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.

September 3, 2010

Fast Track, Week 1: The Adventure Begins

Right, so I’m here in Colorado and have just completed the first week of my Fast Track course. As I’m too tired to write anything during the week (and really need to go to bed as soon as I get back to the condo anyway), all of my blog posts will be written on the weekend and will be, as my roomie and travel companion Alex would say, epic. Those with great intestinal fortitude, read on.
Week 1 of our adventure was really our journey to Colorado, which took almost a week from the time we left home to having the horses settled at the Parelli Center. The length of the trip had given me great pause when I signed up for the course, but it turned out to be much easier than I had imagined possible, in large part because Lupin and I both had excellent travel companions. 28 hours on the road by myself with a horse to worry about would have been tedious if not downright harrowing, but with Alex and Indy along, it was actually kind of fun. They’re both easy-going spirits whose company it would be difficult not to enjoy, and Alex and I were able to stay onsite with the horses every night on the road, which made things much less stressful.
So with nothing much to report from our trip, we’ll move on to the course itself.
Day 1
Monday morning we got up at 6:30 in order to have the horses, who were boarded down the road for the weekend, to the Parelli Center by 8. As we hadn’t spent much time on trailer loading beyond what was absolutely necessary on the road, we took a little time loading both boys before we left—an activity that indicated we might have had a little slippage in that area over the course of the trip. But we got a little improvement, got them loaded up, and headed for the Parelli Center.
Check-in was uneventful despite the mostly rainy, slightly chilly weather (rain in Colorado is more like Irish rain than Southern US rain: an intermittent, mostly light downfall that doesn’t impede activity). We were assigned pen numbers for our horses and off-loaded our stuff into corresponding locations in the tack cabins, feed containers, and cubby holes in the lodge. (Lupin’s pen is at the top of a hill, so that I get plenty of exercise carrying blankets and water buckets and pushing wheelbarrows up and down the hill. The appropriate response to such a situation in Parelli land is: “Oh boy! I get to build some extra physical stamina!”)
After we had our horses and stuff somewhat sorted out, we met in the lodge for orientation, and I was quite impressed with the talk that John Baar gave. I will confess that I had heard some things about the Fast Track course that concerned me a little: about how we would spend the first 3 days being tested, and about how they don’t really teach you the way instructors do in a clinic, instead leaving the students to work mostly on their own. I worried for months that the testing would make me feel the need to prove myself at the expense of my relationship with Lupin, thus getting our month off to a horrible start and clicking me into hyper student role instead of caring partner role. It also seemed like if we were mostly left on our own to do things . . . well, I could just stay home and do that.
Horsemanship Principle #2: Don’t make or teach assumptions.
John explained the rationale for the testing—that in Pat’s dream course, the teacher gives the students the final exam on the first day of class so that they know exactly what they’ll be graded on at the end. He assured us that he wasn’t going to test us on anything he wouldn’t subsequently teach us. And he told us to trust the process, even when we don’t understand it—a thing that is sometimes hard to do at home, but that seems so much easier when you’re actually on the Parelli ranch surrounded by so many positive people. I found it surprisingly easy that Monday to let go of all my concerns about how the course would be run and just go with the philosophy that it all would work out well.
John also talked about the need for us to take responsibility for our own learning by being proactive when we need help, which I’ve heard before, but I liked that he added we need to take responsibility for our own attitudes. He said that you can choose to be a victim and complain about the things that are done to you, or you can choose to be proactive and make things happen for you. I like the correlation between this and the way that Parelli teaches us to do things with and for our horses rather than to them. (For an apropos aside, visit
As we moved into the afternoon and the written theory test, I was just happy that the horses got a day to settle in and chill and that all the testing for the day would be without the horses. That took away the chance of my doing anything negative with Lupin as a result of my own stress, which in turn took away most of the stress. By the time we moved outside to do our tool tests, I was actually having a lot of fun. All of the remaining testing involved different stations, with all of us numbering off so that we’d be evenly distributed but moving individually from location to location. We were given maps with numbered locations, so it became almost like a treasure hunt, and I had no great illusions about my tool savvy, so I was able to just have a good time with it. We have about 50 people in the class, almost half from Europe & New Zealand, so it was also fun to pass them going from task to task and learn a little about them.
In the evening we were free to get our horses out and spend some time with them. Lupin was, of course, a little up, but being an introvert, his “up” is rarely extreme. This is perhaps a bad thing, because it makes it easy for me to avoid dealing with the fact that I don’t have his full attention. Alex said she has to get Indy’s full attention because, as an extrovert, he can get quite dangerous if she doesn’t have it, but I can always choose the lazy route with Lupin, though sometimes there is a price.
By the end of the day Monday, my tiredness created both laziness and bad judgment in me. I should have just let him walk around, asking nothing. But there were some obstacles, so we played a little bit, and one obstacle was a trailer. I wanted to follow up on our trailer loading session of the morning, and I’d also heard we’d be tested on trailer loading the next day, so I couldn’t resist doing a little prep. But I didn’t set it up very well, and it was getting dark, and I couldn’t really tell whether Lupin was unconfident or just testing me when he refused to go in the trailer.
I’ve been working on myself to ask more out of him because I tend to ask too little, so I defaulted to being fairly strong with him, and he started to pitch a fit, trying to come over the top of me and kicking out at my stick and string. I, in turn, got even stronger with him because I don’t want him to think he can intimidate me. I don't say this was the wrong response, but it didn't do much for our relationship, particularly as we had to quit without reaching much of a good stopping place because it got dark while he was still emotional. In the end the only thing I could say that was purely positive was that I hadn’t gotten emotional--which, given Lupin's level of emotion, was pretty impressive. I may have been stronger with him than I needed to be, but I hadn’t done it out of anger or fear. So I called that one little thing a win, and I made the promise to myself and to him that that was it: I absolutely would not do anything else over the next few days that would put our testing before our relationship.
That promise made Day 2 and Day 3 infinitely better, but as it is now infinitely later than I should stay up, even on a weekend, my narrative of those two days will have to wait.