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.