December 22, 2010

Confessions of a Type A Personality

When we attended our Fast Track course, our parting gift was a free video audition voucher (in the Parelli program you graduate to the next level by submitting 10 minute unedited videos in the different savvys). I've only officially passed one level in Parelli because I had to do it to attend a clinic; in general, having no video camera and no real reason to officially pass a level has left me with little motivation to do so.

But external deadlines are good things for procrastinators like me, and I came away from my course determined to embrace playing On Line in a way I haven't before, so I thought, "Okay, December 30th gives me a couple of months to achieve some stuff On Line, and if I *do* decide to become an instructor, I'll have what I need to get started if I pass my Level 3 On Line."

So I recruited a filmographer and a friend who knows his way around video editing and uploading, and I set a date that would work with both their schedules while giving me maximum time to improve some stuff beforehand.

And off I went in my happy little OCD fantasy world dreaming up all kinds of things I could do. I spent hours listening to CDs in my car to find the perfect music, and I envisioned all sorts of over-the-top, camped-up musical-type numbers that Lupin and I could do together. (I thought, for instance, about using "You've Lost that Loving Feeling" and getting down on my knees during the circling game. Ultimately I jettisoned the song, but I kept the move.)

Once I had my list of compulsory moves and my list of things I wanted to include, I started playing around with the ideas with Lupin to see what would work. I spent over a month learning that waltz moves (or at least waltz moves done in waltz tempo) don't work as well as one could wish with horses, and that just because I can talk Lupin into going up and through a really high tree root thing multiple times does not mean that he's ever going to be happy about doing it.

Yet it was really an enjoyable process, I have to admit, because it was fascinating to watch my ideas evolve based on Lupin's feedback. It felt a lot like I was a director working with an actor, and over a few weeks we tried different patterns and combinations until we had a little routine choreographed. I didn't go through it much with Lupin beyond what I needed to do to work it out, but I was amused to think of the difference between this way of doing auditions and the ones I'd heard of where a Parelli student would just start doing stuff with her horse and someone would shout out in the last couple of minutes "Oy! You haven't done a circling game yet" and the Parelli student would throw one in just under the wire. (Of course, I told myself that I couldn't envision doing it that way, not because I was OCD, but because I didn't have any Parelli pals handy to help me out like that.)

In any case, Lupin and I had tested everything out in the ring and then moved out to the cow pasture--where I wanted to do the actual filming--the week before, and we were READY.

And then it snowed. Not a nice powdery snow, but slush, which was amazingly hard to run in. I decided against turning the whole thing into a Christmas-themed video and instead postponed taping.

My friend only had a limited time window on our "rain" date, but I wanted to go ahead with it because I was afraid that some heat in one of Lupin's feet meant that he was brewing an abscess (and by then we were starting to get down to the wire). So I got up early that morning to lug barrels and pedestal out into the field and have time to warm Lupin up.

He was a WILD MAN. I had left him in the stall the night before so his feet could dry out some, and he had some serious energy to burn. He trotted around in the ring snorting with tail high and then took off at a canter, but my Fast Track training kicked in and I urged him into a gallop and then threw some poles in his path. In pretty short order he was over thinking cantering was a good idea, though I was still dubious about taking him out by the cows, who were camped out all around our filming site. On a normal day if he was that insane in the ring I would not have taken him in the cow pasture at all, and I wouldn't have played with him right up by the cows on any day, but having a focus helped me move out of my comfort zone, and the experiment was a success. Lupin barely reacted, even when the arrival of hay caused a mass cow migration.

However, we didn't manage to nail our audition. I hadn't practiced the trailer loading much because I didn't want him to make assumptions and load up without my sending him. Every time I *had* practiced it, though, he had been more than ready to get in and the only difficulty was keeping him out until I asked him to go in. This day, however, he ambled around to the back of the trailer, then his head reappeared around the side with an "I don't get it--what am I supposed to do?" expression. After a few repetitions of this, our ten minutes expired with me practically jumping up and down at him. My friend had to leave, so that was that.

I kept my fingers crossed for the next 48 hours that the weather predicted for my next filming date would hold and that Lupin wouldn't develop an abscess. And I was lucky. The heat left Lupin's hoof, and the sun came out for the first time in a week for the few hours we shot the video. I very briefly warmed Lupin up on the circle and then he proceeded to do the best he's ever done on almost every single task the very first time through. Woohoo!

So now the only thing left for my OCD to fixate on is that there were a few glitches in the tape that make it look like I might have cut and pasted it, which is a little ironic since Lupin absolutely didn't give me any reason to even be tempted to do that. But I'm happy for my OCD to focus on technical issues with the tape rather than performance issues with my horse, who made the entire audition filming process an interesting and creative one for me.

Now I'm kind of looking forward to the next one . . .

November 30, 2010

I'm not in it to win it. I'm in it for Lupe.

I had my first official outing with Lupin since we returned from Colorado on Saturday when we went to a beginner polocrosse clinic.

Lupin and I played around with polocrosse a little this summer at our own farm, and it was an excellent opportunity to apply a purpose to things to find out what we needed to work on (emotional collection at higher speeds, snappier turns on the haunches, tolerance for other horses in Lupin's personal space, and how to push other horses without getting overly aggressive).

It was also just plain fun, but I'm afraid that over the summer I gave in to my competitiveness and focused too much on trying to get the ball rather than focusing on what Lupin needed to be getting out of it. I was just so darn sure that he would enjoy the game and become competitive himself once he understood the point of it, but of course he needs to be confident in order to do any of those things.

As it was, his unconfidence came out in the fact that I could barely steer him at higher speeds and that he kicked at other horses when they were too close to him.

Now that I've gone to Colorado, I'm more aware of the fact that we need a better foundation before we start specializing in things that demand high levels of precision. However, I think that, as long as I'm aware of the holes in our training and I don't ask him to do things he can't handle, we can start focusing a little bit on some of the skills we'll need in polocrosse in order to motivate us to move on to a higher level. So I decided that at the very least the clinic would be a good field trip for us and that we could back out of anything we weren't ready for and I could just watch.

On Friday as I was getting ready I was amazed to feel a little bit of the kind of nervousness I used to have when I first started doing things that required trailering a horse back in college. Back then I was constantly immersed in situations where I had no idea what to do. I was new to Thoroughbreds and to trailering and to jumping and to show rules and to pretty much everything I was doing, and of course I was young and unconfident. But now Lupin and I are old hands at traveling places by ourselves, and Lupin is generally laid-back about new places and new things. Even when he isn't, I now have the skills and perception I need to deal with the situation. So I was surprised to find that I was needing to give myself a pep-talk on all these points.

The only thing I can figure is that this was my first re-entry into the normal world of horses. While most of the folks I ride with don't do Parelli, they're generally very tolerant of my Parelli-esque antics and are perfectly happy to do their thing while I do mine. And the key point here is that, other than my little bit of dabbling in polocrosse this summer, my thing has been Parelli--and little besides Parelli--for a long time now. When Lupin and I have packed up and headed out on our own, it has almost always been to go to a Parelli clinic where, even if we aren't familiar with the people or the place, we know generally what to expect and that we'll be supported in our goals.

The polocrosse clinic was going to be the first time I would be immersed once more in a non-Parelli pursuit, and I'd be wholly responsible for staying true to my principles and, if I did have problems, for sorting them out and getting Lupin and myself out of any bad situation we got ourselves into. But I knew, when I thought about it, that I was perfectly capable of doing both of those things.

As it transpired, my nervousness proved quite unnecessary. Lupin loaded like a champ, as he's been doing for quite some time, and when we got there I warmed him up on the ground as I learned to do in Colorado (though still in my head was John's voice saying I should warm him up harder than I did--which, I suspect, will almost always be true no matter how hard I warm him up). He seemed largely nonplussed by the cows whose pasture we were in and by my asking him to canter on the circle. He also stood quietly tied for over an hour while we did exercises on the ground.

When I got on him, I felt the habits of Colorado kicking in, and I automatically started following the border of the polocrosse field at the walk and then, after Lupin blew out a lot, at the trot. I could feel the instances at which the old me would have let Lupin lead me off my focus, but I had no trouble insisting that he stay focused on the next cone, and that immediately relaxed him. And when it came time to practice, I simply said that I wasn't going to go faster than a walk because I knew that Lupin would get emotional if I did.

Everyone was fine with that, and as it turned out, the lady who was initially paired with me had the same problem that I did: her horse didn't like walking in close proximity to another horse, so we kept them together at the walk until they got a little more used to the idea. I did this with a few other people as well, and I only trotted when we were by ourselves and away from the play.

Later in the afternoon, though, I was paired up with a woman who didn't mind walking, but who was being highly competitive at the walk. Her horse was really pushing Lupin around, which is fair enough given that pushing is what the game of polocrosse is about, but Lupin hasn't gotten comfortable with the concept yet, and since he isn't even comfortable with walking beside other horses, allowing him to be pushed around didn't seem like a good idea. (Nevermind that I don't exactly want him to learn to be okay with being pushed around; the point is for him to learn how to push back without getting overly aggressive.) So here was where I made my first mistake: rather than asking the woman to back off, I pushed Lupin more, finally asking him to trot at one point when I was trying to score, and, predictably, he kicked out.

Happily, this group of people was very laid-back about Lupin kicking. They said they'd seen a lot worse and that he clearly wasn't trying to hurt anyone when he did it and that he'd just had too much pressure. I was relieved that they took it well, especially since it was my pushing him that caused him to do it. It was a good wake-up call and reminder of exactly what I had said to myself going into the clinic: as much fun as it is to be competitive, Lupin's needs have to come before competitive goals. Always. I can't fudge on that every now and then when I'm soooo close to making a good play. I have to commit to it wholly. That's the only way that Lupin will get in the game with me, and as Parelli says, when the horse is with you, there's nothing you can't do. If I wait to push Lupin until he really understands why I'm pushing him, I truly believe we'll be a force on the polocrosse field. More importantly, we'll be two partners having fun together.

All in all, the clinic was an interesting follow-up to the testing and Parelli games in Colorado, where it was more about the knowledge that your performance is being watched. That's one kind of pressure--the pressure to do your best because you know you're being judged. Polocrosse is a whole different kind of pressure--the pressure to win. And it's equally, though differently, seductive. So I look forward to the challenge of advancing my game while simultaneously advancing my horsemanship rather than doing one at the expense of the other.

The most positive thing that came out of the day, though, was the feeling that the safety net of Parelli is internal now. It's not just something that's there when I'm at home practicing, or when I'm surrounded by Parelli people. It's with me always in the lines that I draw about what I will and won't do with my horse (or in my understanding of when I've asked him to do too much), and in the way I set things up to help him.

I think it's been that way for quite some time now, but I felt it most on Saturday when I got Lupin off the trailer and knew exactly what to do with him despite the fact that no one around me was doing what I was. There was no doubt, no second guessing--just the good habits that Parelli has instilled in me. That was such a far cry from the times in college when I unloaded a horse and just prayed for the best. When I think back on those times, I am unendingly thankful for the way that Parelli empowers people by giving them the knowledge about how to set their horse up for success . . . and the perception to recognize what true success with horses is.

October 24, 2010

Living in the present

Okay, the title’s a little ironic given that I’m still writing about my course when I’ve been home for almost a month, but bear with me.

So after we discussed personality on the last day of our course, we met in our smaller groups. Lisa kept us in the group to discuss our plans for what we would work on when we went home, though after the first few of us, it was more about where we were all at emotionally, and several people were in tears.

We then reconvened as a large group, and John asked us to volunteer moments that stood out for us from the course. After the first few of us, it was more about where we were all at emotionally, and several people were in tears.

At the end of the session, the coaches talked about what they’d gotten out of the month, and after the first few, even some of them were in tears—including, briefly, the implacable John, as it was his last course before retiring as Head of Faculty.

And it did feel even more like everything was drawing to a close because our course was the last one at the ranch before it shut down for the winter. Pat and Linda had already left for Florida, as had many of their horses, and once the last of us were gone, it would be only a handful of interns and externs remaining to close camp.

Many in our course left after our farewell lunch, though Alex and I were staying over to leave the following morning. I knew I needed to get Lupin out and play with him in the afternoon since we hadn’t done anything with the horses that morning, but I was in an environmentally-induced funk and having trouble motivating myself.

I got him out and did a little rockslide down the path through the pens. Hmm, that was kind of cool. We ambled out to the Lower Savvy Park, and I had nothing in mind other than to move his feet and let him have a little fun. We had the Park to ourselves, and before I knew it, we were all over the place with Lupin enthusiastically trotting out and around me, climbing over things, just waiting for me to start playing in earnest.

I took him up on the offer, making use of whatever crossed our path as we did falling leaf and travelling circles all around. At one point I went up to some feed bowls to set them up as obstacles for change of direction on the circle, and Lupin lowered his head and picked one up. I asked him for it and he gave it to me, and we repeated this with a couple of the other bowls—the first time he’s picked anything up for me besides his Frisbee.

Then I picked up the pace and he cantered parts of figure 8’s around the bowls before we zoomed off to something else. We played on the bridge, the teeter-totter, and the pedestal, never staying at one thing long and doing a lot of fast playing in between. It was the first time since I’d been at the ranch that I’d had time to play with my horse without anything in particular to work on, but with all the new stuff we’d learned to play with, and with no one watching. We had a blast. We just . . . played.

Probably the best thing about horses is their ability to make you fully present—to obliterate all other concerns and inspire you to embrace the sheer joy of the moment. But, of course, when you’re constantly trying to improve things with your horse, you lose a little of the ability to focus on the moment and all that your horse is offering in that moment. This day, though, was only about what Lupin was offering, with a few “can you’s?” thrown in just to change the conversation now and again.

Such a play session would be welcome at any time, but it was especially welcome that afternoon as I felt my earlier dejection melt away. I realized that some obscure, almost unconscious part of my brain had been thinking that, with everything I was leaving the next day, I had to leave Lupin as well, and I was immediately happy to realize that I didn’t, and then happier to realize that I was happy about that. A year earlier, I would not have been that sad to have left Lupin at my first clinic with Dan and gone home alone.

But Lupin and I (mostly I) have come a long way since then. Indeed, I’ve been quite certain for a while that Lupin has just been waiting for a worthy leader/playmate to emerge in me, and thanks to the seeds that Dan planted, which were then nurtured so well in the Fast Track course, I think I’m finally starting to get there.

Since my course I have, among other things, begun to get excited when I find holes that Lupin and I need to work on because they are, as Linda has said all along, interesting. It helps to have reached a kind of critical mass in my overall knowledge where I don’t feel as threatened by those holes any more, and where I feel I have at least a fair chance of being able to sort them out. Now I actually like holes because they give us a clear focus.

I have also become much less afraid of experimenting. Can we do this? Can we do that? And what does it matter if we can’t? It’s just information. But when we can it’s way more fun than doing the stuff we already know how to do over and over.

I think, too, that I got a slightly different rhythm in me during my month in Colorado. We rarely played on the ground in the ring—we were always out and around the ranch in fields and playgrounds. Somehow all that wide open space opened up an equally big space inside my imagination where it no longer seems strange to cover large amounts of ground on foot with your horse just to go somewhere different to play. And, of course, during our course we needed every second we had with our horses to try out all the new things we were learning, so we didn’t waste precious time just leading them from one place to another—we played all the way there starting at the gate out of their pens.

I carried home with me that sense of constant play and constant experimenting. Lupin and I play all the way in from the pasture, on into the stall (or trailer, or other location) to eat, down the road to the field, and wherever we go, we’re looking for new ways to play and new things to play with. It doesn’t seem at all strange to me now to walk all the way to the cow pasture to play with Lupin, and now that I’ve got the confidence to play with him in big open spaces, I love the enthusiasm he has out there and the challenge of seeing how much I need to do to keep his attention on me.

Between my willingness to experiment and my increased confidence, the time I spend with Lupin is completely different. I’m more prone to ask him a series of questions, “Can you do this? What if we try it this way? Okay, but now can you not do that and do this instead?” And I have a lot more faith now that we can still achieve our goals without constant drilling because everything we improve helps everything else improve too. So I think of as many variations as I can, and I stay only briefly on each thing before moving to something new.

And because we’re playing the whole time, I’m no longer thinking ahead to what all we need to accomplish that day. My focus is on the game. I am, like that last afternoon in Colorado, in the present, with nothing on my mind but looking for the thing that will give Lupin an opportunity to show me how smart he is—in a good way, so that he doesn’t have to prove it to me in a bad way.

There is, too, one final sense in which my month in Colorado brought me into the present. Over the past month that I’ve been home I've realized that the little part of me that was still missing my last horse has let go. I think that’s because I’ve finally realized what Lupin has given me.

While I was indebted to Limerick for taking care of me and being patient with me through the years of my greatest ignorance, I am now indebted to Lupin for continuing to push me to learn more and to be smarter, braver, and more athletic so that I can keep up with him. I am also indebted to him for pushing me only as much as I can handle, even if it took going to Colorado for a month to begin to learn how to handle it. And, of course, I am indebted to him for that very month, which has changed so much of the way that I approach things and shown me so much more of where I can go from here.

Lupin is a big equine adventure, taking me places I never dreamed that I would go.

October 13, 2010

Observe, remember, compare.

On Thursday of our final week, we were re-tested on several of the tasks we had been tested on during the first week of the course. We spent the morning on the ground and the afternoon in the saddle.

There was only one task that I was thoroughly unhappy with, and that was the squeeze over the barrels in the morning, during which I was pathetically ineffective.

It’s true that I actually didn’t want Lupin to jump the barrels, as the last time he did that he was lame for a couple of months. So I didn’t want to get him all riled up and send him at the barrels with a lot of energy. But I wasn’t very optimistic that he was just going to step over them. The weakness of my send probably reflected both my reluctance for him to jump the barrels and my doubt that he was going to go over them if he didn’t jump. It didn’t help that when Lupin investigated the barrels, they all started rolling down the hill, so that I had more focus on trying to keep the barrels in place than on Lupin.

But this is the point at which Alex would say, “All I hear is ‘wa wa wa I’m making excuses.’” And she’d be right. There was one moment in particular when I remember asking Lupin to back up and he all but ignored me, and I just let him. Sure, part of my brain responded that way because the task asked for us not to move our feet. But there was no way I could pretend that adhering to that requirement was more important than getting a positive response from my horse. That moment made me disgusted with myself and ate me up for the rest of the day.

By the end of the day, though, I managed to find peace with it. What had happened was that I had just allowed myself to be lulled back into my old way of operating: unclear communication, low expectation, lack of effectiveness with my horse. The degree to which that bothered me for the rest of the day was actually, I realized, the degree to which that way of interacting with Lupin had become foreign to me over the month that I had been at the ranch. I finally realized that my acute aversion to the way I handled that task was a good thing, as it indicated how far I had come.

It was also a wake-up call that I carried with me for the rest of the day. I focused after that, and made pretty good decisions for the rest of the day, I felt. I was especially pleased with our test in the precision pen. It was the last test of the day, and Lupin was feeling strongly that his day should have ended a couple of hours earlier. It was tempting to go into the ring and fake it. The test asked for several serpentines and circles to be ridden at the trot and canter on a collected rein. I thought about how, if I took up both my reins, I could probably micro-manage him through it and, by doing so, prevent him from screwing up.

But I knew that was wrong. It was what I had done during that same test at the beginning of the month, and it hadn’t worked then, and now I knew all the reasons why it hadn’t and why it wouldn’t work this time either. Yes, I wanted to control him, but I needed to do exactly the opposite and allow him the opportunity to make mistakes. Principles don’t change just because you’re taking a test.

So I walked into the ring with my reins in one hand that was firmly planted on his neck. Lisa called out to me, “Marian, you do realize you’re supposed to be trotting on a collected rein?” I said, “Yes, but I haven’t earned a collected rein yet because I still have problems with a BS rein.” I rode the whole pattern at a walk on a casual rein. It wasn’t close to what the test called for, but it was much closer to the underlying goal of the test than it would have been if I’d used two reins when neither of us was ready for it. And I was rewarded by the fact that Lupin could not have followed my focus any better: I barely used my rein, and some of the circles we did were the best we’ve ridden.

It’s possible that when I rode that test at the beginning of the course I had hoped to have gotten further in Finesse by the end of the course than Lupin and I did. But what we wound up getting was even better: firm principles that will lead, in time, not only to the physical components that make up Finesse, but to so much more than that as well.

The next morning we all met in the lodge, and John talked about the reasons behind the testing. He said that the most important thing was for us to learn how we reacted in a testing situation, and he went on to talk about personality types and how our own personality types might have come into play the day before.

We had talked about horseanality a lot, but not personality, though pretty much everyone on the ranch when describing somebody would start with, “Well, she’s a right-brain extrovert . . ." I myself am pretty bad at pegging other people’s personalities, perhaps because I was first introduced to the concept outside of Parelli where it seemed like the height of narcissism to be concerned with what your personality type was. I had a lot of friends who could rattle off their Myers-Briggs types, but I never saw the purpose of it, and so I never got into the habit of thinking that way.

On Friday morning, I began to see the purpose of it. John charted himself, his wife, and his horse and then gave anecdotes of where their personality types had come into play by way of showing how personality types impact relationships. Basically, as Carmen had mentioned during her presentation on Tony Robbins, everyone has a pattern of response. Events don’t cause us to act a certain way; they are simply the trigger for us to react in the same way we always react to certain stimuli. If you become aware of your pattern of reaction, and that of the people and animals around you, you can start to figure out ways to improve the relationship. And a lot of those reactions have to do with personality types.

It’s also helpful to be able to understand and accept where a lot of your own reactions are coming from before you deal with trying to change them. There’s a bit of a trick here, because it’s easy for me to say, “Well of course I have a slow reaction time—I’m a left brain introvert,” and use that identity as an excuse not to change. But if instead I say, “Okay, I’m a LBI, so one challenge for me is going to be improving my reaction time,” then it’s more empowering.

I don’t know why I find it useful to have that piece of information. I’ve known for a while that I need to improve my reaction time, so why does it matter what the reason is? (Well, maybe because I’m an LBI, and we like to thoroughly understand things!) Whatever the reason, though, it does make me feel more motivated. Maybe because once you understand personality, you’re seeing the whole picture—both the good and the bad (or challenging) parts of your personality. So now I can start by saying, “Okay, I’m an LBI, which means that I’m really good at knowing all the reasons behind what I’m doing; now I just need to do it a little faster,” instead of just saying, “Good god, why in the heck am I so dang slow?”

All in all, it seems to me like examining your personality type lets you see more of the potential in yourself than the problems, but it also gives you a way to focus on those problems that doesn’t make you feel like a failure. That’s because, I think, you’re no longer seeing those problems as personal short-comings that move you further away from some Platonic version of your perfect self. Instead, you’re seeing them simply as characteristics.

Personality charts then help even more because they let you see that other people have complementary characteristics to your own. Looking beyond yourself like that makes it all less about perfection and more about experimenting with different ways of being in the world. And when you think about playing around with new things rather than trying to fix personal shortcomings, that makes the whole process of self-improvement a lot more fun, just as it's more fun to play games with your horse than it is to endlessly try to perfect him.

October 3, 2010

Fast Track, Week 4: Dancing with horses

Our final days of class time were all about Finesse. Even though dressage has its roots in martial history, we learned that Finesse shouldn’t be a military-like exercise of rigid precision; instead, it should be a fluid, supple dance with your horse where you lead him, like a dance partner, by what you’re doing in your own body.
Accordingly, we watched a video of Fred and Ginger dancing and observed how much Fred does in his own body: even though Ginger does more of the big flourishy moves, Fred is matching her energy and grace, not just standing rigidly by while she dances. And although there is a lot of structure in their bodies as they dance, there’s also a lot of flexibility and freedom of motion.
Perhaps less intuitively, we also watched a video of Russian martial arts. Personally, I can see a lot of overlap between martial arts and dancing (and few of my dance partners will be surprised by this), but the main point was for us to learn to adopt a stance, akin to a balance point in riding, where you are stable enough to be fluid and move either your whole body or your individual body parts with ease while remaining balanced. The coolest part was when we paired up and tried to put each other in headlocks when we were in our normal postures (easy to do) and in the martial stance (impossible because the person just rolls smoothly away without even trying, following the momentum of the attacker).
These two videos came together when we watched a video of a bullfight done from horseback (with the sage advice to focus on the horse and not on the bull). The horse and rider were amazing. Despite that fact that a bull’s attack is very like a battle scene, the two of them were literally just dancing out of the way of the bull’s horns. Even when the horse was cantering sideways, it looked almost effortless, not unlike the martial arts expert whose suppleness allowed him to let attacks just roll past him.
Finesse, then, requires balance and structure without rigidity. In all there are 4 things you need to have before you start riding with contact:
1. the ability to stay on your balance point
2. the ability to move with your horse (fluidity)
3. light responses from your horse in Freestyle and Online
4. complete absence of the BS rein
The BS rein is any time you’re pulling back (as opposed to up) on your rein for any reason, and any time you’re using two reins when you should be using only one. But for the purposes of Finesse, it also means pretty much any time you’re using your reins to perform what Pat calls “gross motor skills”: disengaging, turning, and going backwards and sideways. Before you begin Finesse, you should be able to do all of these things without your reins so that the reins can be reserved for shaping the horse’s body instead of steering him.
I had been working on this a little before I got to the course, but it’s one thing to practice these moves in isolation; it’s another to change completely the lifetime habit of mind that tells you to pull on the reins to go right, left, and stop. I found this out when Pete was coaching me on the soft feel: once you get a little right-brained, you lose all awareness of what you’re doing with your reins (and what you’re doing with them is usually not pretty).
In fact, I had even found during our Freestyle sessions how very hard it is to keep the casual rein planted on the horse’s neck when doing things like riding the rail—I tended to keep my arm just that little bit bent so that I was more ready to correct than I was trusting that my horse would do the right thing.
I had been riding without reins a good bit, so I was surprised that this was a problem, but it’s easy to resist the temptation to abuse your reins when you don’t have them in your hands. Once they’re in your hands again, it’s equally easy to revert to old habits. This point was driven home to me when I heard one of the coaches tell another student not to fold their arms while riding the patterns because they already know that we can resist using our reins if they’re not in our hands, but they want to see us be able to resist using them when they are in our hands. That’s a whole new ballgame that I’m going to have to practice a lot now that I’m at home, along with doing a lot of passenger lessons to get my balance point better and learn to really move with my horse.
In any case, once you have the foundation, then the absolute key to Finesse is to do in your body what you want your horse to do in his (and then stay out of his way while he does it). We spent a lot of time doing simulations that would allow us to learn what we needed to be doing in our own bodies.
First, we paired up and did some rein simulations with our savvy strings to understand the concept of the “soft feel.” This was a huge breakthrough for me because when I take a feel I tend to put too much slack in the reins, imagining that this is kinder and softer for my horse. What I found out is that slack actually results in jerkiness; it feels much better if firm contact, like that between dance partners, is maintained. Then you have a feel to follow the whole time so that communication is consistent and clear, and movements in the rein are smooth.
Next, we moved into how to shape our own bodies for different moves. John had already had us on all fours in previous weeks to feel what the horse needs to be able to do to accomplish different moves. He’d also had us cantering around on our own two legs and playing with transitions to understand where our weight needed to be. Now he had us hook up into 3-person congo horses with the reins guiding the person in front and with the person in back responding to the hip movement of the “rider” by holding onto their belt loops with straight arms.
Over the course of the week, we practiced shoulders-in, haunches-in, leg-yielding, half-passing, and simple canter transitions on a serpentine. It was amazing how much feedback you got just from what the humans attached to you did in response to your movements, and of course it was also instructive to be the horse and find out what different movements feel like coming through the reins. (It wasn’t so instructive to be the horse’s rear end—in that position you’re just kind of having to waddle around a lot.)
We practiced these moves in the Precision Pen—Pat’s version of a dressage arena that has a grid chalked onto it so that you can be precise about finding your 10m and 20m circles, for example. We spent a few sessions learning how to set up a precision pen—or rather, figuring it out for ourselves. We were given the measurements of the sides and where the letters and numbers went and then left on our own to figure out how to lay it out so that it would be straight and precise.
Molly did give us a hint, though: she asked if anyone knew the formula for a square corner. Always the nerdy student, I blurted out “three four five” before I thought about it, and I wound up nominated to start the pen with the first corner.
Well, one of my main points in wanting to do well on the theory test was to prove that you can know the theory and still be pretty sad when it comes to applying it. That goes for building things as well as horsemanship. I knew the formula because I had studied fence building with a friend in Louisiana; however, I have only built fences with rounded corners in lines that didn’t need to be square on my farm, so I haven’t had a chance to practice using it. I tried to warn my group about this, but I still got stuck with the corner. It wasn't that I minded doing it, but I could tell that my fellow students' patience with my indecision about how best to proceed was beginning to wear thin. Happily, a guy in our class who works in construction finally stepped in and took over.
Afterwards, Molly told us she had set the session up that way so that we would learn about our own leadership tendencies and how we work in a group. The rest of the group took this to heart over the next couple of days and worked on perfecting group dynamics and shaving minutes off of our precision pen construction. I had already learned my lesson: that I have a pretty high tolerance for muddling through things and figuring them out as a I go along, but that other people don’t have the same tolerance and enthusiasm for muddling through with me. As a problem-solving technique, muddling is okay, but as a leadership skill it’s a bit lacking.
So I’m going to try to resist the urge to do that when it comes to riding Finesse, instead using the tools I learned in my course to get a clear idea of what I’m doing before I ask my horse to join me.

September 29, 2010

Fast Track, Week 3: Digging deep

Monday morning started out with everyone in a good mood after the Summit. Our head teacher, John, had done a spectacular performance on Sunday with a garrocha—a long pole from Spain used in bull fighting. He had done what Pat described as “the only pole dance that Linda would let me watch.” And it had indeed been an incredibly lithe and sexy dance that John had done making figures on his horse around the pole—one end of which he cradled in his hand or on his shoulder—as Latin music played in the background.
A couple of the women in our class conspired to buy some roses, which they distributed amongst us to throw at John’s feet when he came in to talk to us after breakfast. We hid them in our laps, but as we were working out our signal for when to throw them, I turned around and saw Pat walking toward the door. I hissed at one of the women to look who was coming. She gasped, and the scheme didn’t go off exactly as planned (though it might have been even better because Pat was there to see it). Pat asked what we had liked about the Summit, and after several responses someone finally said, “John’s performance,” at which point we all stood up and threw our roses. John looked both surprised and touched, and it was so much exactly the kind of stunt that I like to plan that I immediately liked the women who had arranged it even more than I already did.
We moved from there into a well-presented lecture on leadership by John. He began by talking about relationships generally and discussing how both parties in any relationship have an obligation to communicate what they’re feeling. He drew a contrast between horses, who communicate exactly what they’re feeling in the moment, and humans, who often keep their feelings inside until they come out really big somewhere else or sometime later. He said that in order to avoid this with his horse, he’ll often verbalize his feelings just so he’s not keeping them in: “Leo, it really frustrates me when you _______________________.” Then he can exhale and let it go.
He also made an important distinction about Parelli’s first law: “Put the relationship first.” John clarified that this does not mean to put the horse first—a tendency that many Parelli students have and that actually works against improvements in the relationship. He emphasized that any relationship in which only one party is giving feedback and getting their way is not a healthy relationship, and that we should not treat our horses better than we treat ourselves.
On a similar note, he spoke of the need to look for the good in ourselves because if we can’t see that, we won’t be able to see the good in our horses or other people either.
Then he explained where leadership comes in. He said there are two main pitfalls:
1. Expecting too little of your horse and yourself. John said that students frequently feel pushed too hard by instructors because they are expecting less of themselves than the instructors are. We need to pay ourselves and our horses the compliment of expecting more. (Always remembering, of course, to expect a lot, accept a little, and reward often.)
2. Using the other person or the horse as an excuse not to move out of your own comfort zone. John said that excuses and blame are easy because they remove us from the situation, but a more positive way to remove ourselves from the situation is to take a third-person perspective. He played audio clips of several leaders like Churchill, JFK, and MLK who invited their followers to take a broader view in a time of crisis—to stand outside the situation in a pro-active, rather than a reactive, way.
Finally, John asked us to make a chart with three columns and to spend some time on our own listing (a) the qualities of leaders whom we have admired, (b) the kind of leader we want to be for our horse, and (c) the steps we plan to take to get there. Here’s the chart I came up with:
positive and playful instead of judgmental
make games for myself to play with Lupin so that I have a playful “can you?” or “can we?” attitude
faith in me to do a good job
fair / not taking things personally
verbalize frustrations
look at things from a third-person (an instructor’s?) perspective
a clear plan
having an interesting and fun yet challenging focus (provocative and progressive)
have a clear focus
set up challenges for him and let him figure them out (don’t micromanage)
give him jobs
telling me the truth / expecting a lot out of me
confident in both myself and my horse
expect more
don’t cater to his comfort: stretch his comfort zone but don’t overwhelm him
physically, mentally, and emotionally in sync with my horse
think like a horse—all the time
We very quickly got a chance to put all these leadership ideas into practice. We began having riding sessions every afternoon—all 50 of us in Arena Grande riding patterns simultaneously. We would have, for instance, a quarter of us riding the rail inside the ring, a quarter riding the rail outside the ring, a quarter doing the cloverleaf pattern, and a quarter riding circles in the remaining free spaces. Some would be walking and some would be trotting, and periodically John would call out for us to make a seamless, smooth change of direction or pattern.
Needless to say, this situation is fraught with opportunities for horses to get impulsive, and on Tuesday John put his foot down about that. He watched us ride for a bit, and then he said, “It’s clear to me that some of you did not warm up hard enough on the ground because your horses are impulsive. I have told you several times that you need to find a way to warm up hard enough that your horse remains calm despite anything that might happen while you’re riding him.”
I was pretty sure I was one of the ones he was talking to. Lupin is a left-brain introvert, which means that even when he’s impulsive, there’s nothing particularly spectacular or unrideable about it. But John wasn’t interested in our ability to ride our horses through it; he was interested in us being able to prevent our horses from going there in the first place. And Lupin had ignored my requests for downward transitions and even hopped up into the canter at one point when another horse passed him at a canter.
My first impulse was, indeed, to blame and make excuses. There were other people doing some things that were guaranteed to mess up the rhythm of the patterns: stopping and backing up on the rail without warning, cantering past other people when we had been asked to trot. But then I really listened to what John was saying. He was saying that it was our own responsibility to prepare our horses—to have them absolutely on the same page with us mentally, emotionally, and physically—precisely because we couldn’t control what everyone else would do. He was putting us in this situation on purpose to make sure that we learned how to prepare for it.
If you’ve been around the normal horse world at all, you know that it is not a given that people are in control of their horses. I myself spent a good part of my earlier years going places and doing things with my horse that I shouldn’t have been doing with a horse that I wasn’t in complete control of. But no one ever tells you a better way, so you just do the best you can and try to avoid anything and anyone that looks like a potential match to the powder keg you’re riding. John was offering us a better way. I decided that, if I accomplished nothing else for the rest of the course, I would learn how to play hard enough with Lupin on the ground that he would listen to me in the saddle no matter what else was going on.
On Wednesday, John made warming up for riding one of our morning focus sessions, and I jumped on it. At breakfast I had gathered some ideas for games I could play with Lupin—like the rockslide and the sideways piroutte—that would both get his energy up and get him thinking at the same time. I tried some of these and some figure 8’s with quick changes between different sets of cones. But I knew that, above all, I needed to address cantering on the circle—the one thing guaranteed to flip Lupin into right-brained thinking if he was at all inclined to go there—so I found one of the coaches and got to work.
In Parelli world, you are supposed to say, not that you work with your horse, but that you play with him. But this session was definitely work. I had for some time, in fact, been trying to set up cantering on the circle as a game that Lupin would want to play instead of a task he’d feel that he had to do. Dan Thompson had actually used Lupin in a demo once to show the difference between making them canter on the circle (whack, whack, whack) and motivating them to want to canter on the circle by playing high energy games like falling leaf that would get them revved up. But if you try to motivate them and that still doesn’t work, at some point they have to realize that they need to do it anyway. Given the extreme reaction that I was getting when I asked for the canter with Lupin, I figured it was time for us to face it, fun or not.
Theresa started us out doing rapid-fire walk-trot transitions—or, I should say, she was asking for rapid-fire transitions, and she was getting only moderately snappy ones because both Lupin and I have a pretty serious lag time. It was a lot like having a personal trainer as I labored to up my response time and demand a faster response time out of Lupin as well. It didn’t help that, not able to operate at my normal introvert take-the-time-to-think-through-it speed, I was getting all tangled up with my tools.
When I started asking for the canter, Lupin pulled his usual trick of swinging his butt away so that I couldn’t tag it and facing me, then going sideways when I tried to re-send him. I had to shorten up the rope a lot and really move my feet to get to where I could tag him, but I was pleased with the result: after only a few rounds of this, he picked up the canter without too much protest, and we got fairly quickly to the point where he gave us a good, relaxed lap at the canter.
That afternoon was a different story. I rather suspect that Lupin had just been caught off guard in the morning by the novelty of my being snappy and expecting a lot. By the afternoon, he had reverted to his usual unimpressed self and was having none of it. He tested me on every canter send, and when he finally did canter, it was only for a couple of strides before he broke gait, thereby starting the whole cycle again. Between running to close the gap between us so I could tag him and then drifting across the field with him after he picked up the canter, I covered a lot of ground, and we were both pretty exhausted by the time he gave me enough to call it a win.
We were over half an hour late for riding, which was trail ride prep that day, and I will say that Lupin was not remotely impulsive during our session, but I wasn’t convinced that we’d made a whole lot of lasting progress on the respect front.
The next morning bore that theory out. This time I wound up with both Theresa and Pete watching my circling game efforts, and it quickly began to feel like I had gone from having a personal trainer to having a drill sergeant. Everything Theresa asked for was exactly what needed to be done, but Lupin was resisting so much and so forcefully that I was hard pressed to keep up with Theresa’s demands of “Tag him! He needs to canter NOW!” Lupin constantly faced me and tried to bolt away, and he broke gait so much that I couldn’t even catch my breath in between episodes of trying to tag him. For the few strides that he did canter, I was being jerked across the field as he cantered out and away from me. I knew that part of what was so tiring was that I wasn’t being effective, but I was using all my energy just trying to keep up with Lupin and didn’t have any left over for processing Theresa’s suggestions for changing my technique.
Finally Lupin picked up his more difficult lead just off of the send with the rope without my having to tag him, and, knowing I couldn’t keep it up physically any longer, I decided to end it with that just seconds before Theresa told me to bring him in (she had seen him licking his lips, which meant that he was finally accepting the situation). I was close to tears from sheer physical exhaustion, and I’m pretty certain that this episode was what inspired the coaches to give me the “Digging Deep” award at the end of the course.
But we weren’t done. By the next morning both of my ankles were rebelling against me, so I decided to try it in the round pen where Lupin couldn’t drift so far away. The 75’ round pen that I chose, however, had a pretty serious slope to it, and Lupin went impulsive enough to actually fall down at one point. I persisted until I got a decent canter and chose to relocate to the 50’ round pens for our next couple of sessions.
Before we got to those, however, Linda Parelli dropped by for a Q & A session, in the course of which she talked about her LB introvert Remmer (about whom she later said, “He’s a punk, but he’s my favorite punk”). She said that LB introverts are the most challenging but also the most interesting because it’s all about figuring out how to get to their brains. Reverse psychology—doing the opposite of what they expect—is a good trick with them, and Theresa and I decided over the weekend to demand from Lupin that he not canter now that he was expecting it. I would ask for lots of transitions and a fast trot, but I wouldn’t let him break into the canter.
That strategy did seem to blow his mind a bit—enough that he gave me a fabulous trot. Then when I went back to asking for a lap at the canter on subsequent days, he did pretty well. It’s still something we’re going to have to improve, but we’ve got a good foundation now, and Lupin just may be beginning to suspect that I’m going to out-persist him on some of these issues, which should make the process a bit faster. In any case, I myself am now motivated to confront head-on his obstinacy on the circle issues and work through this whole breaking away problem. The fact that I simultaneously get to improve his circling game (and the physical fitness level of both of us) is just gravy.
I did express my concern to Alex on the way home that I’ve gone from being too soft on Lupin to being too quick to jump to whacking him as my primary solution to all our problems. Parelli is, after all, about learning how to motivate your horse to do what you want rather than forcing him to do it. While it’s true that you can read whacking a horse as a type of motivation (particularly if he’s a LB introvert), I can’t believe it’s a form of motivation that puts a lot of credits into your relationship bank account.
But Alex wisely reminded me that Parelli often says people go from one extreme to the other before they find balance in the middle, and I suppose it’s probably going to take a little bit of extreme behavior on my part anyway to convince Lupin that our previous understanding about how things will work is going to be permanently altered. If nothing else, Alex, who has a LB horse that is at least five times as challenging as Lupin, is living proof that you can be serious about your whacking without making an emotional issue of it, so that’s something I can aspire to as well. I just need to focus on hearing Alex’s peal of laughter as her horse tries to come over the top of her and she sends him back off with great amusement that he thought he could get away with it.

September 26, 2010

Your focus determines your reality.

Okay, I’m going to take a bit of a break from the narrative sequence (even though it was building nicely along to a climax in Week 3). Partly I’m just more in essay-writing mode, and partly Alex is gonna drag me away from the wifi before I’d be able to get anywhere close to finishing up another week’s worth of blogging.
So one of the big breakthroughs of the course involved focus. The fourth responsibility for the human in Parelli world is to “use the natural power of focus.” Anyone who’s ever jumped a course has probably had drilled into them pretty well to look up and not at the jump (unless that’s where you want to land). And even if you drive a car, you know that if you stare at something to the side of the road for too long, your car will start to head that way, too.
At any rate, I thought I had absorbed this lesson pretty well over the years and gotten pretty good about using my focus when riding. Not only do I generally tend to look where I want my horse to go, I’ve also learned to use my focus a bit to shape my own body when asking for things like hindquarter disengagements so that Lupin will mirror what I’m doing.
But we learned in the Fast Track course to focus at a whole different level. First off, John talked about walking off with your horse and keeping your focus ahead of you, expecting him to follow. A lot of horse folks know not to turn around a look at their horse when they want him to follow off, but John added that you need to have a real sense of purpose, not just a resolution to keep your focus on where you’re going. Focus, for Parelli, is almost a sense of urgency, so that when your horse doesn’t follow your focus, whether you’re leading him or riding him, you get an anxious sort of energy about you that motivates your horse to find the comfort of being on your focus again. So, for example, if you’re riding a circle, you shape your body and legs to the circle, and if the horse comes off it, he should feel almost an electric pulse going through you.
John also had us practice focus when we were horse-shoed up around him in the ring. He told us to keep our focus on him no matter what our horses did so that they would learn they couldn’t change our focus. He would be really tough on us about this, and he explained that first of all it was a safety issue: when our horses were close together, it was dangerous for them to get out of line, and the only way to keep them straight was to keep our own focus straight. But he was equally concerned for us to develop some discipline in ourselves about keeping a focus.
I know that I’m guilty of starting with a focus but then abandoning it if it seems like other things become a priority. So, for example, in backing a horse, I tend to be more particular about the backward movement than I am about him staying on my original line of focus. I had always thought my lack of focus was just this: a lesser priority. But in our lessons focus became the biggest priority, and it was interesting to see how difficult it is to maintain focus even when you are, ah, focusing on it.
As I’ve suggested, focus for us became much more than where you’re looking. It’s a sense of purpose, which is often achieved by giving the horse something to do. So I began backing Lupin onto things rather than just backing him up and using sideways to open gates. We also spent a really cool session making connected circles across the whole surface of a freshly dragged ring. Even if the horse doesn’t care about or completely understand the purpose himself, he can feel the difference when the human has a purpose that they care about (beyond just getting the horse to do with his body what the human wants). Though of course the best purpose is one that the horse does come to understand (and for horses like Lupin, this often involves some form of food, as in, “Oy! Lupin! The best grass is this way!”).
Finally, John emphasized that focus is most crucial when your horse is going right-brained. Most people look at their horse when he’s freaking out, but a horse reads this as his human looking to him for leadership, so that once you’ve done this, he’s even less likely to care about what you think he should do in a panic situation. However, if you look at what you want him to be doing (going over a jump, going through a gate, etc.), then he will read you as being a leader because you’re maintaining your focus in a time of crisis.
Probably my hardest lesson in focus came during a session in the ring when we were working on moving the shoulders over. We were lined up with our horses’ butts against the rail, and we were to get a soft feel of our horses’ mouths and then move their shoulders. Lupin and I were not getting far with the concept of the soft feel, and he was wanting to swing his butt around and go backwards into the horses next to him. Pete came over to help, and I was feeling pretty stressed: I didn’t really know what I was doing, Lupin was reacting violently and disrupting other horses, and I’m never at my ease anyway when I’m getting one-on-one coaching, despite the fact that I frequently seek it out.
So I was going a little right-brained myself, and Pete kept insisting that I focus, and that I keep Lupin on my focus. It was challenging because I was tempted to care more about other things--getting the soft feel better, and Lupin's emotional state. But because Lupin was practically running other horses over, I learned a new appreciation for how important focus is and I got a sense of what it means to maintain it even when things are getting chaotic.
Needless to say, I will be focusing on focus when I return home.

September 20, 2010

Fast Track, Week 2: Never say never, don’t always say always—usually say usually.

As soon as we thought we had a pretty good idea of how things would go, of course they changed. Our second week was a little scattered, in part because of the weather and in part because of the Summit that was held at the ranch the following weekend.
Monday, though, went along pretty much as expected. We had focus stations in the morning, and I went back for more development of my relationship with my 45’ line. This time we paired up and simulated run-away horses online, which is actually quite a relevant issue for me. In fact, I prefer to be on Lupin’s back rather than on the ground with him because online seems to be where he has the real advantage and where our biggest disasters take place. This kind of thinking is, to be sure, a little predatorial, since predators also feel safer once they’re on the horse’s back where they’re out of range of hooves and teeth and the horse can’t run away, though I prefer to think it’s just that I have years of comfort being on horses and have spent many fewer years developing comfort on the ground, where you have to deal with things like, ah, let’s see—45’ lines.
In any case, despite the fact that Kick-ass Carmen was helping us simulate our problems, I was not at all confident that my ability to shut down 100+ pound Juulke would translate into an ability to shut down 1,000+ pound Lupin. It transpired later in the week that I was correct about this.
We also had a focus station on preparing for riding as a follow-up to the demo John and the instructors had done the week before. John had advised us to play hard on the ground so you can ride softly in the saddle, by which he meant that we should get all 5 gaits online before mounting up. If you’re a horse person, and you’re counting, you’ll realize that he’s including the gallop in that list. I’ve only ever gotten a few strides of canter out of Lupin on the ground, and I’ve only even seen Lupin gallop once. Hmmmm.
But I tried to set myself up for success by going into an area that was fenced in case Lupin broke away from me and by taking him away from all the horses so that he might have a little right-brained stuff for us to work through. But no. He was beautifully cooperative in many ways, but we weren’t going to get any high speeds. We did get some fairly snappy transitions in our circling game, though. Then we continued through our morning playing around with some indirect and direct reins, where once again I found myself in my less-favored position on the ground, since Parelli strongly believes in getting everything really good on the ground before you ask for it in the saddle. As my roommate Alex would say, “Buh!”
In the afternoon we spent a little time on the seat builders and had a demo on shimming saddles and muscle development by John’s wife Kathy and then finished the day playing around with our horses a bit.
On Tuesday we started with focus stations, and my main break-through was when Lisa helped me with my change of direction on the circle. Lisa’s great because she’ll appear next to you and say cheerfully, “How’s it going?” Pretty much any answer you give her will result in, “Great, let me see it,” and once you show her what you’re working on, she gives you some pointers for improvement. It’s useful to have someone like that around because you don’t always know what’s mediocre enough at any given moment to merit serious attention. Of course, pretty much anything can be since it’s more about your level of savvy and your horse’s level of respect than about the particular task.
I quickly found out that what I thought was a fairly reasonable change of direction on the circle was actually riddled with disrespect from Lupin who, as usual, was not giving me snappy responses because I, as usual, wasn’t expecting enough out of him. So we both rounded out our morning with a little emotional growth courtesy of Lisa’s counseling.
The afternoon demo was excellent because it was on trailer-loading, which I never get tired of watching, and because John picked a left-brained introvert to play with. Trailer-loading is probably the most dramatic example of the need to get the horse’s mind before you get their feet. So many, many people care only about what the feet do, which is why so many trailer-loading explosions happen, but if you get the mind in the trailer before the feet, then you’re all good. And of course that applies to everything else you do with horses as well (because, as Linda is fond of saying, it isn’t about the trailer).
In the course of playing with Pepsi, John talked a good deal about problem-solving, for both the horse and the human. He told a story about one time a student asked him a question, and he gave what he thought was a helpful answer. Immediately afterwards, the usually affable Linda Parelli descended on him and demanded, “Why would you rob that person of their journey?” John had apparently just given the student the answer rather than asking questions that would lead the student to discover the answer for themselves.
John told us that we need to have the same attitude with our horses. Micro-managing them robs them of their own journey and results in horses that don’t use their brains. Instead, we need to set things up for them to figure out—preferably without us being right on top of them—and ALLOW THEM TO MAKE MISTAKES. When they do, have the attitude of “Yeah, I make mistakes, too,” and fix it up.
For humans, it’s equally important that we’re willing to experiment with different answers. John told us probably the most depressing and the most liberating thing we’ll hear during the entire course: that no one ever gets to a level of horsemanship where they always know the right answer. You always have to be willing just to try something and see if it gets better, and if it doesn’t, change your strategy. The consolation is that you usually have at least a 50/50 chance of getting it right.
But John also re-defined mistakes in a way that is helpful. He said that if you never make a mistake, you’re not learning, and that the only real mistake—the only kind you should feel bad about making—is when you make a conscious choice to do something that you know is wrong. Otherwise, you’re just exploring new strategies to find out what works. And you’ll only find that out by trying it and seeing what happens.
He advised us to spend our horse time that afternoon playing with all kinds of squeeze games and with the concept of encouraging our horses to be puzzle solvers. Unfortunately, we had two guest speakers that afternoon, so we didn’t get much time at all with our own horses.
That problem persisted on Wednesday, when torrential rains forced us inside all morning. Pat said it was the most rain he’d ever seen in one day on the ranch, and while we were thankful not to be out in it, we were all getting a little stir-crazy by the afternoon, despite the excellent presentation that Carmen did on horse-anality.
While the presentation as a whole was quite good, the biggest and best thing that I took away from it was Carmen’s negation of my suggestion that one characteristic of left-brain introverts is their tendency to get angry. Carmen said that horses don’t feel anger—that’s a human emotion. She allowed that left-brain introverts can be highly aggressive, but not angry.
For me, this was a huge break-through. One of my mental blocks with Lupin has been the belief that he gets angry, and that perception has made me feel that, at root, there’s something in Lupin that makes me want to keep my distance a little. (Never mind the hypocrisy behind this sentiment, since I myself am quite capable of getting angry and Lupin is usually the recipient of that anger.)
But while it may seem too nice of a distinction to care much whether horses get angry or aggressive, to me it makes a world of difference. Aggressiveness is just an inappropriate or exaggerated response, whereas anger is an emotion directed at someone. If Lupin merely needs to learn that his responses are sometimes over the top, that’s doable. If Lupin has anger issues, that’s a bit more complex. I was quite relieved to learn that it’s the former problem I’m facing with Lupin.
I felt my sense of simpatico with Lupin growing further as we moved into the small Coverall to do a simulation. We talked about matching and mirroring your horse before you ask them to change what they’re doing. We simulated right-brained extrovert behavior, where two people connected through their hands and the “human” had to match the intensity of the movement from the “horse” and then add four ounces. Then we simulated right-brained introvert behavior, where the “horse” goes internal and the human has to mirror and then try to get them out of it.
I had no problem with going introverted. I do it quite a bit when I don’t want to interact because I’m tired or I’m feeling emotionally pressured. But that’s still a thinking kind of introversion: it’s a conscious decision, and I’ll come out of it if the topic becomes interesting enough or the other person handles the situation in the right way. What I can’t do, at least not since I was a kid, is go introverted out of fear. I just couldn’t simulate it, nor could I find a way to bring my “horse” out of it: I treated her like a left-brain introvert and did what works with Lupin. I guess that for better or worse I do understand Lupin, even though that understanding doesn’t always give me the tools I need to move forward with him.
In the afternoon, as if by arrangement, the sun came out for exactly the 3 hours we had planned to spend riding. We had our first group lesson in Arena Grande with John where we followed the rail, asking for lateral flexion as our horses walked forward, with some of us following the inside rail, some following the rail outside the ring, and all of us periodically switching positions. The rhythmic consistency of riding the rail was soothing after so much time inside without horses, and I was pleased with the progress Lupin made giving me lateral flexion as we walked along without coming off the rail.
But then we started doing walk/trot and trot/walk transitions. John wanted us to get 5 steps of trot and come back down to a walk without using our reins. Lupin—ironically, given that he’s an introvert—is usually happy enough to jump up into a trot just when I raise my energy, but downward transitions have been a bit of a struggle for us. Even with the rein I was having some problems, and John kept barking, “Do less sooner. If you have to ask for the trot after one stride, do that.” I did that. That didn’t work. He kept on, though, insisting on what seemed to me an impossible conundrum: that we absolutely under no circumstances trot more than 5 strides, but that we also not use our rein to get the downward transition. I’m not saying at all that that can’t be achieved—one of my big goals is to get Lupin listening to my energy as much on the downward transitions as he does on the upward transitions, but the only way to do that, it seemed to me, was to get effective with the rein to back up what I was doing with my seat.
My frustration grew as we went along, and I became increasingly frustrated at my inability to curb my frustration, and my feeling of being put in a situation that I didn’t know the way out of. Unfortunately, that was the end to what was an otherwise lovely afternoon. I’m still not really clear on why John didn’t take us through the phases that would have gotten the end result he wanted. But I suppose I did at least learn what it feels like to Lupin when I insist on something out of him that he doesn’t know how to give and I don’t allow him to do what he needs to do to get there.
On Thursday the chaos of the week continued. We had our “remudas”—our focus sessions—a day early because the Summit was scheduled to start the following afternoon. Starved for time with my horse, I got him out while I waited on my coaching session. Lupin must have been a little starved for activity too, because he let me know on the way down to the Lower Savvy Park that he could kick me in the head if he wanted to, and then when we got there he broke away from me on the circle, which is an old pattern that he periodically reverts to.
So when I went to meet with Carmen, I had my number one focus clearly in my head. She gave me a few strategies to play with, some of which she had demonstrated the day before with Aspen, and I moved along toward Friday.
I told Alex on Thursday night that it felt like we were going to have a field day because we were having a half day at the end of the week, and it turned out that we did have a field day. We spent the morning in the Lower Savvy Park having races in our different groups to see who could go backwards or sideways to the fence fastest, playing Simon Says, and things like that.
Bit by bit spectators for the Summit began to trickle in, and by the first session in the Big Top that afternoon, there were 1,000 people on the ranch. I coped with this as long as I could, which was about two hours, at which point I was worn out and took a nap in Alex’s truck.
It’s not that I’m uncomfortable around crowds, but time spent in crowds does not count as down time either, and I was seriously in need of some of that.
I wasn’t able to face the Summit until Sunday, in fact. I spent Saturday with Lupin up in the area that had been roped off for us, and it was actually kind of nice to have the contrast of the crowd and noise across the way to throw the peace of the pen area into relief. I couldn’t go much of anywhere with Lupin, but I still spent a nice quiet day with him playing and riding a bit in the round pen and then wandering up into the woods a little way to eat some grass. In a way, it was more peaceful even than the previous weekend because everyone was up with Pat in the Big Top instead of scurrying around making all sorts of complicated plans about how to spend the weekend.
By Sunday I thought I could tolerate the crowd again, so I wandered up and saw some really cool spotlights with some of our instructors and some of the interns. I enjoyed sitting on the fence and watching the show, and all in all it turned out to be a perfectly balanced weekend. So I moved into Week 3 in a pretty good state of being.

September 13, 2010

Fast Track, Week 1, Continued . . .

Day 2 & Day 3
All we did the next two days was testing. We met after breakfast and lunch every day to number off and get our maps, and then we headed for our respective locations. Day 2 we did Online before lunch and Freestyle after lunch; Day 3 we did Liberty before lunch and Finesse after lunch. Usually we had about 10 tasks to complete.
Lupin was still a little up during our Online testing, but I was completely relaxed and treated that morning as a chance to show Lupin the ranch. So we wandered from station to station, embracing mediocrity in our testing while we tooled around and said good morning to everyone. It was kind of interesting just to see what we could do, and I was actually quite impressed with the figure 8 pattern, which he often abhors. The task was to stand on a Frisbee and send him around the cones without using the stick, and by golly, he did it. Sometimes it’s useful to try something you wouldn’t have thought to try and just see what happens.
We also maintained our low-key attitude through the trailer loading: I just walked up, calmly asked him in, and took what he gave me, which was a good deal more than he’d given me the night before. When he came back out, we wandered off again.
By the afternoon Lupin had started to chill, and Freestyle is our favorite thing anyway, so we had some fun. We followed the rail really well with Lupin listening to my focus: I didn’t use my reins at all and only used my stick a little. And we even managed to canter along the rail and have quite responsive transitions. I was then particularly impressed with our test for lateral flexion (head bent around toward me), which we’d never held for twenty seconds before, but again, you’ll never know what you might get ‘til you try. He bent around softly and when he tried to straighten out, he hit the rein only very lightly and came back and stayed.
So we ended the day on a good note with both of us relaxed and happy, though that wasn’t going to be a trend that would continue. I had known all along that the next day wouldn’t be anything too impressive since Lupin and I have done little in Liberty and nothing in Finesse, but I was looking forward to seeing what Lupin would and wouldn’t offer during our Liberty sessions anyway. However, I failed to factor in the cows.
During our first test, Lupin went right-brained—he adopted an instinctual-response-without-thinking mentality—and completely stopped focusing on me. My assessor said Pat was out yelling to his students in another ring, and when we went out, I saw that they were working cows. Lupin has yet to find a level of emotional placidity with cows. Oh boy.
There’s a diagram in the lodge that I quite like that has an arrow going toward the term “Horseman” and along the way there’s a box that says “Oh no!” and then “Oh boy!” The point is that before you can become a horseman, you have to begin to look at what most people see as bad situations as instead exciting opportunities to learn/experiment/practice new things. But I think they’ve left out a phase in between “Oh no!” and “Oh boy!” and that phase is a less enthused “Oh boy,” as in “Oh boy, here we go again.” It’s the stage when you’re no longer panicked by your horse freaking out, but you’re not exactly excited about the opportunity to deal with it either.
There was no point in continuing our testing without getting Lupin’s attention back on me, so off we went to an area where Lupin could watch the cows and started doing figure 8’s. In left-brain (thinking) mode Lupin isn’t keen on figure 8’s, but they do help him when he’s right-brained because they require him to change direction so much that he has to pay attention to what he's doing rather than completely obsessing about cows, etc. So we carried on with that until he was reasonably calm. That set us back about half an hour, and we were pretty much dead last at finishing up our testing. But Pat always says to take the time it takes so it takes less time, and my reward was that afterwards he was at least quite good at the tasks that catered to his horse-anality, like standing on a tarp and having it rubbed all over him.
The Finesse session in the afternoon didn’t give us much to crow about, but it did flip a little switch in my brain. Carmen, the Swiss instructor, noted as I rode into our faux dressage test that I should be fairly good at it. Apparently she’d been studying my information form where I’d filled out my riding history. I quickly strove to take away any illusions she might have there by telling her that all the dressage I’ve done was a long time ago on a different horse. I'm pretty sure that our test drove that point home fairly well.
In fact, I’ve been really resisting Finesse for the past few years, and I’m not sure why. Maybe partly because I assume that Lupin won’t like it, and maybe partly because he doesn’t seem quite as naturally talented as Limerick was. But when we did our test, something about being in a dressage arena with the intent of riding nice, fluid circles and serpentines (notice I say “intent”) made me want to go there with him and made it feel like it might be possible. And as subsequent days have reinforced the fact that we shouldn’t limit our horses by pigeon-holing them in one horse-anality, I’m now quite looking forward to getting a start on our Finesse while we’re here.
So the day ended with a positive vision, anyway, if not an overwhelmingly positive performance.
Day 4
Thursday was mostly a classroom day. Probably the thing that made the biggest impression was watching videos of lions and zebras. The instinctual response for the class was to sympathize with the zebras (oddly, since humans are predators and not prey animals), but afterwards John talked about how lions generally have one successful attack out of five, and that if they go much more than five, they become too weak to be successful again, which means that they die of starvation—arguably a much worse death than being killed by a predator.
Part of the point was that we need to stop our incessant classifying of things as good and bad, right and wrong. In the natural world, things just are the way they are. This applies to right-brained behavior in horses as well. We tend to see instinctual horse behavior as negative because so much of it gets horses into trouble once they’re living in the human world. For instance, panicking when they get caught in a wire is a natural response for them, but it can also kill them. We generally prefer our horses to be calm and think through things, not least because we are often scared ourselves of what our horses do in right-brained mode.
But right-brain behavior is simply what they are programmed to do in nature to survive, and a lion’s behavior is no less right-brained. Neither, for that matter, is ours. We looked at a lot of pictures of sports like football and rugby and soccer where the humans looked very much like lions jumping on zebras to understand the point that instinctual behavior is the source of a lot of talent for both humans and horses, but if we want a partnership between the two, then both humans and horses need to be able to moderate right-brain responses and function on the left side of the brain as well. (Pat defines horsemanship as "the habits and skills that horses and humans need to become partners.")
In the afternoon John did our first demo. He had told us on the first day that the course would cover all the basics from Level 1 starting with haltering your horse and that Level 4 is just Level 1 skills done with excellence. I had been really excited to hear that because I know that Lupin and I have a lot of holes we need to fill in.
True to his word, John started with games 1, 2, and 3 and with basic things like your horse leading off behind you when you walk off and stopping when you stop. As I found playing around with Lupin after the demo, it’s amazing how easy it is to become accustomed to settling for a lack of excellence in the simple things. But with help from one of our coaches, we got much better. The trick, of course, is continuing to pay enough attention to maintain the excellence once you’ve got it.
Day 5
By Friday we began to get a sense of what a normal day would look like. We spend the mornings at focus stations where there’s a topic (like making friends with your 45’ line) and coaches to help you, but not any structured teaching. And we pick which, if any, focus stations we want to go to and play with whatever we need to be playing with.
Part of this is determined by the focus sheets we fill out every Friday afternoon with a coach. The goal is for us to become our own problem solvers and learn how to break tasks apart into smaller elements to build up to them, and the enjoyable effect is that we get to work with a great degree of independence. If you had asked me at home, I would’ve been very depressed at the prospect of working independently (that is, after all, what I do all the time), but here it makes you feel empowered rather than frustrated, and I find myself much more motivated to seek out our holes and work on them.
So here’s what a typical day looks like for Alex and me:
6:30 Arrive at the ranch to feed & water the horses and muck their pens
7:15 Head down to the lodge to eat breakfast and find out what our focus stations are for the morning
8:00 Gather whatever equipment we need (and at some point our horses) and play around at focus stations until around 11:00
11:30 Meet without horses to watch a demo that our coaches present with their horses
1:00 Eat lunch
2:00 Either have some sort of class session first or head straight out to play with demo material with our horses, or have a riding session led by John
6:00 Eat dinner
7:00 Bed the horses down for the night, cleaning their pens again, giving them evening feed and water and blanketing them
8:00 Head home
8:45 Pass out
Day 6
On Saturday mornings the Parelli Games are held. Once again, when I heard about these before I came, they sounded like one more thing we’d be expected to do that we wouldn’t really want to do. But now that I’m here they seem like as good a way as any to get your horse out and moving around on the weekend.
The Parelli Games are basically combinations of the 7 Games done within certain time limits, either online or freestyle. They’re yet another good test of whether you’re willing to put the relationship first under pressure, and they’re also, as Lupin and I discovered, a great way to find more holes.
The first task we tried to do was to play the circling game with me standing on a pedestal. Lupin refused to go out and around me; instead, he practically fell over himself trying to climb on the pedestal with me. It wasn’t until later that I realized he thought I wanted to mount him, and he probably thought I was insane because I kept asking more while he was practically on top of me. I had apparently done a very thorough job of teaching an assumption: that whenever I’m up on something, I want to get on him. Needless to say, we promptly went off and practiced playing some different games with me up on top of things.
Then I rode Lupin bareback for the “Barrel Race,” which we came in second on at a very slow trot, largely because we were in a small minority of people who actually managed to remember the pattern (to be fair, it was a double barrel pattern).
After the Games, we were free to kick back for the rest of the weekend . . . with a list of things to play with, of course. But the weekend has never felt so good.