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?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

BINGO: None of the following is true

(Except for the parts which are, but I’m not telling which ones have actually happened to me. [Except for when I provide photographic or video evidence.]) 

I held my hand against my forehead, elbow on the table, trying to breathe through my anxiety. What had originally been planned to be a nice weekend of coaching was rapidly devolving into a nightmare. It had all started when Alex announced that he wanted me to take Tango on his first prelim. “Alright,” I’d agreed, and after all, it sounded like it might be a nice thing to do, as proof after all these years that Tango really had been something special. 

And then Finn’s owner announced that he’d been entered in the Novice division, even though we’d taken him cross-country exactly once, and I was supposed to be his jockey. “Alright,” I haltingly agreed, as Finn was such a sweet fellow and surely I could just withdraw if we all felt really over-faced. 

Finn is a real horse who is new to the barn and none of the following story actually resemble this horse, he just was the first one I thought of for this tale

I leaned back from the picnic table and glanced across the farm to Kat, who stood in her stall weaving merrily away, and considered withdrawing her as she really had just come back from an injury and maybe I was pushing things, but you read all those stories about Buck Davidson crashing and breaking a bunch of ribs and STILL riding 9 or so horses cross country, so I could probably pull three off, even though it’s a new level for all three of the horses. And if that were all facing me this weekend, I probably wouldn’t bat an eye. 

But there was Moxie, too, the horse I’d taken a lease on while Kat recovered in the pasture, but I didn’t have to worry one iota about her as she was the most reliable of the bunch. 
Moxie is also a real horse. This is not a photo of her. I am actually taking the lease on her. She knows more dressage than me and needs miles showing, so we'll help each other out.

Four horses, three new to the level, I’d be fine. I was coaching two riders, and riding four. Other trainers do it all the time, and once I’d taken enough deep breaths, I knew this would be one hell of a weekend to tell stories about. 

“Alright!” I said aloud, to no one in particular, “let’s just make it through this weekend alive.” 

Little did I know just what shape this story would take. 

Friday morning: 4 am and with yesterday’s unfinished coffee clutched in my hand, bleary eyes taking in the sight of my mounts, I began braiding. Part of the way through braiding the third horse I began to wonder whose fucking brilliant idea it was to not braid the horses last night, and when I get to Moxie, I eyeball her mane, consider cutting it off, and decide it doesn’t need to be braided. They all go for a hand walk, and Kat decided to show me just HOW good she feels by levitating numerous times and dragging me a good distance each time. I wondered who I could call to bring me a stud chain. 

Prelim ran first for me, and Tango gleamed from head to tail. With strong muscles and a kind eye, we shared a few moments in the warm up where I reveled in just how nice it was to be able to stroll along on a loose rein, watching the other riders and feeling his back underneath me. We trotted into the ring, where I promptly forgot my whole test. 

Tango, of course, did his level best for me, and I left the ring disappointed in the ride. My circles had been uneasy because I was halfheartedly waiting to get rung out for going off course, and I hadn’t ever pushed Tango to give me his all. “Oh well,” I told Alex as we walked back to the barn, “at least it wasn’t terrible.” 

Training ran next, and Moxie went up first. She warmed up beautifully, supple and generous in the bridle, and we turned down the centerline oozing confidence. Leaving the arena, I knew we’d laid down one of the best tests of my life, and I spent a bit too long congratulating myself and the horse with lots of scratches and chatting with the clients who had come to watch. 

It wasn’t until Sophie came running up to me and dragged me off Moxie that I realized I’d frittered away most of my warm-up time for Kat. She was due in the dressage court in twenty-two minutes. Not nearly enough.... 

My tension rolled over Kat and she pranced in hand as I led her to the warm up arena. I begged a leg-up and the moment my butt touched the saddle I knew I was sitting on a powder keg. 

We picked up a trot on a circle and tried to dodge the other riders while still giving Kat the best and most consistent ride I could come up with. Some kid on a wicked agile pony dodged into and back out of my circle before I even noticed, but Kat took great offense to the pony and kicked at it, even though it was 50 some feet away. I bumped her with my legs and growled, “No,” at her, at which point she reared. 

While holding onto her neck, I noticed how everyone was clearing themselves away from me. “Great,” I told Sophie as we whizzed past her, “now I’m riding THAT horse.” 

I did not turn down centerline with as much confidence as I’d felt on Moxie. We wobbled our way through the test and I realized, moments before cueing for the first canter, that we literally had NOT cantered in our warm up. I took a deep breath, sat a few beats of the trot, and aided for the canter. 

I did not precisely get the canter. Instead, I got a spectacularly leaping, kicking, porpoising mare. The photos, I learned later, looked a bit like a capriole from the Spanish Riding School, if you tilted your head sideways and squinted a bit. 

But we pressed on, as one does when one events, and we finished the test with fewer acrobatic moments. 

The last to go was darling sweet Finn, and my legs were a little shaky and my nerves were shot. I didn’t ride him all that well, and completely forgot the free-walk portion of the test, but he did quite well, all things considered. 

I walked the herd later, before picking up my scores, and Kat seemed to have finally settled down so I began to feel more confident for the next two days. 

I was so excited when I got to the office and saw that Moxie and I were first in our division after dressage! We’d scored an unbelievable 19, with some of the best numbers I’d even seen, including an 8 on what used to be our weakest point! (The halt. Ugh. Her haunches were always swinging sideways in the halt but that’s probably my fault because my other horses do that too.) The judge commented that we looked like a “nice pair”, and the score definitely showed it! 

Kat had not scored so well, but even though the judge commented, “tense,” she also told me it was “tactfully ridden,” so I sort of figure I’ll take what I can get. 

Tango scored the most consistent test I’ve ever seen. The comment, “you call those circles?” stung, but he had straight sixes all the way down. I wondered if the scribe was tired of writing different numbers, but we weren’t at the bottom of the pack. 

Finn’s test was predictable, with comments such as, “needs more bend,” and “free walk not shown.” Oops. 

This event was organized in the strangest way, with novice running cross country on Saturday, but Training and Prelim running stadium on Saturday. 

Saturday dawned, and it took me a solid fifteen minutes to get out of bed. I stared at the ceiling praying to keep Kat well-behaved and Finn brave. 

Tango was my first ride of the day and for the first time in years, when I swung my leg over him I was afraid of him. A hump stayed present just under the saddle the whole time we warmed up. After our first jump he took off like something had stung him, and I would have been able to ride it out if it hadn’t been for the corkscrew buck he threw, and I hit the ground hard. I took my helmet off and shook the dirt out of my hair, tried to brush off as much as I could, and looked over at a Tango who looked as if he were laughing. I grabbed his reins, mounted from the ground, and took another jump before I could let my nerves get the better of me, then immediately had to dismount for the EMT to sign off on my health. I was scolded thoroughly, but Tango’s bucks were out of his system, and he was perfectly reasonable for the rest of the warm up. 

As we cantered a circle in the ring, I could hear a commotion outside the arena. “Stay focused,” I sternly warned myself, and we went through the timers. 

“LOOSE HORSE!” I could hear someone bellowing, and I couldn’t help myself: I looked to see what was loose. 

It was Kat. 

Mane whipping behind her, tail floating, her spectacular and ground covering gallop eating up the ground, she tore through the warm up arena, scattering horses around her and playing chicken with anyone who would dare to stop her. 

Tango began to circle as I stared at my mare, and before I knew it we were crossing the starting timer line again. I looked around but no one seemed to have noticed, so I piloted Tango to the first jump, waiting to hear a buzzer calling me out, but it never happened. With a mental shrug we kept on, and he jumped everything hard and fast, in his favorite style. We had two jumps to go when I heard an awful metal clang. I looked everywhere but couldn’t see what caused the sound, as we hadn’t pulled anything down. We soared over the last two jumps, my buoyant heart full of joy. It wasn’t until later, in his stall, that I realized he must have somehow pulled a shoe off and chucked it into the standard. “It’s a weird wardrobe malfunction,” I laughed when I called my farrier. 

Moxie and Kat were both pretty straightforward in stadium. I think that Kat’s little walkabout took the edge off, but she still cleared the first fence so hard I lost BOTH my stirrups and jumped the next two fences without them before finally getting them back, and Moxie jumped her first warm up fence so hard I am CONVINCED we cleared the standards, but overall the pretty much behaved as if they were trained to do the job I was asking of them. 

Finn warmed up in a very gentlemanly way, but when we trotted into the start box, my stomach dropped. I’d forgotten my whip and my spurs. They certainly weren’t needed for my mares, but this fellow needed them. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, have a nice ride!” And we casually trotted out of the start box, despite my pony club efforts. 

We picked up a canter and rolled along for a few fences, but right about the fourth jump, he realized that this was hard work, and we were only going to keep doing it. Luckily the next fence on course was the smallest log you’ve ever seen, and the fact that it was flagged for novice was comical. Finn pinned his ears at me and my leg and floated to a halt. “Come onnnn,” I groaned at him as I circled him around and clamped my legs around him like he was a tube of toothpaste and I was getting the LAST pea-sized toothbrushing out of the bugger. 

As I approached the next fence at what might be described as little more than a western pleasure jog, the jump judge flagged me down and pulled me off the track. “There’s a hold,” she told me, “we have to let the rider behind you pass.” I pursed my lips and watched as the thoroughbred behind us cantered over the jump and on through the water. 

Somehow we crawled through the rest of the course, but I am confident that there’s never been a slower cross country run at novice ever. It felt like we were out there forever. They even delayed rider’s start times because we were so slow. I called my mom after dinner and told her about the fall, the mishap with the loose horse, getting passed on cross country, everything, and finished by saying, “we literally picked up so many penalties. Somehow we weren’t eliminated, but I honestly don’t know how.” 

I slept like the dead. My alarm went off Sunday morning before I wanted it to, and I felt creaky and horrible as I rolled out of bed. And then I remembered that I was getting to take Tango prelim, something I’d imagined watching him do for years. I perked up, drank my coffee, took some ibuprofen, and by the time I was tacking Tango up I was bouncing with excitement. 

Fear flooded my veins as I trotted around the start box, as it always does, but when I let Tango out and he leaped into a ground covering gallop, I remembered how much I loved this. Over tables and logs, down the drop into the water, a glance at my watch and we were actually cruising a bit too fast. “Circling!” I called, as we added some time by circling before the corner combination. Racing through the finish flags, I burst into tears, wrapped my arms around Tango’s slimy neck, and kissed him before jumping off. “What a good boy,” I crooned through my choked up voice as he power-walked up the hill and back to the barn. 

I had a similar experience with Moxie, the adrenaline converging with my delight to create a near-spiritual moment, until the mare decided to drop to a trot right before the biggest, most maxed out table on course. She jumped it from a trot, and I kicked her on, determined not to repeat that frightening experience. She took offense to the kick and powered over the next jump from at least two strides out. The rest of the course was uneventful, but it did give me a lot to think about how I could better have ridden her. 

Kat was suspiciously quiet in the warm up. She was, dare I even suggest it, ‘workmanlike.’ She walked into the start box. She cantered out quietly. She didn’t over-jump the first fence, nor did she drag me to the second one. I relaxed and began to thrill in taking my wonderful mare out to do her job as I’d always imagined her capable of doing. 

That was, until she spooked at a jump judge after a fence, bolted down a hill, over the next one, powered over a table, supermanned off a bank, all while I muttered and yelled and called “WOAH DAMMIT” and fruitlessly pulled on the reins. I had no breaks. I passed the horse ahead of me, pulled off to the side on a hold to allow my crazy creature full rein. 

We came down through the water and she finally slowed, maybe she was tired, but maybe she knew what she was about to do. She slowed down until she nearly cantered in place, opened her stride for a moment, then chipped hard to the rolltop. I didn’t stand a chance. I ate it. She didn’t go far, and from my vantage point on the ground, I could see we’d lost a boot somewhere along the mad gallop. 

An EMT came over to check me out, and Kat treated him as if he were a tornado rising up from the ground. She dragged me sideways, and I refused to let go, even as she dragged me through the water complex. I finally tripped over myself and dropped her, landing soggily in the center of the water. “I hadn’t planned on going swimming,” I told the aghast EMT, even as I heard the announcer mention ‘that paint horse is loose again’. 


At this point, I was tired, embarrassed, and ready to load my terrible animals up and go the heck home. But I still had to pilot Finn around stadium. It won’t be too bad, I assured myself as I girthed him up and checked his breast collar, he’s a good boy. 

We went through the start timers and cantered merrily up to the first jump. I have reason to believe he didn’t even see the jump because he took that thing down. He didn’t even TRY to pick his feet up. Surprised, I tapped him with my stick and legged him on, trying to conjure an energetic horse. He pulled a rail on the next oxer, but it felt like a cheap rail because we barely touched it. 

And then, for the second time in this terrible weekend, I forgot where I was going. We circled so I could try to piece it together, knowing I would get penalty points for it. The unthinkable happened part way through the circle, and Finn realized that this was an event to get excited about. He took a deep breath, grew about six inches, and proceeded to buck my tired butt off. We were excused. 

I collected a ribbon for my first place finish with Moxie, but it felt hollow. I’d had so much hope for this weekend, and I’d let my client down by falling off Finn in the stadium. 

But as I finished my woeful tale, Megan started laughing at me. “None of this can possibly be true, Kate,” she said, and the bloggers around her laughed too. 

“Bingo!” I shouted, and we finished our dinner with no more crazy made up stories about nightmare events. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

An interlude with a diabolic bike

I would like to request that you listen to the song below while reading this post. 

I'm not a particularly adventurous person, I'm coming to discover. For example, I recently helped a client see that her horse would be just fine on trails. I rode the horse out for a while as she biked alongside us. The horse was lovely, so I suggested that we switch. 

I couldn't tell you the last time I rode a bike, and I think the seat was a bit too high for me because I was stretching for the ground and struggling to find the pedals. It was a heavy bike, and I found it difficult to keep upright at first. But it was one of those neat electric bikes that help you pedal along, so it was pretty good once we got moving.

It had a lovely basket on the back tire and leather-padded handles. The client laughed a bit self-consciously when she referred to it as her "granny bike." As I biked and she rode, I admired the greenery and the view back over the ocean, casually rolling along with extremely little effort on my end. 

Imagine this, just all green

We started to near the end of the time we had available, so we decided I'd bike back to my car and leave her bike at the barn. 

"But wait," the client interjected, "you really should bike to the top here and see the view." 

"Well, alright," I agreed, thinking to myself that with an electrified bike it'd take me no time at all. 

No sooner had I rounded the corner into some woods than the trail became severely washed out and rocky. The bike had no shocks whatsoever, and my arms were shaking and vibrating as I struggled to hold onto the bike. Then halfway up a steep and arduous incline, my thighs already burning, the electric assistance gave out and I was left trying to heave this incredibly heavy not-meant-for-the-mountains bike up the hill. I awkwardly dismounted the bike (nearly crashing myself onto the ground in the process) and walked the bike the rest of the way up the hill, my arms tired from the ruts earlier. By the time I reached the top, I was dripping sweat. (It's possible I need to exercise more.) 

This is me, on the horse, before the terror show that was the bike ride

Phew! I told myself. I made it past the worst of it. The view was, in fact, gorgeous, so I admired the waves crashing onto the bluffs down below, the grassy plains of the hills, how minuscule the road gets when you peer down from far away. 

I turned the bike around, resettled myself on it's uncushioned and too-tall seat, and plunged down the hill. 

As I bounced off the first major rut and the back tire of the bike swung wildly to and fro, it dawned on me that I would rather ride any number of green or rank horses down this hill than this inanimate granny bike. 

A string of curse words strung together in creative ways kept me breathing as I bounced off ridge and rock until I finally managed to clutch the brakes fervently enough to slow down in a way that allowed me to leap off, shaking arms barely keeping the bike from clattering to the muddy trail. 

"We're gonna walk down this hill," I told the bike, but it didn't seem to care. 

I glanced at my riding boots as I began to crawl down the hill. Splattered with mud. So was the bike. I didn't pay enough attention to the trail for a moment and the front tire got stuck heavily in a rut, and when I wrenched it free, I accidentally hit the throttle of the bike and got dragged down the mountain, feet moving faster than I could really control, granny bike rattling and bouncing wildly as I stumbled after it. 

100% could have been me
The bike and I splashed through a deep puddle at the very bottom and I felt my socks start to squish as I finally slowed the bike enough to walk. After a while, I steeled my nerve, remounted the bike, and had an uneventful ride back to the barn despite tired arms and burning legs.