Thursday, February 1, 2018

Not allowed to change

On the first day of the Mary Wanless Workshop, there were three groups of three riders - I rode in the first group and had no idea what to expect.

Leading up to this workshop, I had a fair amount of anxiety. I learned that I was going to be a demonstration rider on Tuesday -- the clinic started on Friday! And reading through the list of attendees, there were some pretty powerful riders coming here to learn.

I may or may not have sent Megan a text about irreversibly ruining Moxie's mane when I pulled it (spoiler alert, it was fine), stayed up way too late staring at the ceiling and imagining worst-case scenarios, and other fun, anxious games throughout the week.


Friday morning, after a few hours of theory, my Fitbit alarm buzzed and I was off - time to get my horse tacked up. My legs trembled as I slipped my feet into my boots, I leaned into Moxie's shoulder and took several long moments to breathe, and hiked her up to the main arena where the crowd was restructuring for the riding portion. Moxie promptly spooked at someone moving a dressage letter, so I decided to walk around the edge of the arena for a few minutes until her nerves settled down.

After mounting up and walking a few laps, Mary shared the rule of the first day: we the riders were not allowed to make ANY CHANGES until we were given permission.

We introduced ourselves, I explained that I'm an event trainer aimed at second level and beyond. Mary asked me what I would change if she could wave a magic wand and fix one of my problems. I thought for a moment and told her that I would be able to sit the trot without chasing Moxie's back out from under me and that my frontline would be less overpowered by my back in the canter.

Out and walking around, Mary asked a super important question that I often forget to consciously ask myself, "Is everyone safe?" It's very British Horse Society and I know I consider it, but reminding myself to keep that at the forefront of my mind in the beginning of a new lesson with a new client is a good thing.

Next, she mused about where we would land if the horse were to disappear out from underneath us: on our feet, on our butts, or on our faces? I would land on my butt.

Quite a few things were lobbed at me in the walk: I have a good shoulder-hip line, but lose it to my feet. There appears to be a bit of a layer of shifting sand in my waist, my shoulders are very involved in the walk. I tend to round my shoulders. The front of my body is a bit soggy. The "cereal box" of my torso is bloopy. My right foot leads, especially when changing directions.


It is very difficult not to change when people start commenting on things that aren't quite right about your riding. Some things I know how to fix easily and really need to be more stern with myself about correcting on the daily. Some of these things were new ideas, new words, new challenges.

I hear Mary say, "and now we're about to ask the cruelest question, and keep in mind you're not allowed to change yet, riders..."


It really is amazing how when you focus on things in your body they seem to want to change, and my right foot seemed to have lost all stability to speak of as I focused on keeping it still, in the wrong spot.

"If the skin of the rider were a bag, what material would be bag be filled with?"

The answers ranged in hilarity from 'somewhat gelatinous' to Mary's 'blancmange' to 'mochi'.

And then we moved on to trot. Mostly, the impression I gave at the trot was significantly better, with someone being quoted as saying, "she starts to get her shit together in the trot."


Next, we cantered, and some feedback included having my feet too far forward and my shoulder moved backward in the downbeat of the canter.

I felt a lot better about being in motion, but the sheer amount of "things" that had been lobbed at me felt pretty overwhelming. How are you supposed to fix all this? I wondered, followed by a concern about if it was even possible.


When we moved into sitting the trot, which I feel pretty competent on any horse but Moxie, I learned that there's too much wiggling, that I progressively bounce backward, and that I sit a bit left. It appears I minimize the trot in order to sit it, and that there's a wish for me to be more robust.

Phew - and then we were walking again. Except Mary was telling a story about a horse that she brought home, a big PRE stallion -- when she got him back to the stable she learned he was a bit of an amoeba, legs and balance everywhere. She related me to that horse in the walk, stating that I really needed to firm up a bit in the walk. She coached me on a few things, namely not allowing my spine to willow, then asked me:
"What would it take for you to never go back to the other way of walking?" 
I didn't really know what to say. It isn't the first time I've been told to firm up my walk - there's a LOOONG post sitting in my drafts with the title "Don't be a trail rider" wherein Tracey coaches me extensively about my sogginess in the walk and I still don't really understand how to fix it. I shared that when Mary asked, that I'd heard this before, and someone in the crowd said, "I trail ride, and I don't walk like THAT!" It was meant to be funny, but it definitely stung.

The feeling of being posed that question was a little shameful; there's this ugly thing in my riding that I've shrugged and ignored all this time to the detriment of my horse and my riding... It was an unpleasant feeling, and I choked back a lot of emotion while I considered it. 'Maybe I'm just not good at walking,' I told myself as I focused on pressing my guts against my muscles and keeping my alien right leg in line.

Hell, at least I'm a happy if soggy trail rider

At the end, we lined up in front of the audience and Mary reminded us that we are more than a collection of patterns and bad habits and that a rosebud is worth no less than a rose. Later in the weekend, we spent a lot of time talking about mindsets that affect success. One type of mindset says, "talent: you've either got it or you don't." And another mindset says, "the harder I work, the better I get."

Mary emphatically coaches in a way that proves "the harder I work, the better I get." I left the arena trying to remember that, but still feeling pretty dismal. Bear with me though, as my mood begins to change about all these challenges soon!

Monday, January 29, 2018

Cause and Effect

Megan and I attended a Mary Wanless Workshop this weekend, and I was invited to be a demo rider with Moxie. It was an UNBELIEVABLE weekend and I'm not sure I'll ever be the same.


I met trainers who have balanced horses and real life in a way that was super commendable, I got to interview a few FEI trainers on their progression to Grand Prix (all the while embracing that they're still working on things too! You'll never just arrive!), make some friends, and let's not forget the mind-blowing experience of getting three days of lessons with one of my all-time biggest heroes, Mary Wanless.

Did you know that she has a degree in physics?!

Megan wrote about the structure of the clinic, which I think is an important background before you think about any of these concepts. 

Today we're talking about something very important that underlies the RWYM philosophy.

You've got a goal: to develop your horse as close to 10's in your dressage tests as this horse is capable of.


The question is getting the horse from his current state over to that ideal-horse state.


We refer to this arrow as the 2nd toolkit, or what to do, also known as declarative knowledge.


Then we introduce the rider and the first toolkit, which centers around teaching the rider HOW to ride, how to fix their imbalances, how to get tone in the right places in their body. This is called procedural knowledge. 
Declarative knowledge involves knowing THAT something is the case - that J is the tenth letter of the alphabet, that Paris is the capital of France. Declarative knowledge is conscious; it can often be verbalized.  Metalinguistic knowledge, or knowledge about a linguistic form, is declarative knowledge. 
Procedural knowledge involves knowing HOW to do something - ride a bike, for example. We may not be able to explain how we do it.  Procedural knowledge involves implicit learning, which a learner may not be aware of, and may involve being able to use a particular form to understand or produce language without necessarily being able to explain it. - Source


Eventually, we come to the conclusion that we can view as the rider as the cause and the horse as effect - for a small proof of concept, consider how much better your horse goes underneath a really talented rider. That rider's control over his own body and fascial net cause a very different effect on the horse than your control and your fascial net. 


I've filled in some examples of words that might fall into the 1st and 2nd toolkits, and if they don't all make sense to you, that's alright: they probably shouldn't. A big part of the 1st toolkit is creating feelages within the rider's body and then attaching specific words to those feelings, to allow for a clear coach-rider interaction. 


Then we add in one more piece called the zero toolkit. This toolkit is dominated by a thorough understanding of operant conditioning. Does the horse know how to learn, and does the rider know how to train? Many pieces of groundwork fall into the zero toolkit, and I think that the basics of clicker training add to this toolkit and make it a really powerful baseline. 

If we have a horse that throws his shoulders left and jack-knifes while tracking right, we can move through the toolkits to explore solving the problem. Zero toolkit: does the horse understand the rein aids? Are we absolutely sure he knows what pressure on the reins means? First toolkit: is the rider shifting her weight in a way that encourages the horse to collapse to the inside? Is the rider transmitting force correctly? Is the rider taking the horse, or is the horse taking the rider? Second toolkit: practice riding square turns, spiraling circles, and leg yielding into the left rein in order to get the horse more appropriately connected to the rein. 

Mary had a great way of describing this. Sometimes there are trainers who are just really blessed in one toolkit or another, and they don't think much about the existence of the other toolkits. So it's as if these three trainers are in a pitch black room, touching one part of an elephant. The zero toolkit is touching the elephant's ear and trying to explain it, while the first toolkit examines his trunk, and the second toolkit has his leg. Without an ability to see the elephant in its entirety, each trainer might think the other is stark raving mad.

When we put it all together, we have a much more convincing roadmap forward toward our ideal horse than if we only focus on the exercises we need to be able to accomplish to make it through a test, or if we focus on position to the exclusion of all else, or if we feel we have to perfect our groundwork before ever riding.

Coming in future posts, explore what it was like to take a lesson from 30 trainers at once, learn more about fascial nets and what to do about soggy lines, the emotional impact of abandoning what's comfortable, and even more. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

An Antifragile Connection

Fragile objects are harmed by chaos. Example: a glass breaks when dropped on the ground. Or, a sensitive horse loses his mind when his threshold is crossed.

Robust objects are not impacted by chaos. Example: a nalgene water bottle does not change when dropped on the ground. Or, a solid lesson horse continues trotting along on the lunge, unfazed by his flapping child.

Antifragile objects are made stronger through chaos. Example: the human body rebuilds itself stronger after exercise. Or, the connection I'm considering in this blog post.

The rain has made for some really lovely photos that are not at all horse-related...

Has your horse ever offered you a few strides of the most amazing, connected, powerful trot? And you relax, thinking "finally!" Maybe you have the sort of horse that took your relaxation as reinforcement for the behavior and you got more of that amazing trot, and maybe you don't have that sort of horse.

I've watched my students experience those moments countless times. The warm-up led to a happy, supple horse, and the student and horse seem to be in the right mood to really come out to play. The horse brings his back up and powers across the ground, showing himself off. And then it all crumbles -- maybe a leaf moved or the rider sat down too heavily or the rider accidentally bopped her leg against his side or maybe the horse got tired.

I bet you've done it too, held your breath while you hoped it could go on forever.

... as highlighted by Justin the Slug. He has 27,000 teeth.

I know I have. Those moments are the epitome of a fragile connection. I also know that in the last year, I've learned to seek an antifragile connection, primarily through how I've thought about it.

An antifragile connection is one where you can place your inside calf against his ribs and he steps more deeply into the connection, where when the cat jumps out of the tree he brings his back up rather than runs away, one where you can feel his balance change and correct it before he even thinks to come off the bit.

For me, I've learned that the connection needs to be able to tolerate a bit of chaos, that the connection isn't really working until it gets deeper through a few moving pieces.

It's not just about "on-the-bit", either, this antifragile connection. When we go to horse shows and subject our horses to the chaos of warm-up arenas, spectators, our well-meaning but overzealous friends, our own uncertainty, all those elements are bits of chaos that we're earnestly introducing to our horses. I have found that approaching those moments with a sense of, "this chaos strengthens us", rather than imagining that we have to endure until our horse finally adapts or submits to what's happening around him makes me enjoy it more.

I'm talking about these experiences differently with my students as well. No longer is the stormy, windy day one to hold our breath through, it's one to wake up to and celebrate the opportunity to practice our antifragile connection. Am I able to hold enough things constant (my position, my mental attitude, my expectations) that the chaos of the world around us makes our connection better?

If not, why?

This curiosity meets a bit of eagerness to create calmer horses. I expect you (and me) to get stronger through chaos, so let's meet it with introspection.

Have you ever experienced an antifragile connection with your horse? If so, how would you describe it?

Monday, January 8, 2018

Loss of momentum

I haven't posted on Instagram in nearly a year - some of my students consider this egregious. It's been almost six months since I posted here.

I don't know about you, but I know that there's a bit of momentum that has to be built up, that once you're rolling it's easier to keep going. There's so much to say here, and what of it to write? Moxie and I rode five first level dressage tests together, progressing from an impressive 59% at a schooling show to a 67% at a rated show. There were a great many lessons learned there.


Freddie went from his very first jumps to competing at Novice in 2017. It was a big year for him, too.


I got the opportunity to compete with one of my student's horses, which perhaps was the most surprising event of the year. I came 4th in a large and competitive field on a horse I'd never jumped cross country with before (oops). It helped that the mare is a total professional in the ring.


I forged new friendships with bloggers, took lessons from eight different trainers, attended World Cup in Omaha, read about seventy books, joined a gym, stopped going to the gym, dedicated myself solely to horse training, doubled my clientele, showed in new venues, euthanized a horse, bought another horse, borrowed/acquired three others, rehabbed Kat, expanded to a second barn, helped purchase four horses....

It was a huge year. And I love looking back over my writing in 2015 & 2016 as an archive of my memories. You'll forgive me if I don't hold myself to it, but I would like to more actively share on the blog this year.

Welcome to 2018 :)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Brutal Pursuit


The journey towards doing anything well is hard. There are a great many quaint anecdotes that try to translate this journey for the lay-person, but I don't think I need to translate them for you. You're a horse-person too. You participate in one of the only life-long sports where constant coaching is a cultural norm. You and I joke about how intense or hard our lessons were, complain how difficult this whole thing is, marvel at the way that this sport takes our life and consumes it. 

We engage in deliberate practice, set goals, assess our progress towards those goals. Things beyond our control wreak havoc on these goals, things ranging from weather to the unwellness of our horses. 

You understand what I'm about to say. 

This afternoon I came home to a package containing a new book. I started reading it a bit later, and after 27 pages I read this quote: 
In the course of creating your work, you are going to be forced to ask yourself: What am I willing to sacrifice in order to do it? Will I give up X, Y, Z? A willingness to trade off something -- time, comfort, easy money, recognition -- lies at the heart of every great work. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but always a significant sacrifice that needs to happen. If it didn't, everyone would do it. 
In order for me to achieve my goals with horses, I'm going to need to give up things I find comfortable, such as sitting like a trail rider while walking and pulling casually on the right rein. I need to bring my mental focus to bear upon geometry and my own position within space. I need to do things that are uncomfortable. These are small sacrifices, but they feel hard sometimes.

I recently had the pleasure of hosting Shawna Karrasch for a clinic at my barn and some of the things she said rang ridiculously true, but I still am finding that it is hard for me at times to consciously choose to do things in a manner that is better for my horse. I like my old habits. Not because they were thoughtfully chosen but because they feel comfortable.

PC: Olivia

I choose brutal today for "punishingly hard or uncomfortable"

We're doing it, though. We're making sacrifices. The commutes to our horses, the time spent at the barn, the meals we forget about. We're dusting ourselves off after falling off, we're trying new relationships with horses, we're seeking further instruction, we're putting ourselves out there. We are all in the arena

What then, does further discussion bring us? I want to recognize what's been done so far and admit to myself that there is more yet to do. Anders Ericsson writes: 
The plateau Josh encountered is common in every sort of training. When you first start learning something new, it is normal to see rapid—or at least steady—improvement, and when that improvement stops, it is natural to believe you’ve hit some sort of implacable limit. So you stop trying to move forward, and you settle down to life on that plateau. This is the major reason that people in every area stop improving. --Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise
There is no arriving, and for me, there cannot be a settling. And although there is a cost to this desire not to settle, and even knowing that you cannot know the entirety of the cost until you've paid it, I think it's a journey worth taking. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Addition of Moxie


Serendipity is a pretty beautiful thing sometimes. The day Kat pulled up lame again I saw an ad for a mare, schooling 2nd/3rd, a care lease situation in order for the owner to be a bit picky. I sent her a message to start a conversation, more to soothe my sadness over Kat than anything else.

It turned out that Peony knows the owner and vouched for me, putting me to the final options for the lease. I went up and rode her, met the owner, laughed a ton, had a great time riding the mare, and then went home to wait.

In the end, I won the lease on her, and shortly before my birthday in April Miss Mox (AKA the Queen) came to stay with me for a while.


She's been on a number of adventures with me so far including camping, a few horse shows, a bunch of lessons, and a jumping clinic with Laine Ashker (all of which needs writing about...).

We're entered in our first rated dressage show in just a few weeks and the big question is whether we'll start collecting scores for my bronze or if I'll run us off course, as I have at 2/3 of the schooling shows we've done so far.... ;)

Here's a protracted video with clips from a bunch of dressage lessons since she came in!


Friday, March 24, 2017

What Should Be Practiced?

Excerpted from "Why Don't Students Like School?"

Not everything can be practiced extensively, but fortunately not everything needs to be practiced.... If practice makes mental processes automatic, we can then ask, which processes need to become automatic? 
Retrieving number facts from memory is a good candidate, while a science teacher may decide that his students need to have at their fingertips basic facts about elements. In general, the processes that need to become automatic are probably the building blocks of skills that will provide the most benefit if they are automatized. Building blocks are the things that one does again and again in a subject area, and they are the prerequisites for more advanced work. 

So before I write to you about my thoughts on this subject, can I ask you: which processes need to become automatic in our work with horses?