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.