their relationship with their horse like a schoolgirl with a crush, except instead of mushy anecdotes they chatter about clean rumps and silky manes. At lunch with their friends, they recount the day's whisker removal and ear trimming, adding a cute story about how their 'adorable' and 'funny' horse tried to nibble the clippers or put his lips on the hose.
After investing an hour or more of her day to the horse's bath, a Bather will spend another hour holding him outside in the sunshine to dry and then selecting a blanket from his extensive wardrobe to cover his clean body until tomorrow's grooming session. Phone calls will be held, whining children will be ignored. No matter how stressful or busy the Bather's life is on a given day, the bathing ritual goes uninterrupted. Otherwise, the Bather would be at a loss for how to speak her love and this particular horse-human relationship would stagger.
The Reciprocaters
Many folks, particularly those new to horse ownership, possess the Reciprocater style of love for their steeds. These are the poor souls that dole out affection generously with the expectation that it will come back to them in kind. They are the ones standing in the barn aisle with a dejected expression asking their horses why he just stepped on their feet or bit their arms or walked into them and pushed them aside. Why did he just do that? And what they mean, of course, is how could he have just done that after all the love and kindness they give him? How could he possibly be so ungrateful? And while they're at it, they want to know why he bucked them off yesterday or spooked and bolted after seeing that spot of nothingness in the arena?
Even though they knew better, the Reciprocaters get caught up thinking the horse deeply contemplates every action before doing it. Thus, if he loved his owner as he should, he would NOT have bucked in the arena and acted like an imbecile. Rather, he would treat his owner with the same unbridled kindness and affection that she bestows on him. Reciprocaters generally believe that new behavior problems from their steeds are the result of not enough affection, even though they may already spend half their days engaged in spoiling these beasts. Thus, as ill-mannered antics crop up, the Reciprocater heaps on even more "love" in the form of cookie treats, grooming, purchasing stall toys, using lovey dovey talk. And of course this only leads to further bad behavior from the horse, leaving a very angst ridden Reciprocater asking him just what his problem is. Doesn't he know how good he has it? Why is he acting like a spoiled brat and not showing his owner a little more gratitude?
I am able to speak authoritatively about Reciprocaters, given that I myself conducted my early equine relationships with this language of love. My childhood pony "Sheba," who many believed to be a she-devil incarnated, held very few positive feelings towards humankind. In fact, she was so ornery that she possessed few actual likable traits. I adored her. I doted on her day and night. I turned down invitations for sleepovers at friends' houses in order to spend even more time with this little black mare who always wanted to bite me on top of my head and pull out a mouthful of hair. The more she bit me, the more I fed her carrots and curried her. The more she bucked me off, the more I begged my mom for a fancier saddle for her. When she kicked the neighbor kid in the face, I made a list of excuses and reasons why his mother shouldn't be upset. I wrote in my diary about Sheba and penned school papers about her. All these years later, I can report with certainty that she never returned even a fraction of such affection to me. In fact, I'm not even sure she liked me very much. Nowadays, I'd probably recognize that and compromise for a strictly working relationship with her, settling for a decent ride on a regular basis and skipping all that affectionate stuff.
But I wouldn't choose to turn back the clock and change anything. Having recognized the different languages of love, I now know that you can't force any equestrian to conduct herself in any other way than the one that feels right to her. If that means giving a spoiled horse more carrots, then so be it. If it means bathing him to the point of getting bald patches, so it is. With all this in mind, consider sidling up and plunking yourself down on a hay bale next to a horse trainer the next time your head or heart or mate puzzles you. You will not have a need for costly books or weekend couples' seminars. Just sit there long enough and the language of the barn will inform you just as much.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Placing Blame

Learning any new sport brings its own challenges, but in terms of unusually large and sometimes cruel learning curves, horseback riding takes the top spot. Not only must a new student learn to wrangle her body into never-before-experienced poise and isolation but she also needs to simultaneously wrangle the 800-pound beast under her with polish and grace. Keep in mind that at any moment, said beast is prone to his own whims, disinterest, and overall lack of enthusiasm. Or worse. This makes learning to ride-- an already formidable challenge-- far more difficult than other sports. A student learns to proceed with a noted amount of flailing, spastic gestures, and jiggly balance.

The ultimate unfairness of this learning curve surfaces when a student has the opportunity to watch a trainer ride in graceful effortless harmony. It will appear that the trainer is sitting atop the horse doing...nothing. Where is the flailing? The bungling? The pinched up, frustrated facial expressions? Of course the student acknowledges that such skilled riding style comes from years of mastery and she might one day possess it, too, but in the meantime, she allows herself some good old-fashioned envy because she knows she's a long way from riding like her trainer.

At this point, something interesting happens on the learning curve. It is something that coaches from other sports never witness. Sure, they will deal with frustrations, egos, and emotions of their students and players. But they will never encounter the creativity that riding students eventually adopt in finding explanations for why their progress is so slow. That awkward beast under them eventually becomes a really convenient excuse on days things are not going well. We have each fallen into this at some point, for instance on the day we are bouncing around attempting a decent sitting trot with our coach yelling at us when, exasperated, we announce that we would be able to manage the sitting trot just fine if only our horse would give us a smooth trot to sit. Or we'd be able to give the right cues if only he would pay attention. He's the reason for our sub-par performance, not us, we tell our coaches. In time, this line of reasoning gives riders a handy and consistent way to explain the glacial speed of their skills progressing.

And what pleases the human mind more? What satisfies us more than believing that we are hindered exclusively by factors other than ourselves? What else allows us to go around thinking we're A LOT better at something than we actually are?

I pondered all this recently while struggling through a swim lesson. As a kid, I never learned to swim and now as an adult it seemed ridiculous, so I went to a local pool and signed up with a coach. "This is going to be really fun," I told myself the first day, much like new riding students probably tell themselves driving to the barn. I shimmied into my swimsuit, jumped into the water, averted drowning and felt like I was well on my way to being a decent swimmer. In fact, I held all the same beliefs of beginning riding students: I am an athletic, capable, quick-learning woman; how hard can this be? Just moments after thinking I was well on my way to becoming a decent swimmer, I found myself unintentionally upside down and unable to get my bearings back. I tried paddling my arms, which only flipped my body around in circles like a rotisserie chicken. Through my goggles, I saw sky, bottom of the pool, sky, bottom of pool, sky....

My coach jumped in and rectified matters, allowing me to sputter chlorine out of my ears and nose. Then, immediately, I hurried to find an explanation. Surely, the episode could not be explained simply by the fact that I was a very bad swimmer. No, there needed to be another reason I was flailing in three feet of water. Could it be the pool temperature? A clothing malfunction? Interference from another swimmer? But when you're doing a sport with no equipment, no teammates, and very little clothing to malfunction, you realize quickly-- and rather disgruntled-- that there isn't anywhere to put the blame except on yourself. Ouch. Yes, the reason I tended to bob up and down like a buoy at high tide rather than execute a graceful breast stroke was the fact that I was a very bad swimmer. There was no way around this. Unlike a few moments prior, I acknowledged that cows might fly before I became a decent swimmer. "This is not going to be fun at all," I told myself on the drive home, wet hair dripping down my back. Humbled and deflated, I tried to find a silver lining in the reality that I was pathetically unskilled at this new sport I hoped would bring me a lot of happy hours.

At least it brought me in touch with the tribulations that my riding students go through. It gave me a taste of their frustrations and hopes and failures. This, I believe, helps make me an effective coach for them. Yet, in my humbled state, I couldn't help feeling that they were far better off than me. At least they had a horse to blame! They had something with which to assuage their failures, like a hearty dose of putting the blame on something else. I will assure you that this is much preferable to standing in a swimming pool realizing that there is nothing-- nothing!-- to use as an excuse for sub-par performance. So, be forewarned that the next time one of my students gets frustrated in the saddle and questions why on earth she has taken up this cruel sport, I will tell her she has no idea how good she has it.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Delusions of Grandeur

When I moved to California as a young trainer, my initial concern was not how I would make a living but instead that there was something funny in the drinking water. Whatever substance or chemical it might be, it had the same effect on every novice equestrian: filling them with the belief that, with a little effort, they would end up in the Olympics.

This puzzled me because if there is anything that riding is, it's HARD. Dressage in particular seems suited for only those who enjoy constant struggle and failure, perfectionism, fleeting moments of accomplishment followed by futility and frustration. I like to think it's probably easier to become a millionaire than a decent dressage rider. A lot easier. But call it what you will, perhaps The American Dream, for scores of beginning adults take up riding every year with the naive sense that, with some effort and determination, they will reach great achievement. Little do they know that what lies ahead is a mighty ego smack down, the likes of which they've probably not yet experienced in life. In time, they will learn firsthand the cruel fact that even with a monastic level of focus and dedication, riding accomplishments like to remain elusive.

Yes, my optimistic reader, even with proper funding, reams of disposable time, access to world class instruction and horses, you will likely still be looking far off into the distance in a few years to see the pinnacle of the sport. That's just how it goes with riding. If, on the other hand, you wanted to master the Art of the Bruised Ego, you will find that achievement comes much faster. And consistently. If you relish the acquisition of skills slipping away right before you get your fingers around it, then equestrian sports are for you. Should you find something satisfying in being bruised, battered, downtrodden, or deflated, you shouldn't wait another second to begin a riding career.

In recent years, the number of newbies telling me they'll participate in future Olympics has illustrated for me just how cynical equestrian sports have made me. Granted, I consider it a healthy cynicism because it's been well honed from a lifetime of the equestrian success-deflation cycle. As a trainer, I try not to crush any one's personal American Dream with my cynicism but sometimes I try to safeguard them from that mind-boggled state that comes from riding one moment with perfect execution of skills and harmony followed within the blink of an eye by a moment where you cannot get anything right. Sometimes there are whole weeks like this. These weeks are filled with disgruntled utterances that go like this: "What the *bleep*?! I just did this (fill in the blank: 'canter depart,' 'half-pass,' 'shoulder-in'), how come I can't do it again? I just did it perfectly and now I can't do it at all...?"

So it goes for those who have signed on for The Art of the Bruised Ego, for those who take up this sport that requires probably more than one lifetime to master, although they would prefer it to take a couple months. Let me confess, admirable equestrians, that I am not immune from delusions of grandeur or my own personal American Dream. I have suffered the same follies of believing that I might accomplish overnight something that takes other mortals decades of toil. Prior to my present day cynicism, I thrived on the kind of starry eyed ambition that feeds my Olympic hopeful students. Mine wasn't for horsemanship or dressage but for something just as elusive: a zen state.

Many years ago, I decided my mind could use a good scrubbing out and thus found myself at a zen monastery with no previous training or real understanding of zen (you can draw the parallels here with the newbie dressage rider who buys a fancy horse but doesn't have a clue how to sit on it). I had read and heard that it took decades of disciplined study and practice to tap into the teachings of zen, but rather naively and probably egotistically, I thought I could abbreviate the process. In fact, I expected full spiritual enlightenment after a few weeks of sitting on the meditation cushions in this room full of bald-headed guys and gals. Let's face it, what was holding me back? I am an intelligent, motivated, goal-orientated, and capable woman. With a little focus, enlightenment would be mine. Goal accomplished. The unobtainable obtained. (You can draw more parallels here with the novice equestrian believing she'll be a contender in the next Olympic trials.)

Needless to say, my budding enlightenment received relentless blows before it ever got started. In fact, it's still waiting to start and I've been toiling for a decade. I sat on that little round cushion telling myself "this shouldn't take too long, I'm more capable than the average person, this is going to be straightforward for me..." and all kinds of other delusional things. I might as well have told myself I'd be the next princess of Morocco. Numerous teachers tried to reel in my preposterous ideas but I regarded their sage advice like fat rain clouds over my parade to enlightenment.

So it goes with The Art of the Bruised Ego. It's not that I've given up on my zen state, though. No, I'm still sitting on the little round cushion regularly, humbly acknowledging that I sure haven't abbreviated any pathway or process. By the same token, I haven't given up on one of my starry eyed students making it to the Olympics. But I would feel more optimistic about their chances, as well as my own, if the next Olympic Games added a new event called The Sport of Dashed Dreams. I already have several contenders groomed to take the podium.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Who You Callin' Fit?

Just as I contemplated a donut-sized roll of fat over the horse's loins, I listened to his rider tell me how "fit" he was. Never mind that the horse had worked up a sweat walking 100 meters from the barn to the arena and his nostrils expanded for more oxygen at the effort of putting one foot in front of the other. No matter, she told me, this guy was plenty fit.


Well, what about the fat roll over his loins? And around his withers? Or the lack of muscling anywhere on his body? I inquired.

That was no big deal, she replied. Rest assured that under all that chub existed a well-toned animal. Having just published a book about equine fitness, I wanted to educate her about the fallacy in her thinking but I knew from previous experience that there's no talking someone out of her fitness opinions even if I'm an expert on the topic. And where fitness is concerned, there's no shortage of strange beliefs. Such as equating chub with tone. In these conversations, I've uncovered two truths about Americans. First, we keep low standards for what constitutes fitness. Thus, being just one step ahead of total fatness gets counted as fit. Second, we hold our animals to completely different standards.

Let's take a look at these, starting with the first of what I call the American Fitness Truths. I blame the exercise gadgets and workout video craze of the 1980s and 90s, but somewhere along the way, folks started believing that a few minutes of respiration elevation in their week would get them fit. Just move yourself around for a four or five minutes every day and, voila, you had successfully combated being unfit. I've even seen magazine articles promising results from "The Four Minute Workout," which leads us Americans to form beliefs that fitness just aint that hard to come by. This has created a highly diluted definition of the term, to say the least. By this line of thinking, it seems that a vigorous shampooing in your morning shower counts at the day's workout. And for some people, I'm afraid it does.

How a four-minute session of jiggling around can be seen as a legitimate form of fitness is beyond me. But we Americans do like things to happen quickly, so the notion of truncated workouts delight us to no end. Why sweat and hyperventilate for an hour if you only need to walk briskly to and from your mailbox to get fit? The problem, as with many things, is that these opinions never get tested. Many of my students will tell me that they are quite fit, yet if I ask how they know this to be true, they lack substantiation. Have they recently trained for and competed in a an event like a 5k run?, I'll ask. Or how about a multi-day bicycle trip? Or a yoga retreat? Nope. Nada. None of the above. They just assume that since they are not completely blubbery then they must be fit, right? They never test the assumption. It would be like me thinking I'm a total brainiac but never succumbing to an intelligence test or producing any work that demonstrates mental capability.

I'm a fan of standards and validation, but I find myself frequently without company on this point. When people tell me they are fit, I'm curious how they know this. What's the standard for validating the claim? If a mechanic tells me the brakes on my car work, I want to be sure he knows it, not just has an opinion about it. The same applies to fitness. If we Americans want to call ourselves fit just because we get up and walk around during commercial breaks on television, this is perfectly fine so long as we can provide proof for our so-called claims. So, be forewarned. Should you find yourself taking a lesson from me in the near future, be ready to provide supporting evidence for any fitness claims. The fact that you are one step ahead of your neighborhood Fat Guy doesn't count.

Now let's move on to the second American Fitness Truth. This goes something along these lines: we ourselves will consistently balk at an afternoon filled with heart-pounding exercise (such as climbing a mountain) because it's just plain unpleasant, but we will not hesitate a second to impose the same task on our animal friends. We hold them to a different expectation, as if their four-leggedness makes them machine-like. We ignore that they have muscles and hearts that get just as weak and flimsy as our own. In this blindsided state, we allow them to stand around idly in a pasture for months and then one day (when they are very unfit), saddle them up and ride them into a sweaty lather while assuming it's no big deal.

I asked a gal yesterday who was mounted atop a huffing-puffing four-legged creature if she herself had ever run a half marathon. She looked at me like I'd suggested she tattoo a rainbow across her nose. And then she spurred her overworked mount for more giddyup. But how fair could that be?, I pointed out to her. How could she expect her jiggly equine friend to work his butt off for an hour or more when she was so unwilling to impose the same suffering on herself? The answer that folks always give me is that "horses are just different than us, that's how it's fair. " Call me a simpleton, but I'm confused about how differently ANY creature could respond to aerobic activity. Are these folks indicating that if I had four legs and a tail, I could just go out and run a marathon tomorrow without any training? Does a horse's heart pump differently? In the absence of muscles, does he have the ability to flex his fat ripples? Does he remain in good shape while leading a sedentary life just because he's a horse?

No, dear reader, of course not. Let me be the needle in the proverbial balloon: horses are no different than us. Their capacity for aerobic fitness is no greater or less than ours. The primary difference between man and beast is not the size of our hearts but our brains. We humans possess the larger grey matter and therefore the ability to subject pudgy steeds to our whims.

Let's stop kidding ourselves. While they may not be seated on the couch with a can of beer, our horses are NOT standing around at the ready for a mega dose of respiratory suffering. Most of us have a horse that's only one step ahead of the Neighborhood Fat Horse, a situation that might be different if we had more time. But since making a commitment to our own fitness and carving out our daily four minute workouts, our schedules have gotten tight.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Vacation Re-defined

While they constitute a segment of the population most in need of vacations, horse people possess a gene that inhibits them from experiencing authentic leisure time. Let me explain this a bit further and perhaps you, gentle reader, can help me understand why the very thing that leads us to crave vacations (endless exhausting horse chores) causes us to miss out on the horseless luxury they offer. On one hand, we can't wait to get away from the barn for a few days of solace and on the other, we don't like being away from the barn. It's a classic Catch-22. But for the purpose of further study, I've managed to divide equestrians into three basic vacationing groups.

1.) Those who plan vacations around horse-related activities, which might include a trail riding adventure in Ireland or a trek on mules through the Grand Canyon. Numerous butt-numbing hours in the saddle and a disagreeable spouse are pillars of these vacations.

2.) Those who plan trips to touristy resort areas with the intention of snorkeling, getting spa treatments, and eating seafood nightly. Upon arrival in their hotel rooms, however, they find themselves earmarking pages in the guidebook for nearby attractions involving horses. These might include a carriage museum, a beach trail ride, or an art gallery featuring equine specific artwork. Disagreeable spouse is guaranteed.

3.) Those who do manage to get away to exotic locations and avoid the sight of horses the entire trip. However, this last group of equestrians phones home at least three times daily to check on the well-being of his or her horses, get updates, and remind the caretakers about turnout schedules and supplements. In fact, several vacation activities are abandoned in order not to interfere with the schedule for phoning home. Again, disagreeable spouse is characteristic of these vacations.

Regardless of which of the above categories an equestrian occupies, he or she returns home feeling entirely refreshed, which begs the question: how can one be refreshed towards something one never took a break from? I believe we should blame faulty psychological wiring. However, I suppose what matters is that we think we had a vacation, never minding that our traveling companions and spouses will confirm that we rarely stopped thinking about horses the whole time and maybe should have just stayed home to begin with.

I'm no stranger to these tendencies. This past week, in fact, I returned home from a pseudo-vacation in Kentucky, a state I had never previously visited. Flying there, I thumbed through the guidebooks selecting all kinds of exciting activities in the Blue Grass state like touring historic mansions, bourbon tasting, visiting a Shaker village. Yet, immediately when I arrived in Lexington, I found myself posing for photographs with bronze horse statues in the airport lobby. Almost before I knew it, my itinerary changed to entirely equine activities. I awoke the next day to visit a race track in the early morning fog, followed by a tour of a retired Thoroughbred facility, and then a jaunt through the Kentucky Horse Park. The following day included a drive through the country (complete with posing for more photos, this time with Thoroughbred foals) and a visit to a bookstore that sold coffee table horse books. My three-day vacation was equine-centric to say the least, but somehow I came back feeling rejuvenated and refreshed for my horses and students at home.

The faulty psychological wiring I mentioned above is undoubtedly genetic, getting passed from pseudo-vacationing equestrians to their offspring. I verified this at an early age while spending some time in Amsterdam with my mother. A conference for ancient Greek philosophy was the context for our trip and most of our time was spent trolling libraries, meeting rooms, and archives in studious hours. One day, fully immersed in ancient texts in a tiny bookstore on a back street, my mom jumped off her feet as if lightning struck her. The next second, she threw the rare book she'd been reading to the floor and bolted out the shop's door. Wondering if perhaps she had suffered a seizure of sorts, I calmly put down my study materials and followed her. Approaching the entrance of the store, I saw her already far down the street, running along a canal with her hair sailing behind her. Thinking by this time that the potential seizure had morphed into sheer madness, I began chasing her, abandoning our bags and coats at the shop.

I found her three city blocks later under a tree trying to catch her breath and thwart an asthma attack. After ensuring she could breathe fine, I asked her point blank if she had suddenly gone stark raving mad.

Of course not, she replied. Her dramatic departure from the bookstore could be explained by the fact that she heard hooves clip-clopping down the street and she wanted to see Amsterdam's carriage horses pulling their fancy carts along the canals filled with tourists. Hence, she ran as fast as she could in the direction of the clippity clops, but alas never caught them. At a young age and perplexed at this point, I asked why she cared so much. I mean, how exciting could it be to see horses in a foreign city when my parents made their living with horses every day at home? When she heard clip-clopping seven days a week on our farm, what could possibly be so thrilling about that noise while on vacation to cause someone to run down the street like a crazy person? The validity of my questions brought her a sheepish smile. It was a little bit crazy, she admitted. And then putting her philosophical training to use, she pondered that equestrians probably just lack the ability to be fully entrenched in other activities without at least a small part of their minds still occupied with the thought of our beloved beasts. At my age, I didn't get it. That all sounded like nonsense.

Now, a bit later in life, it's very easy to imagine myself bolting out of a shop, museum, or other establishment in a foreign city to chase down a set of clopping hooves. And no doubt the sight of a horse, which describes every other day in my life, would indeed refresh me.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Someone I hadn't met before bought my two books yesterday and when she handed me her check, she said something that made me snort with laughter.

After a reverent pause of holding the books I labored five years to write and publish in her outstretched arms, she remarked, "Wow, you must be, like, really famous."

Famous by whose calculation?, I wanted to know. First of all, unless you're Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, writing a book doesn't instantly land you amongst the glittering rich and famous. You can count on this being especially true when you write a book for a microscopic niche industry like horses.

Sure, my books have sold far and wide within the horse world, but I'm not sure that qualifies for fame. I can tell you that Oprah has not called yet. Nor has Ellen, Letterman, or the Today Show. That's the reality of being at the pinnacle of an activity that attracts only a few other folks, gets zero media coverage, and rarely makes the conversation list at parties and dinner tables nationwide.

In terms of mass market appeal, I might as well have written The Guide for Cartographers Under 30. Even if every single U.S. equestrian bought my book, the royalties wouldn't add up to owning a fancy address here in California, that's for sure. In fact, they wouldn't even add up to buy a mobile home in a nice park. Since the release of my second book, I'm still sitting here in my cottage listening to the termites chew apart its sagging roof. I still shop at Goodwill. I still drive a second-hand economy car. In other words, being a two-time author in the equine industry hasn't changed my life or bank account one iota.

Before I sound like a curmudgeon, though, let me admit that there has been some notoriety to come my way. It may be the type you measure in your own diary rather than the New York Times, but it's a small dose of acknowledgement nonetheless. Among my friends, I'm a celebrity, bless their souls. To them, a published book is unfathomably impressive. It doesn't matter if the book contains the Great American Novel, knock-knock jokes, or your mother's recipes. A book is a book ad to friends, it makes me as credible as Gatsby or Nabokov. Frankly, my pals can't figure out why Oprah hasn't called yet. One volunteered to make sure she had my phone number. I assured him that failing to have my number wasn't the reason that Oprah hasn't planned a show for authors of horse training manuals. Unless she intended to cut her interested viewers to a teeny fraction of its current size, I doubt I'll hear from her soon. But my friends don't understand this. A book is a book, right?

Notoriety also came from my hometown where the newspaper ran a feature story about me and my books. The front page story included a flattering photograph and no shortage of words. In fact, the article sought to make me a celebrity in more ways than one. It dug up every minor accomplishment from my life to date. It mentioned poetry contests, basketball championships, bike races, college honors awards. Basically, it provided the fanfare and retrospective my friends were hoping for from Oprah.

**I should mention that my Vermont hometown has a population around 5,000 and the weekly newspaper that featured me comes in the form of six pages of pancake breakfast announcements and fundraisers for the fire station.

It might not count as actual fame, but I plan to take it wherever I can get it. The adage of being a big fish in a little pond doesn't bother me. I will take big fish status any day because, let's face it, the horse world will always be a tiny pond. Heck, I may not be able to afford a Rolls Royce just yet, but you better believe I'm laminating that front page story from the Randolph Herald and hanging it on my wall unless the termites chew it down beforehand.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Because I Said So

Teaching is a funny business, especially when one endeavors to teach something as elusive as horsemanship. It's a cruel pursuit of seeing students achieve success for a few seconds and then fall apart just as quickly. I find myself too often saying "Oh! That was it-- you had it! Did you feel it?" just as the scene before me unravels and the student's face pinches up in frustration. It's akin to asking someone if she felt the urge to blink her eyes right before her eyelids moved. Of course she didn't. And if her learning is supposed to be built upon these teachable nanoseconds, you can see how it gets discouraging.

And then it's my job as instructor to channel that frustration into something productive and uplifting. Aside from the Dali Lama, I think most of us cannot achieve such a feat. Yes, any learning curve involves setbacks, but with horses the setbacks outnumber the triumphs by a large margin. Feigning a thin smile and reminding students day after day that their relentless sense of failure is actually an enriching part of the process sometimes just feels awkward to me. Some days, when trying to disseminate motivation that will help them stay the course, I feel as though I'm attempting to convince them of the values of masochistic hobbies. Maybe in reality I am. Maybe that's part of being a riding instructor.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately because the very act of learning to ride a horse contrasts the high-paced- instant- gratification-information-overload world we live in at the moment. During a time when folks can get the answer to any question or quandary or quest within seconds by looking into the palm of their hands at a cell phone, it's absurd to expect that they will savor the painstakingly slow pace of learning horsemanship. We humans are pleasure seekers. We want instant results. We want to win the lottery without putting in effort. We want robotic vacuum cleaners, pills that solve our health issues, cars driven by auto pilot. What we do NOT want are hobbies that demand excessive toil and sweat and, in return, give us a feeling of slamming our heads against a wall.

The necessity of me remaining employed begs the question: With internet and texting and space- age cell phones, why would anyone elect to take up a sport that requires hours of sitting in a saddle before they can get their legs in the right place, never mind influence the horse?

Lucky for me, though, folks still do take up horsemanship and riding, which keeps me employed. I have yet to figure out what draws them, but I've concluded there's something about all that toiling and frustration that must appeal to them. It's a rare breed, these folks. They're the ones who wake up in the morning, slip on their shoes, and then say to themselves "oh goody, maybe I'll go do something really futile today" and head off to the barn.

And generally what keeps them coming back is the fact that these hardy souls are movers and shakers in other areas of their lives. Commonly, they're CEOs and founders of ground-breaking companies, inventors, scholars. Basically, they're the type of people who can do anything really, really well. But horses present a humbling detour in their otherwise highly accomplished, talented, and successful lives. And, truthfully, I think this is what keeps them coming back to the barn every day. I believe that they are boggled, as am I even after all these years, how a seemingly simple four-legged nonverbal beast can be so, well, not simple. They say to themselves "I can run companies, save lives, build communities, raise a family, why the HELL can't I master this less intelligent creature?" It's that humbling question that puzzles them, which in turn causes them to enlist in the daily progress of learning to ride: two steps forward and two-and-a-half steps backwards.

I, for one, applaud the effort. Horses have been humbling me for 28 years and I have come to accept that I possess flawed psychological wiring that keeps me attracted to these beasts. But I can't wish that flaw on others, can I? This is the metaphysical question facing us riding instructors. I would prefer to believe that I could offer some solace to students in the throes of frustration and angst, to think I could say something inspiring and sensible, rather than just nodding in their direction and saying "Hey, it appears you're masochistic just like the rest of us."

For now, when students turn to me in their desperate hour to express all the woes and emotions and inadequacies that horses bring out in us, the best I can do is rely on an empty childhood maxim, as devoid of inspiration and clarity as it may be. When they are struggling to learn the elusive art of horsemanship and ask "But how can this be right?" or "why should I keep doing this?," I reply: BECAUSE I SAID SO.