I got my start with horses in a world of “make them do it” horsemanship. I heard a lot about making the horse respect the rider. Crops and whips were used as both aids and punishment. Side reins were used to hold the horse’s head in position, and there was a lot of talk about driving aids, pushing the horse into the contact, and setting the hands. Any reluctance or unresponsiveness by the horse was to be met with a sharper or secondary aid to get the desired response NOW.
For nearly my first thirty years of riding, that was my foundation. Over time I moved away from a lot of the harsher components of it, but like many of the people I grew up watching and learning from, I remained quick to frustration and anger when things didn’t go the way I wanted or expected with a horse. For the past almost twenty years, I’ve been learning from people who have a different approach to horses, one that is more relationship-based than demand-based. When I started actively learning a softer way with horses and that anger came up, I directed most of it at myself, for my inability to just stop reacting that way. The horses didn’t care much who I was mad at; they just knew that I was mad, and that the energy I was projecting wasn’t safe to be around.
When I was in my early twenties, I read a book by a respected animal behaviorist who was also a respected trainer of dogs and horses. When she died in 2001, the New York Times obituary referred to her as someone “who saw human traits in pets,” which was not how scientists were supposed to think then (it probably still isn’t). She was much more aware than most trainers and scientists of the time of animals having intellect and emotions, and what she called a moral sense. As a trainer, she also wrote about being given “crazy” horses or dogs to work with and acting crazier than they did so that they had to pay attention to her. At the time, as something of a specialist myself in “crazy” horses (i.e. the horses I usually got a chance to work with when I couldn’t afford a horse that had decent or no training), this made sense to me. Now, it does not. For me, anyway, this approach was just another variant of the old methods: obedience, discipline, correction. Even well-intentioned trainers still use language like this.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why we deal with horses this way. When “I say, you do, and do it NOW” is the expectation, what’s behind that? Far more often than I ever want to admit, it’s about fear. “I say, you do” feels like it keeps me in control. I think there’s a human belief that if we are afraid of something, and we can make that something or someone afraid of us instead, we will be safe. We can try to convince the horse that we are scary enough for it not to hurt us – without going so far that we convince it we are scary enough to attack. Horses are flight animals, but if given no choice, they will fight. When we are afraid, we make bad (and sometimes dangerous) decisions. When we are afraid and we don’t want to admit to or show our fear, we make even worse (and more dangerous) decisions.
Recently my wise friend, horsewoman Anna Blake, posted a brilliant blog in which she said “Level ground is needed for trust. In the beginning, it feels like chaos to breathe instead of intimidating.” I don’t want any kind of tattoo, let alone one with a whole lot of words in it (ouch!), but that sounds like a good choice so that I can look at those words every day. What does it feel like to put myself on level ground with someone or something I believe can hurt me? What does it look like for me to pause, breathe, and choose my next action with deliberation and kindness, instead of reacting in fear and anger? What happens if I start by extending trust, instead of withholding it?
I have a long history of doing stupid things with horses. Usually I did the stupid things when I was alone, often while trying to get something done faster and more easily. I almost never got hurt back then, but I came back to the barn with a lot of interesting stories. There was the time didn’t shut the main gate before bringing the herd in for breakfast (spoiler alert: no horse story that begins with “I didn’t take the time to shut the gate” is going to end with all the horses going smoothly into their stalls) and ended up jogging down the middle of the road behind a trotting horse, as cars passed us in both directions, drivers apparently thinking this was an expected way for a person and a horse to get exercise at the same time. There was the time I hopped on one horse bareback to ride him in from the field while ponying another horse behind. Not a bad idea until the horse I was ponying slammed on the brakes, and I decided in that split second that if I had to hold onto either the inexpensive Apaloosa-Thoroughbred cross or the expensive Hanoverian it should be the Hanoverian. Perhaps not the wrong cost-benefit decision, but not such a good idea to let go of the horse I was riding and hang onto the horse I was leading but who wasn’t actually moving. Fastest unscheduled dismount I’ve ever done off the back end of a horse.
Sometimes it was a well intended but ill judged riding decision, as in the time I decided to get on a horse for the first time in an open field some distance from the barn. I was re-starting him after some very bad experiences and my theory was that he would be more comfortable away from the arena where the bad experiences had occurred. He stood like a rock as I put my foot in the stirrup, hopped a bit, and pulled myself up, and then he went from rock to rocket and bolted for the barn. I had the choice to throw myself off or throw myself the rest of the way on, and I chose on, trying to stay in the middle of his back while planning what I would say to my boss when we came screaming into the barn at 700 miles per hour. He wore himself down to a walk before I had to finish crafting my speech. There was the time I decided that it would be better for me to dismount and lead the green horse over the narrow, muddy creek instead of asking him to go across it with me on his back. I took the end of the reins, hopped across the creek, and turned back to encourage him only to find he was in mid-air on his way to landing in the exact spot I occupied. I turned away and he hit me square in the back with his chest, sending me from upright to face plant in a split second. Because I (of course) held on to the reins, I also caused him to step on me and push me further down into the mud. I ended up with mud covering every inch of the front of my body (face included), and some hoof-shaped bruises on my ass – perfect imprints including the shape of his frog, his shoe, even the nailheads.
My riding career got off to a fairly sedate start with a couple of black and white paint school ponies during two weeks of summer riding camp. Ace (Ace of Spades, for the black spade marking centered around his tail) had been packing new riders for so long I’m not fully convinced he ever knew little eight year old me was up there on his back, but he certainly never did anything to disturb me (or to expend any extra energy). Cherokee was smaller, prettier, and more sensitive, though I confess at the end-of-camp show she simply left the ring with me on her back and headed for her stall.
It wasn’t until a little later, but not much later, that I started getting placed on horses no one knew anything about and sent out for a trail ride or a lesson. This did not always go well, as in the time the horse in question was a mare with a foal by her side. The instructor shut the foal in the stall, put me up on the mare, and we headed out towards the trails. I say “towards” because we didn’t even make it all the way to the end of the barn before she turned around and ran back to her foal. It was a short ride. Slightly longer and more eventful was the time we were walking on a trail on a ridge above the creek , when the instructor started to trot and everyone behind him trotted also, until it came to the horse I was on. Instead of trotting, he stood up on his hind legs and started backing down the hill towards the creek. I threw my arms around his neck to try to stay on and keep him from flipping over while my sister, the only rider behind me, screamed for the instructor to stop. Like most of my stories from this period, this one ended uneventfully with the ride resuming after the instructor decided to walk the rest of the way.
Once I had a choice about what horses I would ride, I often chose the same kinds of horses I rode when I first started. Horses who were new at the barn and no one knew what to expect of them. Horses who people did know what to expect of, and it wasn’t anything good. Horses who people had decided weren’t worth the effort. I have always loved horses, but when I first started taking lessons I was afraid of riding them. I remained afraid until the first time I fell off and nothing bad happened. That fall happened because I was so tense I just bounced off the side of the horse when he started to trot. Afterwards I was able to at least loosen up enough to stay on. The next year when we moved to a different barn I had the added motivation of the requirement that any student who fell off in a lesson had to bring brownies to the next lesson. The shame of being seen carrying the brownies was sufficient to keep me on top during almost any situation. I learned to ride, but I also learned to hang on.
I am not sure if my lifelong habit of choosing horses who are challenging to ride had to do with proving that I was not scared, or with the positive “this kid can ride anything” feedback I got from being put on horses I had no business riding, or with having empathy for horses other people had given up on, or a combination of all these things. There was a period in my life where my horse choices and my people choices were remarkably similar. Then there was a point when I made a decision that if I needed to work out some kind of savior energy in my life I should do that with horses and not with people. Eventually I realized I don’t need to do it with horses either, but that was a bumpier road. That one brought up the “Who am I, if I’m not the person who…” line of thinking. If I’m not the person who can – and does – ride anything. If I’m not the person who is the horse’s last hope. If I’m not the person who can get the horse to do the thing he won’t do for anyone else. If I’m not the person who isn’t scared – but that’s the one that gets tricky, because I was in fact scared all along. I was just an expert at both hiding and ignoring it.
I don’t particularly want to admit to being scared of anything, but admitting I’m scared on a horse or around a horse is about the hardest thing for me. It comes the closest to erasing my entire identity. Even though it has been decades since I earned my living riding the last hope horses, the idea that I can do it is still central to my sense of myself. I still have the last horse I got because of my horse savior complex, and I will say now that I have been scared of him for most of the time I have had him. He didn’t need me to save him, turns out, but for a period of time I needed him because he doesn’t let me get away with anything, especially not with pretending not to be afraid. I try not to make that his responsibility any more. These days when I go out to his field and he’s jumping at shadows I just say, “Me too, buddy. People can’t always see what’s scaring us.”
I don’t miss my bad ideas and my crazy stories. I don’t miss making decisions that were dangerous for me and for the horses. I don’t miss what eventually led to broken bones when I stopped being young enough to bounce. I do miss being young enough to bounce, though, and sometimes I miss that kid who would get on any horse because at the heart of her she believed the horses wouldn’t hurt her. There’s still a horse crazy girl inside me who believes she is every character in every horse book she ever read: who rode a bronc to win enough money to buy Misty, who won the Grand National on The Pie, who galloped the Black Stallion on the beach and on the track. She’s pretty content, as it happens, to spend time hanging out with horses in her back yard, forgetting about what she can train them to do and letting them teach her what they want to teach. Some adventures are best left in the past.
My friend Elaine died last Tuesday. I knew it when I woke up that morning, but having it confirmed still took my breath away. The first thing I thought when I heard the news, right after “damn it to hell,” was “I need to make her a cake.” I am quite sure it is the memorial she would most have wanted from me, and it is the one I most want to give her.
Her death from cancer was no surprise. I met her through an online writing group in which many of us began blogs. Her blog was called a horse, a husband, and cancer, and in it she openly discussed her 30 year battle with cancer. More than anyone I have ever known, Elaine recognized the relationship she had with her cancer – the actual til death do us part nature of it. Before I even knew her, her doctors had deemed her cancer incurable, terminal. So no, it was not a surprise. And yet. How can she be dead?
We met through our writing. We bonded through our shared interests in horses and baking, and our dark senses of humor. We became friends through our blogs. In Ann Patchett’s Story of A Happy Marriage, a friend asks Ann of her first husband, “Does he make you a better person? … Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?” And to all of these things, but especially the last one, I can say a resounding yes about Elaine.
Ours was a writing friendship, something I didn’t even knew I needed or could have. We were motivated and inspired by each other because of how much we loved each other’s writing. Each blog post, each comment, each tangential discussion was fodder for our next writing efforts. Reading each other’s work was a pleasure in itself, and it also made us both want to write more. We never tried to be editor or critic for the other; we were just enthusiastic readers and sources of more material. “Just,” I say, as if those aren’t the things we writers want most. Fairly early on Elaine said to me, “But most of all I want you to write more because the subject almost didn’t matter, I just want your words,” and that is exactly how I felt – how I feel – about her writing.
Elaine began posting a weekly blog last spring, and I was inspired to do the same when I realized how eagerly I read her words first thing every Thursday over my morning coffee. It was like getting an anticipated letter in the mail (and oh, I miss letters), ripping open the envelope and starting to read right there at the mailbox, the letter in one hand and the torn envelope in the other. When I started posting on Mondays, she read and responded to my work as avidly as I did hers. We said we had a biweekly tea date – well, tea for her on Mondays, coffee for me on Thursdays – as we sat down with a hot drink (and maybe cake) and each other’s words. When I was stuck for an idea I would sometimes think, “What do I want to tell Elaine about this week?”
We grew up in different countries, different decades, different families, different schools. Sometimes we wrote about the parts of our lives that had no intersection, and we learned things from and about each other. Sometimes we wrote about the same topics – cake, for example – cake was always central for us – and all the things that baking represents, and the people and rituals it connects us to. Birds, and how they helped us find our way to dead relatives (my sister, her mother). I often wrote about death – of family members, of beloved animals. Elaine often wrote about her cancer, her own death looming far or near on the horizon.
Of course we wrote about our horses. We each had a truth serum horse – the kind of horse that doesn’t let us get away with any of our shit, the kind of horse that requires us to be our truest, most honest, most vulnerable selves in their presence. We both had a tendency to armor up with humor and a veneer of toughness when facing fear, and those truth serum horses have no patience with that. Last summer, Elaine wrote a multi-part series about her horse, Bruce: his life prior to her, and his life with her. Part fact, part conjecture, all truth, she brought him to vivid life for her readers. Less than two months later he was dead from colic. Shocking, unexpected, heartbreaking. And yet I also see that Bruce blazed the trail for Elaine to follow not long after. Shocking, expected, heartbreaking.
In her last message to me, just a few days before she entered hospice, Elaine related her recent terrifying hospital visit in a typically dry yet hilarious way. Her last words to me were “I miss Bruce like my heart is breaking and I might never get to meet you.” My last words to her were “I miss your voice,” and I always will. Until I heard of her death I held out hope that I would get to see her in person for our long promised tea and cake visit, but I know us. Bruce was waiting, and we would both agree with a paraphrased John Muir: “The horses are calling, and I must go.”
The last thing I wrote that I know Elaine read was my Christmas Bat piece, which I wrote because it was a story she asked me for. It began, though, with my explanation that I was giving her the story because I was not able to deliver the 10 layer Russian honey cake she had also asked for. I also wrote of my sadness over the prospect of my friend’s death. Her reply to that was “I expect your friend will change her mind and decide to wait for the layer cake. I know I would. And with covid restrictions, exchange rate, costly flights etc, it might take a looooong time til you deliver the cake to her?” I wanted that time. I can’t separate how much I wanted it for her and how much I wanted it for me. I can honestly say that I would have traded ever meeting her in person for her getting as much life as she wanted. I also know I would have wanted to keep sharing that life, even if only from across the ocean.
I started this piece the day she died. I almost posted it that day, but I knew it was not finished. I revised, and rewrote, and chainsaw-edited. I almost posted it on Thursday, Elaine’s day, but I was still revising. By Friday I realized that as long as I am working on this, I have her with me in a way I won’t when I finish it. Part of me can still pretend that she will read it. The rest of me is grieving daily as I write. I need both the illusion and the grief right now.
When I make Elaine’s cake, it will most certainly be that 10 layer Russian honey cake. It is complicated, time consuming, and it will give me many hours of preparation and baking and construction to commune with her in my kitchen. I will cut it into thin slices and freeze it, to make it last for as many Thursdays as possible.
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” E.B. White
I’m sure there’s a joke to be had about how I like my male horses – tall, dark and handsome, yes, but also – gelded? troubled? – but what I do know is that the geldings I have picked as riding horses tend to have a lot in common. The three I have chosen have been bay with strong black points, similar height, and with no interest in the job they were trained to do before I met them.
Soldier was a thoroughbred trained to foxhunt. I got him as a lease-to-sell project, with the intent of training him as an event horse. As it turned out, a horse who will run and jump with a group of other horses does not necessarily have any interest in jumping when he is alone on a cross country course, and a horse who has only ever seen natural fences on the hunt course may not have any idea what to do with painted jumps in an arena. His approach to a stadium jumping course went something like this: gallop towards the first fence, screech to a halt, take off from all four feet at once, land on all four feet on the other side, bolt to the next fence and repeat. After it became clear he would never be an eventer at even the lowest level (Super Chicken, they call it locally, or Ever Green), his owner sent him back out on a foxhunt with an interested buyer who Soldier promptly dumped and nearly put in the hospital. He eventually found his way to a great home with a woman who wanted mostly to do dressage and trail ride.
Wy came along about 5 years after Soldier. His full name was Wy’East, the native name of Mount Hood, the highest peak in Oregon where his breeder was from. He had been bred and trained to be a dressage horse (his breeder had dreams of him taking her to the Olympics) but was deemed neither sound nor sane enough for that job. That put him squarely in my equine specialty of what a friend once dubbed “the lame and the insane.” His first owner was my dressage instructor at the time she had him up for sale. When I rode him for the first time in a lesson with her I wound up on the ground pretty quickly, as his riders often did. I don’t remember landing, but I do remember getting up and saying “You son of a bitch, get back here” as I went to get him from the other side of the indoor arena. His owner, used to people sitting on the ground and crying after coming off him, agreed to sell him to me on a payment plan.
I had no designs on Wy as a dressage horse, and I let him show me what he was interested in, which was mostly trail riding, though he also loved jumping tiny fences as if they were Puissance walls. With the pressure off he got a lot saner, but he didn’t get any sounder, and I still had vague ideas at that time about having a horse I could compete in some discipline. I decided that he might be happier in a home where all the person wanted to do was trail ride, so I sold him to a nice man who wanted just that.
Several years after I sold Wy, and several farms after the last one where he had lived with us, we were house hunting again, looking for a place for us and our three mares. We were thinking about a house that had the right amount of land, but the land was mostly wooded. While we investigated how much it would cost to turn woods into pasture, we looked at barns where we might keep the horses in the interim.
There was a good sized boarding farm close to the woodland house. We arranged to visit, and the owner – something of a cowboy in the middle of hunter/jumper, eventer, and foxhunter territory – showed us around while we told him about our mares. I was explaining about my slutty thoroughbred mare Trappe, and telling stories on her mare-in-heat behavior, when I said “Of course, that was when we still had Wy.” The cowboy said “You had a horse named Wy? We have a horse here named Wy.” I said “Is it ‘Y’ as in the letter Y, or ‘Why’ as in ‘Why Did I Buy This Horse?'” He said he didn’t know; the owner just called him Wy, or sometimes Beast. Even though Wy’s most common nickname when I had him was Wy Beast, I still didn’t make the connection. “He’s a big, bay Hanoverian gelding,” said the cowboy as he pointed behind me. This finally sunk in, and I turned around and saw my horse looking at me over the fence of his paddock. I ran over to him and he buried his big head in my chest.
Wy had come to this farm through two different owners after he got sick while with the guy I sold him to. The diagnosis by the time I saw him was possibly EPM (equine protozoal myeloencephalitis), but no one was really sure. Some kind of degenerative neurological condition, definitely. He was not rideable, and his owner was trying to decide what to do next. I wasn’t sure what to do next either. I did nothing for about two weeks, and then one Sunday I woke up and said to Rose, “I had a dream about Wy last night and he told me to come get him. I want to go back to the farm to see him.” When we got to the farm I told the cowboy about my dream, and he looked at me like I was a little nuts, which I had expected. I said “I know it sounds weird” and he interrupted me and said “No, I don’t think it’s weird at all – it’s just that his owner just had the vet out yesterday and he said there’s nothing else they can do and she was asking if I knew how to reach you to talk about having you take him back.”
Wy came home to us and the three mares he had lived with before, though at a different farm. When we first put him out in the field with them, he spent a couple of days with a look on his face like “I had the weirdest dream – but here we all are together so I guess it really was a dream.” The mares – especially the slutty thoroughbred – were thrilled to have him back. We didn’t buy the woodland house, but we did buy the house where we live now. By that time we had acquired one more filly and we also had a foal on the way. They all lived at our vet’s farm for a few months while we put in fence and a barn here, and then they came home.
Less than two months after we brought the horses home, Wy had gone downhill enough that we had to put him down. He couldn’t reliably stand up without his knees buckling, and he walked like an old drunk man. With Trappe standing close at all times and trying to prop him up, I was worried that I would come home to find them both on the ground with her squashed beneath him. Our vet, who hadn’t seen Wy since he came home to us, took one look and said “You know you don’t have a choice about this, right?” which, true or not, was what I needed to hear. We buried Wy near the barn, and everyone that drives onto our property drives by his grave. A year after we buried him, an acorn sprouted in the middle of his grave, and that oak tree is now about 30 feet tall.
Wy left a lot of legacies. One of them is one of our family mantras: “Don’t pick up the reins.” It took me until the second time I came off of him to realize how he got people off so consistently. He would wait until his rider had a good hold of the reins, and then he would duck his giant head down between his knees and pull the rider off balance, and then he’d throw in a buck with a twist and off the rider would pop. The thing was, he always had something a little off in his back and hind end, and his buck really was not that athletic. I discovered that if, when he put his head down, I let go of the reins, he could buck all he wanted and it would not unseat me. It was that rein yank that created the problem. It became something Rose and I would say any time anyone verbally tried to knock us off balance in an argument – don’t pick up the reins and you won’t find yourself getting into a fight.
Finn is a legacy of Wy’s. I’m sure it’s no coincidence how much they look alike, or that Finn was another horse that someone tried to turn in to a dressage horse when he neither understood what was being asked of him nor was he interested in it. I don’t know that I would have brought Finn home if I hadn’t known Wy, and I don’t think I would have listened to him as much as I have when he tells me what he does and does not want to do and what he can and can’t handle. I still needed some reminders, like the first time I asked Finn to trot and he said “I can’t” and I mistook that for “I need some encouragement” rather than “I really can’t do that right now.” I said “Come on, you can do it!” and then I was up in the air looking down at his back, and then I was on the ground with him looking down at me with a look that said “I told you I can’t and I really meant it.” I got up, dropped my pants to get the sand out of my underwear, pulled myself together, and got back on with a different attitude. Finn is the Truth Serum Horse in his own right, but I know how to listen to him because of Wy.
Wy’s biggest legacy for me is to pay attention and to trust my gut. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that we went to look at one house so that we’d meet the realtor who took us to see another house that was the reason we went to look at the barn where I found the horse and was able to bring him home. Life doesn’t always run in straight lines, but I find that if I just keep moving forward – and if I don’t pick up the reins to try to control something I have no business trying to control in the first place – I end up where I need to be.
Not long before covid-19 shelter in place began, I discovered that there is, in fact a form of yoga I actually like. I don’t pretend to be any kind of yoga theory expert, so I mainly have my own experiences of classes to go by. And I do know that the one thing in common all the yoga classes I have taken is that I am there, so I can’t discount that as a factor. The wherever you go, there you are factor.
Most yoga I have taken fits into one of two categories. There is pretzel yoga – generally based on Iyengar, in my experience – where you twist yourself into complicated shapes while balancing on one toe and hold each pose for approximately 37 minutes. And then there is competitive yoga, generally referred to in class schedules as hot yoga, or sometimes flow yoga, or power yoga, or at one memorable studio in D.C. “stroga” which sounds more like pasta but I gather is a portmanteau (do we still call them that, or does that go with troglodyte and zaftig on the list of words only my parents used in conversation?) of “strength” and “yoga.” That kind of yoga appears to be an endurance test my shoulders simply are not up to, and for me almost always involves a lot more swearing than I think can be normal for a spiritual or meditative practice.
I have taken a few other kinds of yoga that I don’t actively dislike: some classes labeled “beginner,” restorative, partner, goat. But none of them spoke to me or made me want to keep doing that kind of yoga. When the most positive feeling I have leaving a class is “well, that wasn’t as bad as I expected,” it doesn’t inspire me to keep going back.
For a couple months there last winter I found a yin yoga class that I really liked. The instructor is always thoughtful and well prepared. She mixes a little traditional Chinese medicine theory in with the poses. We hold poses longer than some classes (though not as long as pretzel yoga), but they are manageable poses and usually on the ground. I always come away from her class feeling stretched in a nice way, not in a “I’ve been on a torture rack for the past 50 minutes” way.
In one class this instructor said that ideally a yin yoga class would be in a cool, dark room, or a cave. Her comment got me thinking about yin as a concept, not just a name for a yoga class. For me yin yoga is every way the opposite of a hot yoga class, though I’ve never heard anyone use the term “yang yoga” to refer to hot yoga. I know in the West we often distill yin and yang down to male and female. I also know that is a gross oversimplification. The thing that struck me most in reading about the concept is that yang is the active principle whereas yin is the receptive.
In working with horses, I grew up in a “make him do it” environment, as if little eight year old me, probably 55 pounds soaking wet, was going to physically make even a fairly small pony who was ten times my size do anything. In case I was unclear about this, in my first horse show at the end of a week of summer horse camp, my horse left the show ring in mid class and went back to the barn, totally oblivious to the child on his back, tugging and kicking ineffectually. As I got older and bigger I rode bigger horses, so the horses and I have tended to stay near a ten to one weight differential. Making them do anything is an illusion, but that didn’t stop me from trying.
It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I first encountered trainers who approached horses in a different way, with the focus on the relationship between horse and human, rather than (as much) on the dominance of human over horse. I’ve learned a different way of approaching my horses, and both they and I like it much better. Even so, much like yoga, when I have taken a lesson from one of these instructors I have often left the lesson feeling more like “Well, that wasn’t so bad” and less like “How can I do more of that?”
One thing that comes up often in the lessons I’ve taken with this newer (to me) approach is the idea of giving to pressure. Whether it’s me riding, or the instructor working my horse, just about the first thing that happens is to see how the horse gives to pressure. I understand it in concept – if your horse is pushing against you or ignoring you or exploding when you apply pressure, even very light pressure, you are in a bit of trouble. But lately I’ve been wondering what would happen if, with another human, I approached them with the intent of applying pressure on them in some way to see how they responded to it. Even if it was an employee, someone I am paying to do a particular job, I can’t think that would go very well. I know it doesn’t go well for me when the main thing I feel – in, say, a yoga class – is pressure. Like many horses I know, my response to it is often to shut down. I may appear to comply with the instructions I’m given, but I don’t enjoy it, I don’t find it relaxing, and I don’t want to do it more often.
I don’t ride much these days, but I have my horses living at home and I handle them daily. Sometimes I just go through the motions, because doing what I need to do with the horses is something I need to check off my task list for the day. If I approach the horses in this frame of mind, if any of the horses has any concerns about anything at all that day, our interaction is not going to be very positive.
Case in point: blanketing Finn. I blanket my horses below certain temperature and/or in certain types of precipitation. Never mind that I have been blanketing all of the horses for years and years, blanketing is always something of an issue for Finn. The worst it ever got was several years ago when I was trying to take his blanket off on a cold, dry day, and after I undid the leg straps and the belly straps, I moved to unhook the chest straps. In doing so I touched him on the neck and we gave each other a little shock of static electricity. Let me clarify: to me, it was little. To Finn, it was huge. He took off running, blanket flapping in the breeze. In not too many seconds the blanket flipped off his back entirely, leaving it hanging around his neck and front legs as he galloped in a blind panic. I figured (and hoped) the blanket would tear off – and it did, in a way. The binding around the neck and the chest straps held, so while he tore most of the blanket away and left it in the dust, he was still wearing a collar of blanket remains around his neck.
It took a long time that day for me to get close enough to him to get that blanket collar off. Just as Finn’s brain went into panic mode, mine went into “make him do it” mode, and instead of just leaving him alone (in retrospect, the “worst” thing that might have happened would possibly have been the best thing – if he put his head down to eat hay and the rest of the blanket fell off over his head of its own accord), I decided to stay out there and keep approaching him until I could get the blanket bits off. Probably because I did that, and in doing so kept his fear and adrenaline spiked, approaching him with a blanket – or a halter, or just at all – did not go smoothly for quite a while afterwards.
Last winter I went out to feed and blanket the horses one evening. As I picked up Finn’s blanket to put it on him, he spooked and jumped sideways away from his feed. I stayed where I was – I didn’t back up, move closer, speak, or raise or lower the blanket. I just stood. He took a hard look at me while facing me, and then he swung around so his left side was in front of me. He took in a big breath, squared up on all four feet, and then let out the breath and I could see and feel him settle his whole body and wait for me to put the blanket on. I did, and buckled all the straps, and then he calmly resumed eating.
As I was walking back to the house, I found I was thinking about yin. I thought about my friend, horsewoman, and writer Anna Blake saying that a huge percentage of riders are women but almost all instructors are men. I thought about the state of our country right now, and the percentage of elected officials (I just can’t call them “leaders”) who are men. But again, it’s not – or not only – a male/female distinction. The terms associated with yang include heat, light, strength, active, and giving form to all things. The terms associated with yin include cool, dark, soft, receptive, and giving spirit to all things. The yin yang symbol shows both parts of equal size. I think the work in front of me is to even those things up in myself, and in order to do that, just as if I were trying to even up an underdeveloped set of muscles with an overdeveloped set of muscles, I have to focus on strengthening the weaker ones and not on further working the strong ones. More dark, more cool, more soft, more receptive, more spirit. I’m pretty sure my horses will be grateful.
I left off last week at the intersection of SLOW DOWN and PLAN AHEAD. I did mention that “slow down” was reasonable since my main goal was to finish the event. As it turned out, a cyclist crashed while I was on the bike course, and we were held up in a big cluster while the medevac helicopter came to get him. Some of the folks near me were complaining about the hold-up and their race time, and all I could think was “If you are out here with me, you are in no danger of winning this thing.” (the cyclist was ok, and the first question he asked when he woke up in the hospital was “Where’s my bike?”) All that said, even when I am trying to go fast I find it helps me to slow down. A frenetic fast gets me nowhere. And slowing down, if only slowing my mind down, helps give me time to – you got it:
From a horsemanship standpoint, this also ties to a thing I have heard called the “scale of aids” – basically, a 1 is no pressure at all, and a 10 is more pressure than you would really ever want to use on your horse. The aids we give the horse fall somewhere on this scale, and you have to be at least one mental step ahead where you are physically in order to have time to apply the right aid at the right level. Or perhaps it would be better put to say you have to be aware enough of your surroundings to know not only what is happening now, but what is coming up next. Let me say first of all that I am not in any way comparing a horse to a bicycle here, but I did have a big revelation about the whole idea of a scale of 1-10 while learning to shift. Bikes, or at least the road bike I was riding, have front and rear chain rings for changing gears (and a whole lot more gears than they used to have, might I add). The 3 front rings change the gearing a lot, and the 10 rear ones change it less.
Cycling for 20 or 30 miles at a time in this hilly county where I live gave me lots of time to think and also lots of opportunity to shift. At first this was a pretty klunky process (the shifting, but sometimes the thinking too), and I have to admit I often shifted just because I guessed it might be time to, or I was bored, or I wanted to see what would happen if I did. One of these times I managed to completely lock up my derailleur by shifting too much at the wrong time in the middle of an uphill in traffic and had to quickly apply my “unclip both feet” lesson. I’ve done the equivalent of this on horseback, and gotten a pretty nice view from above of my horse’s back before I hit the ground. Over time I have learned that if I pay attention to the terrain, and to how I feel, I can generally anticipate what kind of shift I will need to make and when I will need to make it. Or, with my horses, the kind of aid I need and when I need it – or perhaps more important, when I don’t need to do anything. This has gone hand in hand with learning more about…
In triathlon training I first heard about cadence while biking, but it turns out to apply to everything. Keeping a steady cadence on a bike greatly helps decrease perceived exertion and generally makes the bike ride easier and more fun (assuming you keep a cadence your muscles and lungs can actually do – more on this later). And in order to keep a steady cadence, you have to make the right size adjustment at the right time so that you don’t have big lurches downward in speed (which happens when you shift to a much harder gear than you meant to) and so you don’t wind up pedaling so fast that you feel like your legs might fly off (which happens when you shift to a much easier gear than you meant to). Now sometimes a big change is the correct thing to keep your cadence steady, but you have to know what’s coming (plan ahead…) to know when that’s true. Cadence also comes in when swimming (strokes per length in a pool eventually translates to a rhythm in open water) and when running (which is the one place where I seem to have a natural cadence that works). And of course in riding. The huge and inadvertent cadence changes while biking really clarified some things for me about the thing I always want to work on in my riding – smoothing out my transitions. Which of course turns out to have everything to do with planning ahead and with making the appropriate scale request for the change. Knowing what you want and thinking about how to achieve it of course leads me to:
This could also be called Plan Ahead part 3, but it’s more specific. I’ve heard horsemen I respect say many times that rather than just getting on your horse and seeing what happens, you want to have a goal. I’ve gotten so hung up on trying not to pressure my horses – or myself (“I just want to finish the course” applies to a lot of things for me) – that I often don’t want to set goals more than about an hour ahead of right now. But I found that it helped me immeasurably to have one specific long term goal (complete an Olympic distance triathlon on May 18) and smaller but also fairly specific goals leading up to it. These goals varied a lot. “Do a workout in each of the 3 disciplines twice a week” was a fairly general goal. “Increase my run cadence from 170 to 180” was more specific. “Ride a practice ride on the bike course without braking on the downhills” was another type of goal. So some of them were technique things and some were more about getting accustomed to how something felt. “Figure out how to swim 1500 yards in the wetsuit without panicking” was actually my goal for one workout. It took a lot of SLOW DOWN to reach that goal that day! The other aspect of goal setting I learned while training for my first triathlon is to set goals in the positive – “finish the swim smiling” vs “don’t drown in the lake.” Or, with my horses, “ride with softness and confidence” vs “don’t get bucked off.”
BLACK BELT MOVES
One of my best horsemanship teachers is an advanced martial artist and I’ve heard him talk about a yellow belt trying to (or wanting to) do black belt moves. I’m not a martial artist of any kind but I thought I understood what he meant. Something I came to a very different understanding of during triathlon training is that I am where I am, and while I can work towards learning more, or doing something better, it is also true that I am where I need to be. I may hear someone else talk about something they did or felt and it may sound really cool to me – or maybe it just sounds really odd to me because I don’t even understand it – but the fact is, when I’m ready to do or feel that thing then I will be ready to do or feel that thing. That probably doesn’t sound at all like what I mean. This brings me back to what I said about a cadence I can actually do. If I try to match some ideal cadence I’ve been told to do, and I physically can’t do it, I need to do something else.
Maybe it’s really about acceptance. I may see a high level swimmer who can cross a pool in 11 strokes, and it takes me 24. As I improve my technique and my feel, I can get that down from 24 to 20. And maybe eventually I can get it down to 11, or maybe I can’t. Maybe I have to be 6 feet tall to do that, I don’t know. But if I try to do it in 11 strokes, I will not only exhaust myself within minutes; I will disappoint myself with every attempt and I will never be able to see that I have improved from 24 to 22 strokes because all I will see is that it is not 11. Which I suppose leads to the next thing:
Being in the lake during the triathlon I was about as present as I have ever been. I knew that I had to stay focused on each stroke and to keep telling myself to slow down because I had had so much trouble in my first swim practices in the wetsuit with focusing on the other swimmers and how fast I was (not) compared to them – this was where I would start fretting about being the last athlete on the course and all kinds of other things that had nothing to do with now. What I found was that almost from the beginning as I focused on my stroke and how I felt in the water, what I felt was… GREAT. I was having so much fun! I felt like when I was a kid swimming in a lake, just playing in the water and loving every minute of it. No worries about who else was doing what or what was coming next or anything. Staying present helped get me to my next point, which is:
HAVE FUN WHILE WORKING HARD
A week to the day after that first triathlon, I went to the first horse show I had been to in about 9 years. It was a little local schooling show with maybe 25 riders, on an absolutely beautiful spring day on a gorgeous farm. And NO ONE, not one single rider (or one single horse), looked like they were enjoying one single thing they were doing. A week before, I had been with 1800 other people, some of whom are the top international competitors in their sport, and some who were total novices like me, and I did not encounter one person who didn’t smile or have something nice and/or helpful to say to someone else. Now, I’m sure (I hope) I missed someone who was having a blast a the dressage show, and someone probably was miserable at the triathlon, but in either case it was hard to find.
It had already started to dawn on me that I too had gotten very far away from having fun with my riding, but this brought it home to me even more. Or more accurately, it brought home to me that I had put up a big divide between having fun and working hard. It became an either/or thing for me – sometimes I enjoy my horses, and sometimes I work my horses. But not both at the same time. It’s fair to say this can be a struggle for me in other areas. I don’t always remember that it’s not either/or, but when I catch myself I often remind myself of the smiling triathletes, or of one more little lesson I learned:
When we showed up at the course to set up our “transition area” where we would get on our bikes after the swim, and get into our running shoes after the bike course, several of us first-timers were in a bit of a panic about how to fit our belongings in a very narrow area of a bike rack without impinging on people next to us. An experienced competitor overheard us fretting and he came over to say: “Your SHIT goes under your BIKE. You put your SHIT under your BIKE.” And there you have it. I’m not sure that last one has anything to do with horsemanship, but since it is one of my bigger areas of overthinking, I’m sure it does. Do the simplest thing and stop fretting. Not a bad lesson for life in general.
Right around when I turned 40 I decided it would be a good idea to compete in a triathlon. Well, that’s not entirely how it went. A friend of our had been doing distance events – century bike rides, triathlons of various lengths – as fundraisers for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Through a combination of I no longer remember what – but I know it included his enthusiasm for the cause and for the events, some persuasive rhetoric about the bonds formed with the people he trained with, a friend of his whom we had met who was diagnosed with lymphoma, and, I can only assume, quite a bit of wine – Rose and I decided to sign up.
At the time I was still in the pre-facebook days of connecting with people I had shared interests with but didn’t actually know in person via Yahoo groups. There was a horsemanship group I had joined up with about five years earlier. That group, all of its different iterations, the people I met through it, and the people I met through those people – well, that’s a blog post or three all by itself. The general exploration we were all doing in our horsemanship was (and is) all about how horsemanship isn’t just a thing that applies to our riding, or our time with horses. It’s pretty well impossible to be any kind of a horseman and not take the principles and behaviors that serve you (and your horses) there into the rest of your life.
Given that, I should not have been surprised by how much of what I was working on in my horsemanship turned out to be applicable to triathlon, but I was. And I was also surprised to find that some things that I thought I knew a little something about from horsemanship I gained a deeper understanding of from swimming, or biking, or running, or all three. I don’t ride horses much any more, and I haven’t done a triathlon for nine years, but I find myself reminiscing about both things right now when it’s about 187 degrees outside and I’m hiding in the house.
When I started triathlon training, the thing I noticed right away was how much I learned about learning. It had been a while since I tried something new, and I am a person who likes to know what I’m doing before I sign up to learn about it. I was familiar with the component parts of a triathlon in a general way. I knew how to run and swim and bike – a little. The longest race I’d ever run was a 5K. I could swim enough to enjoy it and I knew more or less how to do three of the 4 main strokes (emphatically NOT the butterfly), but I was never a swim team kid and really never took lessons. I had been on a bike maybe twice in the previous 20 years, and prior to that wasn’t much of a biker anyway. The task at hand was a 1.5K (.93 mile) swim, 40K (24.8 mile) bike ride and 10K (6.2 mile) run, so I had some learning to do.
There were several categories of learning, or maybe better to say several topics I learned about, as I figured how how to get through those 30+ miles. I think I’ll group this by topic.
One of the things that turned out to be a big factor in learning was fear. I rode horses a lot as a kid and would do absolutely anything absolutely anywhere, but then I got older and found that I don’t bounce the way I used to when I hit the ground. I did not (and still do not) like to admit fear around horse-related activity. When I started triathlon training I was still teaching the occasional riding lesson. When I had a student who spent the whole lesson looking like they want to cry or throw up but who told me they felt great, I wondered who they thought they were fooling – so of course I had to ask the same of myself.
Admitting I was terrified on a bicycle came a lot easier to me than admitting when I was scared around a horse. When it came to riding my bike down hill – well, ok, I have to admit – when it came to riding my bike at all, I was SCARED. The idea of swimming almost a mile when usually I maxed out at a quarter mile and then only when I stopped every 4 laps or so and rest was just as scary. And I saw no way around it, so I just kept saying to anyone who would listen, “THIS IS REALLY SCARY”. But I was determined to do this thing, so I had to figure out how to get past the fear.
Several lessons came out of just (just!) learning to deal with the fear. First, I would rather say the thing that is funny than the thing that shows vulnerability, but during that time it became increasingly important to me to spend more time practicing having my insides and outsides match, which meant admitting what I actually felt – out loud, to other people. Second, as long as I deny something, I keep myself from learning how to deal with it or move past it. Third, fear can actually be a good impetus for learning how to do something better and more safely. And finally, my patience with people – and horses – who are afraid increased exponentially as my desire for them to just get over it (you know, like I would…) decreased and my understanding of how fear impacts both mind and body increased.
And then there was the breathing. Breathing (without periods of holding my breath), breathing deeply and regularly, counting how many strides my horse took during my inhale and my exhale – I’d been working on this in my riding for several years. I had, of course, been thinking that my breathing had improved. And it probably had. Turns out breathing is even more important when you swim, and any weaknesses you have in this area are magnified quite a lot under water.
For the previous forty years – or however many since I first learned to swim – I had only breathed to the right when doing crawl. Couldn’t (wouldn’t) even contemplate turning my head to the left. Every once in a while I’d try, get a mouth (or lung) full of water and give up. When you are swimming in open water you never know which side the wind might be coming from or which direction you might have to go, so you best learn to breathe on both sides or you may find yourself doing a mile of dog paddle (not that there’s anything wrong with that) to avoid swallowing your body weight in funky river or ocean or lake water.
Learning to breathe on my left brought up a whole lot of other things that were one-sided about me. My neck was stiffer on the left, and my left shoulder was stiffer than my right. My back muscles were uneven from years of doing things (mucking stalls included) only – or mostly – one sided. The more I practiced breathing on both sides in the water, the more I practiced evening out my body, and the better balanced I found I became on a horse, or even just on the ground. Which brings me to another benefit of the breathing lesson, which is that in order to learn to do it correctly while swimming I had to…
From the beginning I was realistic enough to know that my number one goal was to complete the triathlon (goal 1.1 was not to be the very last person on the course). Going too fast early on and burning myself out or hurting myself was a pretty sure way not to reach that goal. And it also turned out that when learning to do something new (or an old thing a new way) it’s a lot easier – and more productive – to break it down and slow it down.
I learned this on the day I finally got brave enough to get on my bike in what they call “clipless pedals” – which means the kind you clip yourself into. I got on my bike in my driveway, clipped in, and started to pedal gently around the circle by the garage. When I wanted to stop for a second I figured it would be quicker to just unclip one foot and put that foot on the ground with my other foot still on the pedal. Excellent plan – except it required a level of coordination I did not yet have on the bike. So in my attempt to do the fast and easy (ha!) thing, I unclipped my left pedal to put my left foot down – and promptly fell to the right with my right foot still clipped in and the bike on top of me.
Two immediate changes I made in my life: any time I think I might need to stop on my bike I immediately unclip both feet. And any time I think “I might need to close that gate before I…” I go and close the gate. Don’t ask me why I connected those two things in that moment on the asphalt under my bike, but I did. This is where SLOW DOWN merges with PLAN AHEAD, which is where I will pick up next time.