Horsemanship through Triathlon, part 2

 

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:

PLAN AHEAD

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…

CADENCE

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:

SET GOALS

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:

STAY PRESENT

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:

SIMPLE ANSWERS

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.

Team Crystal Tower Bear Bells

Horsemanship through Triathlon, part 1

Lil

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.

FEAR

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.

BREATHING

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…

SLOW DOWN

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.

Triathlon

 

 

Dog Days

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My pandemic “don’t feel like it” has been compounded exponentially by weather-related “don’t feel like it.” It is HOT. And dry. I know not that many months ago I was cursing the clouds and the rain, but I would give a lot for a rainy day or three right about now. This morning there were just enough clouds while the sun was rising that I was able to get the horses tended to without also sizzling in the sun, but now the sun is out and making up for lost time.

The list of things I don’t feel like doing is long. I don’t feel like cooking, or working, or writing. I don’t feel like weeding, or picking vegetables. I don’t feel like vacuuming or dusting, though to be fair that was true before the heat and the pandemic. Also true of working out, which it probably goes without saying that I don’t feel like. It’s just as well in some ways that it is dry, because I don’t feel like mowing or weed-eating and if it were wet and this hot I might be living in a jungle by now.

I don’t feel like walking the dogs or even touching the horses. Luckily, the dogs don’t feel like walking either, nor do the horses want to be touched. I offered the horses a nice cool hosing, but all they want is cold water in their trough, the shade of their shed, and to be left alone. I know how they feel.

The dogs and I have been on our own in the house for nearly a month now. We have a routine, because we all like routines, but lately more and more of our routine involves lying on the sofa, or the floor. I think they have the right idea with the cool basement floor, or the kitchen tile by the air conditioning vents. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s only a matter of time till I find myself splayed out on the concrete with the rest of my pack.

When the pandemic stay-at-home orders began, my social media feeds were full of suggestions for what to do with all our free time. I spent the first month being puzzled by this, and much of the time since then being annoyed by it. I’ve been working from home for sixteen years. I am not a social person. I have the same number of animals I had before the pandemic. Basically, nothing has changed in my day to day routine. I have no more or less free time than I had before. I do not have the time or the inclination to take up new hobbies, start a new workout routine, meditate, or begin any other form of self improvement. I almost want to ask who HAS been doing any of these things (outside of talking about it on social media), but really that’s just one more thing I don’t want to spend time paying attention to.

Now, with Rose away, I have one more layer of what-I-could-be-doing-but-I’m-not. If you have been in a house with someone else, or more than one someone else, since the pandemic began, do you think there are things you would do if it was just you in the house? If you had all the alone time you haven’t had for the last several months? I’m not sure where I thought more time might appear in my day, but once again it did not. I do all the same things I was doing before, only now I do all of them by myself. I probably talk to the dogs even more than I did before.

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Most of the time, the dogs tell me to chill out. Occasionally, they tell me to take them outside, but they usually remember why that was a bad idea as soon as they get there. If we are out early enough, Quinn can sometimes talk Boo into a game of zoomies, but not very often. Scout is emphatically not interested, and who can blame him? He and I are in no mood to run as fast as we can. Or at all.

Dogs have no need for self-improvement projects. They think they are just fine as they are, and I have to say I agree. One of the very nicest things about dogs is that they think we are just fine as we are too. We are at our best when we calm down enough from all the human things to just sit on the sofa, with maybe some popcorn we are willing to share. That is enough.

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Watering the Horses

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About four weeks ago while watering the horses at feeding time, I dragged the hose to the end of its length to reach far enough to water Guinness. I stood there for about ten minutes, spraying him down. After a while it dawned on me that I didn’t need to wait for it to soak down to his roots, and if in fact it soaked all the way down to him that was quite a bit farther than it needed to go to water the grass seed I had just finished spreading on his grave.

We now have more horses below ground (five) on this property than above (three). Each of them has a grave site planted and tended slightly different from all the others. Three of them are outside of the pastures, and one is in a fenced area within a pasture. All of them are planted in flowers of different kinds, and each has a tree that volunteered on their grave, or somewhere else on our property that we transplanted. Those trees range in height from Cookie’s five foot maple (4 years ago) to Wy’s twenty-plus foot oak (18 years ago).

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Guinness was a horse’s horse, and he was Finn’s other half. We decided we wanted them to stay together, and for Guinness to be part of the horse landscape. So for the first time, we just covered a grave with grass seed and chopped hay to give it a chance to stay in one place and grow. For several days, the biggest challenge for the seed was that Finn kept rolling on Guinness. I don’t know if he liked the feel of the chopped hay, the fact that we were watering it so it was a nice cool spot, or if he just wanted to be close to his buddy. We will plant Guinness a shade tree in the fall, outside the fence so Finn can’t eat it.

Twice a day in the summer heat, we water the horses. They have hundred gallon troughs, but we don’t fill them all the way because that way we can keep adding a little water to keep it cool for them. We also offer to hose them off, so when they want, they get the sweat showered off. After doing the living horses, I dragged the hose to Guinness. We were in a bit of a drought – hard to believe, now that we’ve been getting flooded out for the past two weeks – and Guinness is buried at the top of the hill in the back field he shared (and still does) with Finn. That spot has the best view on the farm, but it is a lot of hoses away from the nearest water source.

F and G BW

My family does not run to grave sites. My grandmother was cremated, and buried in a graveyard next to my grandfather who died long before I was born. But after that, all bets were off.

My father gave me custody of my mother’s ashes, with instructions to scatter them by the tree we planted for her on my property. I did that with some of her ashes, but before she died she told me that she would be sad if she never got back to New Hampshire, or to Rehoboth beach. She didn’t, so I got her both places posthumously. I took some of her ashes to Rehoboth, and scattered them in the ocean. My aunt buried some of her ashes in her garden in Virginia, and sent some to my uncle in New Hampshire, where he paddled them out to the middle of Squam Lake and scattered them in her favorite childhood place. It was only much later that my father remembered she had told him she wanted her ashes spread in Rock Creek Park, though as her best friend recalled it, what she actually said was “Fling ’em off the Calvert Street bridge,” which seems more likely.

It was my father’s ashes that we scattered in Rock Creek Park, in the end, in the creek itself. There’s something vaguely furtive about scattering ashes in public places, be it the ocean or Rock Creek, but probably no one would in fact arrest you for it. Still, it’s hard to be solemn and ceremonial while looking over your shoulder as if you’re handing off the money to the drug dealer and hoping no one notices.

My aunt was scattered in a few places, too. The day of her memorial service we scattered some of her ashes in her beloved Blue Ridge mountains, in one of the prettiest spots I know. I believe some went up to New England, and some were scattered in a memorial garden at a wildlife sanctuary in Virginia – a certain blessing to the animals there.

I wouldn’t want anyone stuck in a graveyard, and I certainly don’t want to end up in one myself, but I’m starting to understand their purpose. We have planted trees on our property in memory of people and animals who have died since we moved here. We celebrate our own version of Dia de los Muertos each November. Sometimes we clean up the memorial (human) and grave (animal) sites, and plant flowers, and sometimes we just light luminaria for each of them, but it’s a ceremony we hold dear.

Standing over Guinness’ grave twice each day, watering the grass seed and letting my mind wander, was a meditative exercise for me. It was also a transition time. I know there are sudden deaths, but with most of my animals and all of my relatives, dying has been a process, with a lot of activity and attention needed over a fairly long span of time. With Guinness, for example, he was sick for about six weeks. We tried everything we could think of to diagnose and treat him. Like any sick room, our feed shed was full of supplements and medicines when he died. I checked him, treated him, and tried to get him to eat four to six times a day, all the while watching him fade away. Throwing away the useless prescriptions is something I’ve done a few too many times now, but I’m sure I will do it again. Watering his grave was a way for me to keep tending to him while also gradually letting him go.

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Nothing

This is probably going to be a disjointed piece. I started it for one reason, and set it aside, and then it popped back into my head for an entirely different reason, which now seems like what I was waiting for to get to the point I wasn’t sure I had.

“Instead of trying to help the horse handle more they get more careful. And the more careful they get,the more careful they have to be. And pretty soon the horse has trained them to do nothing.” –Harry Whitney

 

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I heard this quote at a horsemanship clinic, and it sounded uncomfortably familiar. I have a horse like this, one who who has trained me to do nothing to the point that I had stopped even approaching him except to feed. He seems to be very fond of people, me included, as long as we just hang around and don’t ask anything – at all – of him. It’s human requests for work that are the problem.

Based on his past it’s a reasonable problem that he has with the requests; I can’t argue with his logic. He was clearly asked to do far too much far too young. I have always said his dressage career was like asking a third grader who shows promise in math by learning the multiplication tables easily to do calculus, and then declaring him a failure when he couldn’t understand it.

Before that he was given good basics from someone who was a wonderful and gentle horseman right up until a horse flatly refused to do something, and then the beatings began. Just till the point that the horse decided to comply, and then it was all peace and gentleness again. I imagine this is confusing to a horse.

It’s particularly easy for me with a horse with this background, who is also very large,  who is also very reactive, to back off and back off and back off till the point I am not even there. The whole idea of making myself noticeable enough for the horse to start to care what I might be asking is something I had stopped considering.

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Backing off to the point of doing nothing is a behavior I learned well from humans pretty early in my life. It’s one of those behaviors that served me in the past, and though it doesn’t actually serve me in the present I’ve gotten so adept at it I sometimes don’t even know I’m doing it. I became aware of it as a bad relationship pattern in my adult life and so I first thought it was a something I started as an adult. But then I had a conversation with my high school boyfriend, now a good friend, who told me he had been talking to his therapist about me before I came for a visit and he had said “She was the perfect woman for me because she didn’t ask anything of me.” Talk about a good opening line for me to take to my own therapist.

As a child I learned young that it was best to slide through my days without asking for anything. The less I needed or asked for, the safer it was to walk through my house. This is not a crazy thing to extrapolate later to a large and reactive animal who could actually hurt me without even trying to. It may, however, be a little crazy that at some point in my life I became proud of being so undemanding, proud that I don’t ask anything of anyone.

Not wanting to get big enough to get my horse’s attention is more complicated than “I want him to like me.” It’s also that I don’t want to upset him to the point I get hurt. It’s also that I don’t want to be the person he feels like he has to tiptoe around, because I know what that feels like. I don’t want to be the crazy person that makes everyone else afraid.

Not wanting to be demanding enough in my human relationships to get attention – well, I’m not sure if that’s a different story or not. It does have something to do with “I want them to like me,” but also with believing that my worth to someone else is defined by what I can (and will) do for them, and not by who I am. It also has to do with “I don’t want to upset him to the point that I get hurt.”

And this brings us to yesterday, when I started thinking again about what I wrote above and then tabled for several months. When I started seeing the “me too” hashtag on social media around stories of sexual harrassment, I had very mixed feelings. My first thought was that I didn’t really have any stories like that, but when I thought about it a bit more I realized that my stories are just so commonplace I don’t even think about them as harrassment. A male friend asked his friends on social media what he could read to better understand. I suggested he ask women he knows for their stories, and then I told him mine.

What I wrote to him began: “At first my “me too” was just (“just!”) about random occasional catcalls and yelled comments from construction workers or whoever, “it’s a joke” statements by people known and unknown, moments of fear on city streets, in dark parking lots, on the subway.”

The more I wrote, the more I remembered specific incidents, some with people I knew and respected and trusted, and the more horrified I became at what I have come to think of as normal. As I also wrote to this friend: “I don’t consider that anything bad has ever happened to me. I had to think long and hard about whether I had a “me too” because it’s just how things are for women. I feel like I have never not known how to walk with a purpose, how to deliberately make myself not look like a potential victim. It’s impossible to learn those skills without knowing you are doing so because you ARE a potential victim, because you can in fact be overpowered far too easily.”

The most recent articles and conversations I have read on this topic have been about one highly publicized incident that has engendered a lot of comments like “Why didn’t she leave?” and “How could he be expected to read her mind?” I think my fascination with this particular conversation has been that I can see both sides so easily, and I don’t see a clear right and wrong. I think about how I have learned to do nothing, to not react, in situations where I feel afraid, and how the more afraid I feel the less I do, in an effort not to trigger a response I don’t think I can handle.

I have a lot of places where I know that my horsemanship and the rest of my behavior in life are inexctricable from one another. As I contemplate how to work with my horses in order to get to where I want to be – knowing what I am asking for, asking for it clearly, and shaping the response I get into something that the two of us are doing together with both of us fully present – I realize how much of this work is mine alone to do.

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Truth Serum Horse

Finn Shadow Filter 1

I’ve been avoiding one of my horses.

If you look at how much I work with my horses (or don’t), you’d think I’m avoiding them all, but I’m not. It’s true that I can’t remember the last time I rode. It’s also true that somewhere along the line, riding stopped being the point of having horses for me. Maybe it never was.

One of my favorite horse books when I was a kid was called The Secret Horse. It was about two girls who stole a horse who was about to be euthanised from an animal shelter in the middle of Washington DC. They hid him away on a not quite abandoned property, without knowledge of or permission from either their families or the caretakers of the property. I grew up in DC, and in my mind I still know the exact houses in my neighborhood I pictured them living in, and I know the property, a whole city block square in my memory, where they kept the horse. They groomed the horse a lot, and fed him loads of cut grass they carried to the barn on sheets after it dried to hay in the sun, and at one point they took turns getting on him bareback with a halter and walking slowly around the barnyard. Despite the many, many books I read about girls winning unexpected ribbons at horse shows, The Secret Horse always stood out as my kind of horse story.

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I had my own secret horse eventually, though I bought her instead of stealing her, and I kept her at barns where the barn owners knew she was there. She was, however, a secret from my parents. I bought her from a farm where I was working before I left for college, and then had her transported several states away to join me in Vermont. I kept her for three of the years I was there, working odd jobs to pay her board, and borrowing cars and bicycles so I could get to the barn to see her. I eventually sold her, all without ever telling my parents I had owned a horse.

As things often turn out in my family, the real secret was that my mother knew about my secret horse almost the whole time. The barn I bought her from had called my parents’ house at some point after I left for college and before I had her trailered up to join me, and my mother had answered the phone. I don’t know what conversation took place, because it was one more thing we never discussed. The horse’s name, it may be relevant to note, was Stretch the Truth.

The horse I have been avoiding has a name, but we often refer to him as the Truth Serum Horse. He earned this nickname when I had him for sale once, for five or ten minutes. It was one of those times I didn’t feel like I was doing enough with him, and that maybe he should be in a barn where someone would ride him more. I ran an ad that more or less said “I have a big brown horse that I don’t want to sell. Call me if you have to.” One person must have been intrigued enough by the ambiguity of the ad to call. She came to see him, her best friend and husband in tow.

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I rode him first, and he started out really rough and feeling like he was about to blow – a not insignificant event in a horse as big and athletic as he is. I was up there feeling like here I am calling myself a horse trainer and he looks like he doesn’t know the very basic basics and I look like I can’t ride a carousel horse. I stopped and looked at these three strangers and said “I just quit one of my jobs today and it’s a job I thought I always wanted but it turned out to be terrible and now I’ve quit it and I’m relieved and sad at the same time and my brain is really distracted.” Then I took a breath, picked up the reins, and the horse moved off like an old schoolmaster and went beautifully through his paces.

The woman who was interested in buying him got on next and started off similarly, the horse looking awkward and the rider looking grim and miserable. Suddenly she said “I hate riding in front of people, even people I know – I’m so nervous that they think I’m incompetent and doing everything wrong that I don’t even remember to breathe.” Just as suddenly she and the horse clicked into a smooth, soft jog trot and the rest of her ride she was grinning from ear to ear.

Her friend and her husband rode the horse with almost identical patterns, the rough rides smoothing out as soon as they blurted out what was bothering them. I have no doubt that the horse made that happen – he needed everyone to get over how they were trying to look and to just be how they actually were.

Horses have varied tolerance for people whose insides and outsides don’t match. Some horses just tune it out. One horse I had would see me coming when I was in a certain mood and turn and walk away. “Nope. You are not getting on me today. Not with that attitude.” The Truth Serum Horse doesn’t have a low tolerance, he has zero tolerance for being around people who are out of integrity. I could insist, but only by shutting him down entirely, and I got out of the forcing-horses-into-a-mental-shutdown business years ago.

The Truth Serum Horse came to me with numerous issues from how he was trained in his first few years. While I have helped him to feel better physically, and about life in general, I have not really helped him to get past his problem areas. I mostly just avoid them, and if I don’t feel like that is working, I avoid him. It has only very recently come to my attention that this is pretty close to my own path of making some progress toward the way I say I want to be, but then avoiding meaningful, lasting change. No wonder I want to avoid the horse who insists that I not only look at the underlying thing, but admit it. Out loud.

Because I think of myself as a horse trainer with a specialty in “fixing” troubled horses, I tend to look at horses in terms of how I can help them be more comfortable with the things I want them to do. The Truth Serum Horse has made it clear he won’t be comfortable unless I become more comfortable with the things he wants me to do. It’s taken me a lot of years, and a horse who won’t accept anything less than the truth as good enough, to realize that the one I need to fix is me.

Finn Shadow Filter 2

 

Down Dog

BooDownDog

I would like to like yoga more than I do.

People talk about intention in yoga and meditation. I am full of intention. I intend to meditate. I intend to do yoga. I don’t actually do either, but I intend to.

I’m very impressed that the dogs do at least downward dog if not also upward dog every time they get off their beds. I tried that recently and wound up in something resembling child’s pose but more painful, face on the floor and unable to move for several minutes. I don’t recommend this as a motivator for beginning a daily practice.

Someone recently asked me if yoga speaks to me, and the truth is that it does not. The other truth is that I don’t know what does. Where exercise is concerned lately I feel like Tigger who says that Tiggers like everything but then with each attempt he finds that Tiggers do not in fact like honey, haycorns, thistles, or pretty much anything in Kanga’s cabinet. I don’t really like yoga, or any kind of group workout, or spin bikes which make me want to stab myself. I agree with Tigger that they may all be for heffalumps and woozles, but not for me.

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Once upon a time I was a gymnast. I was flexible, and strong, and fearless. I was also 12 years old, which may be pertinent. But more recently I was a soccer player. I was fit and strong, if not flexible, and I was fearless enough to get hurt, at which point I became less fearless. The line between fearless and foolhardy has never been all that clear to me, and I’m not sure I like the side of it I’m on now, or the width it has grown to in the past few years.

I’ve ridden horses since I was eight years old and though I have almost always been foolhardy, I have almost never been fearless. I was terrified of horses when I started riding. My older sister remembers it that I was scared and she dragged me into it so she’d have company, and I remember it that I was scared and I did it anyway because I wanted to do what she did and what she wanted me to do. We are both probably right.

After the first time I fell off I lost my most paralyzing fear, and quickly moved into the realm of foolhardy with the help of the barn management. I don’t know what their source of horses was but in retrospect I’d guess they bought most of them out from under the kill buyers. They didn’t seem to know anything about any of the newly arrived horses and they liked to put me and my sister on them to see what would happen. I’m not sure if at 8 and 11 we were supposed to be the bravest, or if as little kids whose parents didn’t hover much we were the most expendable.

I certainly learned to stay on. More importantly, I learned that I COULD stay on. Much later in life I heard someone say that I could ride anything that had hair, and it’s true. I can’t say that I always wanted to, though. And after a while, especially with horses, the fear on the inside and the foolhardiness on the outside start to clash with one another. The horses at least can tell that you are out of integrity, even if the people think (and say) “wow, I wish I could ride like that.”

I haven’t been on a soccer field in four years now, since I tore my ACL in a pointless scrimmage, playing a position I don’t normally play and displaying an uncommon surge of competitiveness and determination to get to the ball first in 95 degree heat. I did, just as the other player’s knee got to the side of my knee. Some things are not worth the effort, I realized as I felt my knee blow apart right before I hit the turf.

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Hiding what’s going on in my insides from myself turns out to not be worth the effort, either, and I suspect some things have blown apart without my realizing it while I’ve been acting brave and feeling afraid. I have been on a horse maybe twice in those same four years. I have four horses standing around in my fields, and while I’m sure they don’t mind having to eat hay and grass for a living instead of working, I miss the connection of having a partnership with them. If I’m honest, I haven’t really had a partnership with any of these horses, not like the one I had with my old mare who died seven years ago now. That’s a long time of not letting anyone in again. Of not letting myself get hurt again. Of being fearful instead of foolhardy.

Maybe it’s ok that Tiggers don’t like haycorns, or yoga. What Tigger found he liked best, as I recall, was Strengthening Medicine. Maybe if I get back out there with the horses I will find me some of that.

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