The Danger of Generalizations

As I sit here scanning Facebook on a rainy day, I keep stumbling across catchy little picture phrases that say educational things like “You can’t train pain!” and “Flicking the toes is not an extended trot!” and my ever favorite “Cranking the horse’s nose to his chest is not a ‘frame’!” To say I’m not guilty of passing these things along would make me a liar, and the entire point of this blog has been unabashed honesty. These things are true. In a record setting, perfect dressage test, you will see none of those issues.

You’re probably sitting there rolling your eyes and wondering why on earth I’m writing a blog to tell you something you already know. Well, allow me to elaborate.

Let’s invent a rider. Her name will be Susie because it’s the name that popped into my head. Susie is 16 years old and she has a horse named Phil that she boards at a local facility. She’s old enough to have dreams of success with Phil, but she lacks the funds to afford a lesson program and, let’s just say, she lives in an area where she has limited resources. As many of us do, Susie joins multiple groups on Facebook, becomes friends with some riders that she admires, and reads the articles that come across her news feed religiously. She absorbs the information, creates her own lesson plans, employs them in each ride, and has a friend take photos and videos so that she can compare them to what she sees online. This isn’t an unusual situation.

Now, since we all have Facebook and access to the world wide web, we’ve all become armchair Mclain Ward clones. We share these catchy articles and memes that make us thrust our fists in the air and say “Yes! Someone gets it!”Then we go about our merry way, taking our weekly lessons and packing up to head off to our latest clinic. Meanwhile, little Susie in Snoretown, Idaho gets some pictures from her friend. Her precious Phil has his nose behind the vertical in some of them. A video clip shows him prancing away down a long side, toes flicking. She decides that perhaps he’s in pain. You can’t train pain, right? Or maybe he just doesn’t want to work? As we all know, a seed of doubt is often easily planted.

What these articles and quotes don’t emphasis, or even mention, is that riding and training horses, even fully trained horses, is never a linear process. Every week, every day, every ride, can make you feel like you’re on a roller coaster car instead of a horse. Just like with everything else these days, people want short, sweet, and to the point. No one has time to stop and process information. Our attention spans have abandoned us and much of our information is delivered to us with this in mind. Magazine articles are brief. They lay out an exercise and tell you how it should go. They very rarely mention common issues and if they do, they certainly don’t go into detail about how to fix it. They tell you to find a professional that can help you work through your horse’s individual problems. While I fully support that notion (nothing can replace a good set of eyes on the ground), there are inherent dangers to going into an exercise with a horse and expecting a black or white outcome.

Well, allow me to be the first person to tell you that toe flicking is not wrong. Tucking behind the vertical is not wrong. They are twists and turns on the roller coaster ride of horse training. They are forms of  what I call passive resistance. They are ‘commas’ in the conversation you’re having with your horse. Your horse can’t come out and say things like:

“My back is too tense to properly extend right now.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t recoup and try again.

“My hind end is weak and tired, so my nose is dropping behind.” That doesn’t mean you should abandon exercises that encourage connection.

He does these things and expects (hopes? Prays, even?)  us to understand the function behind the form; whether it’s a desirable endpoint, or not. Because when it all comes down to it, that’s our ultimate responsibility as horseback riders. It’s not to sit on our La-Z-Boy and criticize someone’s form, whether you make a comment or not.

However, for the sake of avoiding potential hypocrisy, I should mention that I’m currently writing this blog while reclining in an armchair…

 

Repeat: “I Will Try to Make This ‘Non-Inflammatory’…”

I’ve been dwelling on this blog topic for a while now, trying to decide how to approach it. It’s a subject that I have strong feelings about, but I know of others who would disagree with me, and my intentions aren’t to insult anyone ‘Donald Trump’ style.

Over the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure (and occasionally, the displeasure) of working with a number of Thoroughbreds. Most of them have been off the track, but a few of them I intercepted before they made it that far. I’ve personally picked up 4 directly from the backside, and a number of others have come through my training program. I would never say that I ‘specialize’ in OTTBs (“Off Track Thoroughbreds”, for those of you that are new to the term), but I’ve worked with a fair few of them. Often times, someone will ask me why I don’t participate in all of the Thoroughbred incentive programs and retraining competitions.

“They’re great recognition for your program!”

“They market your thoroughbreds!”

“You have a great eye! Show them off!”

I’m going to try to avoid getting overly one-sided in this post, but I draw some personal issues with these types of programs. While I greatly appreciate what they’re doing for the industry, and the thoroughbred itself, I think there’s a huge gap that isn’t being addressed.

Why don’t I participate, you ask?

Well, out of all of the thoroughbreds that I’ve dealt with over the years, only one of them would have been suitable for these types of programs. One. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t deliberately select my prospects with the intention of a quick turnaround, and there are certainly horses out there that can leave the track and be ready to start a new career relatively quickly.

JJ_Jump
“JJ” went from the track to the jumper ring in less than 5 months

JJ was an easy retrain. He was sweet, honest, brave, a gorgeous steel grey, and had a great jump. He came to my farm at the end of February and was showing by June. By August, he was sold to a wonderful woman in Southern Pines. It was a ‘textbook turnaround’!

Now, let me introduce you to my current OTTBs.

These two came from the same trainer up at Penn National Racetrack. I originally planned on reselling both of them, but that was 3 years ago (I have an addiction, so sue me). If I had entered either of these horses into a competition after 100 days with me, I would have presented a horse that was pretty accomplished at standing in a field, eating me out of house and home, and being generally disagreeable about anything besides one of those two things. Did this mean that I had poor taste in horses? Did this mean that I was bad at my job? Was I doing something wrong?

Nope. Nope Nope Nope. NO.

For starters, both of these horses required significant downtime. Celeste took a year to recover, both mentally and physically. Peyton took almost two years. Both horses had been pushed hard at the track, and both horses harbored some resentment towards work, and people. Any time we tried to start them into work, they were fussy, upset, and unwilling. When this point was reached, we backed off. With Peyton, that meant turning him back out for a few months.

Finally, one day things just started to click. Bonds were formed, treats were given, friends were made, and they both decided that their new homes and jobs could be fun. Celeste went on to be trained almost entirely by a novice and in one summer, they went from racehorse to 1.0m jumpers, both of them learning as they went, with Celeste always helping her rider out of a sticky situation. She had learned to trust her rider. Peyton is still coming around, but as soon as his mental block was out of the picture, he became point and shoot to any jump, even a liverpool. He has solid lead changes, stands stock still on the crossties, and is so ‘in your pocket’ that you literally shouldn’t wear pockets around him.

So my point is this:

Yes, there are thoroughbreds out there that can leave the track and jump a 3’0″ course beautifully within a set amount of time. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve done it. I will not discredit them, or their trainers, in any way.

But if your horse doesn’t fit inside that very tiny box, please don’t lose hope or gain gadgets.

A stronger bit does not create a half halt.

Running from the leg does not equal lateral work.

Curling the neck is not true engagement.

Seek help. Be patient. If I had applied those standards to either of my two current OTTBs, I would have missed out on two absolutely exceptional prospects that I’m very proud to have in my stable.

Putting on Pants, and Other Difficult Tasks

First off, there has been a lot of positive feedback and FAR more views on this blog than I anticipated. That’s most certainly not why I decided to write this, but I really appreciate it! If even one sentence that I write down makes you feel inspired or makes you feel less alone in your troubles, then I’m accomplishing something.

I’ve had a number of people ask why I decided to start a blog. The simple and concise answer is this: I have always enjoyed writing and obviously, I love what I do every day. The longer answer is a bit more nuanced and has a lot more emotion behind it.

With the popularity of social media reigning over our lives, we are constantly bombarded by uplifting quotes and beautiful photographs of our friends, enemies, and total strangers accomplishing things with their horses [or husbands, children, private jets…] that may or may not invoke the green envy monster. If you’re like me, the logical side of you knows that Perfect Patsy isn’t going to post a video of her completely biffing an oxer or accidentally jumping out of the dressage arena. She’ll spend hours browsing through a collection of 4,732 pictures, just looking for the right profile photo that will get her 600 ‘likes’ and a bunch of comments from former classmates telling her how wonderful her horse looks. Her friends don’t know that it took 4 hours, 3 iCloud upgrades, and paying off a computer whiz to properly edit out all of the missed lead changes and pole rubs to get the final product [for the record, yes, we do notice those things].

Most of the time, it’s easy to ignore people like Perfect Patsy. We click the ‘like’ button and keep scrolling down, looking for funny cat videos or pictures of kids stuck in laundry baskets.

But when things start to fall apart in our own lives (like not competing for 2 years), it’s not so easy to ignore all the great things happening to everyone else. On those days, where you feel like you can’t even get your horse to walk correctly, seeing Joe Schmoe’s highlight reel can get a bit…frustrating.

People rarely talk about the difficulties. No one wants to open up about their mishaps and foibles, but we are not perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, and for some reason, this isn’t okay anymore. I have seen Olympic veterans fall off because their horse decided that the long spot was too long. I’ve seen professionals cause rails to come down because they jumped too far up their horse’s neck. I’ve seen Grand Prix riders go off course. These things happen, and if you’re like me, it’s refreshing to know that someone else out there is going through the same ridiculous issues. Horseback riding is not a linear process; no matter the level of the horse or rider, and I’m not too proud to admit it.

I’ll never forget a time I was in the warm-up ring in Culpeper, a few years back. I can’t remember what I was doing but one of my favorite trainers was coaching a student who buried her horse into a jump and subsequently knocked it over, standards and all. She cantered away apologizing, obviously embarrassed by her error in judgment. Her coach’s response has stuck with me for years now, and it’s one that I repeat to my students. He said, “That’s fine. You can make mistakes. Now come back again. Just don’t make the same mistake. Make a different mistake this time.” He meant it to be lighthearted and humorous, but the truth of it has stayed with me. What else is learning to ride besides a series of mistakes, whether they’re yours or the horse’s, that ultimately tells us how hard we can push, how much we can take, and how many carrots are required afterwards?

Well, I’m here to talk about those mistakes.

One of my most recent educational moments was learning that my show jumper much prefers hacking out, to ring work…even if she is a bit clumsy on uneven ground…IMG_0140.jpg

 

Give Failure a Hug!

When you’re a bank teller and a customer comes into your bank and asks to open a checking account, you can either help them yourself, or send them to someone who can. There is no risk involved; no fear that you’ll try to help them and not succeed at it. No concern that your inability to assist them will somehow make you appear less competent (for the record, that was completely hypothetical. I’m sure there are incompetent bank tellers, but you catch my drift).

As an equine professional, I know that I am not equipped to handle every situation that walks into my barn. I will openly admit that I cannot improve your barrel racer or teach your horse how to herd cattle. I can’t help you dye a pony’s mane to look like a unicorn for a 5 year old’s princess-themed birthday party, though that one I may attempt, sheerly for entertainment purposes. Those weaknesses are easy to admit; I’ve never tried to specialize in them, so there’s no fear of telling someone that they aren’t in my wheelhouse. What’s harder to admit is when my strengths and weaknesses conflict with my ‘marketable skill set’.

When my mare, Bailey, first started jumping, I was so excited. I had never had such an innately talented horse. The spring that she turned five, I decided she was ready to compete in the Young Jumper classes in Culpepper. I was terrified, nervous, stressed out, and really excited! I had finally set a goal and committed to it (I’m the master of bailing out of my own plans).

The classes were held in the Grand Prix ring, the jumps were bigger than anything Bailey or I had seen before, and the footing was like a springboard for horses. Rather than letting any of that get to me, I stuck by my main goal for the day: I just wanted to cross both sets of timers, no matter what happened in between.

The first day was ugly. I mean ugly. Bailey was jumping so big that we were losing space in the lines and she was so distracted that I couldn’t ride her to the base of the jumps. It was a serious learning experience and I got some hilarious pictures that I refrained from posting out of embarrassment. But we crossed both sets of timers.

The next morning, I was warming up for the qualifying round (the one that actually counts towards year-end points), convinced today would go better, when I overheard a groom talking about Bailey and I to her rider. I can still hear her in my head: “Nice mare. A bit unrideable though. Needs a better rider.” To this day, I don’t know how I managed to push that aside and go back in the arena. I wanted to throw in the towel; pack up and go home. That woman didn’t know me or my mare. She didn’t know our background or how that one course, even though it was ugly, was a huge accomplishment for us. I conquered a lot of demons on my way to that in-gate.

I quickly tried to turn my disappointment into determination and went back into the ring for round two, hoping for a better ride. And I got it!

See for yourself!

You’re probably wondering why on earth I’m telling you this long-winded story.

To anyone watching, that first course was an epic failure; but I didn’t do it for the people watching. I didn’t do it to improve my horse’s value or get points for the championship. I did it to prove to myself that if I braved my fear of failure, I would find success on my own terms. That one course taught me invaluable lessons about my own strengths and weaknesses. I will probably always battle nerves and self-doubt in the show ring but if I go in the ring with the goal of giving my horse the best ride that I can, we always come out better partners.

You will never overcome fear. It will always be there, lurking in the background like Freddy Kreuger. But you can push past your fears; one at a time. You just have to be willing to embrace the opportunity to fail and understand that failing does not make you a failure.

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Know Your Strengths: I Am Not Beezie.

When I first entertained the idea of relinquishing my status as an amateur rider and declaring myself a professional, I had some serious hesitations. Would anyone want to take lessons from someone whose show record topped out at 3’6″? Would everyone expect me to be out there winning Grand Prixs on million dollar horses? Would they all run for the hills when they found out I’m not Beezie, nor do I want to be?

As someone who always held high standards for myself, the hardest thing that I had to do was admit to myself that I didn’t want to be the best rider. I have no desire to travel the circuit and show every week. I don’t care about ribbons or points or having articles written about me in the Chronicle. I’m like Violet, in Coyote Ugly: I want to write the songs, not necessarily sing them.

Now, that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy competing, or that I’ll never ride in the bigger classes. It just means that if it happens, it’s because I’ve set out to prove something to myself; not an investor, client, owner, or frenemy. I’ve outgrown the need to add to my Facebook ‘highlight reel’ for the sake of generating envy or pushing false pretenses on my ‘friends’.

So this realization left me with two choices: wallow in self pity because I’m never going to be something that everyone else assumes I should be but I actually have no genuine interest in becoming…OR figure out what I am good at and market those skills. Once I let go of my own preconceived notions, I discovered the following:

  1. I’m great at building confidence in riders, particularly those who have had bad experiences in the past.
  2. I excel at teaching a variety of learning styles because I’m good at creating analogies and exercises catered towards a particular riders strengths and weaknesses.
  3. I’m quite good at training amateur friendly horses that help ‘teach’ their riders, even if they are still in training. Consistency is key!

Sometimes you’ll surprise yourself when you let go of the things you think you should be, and instead be honest with yourself about what actually makes you happy. That’s what draws people to you, whether it’s clients, students, or friends. It’s okay if you don’t want to be the best. It doesn’t make you weak or lazy. Most importantly, it doesn’t make you a failure. It means you have a different set of strengths and weaknesses that you just have to figure out and put to use!

IMG_0561                                                                 Hiccup wanted to make out.

My guide for Avoiding Bitterness and Resentment in the Workplace…and Other Life Lessons…

First off, did you know that you can tell Siri to take a memo for you? Now you do. However, if you don’t provide her with punctuation, she’ll read one long run-on sentence back to you…causing anxiety when she doesn’t pause to take a breath. Yes, that actually happened.

I went back and forth about how I wanted to approach this blog; particularly the first real entry. What is the most important thing I’ve learned over the years? How many cheesy motivational memes can I fit into one blog post?

The horse industry is a unique business, in case you didn’t already know that. As professionals, we are bosses, employees, teachers, therapists, business [wo]men, pseudo vets…and the list goes on. We have control over a multitude of things and the most important one of those things is our own damn sanity. That, my friends, is the most important lesson I’ve learned.

Every barn has that one boarder who will call you at 3am and tell you that they had a nightmare where poor ‘Hugh Hoofner’ had a horrid bout of stink eye and they need calm reassurance that their horse is, in fact, perfectly healthy. After you bare your teeth at your phone, shake it a few times angrily, and mouth obscenities, you start to wonder. Is crazy Helga the Hypochondriac’s monthly check really worth the trouble? If you’re not careful, Helga will push the boundaries of your tolerance and before you know it, you’ve turned into a cynical and bitter version of your once merry, cheerful, and pony-loving self.

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Lesson One: Develop a low tolerance for bad situations. It’s not just Helga’s boarding stable. It’s your place of work, your horse’s home, maybe your home, your hobby, your passion, your sanctuary. We build our entire lives around the horses we love and we turn it into a business to share what we do with those who understand our own personal brand of madness.

Know when your sanity is worth more than a paycheck and tell Horrid Helga to take a hike. No one else is going to put your brain back together in the aftermath and your significant other will thank you when you come home talking about something besides how annoying Helga’s baby-talk voice is and how you wish she had to be deported to Istanbul for suspicious homeland security reasons.

Remember, sometimes chasing your dreams isn’t always the same thing as chasing your happiness. Don’t be afraid to recognize when they start following different paths because those are the moments when you learn what to write about in your blog;)

As an aside, I actually don’t (and never have had, thankfully!) a boarder text me at 3am about their horse having ‘stink eye’.

 

 

Anna, professional horsewoman, and amateur…blogger?

And so here I am…starting a blog and wondering what has inspired my new-found desire to insert myself into the social media world.

I’m sure I’ll get around to the long story that led to my current situation but the short version is that I want to write all of this down. For the past two years, I’ve been riding the equine struggle bus. It’s constant ups and downs and it can (and most assuredly will, at some point) give you emotional whiplash.

It’s not that there aren’t successes. There have been huge successes along the way! But when you work for yourself, every pitfall is directly or indirectly your own fault. I try to maintain the outlook where I appreciate them all; every weird, annoying situation is a chance for me to expand my ‘life’ resume and learn what [not] to do in the future. Writing it all down just ensures I remember it all the next time around. No excuses! I was going to put it all in a journal…but why not share it? I tend to overshare anyways…

Anyways, I’ve been slowly clawing my way back out of my ‘Abyss of Negative Nancy-ness” and I realized that I’ve done a lot in the horse industry. I’ve been a working student, a groom at an FEI Nations Cup, a barn manager, a competitive rider, a full time riding instructor at a boarding school, and the owner/operator of my own facility. I’ve ‘broke out’ young stock, bred a year-end award winning warmblood, breezed a racehorse, jumped a 5’0″ wall made out of cinderblocks (I don’t necessarily recommend trying that one…), broke/trained/actually broke/retrained a horse, and ridden with some amazing professionals. These are all things that have made me into the rider and instructor that I am today and I decided that it’s worth it to write it all down; if not for you, the reader, then for myself.

Maybe you’ll find that my trials and tribulations make you feel better about your own errors. Maybe my quirky successes will help you with your own riding. Maybe the utterly bizarre situations that I find myself in will make you laugh. And let’s be real, those of you who know me will certainly agree that I’ve found myself in some pretty strange situations…

So, as I physically ‘put myself out there again’ this year, I encourage you to follow along and hear the running commentary that I provide for my own life 🙂

Hiccup, at 22 months
Hiccup, at 22 months