Starving the Shade

You really can’t live in the Western world today and not suffer in some way from anxiety. What American is not anxious about something, if not multiple somethings? (For example … the opioid crisis, gun violence, international terrorism, domestic terrorism, failing transportation infrastructure, racism, lead in the water of not just Flint but many American towns, tropical diseases migrating north as the climate gradually warms, rising sea levels, and oh yeah rent/the mortgage, to speak nothing of hurricanes.) There are many manifestations of anxiety, and if you’re interested in scratching that surface, you can find statistics from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

But within anxiety, there swells a strong current of existential dread, notably at the forefront of American culture and politics today, explicated to a certain extent in a New York Times Magazine piece, “The Golden Age of ‘Existential’ Dread.” If you interact with media at all, you can’t escape the venomous tendrils of existential dread weaving together everything from climate change deniers and creationists, to universal health care proponents, feminists, and the Standing Rock protesters.

However, there is another type of existential dread and it’s personal. My own experience with anxiety has a few facets and I did not discover until recently that a big part of why things make me anxious, why I have racing thoughts, why I regularly entertain graphic fears of losing things important to me … a big part of this is existential dread. It has shadowed everything I do every day. For many years, it controlled me (and given my taste in literature and film I have no idea why this never occurred to me while I was younger). For many years, I fought it without knowing it or knowing how to fight it effectively. I found some succor in two books — My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel and Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks. After reading I realized that what I suffered I did not suffer alone. And I knew I could change things myself (which included actively seeking professional help). I coveted and currently enjoy relief in some of the daily tasks I perform in relation to my dog and my horse. Horses, especially, can be a pleasurable,  purposeful, and constructive outlet for anxious or obsessive-compulsive energy. Horses don’t sink into murky anxiousness never to be heard from again, they just are, and they live in the moment. Clear your head and bask in their immediacy of existence and try to learn that ever-presence from them.

why get mad at the wind from patentlybay on Vimeo.

The burden of existential dread, however, is not assuaged wholly by fussing over my animals. The animals help A LOT and drive my motivations for doing basically anything. But there are still at times nagging feelings of “why” and “what if” that darken the ether around me. And this shade forever skirts total demise. Perhaps without it, I am not me.

Yet it no longer rules me.

Partly because of cognitive behavioral therapy and partly because I have embraced gratitude, I no longer spend hours ruminating on all the bad things ever. If I dwell on a thing, it must be a thing of beauty and must improve my life, or it doesn’t get an iota of my time or energy. This is a conscious choice. Anyone can make it. Every dumb article you read on click-bait websites about pop psychology probably says that happiness is a choice. And they’re right. Even when locked in struggle–with people, or work, or finances, or family–happiness is there to be had because your mind is that agile. My mind is that agile. I control what energy I put toward that which would otherwise dim me in shadow. I keep that energy for myself now. There is now no shade capable of consuming me.

If you think you can’t do this, know that you are wrong and you can do this. Maybe not easily, but you can do this.

Walk Work

For the most part, I have left Eli’s walk alone. On a long rein, it’s fine unless he’s cranking his head around one direction or another and popping a shoulder … okay, yeah, we need to work on the walk. Finally.

Get your stroll on baby

We have been doing more walking in general. I walk longer at the beginning of the ride, mostly still on a long rein. And then more walking at the end of the ride, not just to cool out — before that. We try lateral stuff (very poorly), smaller circles, just trying to have a forward, engaged, STRAIGHT walk. The forward part is fairly easy, at least.

One of the most useful things I can do with Eli while working at the walk is to teach him to halt with his hind end engaged. As I ask for the halt, Eli tends to poke his nose out and hollow his back, and for years I have done little to nothing about this. We had other challenges to focus on and I wasn’t about to addle his inscrutable brain about it and just end up with a jigging horse and getting nowhere in other gaits. At the trot and canter, we worked on upward transitions, rideability, stretching, relaxing … things we can work on at the walk, too. Maybe I have a backwards approach and I know a good walk is important, but getting a good trot and canter were the path of least resistance.

I ran across an article I really take to heart, and I encourage everyone to read it. Holly Hugo-Vidal writes on the difference between strength and education in the aids. Of course we all aim for self-carriage, but getting there is a long and never-ending journey of using aids effectively to create lighter, uphill gaits and a confident, compliant horse. So much of the article–basically every sentence–made so much sense to me; with my personal experience I could relate to the examples easily. (Plus, agh, I would be devastated if I ever even accidentally marked a horse with my spur! I hate that I have even ever seen it.)

Eli is not by any means dead to the leg, but he can get a bit resistant or dull about bending to the right. An active, light leg has gone a long way to help with this. The longer we work together, the more Eli understands what the leg means. Early on in our partnership, Eli struggled with understanding leg aids, and of course I was overdoing it a bit, too–I distinctly remember one time schooling over fences where I tried to push him over to the left with my right leg and he just shot forward–it was all he knew. And I realized that my own leg was not educated enough at the time to communicate well with this horse who did not understand or interpret the leg well.

Over time, we have gotten much more in sync, and Eli responds accordingly to my leg aids the majority of the time. We have taught each other, I think. I can now use my right leg to push him left and he moves laterally much better, without the leg startling or confusing him. This hasn’t been some on and off switch, and no single component of the puzzle fell into place and everything clicked. It has been a steady process, one in which Eli and I both have frustrating days but they are now rare.

Icing daily until it’s not Death Valley here.

We did, however, have one on Saturday. His flat work was fine, but once we started over fences, he got less and less rideable and I had not been mentally prepared to work through that kind of day on Eli. In all fairness, there was a lot going on–Eli had not jumped in over two weeks, and I had ridden him only twice over the course of the week. There was construction noise coming from an adjacent property (truthfully I think it might have been giving everyone, horse or human, a headache), and some traffic in the arena all came together to unravel us both. I had not initially put on his running martingale, but I did take him back down to the barn to put it on him, and while it helped some, mostly we couldn’t accomplish anything.

I took Sunday as a do-over for Eli. We worked basically on the exact same fences, through the same process we’ve been using — trot fences, trot in and canter out of some lines — and it’s like Saturday never happened. I had my happy horse back, who was still a bit goofy coming off a 3′ oxer, but whatever, he was rideable enough for me.

This doesn’t come from nowhere. It isn’t random. Rideability is developed over time, with educated use of the aids. The less the rider and horse know, the longer it will take for rideability to develop. It has taken years for me to develop it in Eli, but most days I consider him very rideable now.

Rideable AND extremely adorable

And so now we work on this same rideability, this same compliance to the aids — at the walk. Perhaps I should have started with that, when I first started riding him. But I think with a forward-thinking thoroughbred, the walk can be the most difficult gait for them to work on and develop into something correct and engaged. Rather than inadvertently get him upside down and backwards at the walk and possibly the other gaits, I left his walk alone all this time. The difference is that now, we are both confident in our level of communication with each other that the walk is something we can work on and be successful. I am not saying we are successful yet, but we have to start somewhere.

 

Horses Can Think for Themselves

Both on the ground and under saddle, horses are expected to follow a human’s lead. Human does something and horse reacts in a way human wants, horse gets rewarded. Human does something and horse acts in a way human doesn’t want, horse gets corrected. Horse learns to do things human wants. This is a very black-and-white version of a very complex conversation between two species and I think some horses are capable of problem-solving beyond just reacting to a human. If horses weren’t smart enough, humans would have given up trying to domesticate them for riding, working, and companionship long ago.

Genius, right here

What does Eli do that makes me think he can think for himself? In our Saturday lesson he backed himself off the jumps without me doing very much at all other than staying out of his way as much as possible. The less I do, the more he shines over fences. He is learning that I am learning to make his job easy. He is learning that I will be there with my leg most of the time to support his efforts. He is learning distances and getting them much better than I ever will. He is learning from gridwork. Is he idiot-proof? No. But is he getting amateur-friendly? I think we are headed that way for sure. Although I couldn’t get him to land on the left lead, we did get a left-to-right change which is his harder side. I was so surprised! But happy. The more chances I give him to do something right, the more he responds positively. The “simple” theme continues. (Maybe I will actually get media of it next weekend.)

Human makes a bad decision. Pudgy bunny hops anyway. (5-12 Photography)

Even on the ground–probably more so than under saddle–Eli is behaving like regular sweet gelding and a pet. Don’t get me wrong–if a stranger invades his personal space unless a treat is immediately forthcoming he will pin his ears and bare his incisors, but all very lackadaisically. His aggression is nearly non-existent. I give him chances to do the right thing and it may take him an extra second or two, but he complies eventually. This is most illustrated by the wash rack. The wash racks are a step up from the aisles and are probably a bit spooky to a horse unfamiliar with them. For whatever reason, Eli needs a moment to think about how to step his hind feet up into the wash rack EVERY TIME. He always walks half way in and stops. No idea why after doing this hundreds of times he still needs an extra second, but I give it to him anyway. He steps all the way in with minimal drama, and I really didn’t have to do anything. Maybe some other people would get impatient with this and expect him to walk right in, and who knows what tricks or methods people would use to get him to walk right in, but I don’t much see the point of all that because he does walk in eventually. His terms are fair in my mind. Why pick a fight about something the horse isn’t sure about? Why not reassure him instead that this is no big deal?

Eli, by far, has taught me more about how horses learn than any of my other horses. This is partly because I am paying attention to it more with Eli–my other horses didn’t come with the baggage Eli came with as they were all 3 or 4 year olds. With Eli, it hasn’t been so much about teaching what to do as it has been about undoing some aggression to see what’s underneath all the reactiveness. I ignored so much of his weirdness early on and I think that has been the most powerful communication between us–I don’t draw attention to things I don’t like. Instead, I ignore them and go about my business, establishing a routine that Eli can count on. Yes, of course, I reprimand him for kicking out directly at me, but he does that so little now, and the last few times he’s bitten me were more like a foal nibbling a pocket for a treat, not aggression. But he has gone from a horse that couldn’t stand still to be groomed to one who stands for grooming and loves being curried (because ITCHEEEZ).

Thinking about all this didn’t come out of the blue–I think about this kind of stuff frequently. So when I found a “position statement” on social media related to horse training, I read it because that’s what I do. I am not very familiar with the International Society for Equitation Science, but I am learning more about the organization by exploring the website. I am fascinated by their position statement on dominance and leadership concepts in horse training. It’s not exactly a quick read, but I am pleased to find an organization that treats the relationship between human and horse as a science, and cites studies related to the topics they pursue. I am still digesting the import of the position statement, but I found a lot of things that ring true for me in my experience. Especially toward the end of the article, this:

“Some horse people believe that, to get the ‘respect’ of a horse and make the horse obey orders, the person handling it must be the ‘alpha individual’, i.e. in the top position of the social hierarchy. The person must be the dominant part of the relationship and the horse the submissive one. Even if horses had a concept such as ‘top position’ in a hierarchy, it is questionable whether that hierarchy would even include humans (McGreevy et al., 2009). Undoubtedly, part of the reason for these and similar beliefs is anthropomorphism (i.e. our tendency to transfer human characteristics such as respect and authority onto the horse). This attitude often does more harm than good (see McLean 2003 for examples).”

Be there carrots or lions in yon woods?

Why not allow our relationships with horses to have a novel language, not one dependent on the way humans think horses communicate with each other? My horse does not think I am a horse, nor do I want him to think that. My horse comes from a long line of animals domesticated for work and sport, and most definitely recognizes humans as agents of both good and bad things, like grain or whips–that is the very nature of domestication. We can communicate with horses in a language unique to the horse-human relationship, one that evolves over time, one that is informed by evidence-based, peer-reviewed concepts and methods, one that makes no anthropomorphic assumptions about a dominance hierarchy. Eli doesn’t walk into the wash rack because I’m the alpha. Eli walks in the wash rack because I give him a chance to.

Commitment

What does it take to stick with horses? Anyone reading this already knows how unforgiving, tragic, and even ruthless riding horses can be. Horses are, for one thing, expensive. They come with no guarantees. Too many times, riders end up with unsuitable horses, for reasons ranging from the horse’s soundness to the rider’s skill level to the pair’s suitability for a chosen discipline. The first obstacle to get across is very often a rider’s own ego. Get the right horse for the job!

This post assumes you already have the right horse for the job, so that rules out a lot of people to which this post would even apply. But let’s say you’ve got the horse and you’ve got the desire and horse and rider are well-matched. Success should follow, right? Nope, it’s not automatic. It takes commitment. What does it mean to be committed to horses?

1. Love
If you don’t love horses, and love riding horses, why in the world would you do this? Perhaps another word to use for this feeling is passion. (Or possibly obsession?) You have to love horses to commit to horses. You have to love the horse sport, whichever discipline, to commit to the sport. You have to gain emotional energy from being around horses. Maybe you have a day every so often that horses drain you instead of buoy you, but on balance do horses lift your mood and your spirit? Even if things aren’t going your way? If you find yourself blaming everything on the horse, I personally cannot characterize that as love. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s toxic. Passion means putting the horse and the horse’s welfare first and drawing strength from elevating the horse above the rider’s circumstances.

2. Dedication
Do you really want to do this? Are there days you think about quitting, only to resolve to come back the next day with a fresh mind and body? Do you think of yourself as crazy for spending so much money and expending so much emotional energy on an animal that just wants food, shelter, and amusement? An animal that is capable of very creatively injuring itself, sometimes catastrophically? An animal that can get sick with all kinds of things and may or may not recover? If you lost the right horse, would you lose interest in the sport or would you search for the next right horse? In the face of all this, do you remain determined to wake up every morning and ride?

3. Self-preservation
Even on the right horse, running yourself into the ground will be more detrimental than helpful. First off, don’t practice so much that the horse starts to hate his job, or worse, starts going lame from overuse. You need to stick around to take care of the horse, so you had better take care of yourself, putting yourself in a position to take care of the horse to the best of your abilities. Don’t forgo safety precautions. Learn the proper way of doing things because very often it’s proper because it’s the safest way of doing things around horses, for both horse and the handlers.

4. Ambition
George Morris often talks about how important ambition is in a horse sport. I used to think it didn’t apply to me, because I had no immediate goals of competing, moving up a level, or making a living out of horses. I have since come to realize ambition is much simpler than all of that, and does apply to me. Ambition is the desire to improve and the desire to do the things it takes to improve. The second part of that is key. You can’t just say, “I want to get better,” and proceed to do nothing different from the day before. And if you don’t want to do the things it takes to get better, you will not get better.

5. Work
Attempting to stick to a rigid schedule in the equestrian world more often than not comes off as a joke. That doesn’t mean you can’t fit in the work. The days you can ride, ride. Practice what you need to practice, from serpentines to holding a two point to cavaletti and everything else you could possibly work on while riding. Be smart about it, and reward the horse for success. If Eli gets something right once or twice, I reward him and very often end on a high note such as that. If you can’t ride, there are plenty of other things you can do. Maybe your horse threw a shoe? Practice wrapping up a hoof. Maybe it’s raining? No doubt your tack could use a thorough cleaning. Maybe you’re out of town? Plenty of books about horses available, take a few with you and look them over during downtime.

Am I telling you commitment means adopting horses as a lifestyle and not simply a hobby? Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. How committed are you?

 

Not a Minute to Spare Over the Weekend

The blue flags can only mean one thing!

I did a lot of horsey things over the weekend, and also some family things (because Mother’s Day, duh). I didn’t do a great job of documenting any of it, mostly because I stayed on the move constantly all weekend. I think it’s a balance to the desk job taking up a little too much time lately — I fit as much fun stuff in as I can on the weekends without trying to wear myself out completely.

sunset from patentlybay on Vimeo.

Horses all day Saturday, and horses all day Sunday. But that’s what everyone does, right? It’s nothing to pat myself on the back about, especially because it significantly benefits my mental health. Why wouldn’t you live this way if you love horses? I would do it seven days a week if I could. (Except that with preexisting conditions, employer-sponsored health insurance gets REAL important.)

The well-seasoned horse show families bring shade and beverages.

Do you fill up your spare time exclusively with horses? Would you ever consider a horse-related professional position?

Never Ask

I read some equestrian news yesterday that Sinead Halpin retired one of her top mounts, and she quoted her husband, Tik Maynard, as saying, “A great horse would jump through fire for you if you asked, and a great horseman would never ask.”

I can think about this for hours. It might be one of my favorite lines I have ever read about horses, and one of the truest things I have ever read about riders.

Don’t ask horses unfair questions. A great horse will do anything for you because you haven’t ever asked an unfair question.

Don’t ask horses to do more than you would expect of yourself. If you want to work your horse hard on a regular basis, be in the right shape to keep up with his fitness.

Don’t ask a horse to take care of himself until you have taught him to and given him the confidence to follow through with getting both horse and rider out of a jam. If you point a horse at a fence he’s never seen before and he goes, it’s because you have allowed him to practice over many kinds of jumps until he got good at it and now he has the confidence in himself to know that he can jump this new jump, too. If you point a horse at a fence he’s never seen before and he stops, it’s because you have failed at your job of giving him the confidence to succeed over any fence you want to point him at.

trot interrupted from patentlybay on Vimeo.

(perfectly boring trot video for no reason)

Don’t ask a horse to take care of you until you have committed all of your necessary resources to taking care of him. He can’t take care of you until you give him the best possible life available. He won’t take care of you unless he trusts you. You are responsible for earning that trust and never betraying it.

Riding with Uncertainty

A more accurate title of this post would be “riding whilst uncertain about something outside of riding that could affect my riding.” But that’s too long. I’m going for a little practicality here.

Anyone getting on a horse is probably comfortable with a moderate amount of uncertainty (or just stupid, either way) because of the nature of horses. Is he going to spook at that pile of poles the ninth time we trot past, after trotting past eight other times without incident? Is he going to step on a rock and come up lame from a stone bruise that later abscesses? Am I going to see a stupid distance and fail to make a decision so that my horse stops and I end up picking splinters out of my teeth?

We of course also ride with uncertainty about our own skills and abilities. Is my horse not getting his leads because I suck at it? Or is it because he hurts? Or maybe he doesn’t care even if I am asking correctly? Or maybe it’s Tuesday?

We even all experience a little bit of daily uncertainty about whether we will be able to afford this sport for much longer or at all. We sometimes question whether the time we put in is worth the stress these animals can cause us. We spend too much on vet bills, we try to fit square pegs into round holes, we try to get better every day even in the face of setbacks in communication, health, finances, the wrong tack, daylight savings, or footing.

The view may change but the perspective will not

Personally, I have already worked through a lot of this uncertainty — I am comfortable with my shortcomings as a rider, knowing that I try to improve every time I get on my horse (plus he keeps improving, too, so that helps). I am comfortable with horses being unpredictable. I accept that my wallet is not a good match for equine pursuits but I will pursue regardless. The uncertainty I am not comfortable with, that I am facing now, has to do with my health. Specifically, my vision. I’m losing it, apparently. And not in an “I just need a stronger prescription for eyeglasses” way. Totally annoying.

The first thing that comes to mind is always the worst case scenario and I don’t think that’s me. Not yet. I can still see, I just have a blind spot that will probably never go away. I don’t know how much or if this will change over time. The vision loss I have experienced thus far was not even obvious to me until I went in for my regular annual eye exam and once the eye patch was over my right eye during the visual field exam I noticed that there was something very, very wrong with my left eye. “Like, whoa, that is fucked up” was my first thought. I didn’t think much about it after that and just let my eye doctor tell me about the possibilities and request more diagnostic exams for me and prescribe me some eye drops.

And then I got to the barn. It kind of hit me then. What will the barn be like if I can’t see? What will riding be like? No, I will not give up riding no matter how much my vision dwindles over time. It may not even get all that much worse with treatment. But if I ever lose so much vision that I have to change how I ride or which horses I ride–what will that be like? How much vision loss is enough to say “no more jumping”? I even think that if I could, I’d trade my hearing to get my vision back. Which is a selfish and childish thing to think, but really, I don’t need to hear anything else ever again. However, I need to see.

perspective from patentlybay on Vimeo.

This isn’t even that much of an issue yet, but the uncertainty about how long my vision will last makes me consider the future in a much different light. There are plenty of people with far worse conditions who ride in the face of disabilities and adversity no matter what. Seeing them do it — I know I can, too. Not riding is not on the table.

What uncertainties related to riding have you grappled with?