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!