Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Plan for 2012, or Why Horses Are about Life

Warning - long post ahead, with links to some suggested year-end reading . . .

Horses are about life, just like everything else - it isn't possible to separate life with horses - how we are with them and they with us - from the rest of life.  Due to the immediacy and "thereness" of the horse - you can't bullshit a horse - our interactions with them tend to reveal a lot about us and where we are in our journey in life, and about where our lifework needs to go next.  If we listen to our horses, they have a lot to tell us.

So here's where I am - I've got some work to do as a result of my continuing reactions to my fall in June.  And some of this even goes back as far as June 2009, when Dawn kicked me in the jaw (reminder to self - be extra careful in June). I've been riding horses and working around them for many, many years and prior to my June 2009 incident with Dawn and my June 2011 incident with Pie, it'd never really worried me that horses are big animals and you can get seriously injured working around them or riding them.  I managed to get my confidence back with Dawn, although it took a while and I'm now more careful around her, and I've never ridden her on the trail and don't plan to - she's too reactive (and fast-moving when she does react) - could that be fixed?  Maybe, but not by me.

I'm still not sure why I came off Pie, since I can't remember the incident - it might have been heart-related or he might have spooked and spun - but it really doesn't matter.  What matters is that, even though that was my first fall in over 10 years despite hundreds and hundreds of rides, it was my first fall of many I've had in life to ever result in broken bones and a hospital stay.  I've had concussions before in my youth, but I've never had one that took 6 weeks to recover from or where my balance, vision and strength were affected.  And then Pie and Drifter developed their issues related to EPM, which in Drifter's case led to things like balking and rearing - not fun - and to Pie and Drifter feeling much better (and feistier) after recovering.

Although I'm back to riding and I don't any longer get that gut-wrenching adrenaline kick every time a horse takes a funny step, it's still very hard.  I've been pushing ahead but I keep imagining disaster scenarios . . . The hardest part is getting started - I'm always finding excuses not to work with the horses or ride - it's too cold, or too windy, or it's raining (or it's going to rain tomorrow which means I can't work two or three days in a row) or I'm too tired, etc., etc.  Once I do get started, I'm able to do it, but I feel (although I try not to act) tentative and I'm always looking out for the horse to act up, or the deer to jump out of the bushes, etc., etc.  As a result, I'm not providing my horses the leadership they need and deserve, and my timing, feel and comfort in the saddle aren't quite as good - whether due to mental distraction or some persistant low-grade neurological issues - which means that Pie is somewhat worried (which makes me worried) and Drifter is showing me when he's resistant that he's not sure I should be in charge (Dawn seems fine, bless her sweet/feisty heart).

But really, I'm just as good a rider as I ever was - however skilled or unskilled at certain things I am - although I sure don't bounce any more.  So where does that leave me at this turning of the year?  Here are some things I plan to do in 2012 to get things back on track for me, and therefore for my horses - it isn't really about them, it's about me, and as I get things straightened out they'll come right again.
Make sure I'm fit and that my balance is good and that my body awareness is there - I plan to do some strength and aerobic work and also something like t'ai chi chih to improve my balance and motor skills. 
Get a Western saddle that fits Drifter and (probably with some padding) Pie, so that when we're on the trail I'll feel more secure than I have been riding in a dressage saddle. 
Allow myself to fully experience, when not on the horse, my feelings of fear/incompetence/shame for my fall, and learn to observe them and let them be what they are without judging - creating some mental distance between "me" and those negative feelings and thus (I hope) allowing them to resolve.  Develop a regular mindfulness/meditation practice, both for relaxation and also to give me better skills to cope with fear or adversity in my horse work or for that matter in life in general. 
Have a plan for each ride/work session but make sure that while I'm working with the horse, I'm "with" the horse and not overthinking things, and staying in the moment and focussed on the task and not on the many things that could distract me and make it harder for my horse to do what I'm asking.  (On that topic, I recommend that you read this really excellent post by Mark Rashid on how we can introduce multiple degrees of separation between the cue and response by not keeping our focus on the task.) Don't ever hurry but get the job done.
Don't just stay with what's easy or comfortable - make sure that the plan for each work session involves taking the horse a bit out of its comfort zone and presenting the horse with a problem to solve and giving the horse the time and space to solve it - and then release, release, release at the appropriate instant.  (On this topic, read this post on Mugwump Chronicles on presenting your horse with knots to solve.)  I need to remember that it's OK for the horse to be (somewhat but not excessively) anxious or stressed while figuring something out provided I provide a route for the horse to find the solution, break things down in small steps and give the horse time to relax in a "safe spot" in terms of the work from time to time. 
Take some lessons to help me with my body position and feel, on trained horses - I have my eye on a local dressage trainer who's low-key and of the classical school - I need to go over and look at his place and watch him teach in the new year and, if I like what I see, arrange some lessons.  At some point I'd like him to take a look at Drifter, who I think has the potential to be a fine little (at least lower-level) dressage horse. 
Get some training direction/assistance.  Mark Rashid has one of his very few "approved" students (I believe there are fewer than 10 worldwide) who is less than a two-hour haul from me - she's at the place where I went to the clinic last May.  I've seen her ride over the years, and she's really good, and I like her and her approach.  I'd like to trailer two horses at a time up there every two weeks or so starting in March (they have a small indoor) to get her to work me me and my horses and help me direct my work. I've been working on my own for a number of years, except for occasional clinics with Mark, and some quality "eyes on the ground" and "adult supervision" could really make a difference, I think.  I've already e-mailed her to try to set something up.  And if there's a Mark Rashid clinic there next year, ride in it.
So, how about the individual horses - where would I like to go with them in 2012?
Dawn and I need to continue to work on our mutual relaxation and then on the canter (which right now is certainly not relaxing for either of us).  Our lateral work has just started and there's lots we can do to develop that.  
Pie and I need to develop our softness at all three gaits and get back out on the trail in a way that builds our confidence.  Pie also needs to learn to lunge and ground drive - these are holes in his training - and we've already started work on that. 
Drifter's ground work needs to be improved and become a "safe place" for him - this is an area where I could use some outside help as I'm not that skilled at ground work.  Our under saddle work should progress - making sure forward is always there instantly and continuing our softening, transition and lateral work at all three gaits.  If he does well and starts to be able to calm down and relax, we could start on the trail, although I need to think about how to deal with his aggressiveness with geldings and obsession with mares when riding in company, and I'd like to teach him to ground drive first since he can be pretty rmactive - we can make a start on that over the winter.
I can't say that I'll be sad to see the hindquarters of 2011 as it leaves the barn - here's to a great 2012 for all of us!

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