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Sunday, 8 December 2013

It's All About Letting Go ...

So I'm kind of a control freak.  Ask my students.  Is it necessary that I go over their horse, lunge it, tighten their girth, check the cavesson and switch bits so many times I get dizzy.  Sometimes I do these things while maintaining a deep and entirely unrelated conversation.  Its second nature.  Are my riders incompetent or unable to do these things for themselves ... DEFINITELY not!!! I was going to say that you could also ask my husband, but I actually prefer you didn't.  For the record, he'd likely concur.  In fact it's my compulsive need to feel in control that sparked my thoughts on today's blog:  Control, or more importantly, letting go.

It's funny that so many riders could be classified to some degree as having controlling personalities.  I mean, could we have picked a less predictable (or "controllable") activity?  Think for a minute ...Why don't we take a wild animal, wrangle it, sit on it, make it do all sorts of unnatural things, then compete against other control freaks desperately grasping at some semblance of control that is slightly more accurate than ours.  Seems like a good hobby for someone who loathes feeling like things are out of their hands.

Want to know the truly hilarious thing.... We do a pretty good job of convincing ourselves that "control" of these animals is actually possible.  That we are just so powerful and intelligent and educated in "horse" that we have that huge, wild and biologically motivated animal completely under our equestrian spell. 

Yes, I am feeling slightly facetious today. 

In all reality though, I have come to learn that our horses are never really "in control" (I have numerous entertaining stories to back this up, which I generally only share when prompted by beer and really trustworthy company).  Horses humour us.  They put up with us.  They learn through endless hours of conditioning that it is far more hassle to disagree than to just go along with us.  We're incessant. And luckily, most of our horses' tolerance of "annoying" is fairly low so the amount of physical pressure we have to apply to get a compliant horse is quite feasible.  Make note though, compliance and control are two very different things.  Compliance is created when we apply pressure to achieve a certain result, and release the pressure it when we find that desired result. In doing this over and over ... pushing, pressing, motivating and then releasing when we see "give", or movement in the right direction ... our horses learn to seek this release. 

In the last few years have come to a much deeper understanding of the joy, satisfaction and peace that can be found in the "letting go".  In fact, I will venture today to illustrate that it is this letting go that gives any meaning or purpose to the pressure.  Pressure in and of itself imparts no lesson or intention.  It is the well-timed removal of this pressure that is the motivator.  No creature likes pressure and biologically we are all wired to avoid pressure.  In my experience most riders can be quite easily instructed on how to apply pressure.  We all get very creative with this in our own way.  I believe though that placing more focus on how, when and why to release the pressure will make us all better horsemen (and women!).

Most of us (especially in the world of Arabian competition) would probably agree that in order to achieve the goals we want from our horses (i.e. lunging, moving forward, collection, balance, walking down the trail, walking into the horse trailer, etc), we must work with some sort of pressure.  We use all kinds of interesting types of pressure working with our horses.  Halters, leadropes, tie downs, legs, hands, seats, bits, whips, spurs and many more items and applications are involved in different methods of applying pressure to a horse. 

If you watch some animal/herd dynamics out in the field, you'll see another whole set of "pressures".  A horse "just hanging out" in the field is in fact avoiding pressures at all times.  If they are with the herd they are avoiding predation pressure.  If they are standing in the shade, they are avoiding environmental pressure.  If they are waiting at the back of a line at the waterer they are likely avoiding herd dynamic pressure.  Most animals' entire existences rely on avoiding pressure, including humans.  We attempt to control things outside of us in order to thwart these external factors from in turn pressuring us.  We try to "control" our horse because the pressure of fear tells us that this big, wild animal could potentially hurt us and we better be the boss or else.  And its true. 

We could get hurt.  Things could go wrong. 

I'll tell you one thing for sure though, things will definitely go wrong with an insatiable need to control.  If we don't learn to release and teach our horses to seek this release, we will find ourselves in a constant, exhausting battle, which generally ends one of a couple ways. 

1)  My horse gets so sick of my constant (and often inconsistent) application of pressure so they totally tune me out

or (and more concerning...)

2) My horse feels confined, trapped and confused by this constant and inconsistent pressure and attempts to "break out" in either fearful or aggressive outbursts.

Most of us have experienced both of these situations and have likely muttered our horse's names surrounded by a whole plethora of profanities and a lament about what a naughty and disobedient animal they are being.

So what do we do?

I hate to oversimplify a very complicated situation of human-animal interaction but it really comes down to this ... An attitude adjustment (and no folks, not just for our four-legged friend).

We have to let go of this illusion of control.  We have to understand that ANY TIME we apply pressure it is for one single and solitary reason ... To release. We have to go from putting so much emphasis on applying the pressure (although how, when and how much pressure we apply is undoubtedly important) to releasing.  We have to seek the release.  We need to ride constantly searching for moments to relent and release the pressure in order that our horses may find a small moment of peace and after many, many repetitions an understanding that a certain response from them elicits release from us.  They will begin to seek and expect this release.  Frustrations will decrease as they learn that they must simply find the required response to the pressure and then they will find their desired release.  BUT WE HAVE TO LET GO.

I am beating this to death because it is one of the hardest things to do as a rider.  Not only is the timing difficult but the emotional and psychological challenge of "letting go" is huge. 

Why is this?

Firstly, we want it all to be a perfect, finished product far too soon.  We want to apply pressure for steps 1, 2 and 3 all together and have the horse discern what the pressure was directing and what the release (if there was release) was referring to.  We want them to "do it all perfect", then we'll release. 

Secondly, we want to move on too quickly.  If we do not repeat the pressure-release cycle for one simple maneuver or exercise OVER AND OVER the horse will not be able to accurately correlate the pressure and release with that body part, movement or maneuver.  They will not have actually made the correlation and solidified the understanding of the correct cue-response sequence for that movement.

Thirdly, we have to ACTUALLY let go, and not just in our body.  We have to be able to apply pressure (and sometimes a lot of it), then very quickly back off.  Some trainer say, "Get in, then get out".  Often the times that require more pressure are more mentally challenging, and we get "tight and tough in the mind" in order to apply the pressure.  When we release, we go through the motion of letting go (i.e. we let a rein go, pull a leg off, etc) but we still retain more subtle amounts of pressure as we haven't released in our mind.  Our horses are sensitive though and can feel this retained tension and pressure and this confuses the release.  Sometimes we need to quite literally practice releasing, breathing out, and fully giving.  Pressure applied intentionally is fine as it can be easily removed, and as your riding, timing and horse's skills and understanding improve you'll be able to maintain some pressure while applying other pressure but you must never retain pressure that you didn't intend to. 

Sometimes (and actually most times when our horses are still learning) we are taking a big risk in fully releasing.  We won't like what they do.  We won't like their decisions.  They will not always retain the movement they were achieving with the pressure on.  It will be very tempting not to release and keep "helping them along'.

(At this point that I could digress deep into a discussion about raising kids and teenagers that would ring very similar.)

I encourage you though ... LET GO ANYWAYS.  Yes, your horse will shift away from the desired action.  They may lose balance.  They may lose it all together if they're not accustomed to this full and committed release.  You may have to go back in and do it all over again.  And again.  And again. I encourage you though to stay the course.  They may fall apart immediately at first, but they will like the release.  What they will not like is the reapplication of pressure when they do fall apart.  It is only when they experience this cycle enough times they will start to learn that maintaining the action maintains the release (i.e. we leave them alone) and they will in fact start to seek this release. 

The first time they hold that frame for 5 strides, halt balanced off your seat, move easily and obediently through a lateral maneuver, I promise you that it will all be worth it.  And I promise you that you will come out a lot less stressed and exhausted. 

So go ahead and apply that pressure.  Use only as much as you need. 

But at the end of the day you have to LET GO.  You can draw your own non-horse related parallels here.  I think you'll find those equally as rewarding.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Dissapointment is Inevitable ... Misery is Optional.

Well I am ashamed to admit that I did not intend for almost 4 months to by between blog entries.  I was chock full of good ideas, blog-fodder and grand intentions.  Then something happened ... LIFE.

Its been a wild season for our little group here at Stride Equine!  We've seen some major disappointments and heartbreak, some wonderful victories and we've learned a whole lot about who we are and what is important to us, both inside the riding arena and outside.

My next few entries will no doubt go into much more detail about some of our recent challenges and adventures and some wonderful anecdotes that our amazing four-legged friends and their two legged pets have taught us! I`m also very excited to share with you some of the training tricks and fun ideas we`ll be trying now that we`re into the fall and the off season (at least for those in the competitive crowd!).

Today I would like to speak a bit more to the philosophical in the crowd.  I have done a great deal of pondering on all of the events of this past year so far.  Our team gained a few new members.  We also lost a few as well. Some simply moved on to different earthly pastures.  Some moved on to a more eternal place of rolling trails and still waters. 

I know its hard to believe but working with horses is not all sunshine and roses.  Heck, I don't think it matters if you work with horses, people, computers, microorganisms or oil rigs.  Life doesn't always turn out how we think it will. Sometimes its minor.  We go out for a nice ride.  We had a hard day.  We just want to see our best bud and feel the breeze through our hair as we trot blissfully away from all our troubles.  Unfortunately, it always seems when we want this the most, our equine counterpart wants something entirely different. You know, like, to stay with the herd instead of being caught.  To spook at every single grain of dirt that has been displaced since the last 800 times they`ve been in that arena.  Or maybe they`re just plain lazy or stubborn that day.  Whatever the case, we all know the crushing blow it is when our expectation of a wonderful horse encounter turns into a schooling session, a lesson to be delivered or sometimes a downright fight. 

For the competitive in the crowd, its often that one class.  "Okay Bronco ... I just need you to do everything perfect for this one class.  I will certainly not be making ANY mistakes so I expect that you will be on your best behavior and act just as perfect as you always are at home". 

Okay, so I'm being slightly facetious, but you may be catching my drift.  It's generally at this point that ole' Bronco makes a strong stand for free will and boundary breaking.  It's at this point we generally blame Bronco (for being a dolt), our trainer (for not fixing Bronco), our head cold (for slowing us down), our boss (for making us miss that last lesson) and our Great Aunt Sally (for the time she told me when I was 8 that horses are no good and mean, and showing horses was a big waste of good money). Why is it that when we need it the worst (whatever it is), it seems to elude us.

I`ve grown to believe that this is just life.  This isn't a bitter cynicism.  It`s a reality.  Life is NEVER what we expect.  Our horses are not machines (not that machines are always that reliable either!).  We cannot predict how everything is always going to play out.  Sometimes they have a bad day.  Sometimes WE have a bad day. Sometimes we just really want something to work out a certain way and it doesn't.  I guarantee I am not the first one to point out that there is a whole lot of NOTHING we can do about all of this. 


This is where the title of today's blog becomes really important.  And not so much the first part.

We all know that we can't always get our way in life.  We know it in our head, but our heart doesn't always believe it.  That's sucks sometimes, and I know first hand.  My husband Brendan and I have been trying for over a year to buy a farm or acreage where I can board a few horses, train, teach some lessons and work from home.  We had the down payment, we had a more than adequate pre-approval, and now we also have 4 offers that have fallen through as the banks run scared from agricultural purchases.  It's been a case of one heartbreak after another, and each new attempt to acquire a property leaves us more tentative in our excitement and enthusiasm. 

In the midst of all this, our team lost one of our dearest members.  Even worse, my longest client and dear friend lost her dad.  It was fast.  It was awful.  It was totally unfair.  I`m pretty sure I still haven't really processed it. 

All of this has tempted me to sit down, cry and hole away .... in MISERY.  But life, family, love and the good Lord have come through once again, and at the exact right moment I heard this phrase ...

"Disappointment is inevitable, but misery is OPTIONAL."

I swallowed this one like a horse pill.  It goes down hard.  It feels kind of icky.  But something deep down inside me knows it's right.  Feeling disappointed is normal.  Feeling sad, depressed, upset and angry are also normal, and generally out of our control.  Acting miserable though, is our choice. Lashing out, complaining, whining, and being generally ungrateful and unpleasant is TOTALLY our choice.

We are not responsible for how we feel, but we are responsible for how we act.  This applies to our riding and to our larger life in general.  Our horses can make us feel joyful and overwhelmingly happy.  They can also terrify us and leave us feeling angry, confused and disappointed.  We have to learn how to process these emotions without becoming totally miserable.  We have to learn to smile, laugh and occasionally "fake it 'till we make it"!

Life is so much better when we don't let it steal our joy.  The friend and client I mentioned earlier has been the best example of this.  Her dad was her best friend.  They were closer than any father and daughter I've ever known and I know why .... He was one of the most fantastic guys around.  I honestly worried that she might not make it when he got sick.  When he passed away I was sure she would be crushed and maybe crumble.   We had plans to take his horse to Canadian Nationals and he was planning to be there in the stands cheering us on.  In no way did I expect my friend to show up at that show, only 7 short weeks after the funeral. 

She came.

Not only did she show up, she chatted, she smiled, she hung out with the team.  She laughed and she celebrated and she got to hold the trophy when her Dad's horse won his first National Championship.  She was truly inspirational.  It certainly inspired me to keep a smile on my face.  If she can do it (no doubt feeling terribly sad and torn), I thought, how can I not?

How we "are" is a choice.  If our horse is a brat, we can feel mad, but we don't have to act mad.  When we lose a class, we can feel disappointed, but we don't have to act melancholy and depressed.  When life gives us lemons, we can make lemonade.  Happily.  With a smile.  As though we meant to make lemonade all along and life just helped us out by providing the main ingredient.

Brendan and I made a commitment a few weeks back not to lose hope.  We decided we would enjoy where we're at now, until we're on to something new.  We decided that we've seen some disappointment but we're not going to let it stifle our enthusiasm or drive us into misery. We made the pact to stay invested in our dreams and forge ahead boldly. 

It was right after this that our renewed and reinvigorated search brought us to an amazing and "dream worthy" property, in a better location than we could have ever imagined. 

And guess what?  We just found out it's now going to be ours. 

Sure glad I didn't let misery win.  In the future I'll be much quicker to get my joy back.  I wouldn't want to miss any more blessings like this.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Taking it all in Stride ... Navigating the Arabian horse world and keeping your sanity!!!

I feel slightly criminal in starting this blog with a title that is entirely hypocritical and likely full of empty promises.

As the owner and operator (i.e. coach, trainer, mentor, psychologist, part-time vet, secretary, groom, transportation manager, etc) of Stride Equine Arabians, I have most certainly failed more than once when it comes to keeping my cool (and my sanity) in my journey through this amazing world of Arabian horses.

Whether you've taken one lesson or been riding and showing for many years, you will know that the world of horses (Arabian or otherwise!) is chock full of emotional decisions and that horse people (myself included) have rightfully earned their sterotype of "crazy". 

So why on earth, you ask, would one want to get involved in this outrageous world of people and beasts that seems so often to bring out the peculiar in the best of us?

Well, I don't have a concrete answer here, but I think it has something to do with the Winston Churchill quote that claims that, "there is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man".  Horses are huge, strong and occasionally wild animals, yet we gain their trust, train them and capture a little bit of heaven when they so graciously allow us to saddle and ride them.  Even after riding for almost 25 years, recently anywhere from 10-20 hours a week, there are still days when I stand back and am overwhelmed by this grace. 

Other days though, I find myself wandering dangerously close to the nearest mental-hospital, my referral in hand.  It doesn't take long in the horse industry to learn that there are a million disiplines, philosophies and methods, and even more opinions about all of these than anyone can sanely comprehend.  How is it then that we navigate this broad and emotionally-charged world while both appreciating and growing from all it has to offer?  How can we hope to remain confident, grounded and centered during all of our horse adventures?

I believe the answer is found in in finding people who love the animal and the sport as much as you do and for similar reasons.  I also believe it happens when you work with people you trust and respect, who truly understand the needs of the horse and human and weave these together successfully in their own unique way.  I believe it starts with building a strong understanding of both horse and human physiology and psychology, and then applying that to whatever discipline you are currently working within. 

First and foremost though, I think success in this industry as a rider, owner, professional or even spectator, is entirely reliant on learning to not take ourselves (or others) too seriously.  Hence the name of this blog (and of course it works well as a shameless plug for my business).  I've certainly not mastered this but I'm willing to openly share how I'm trying!

So, what can you expect from reading the entries that will be published here?  Some tips, some anecdotes, some philosophies ... All of which I've compiled from my own experience, training and research throughout the years.  Some will be my ideas (which of course are no new ideas ... merely ones I've stolen from people much more talented and experienced than I)  and some will be directly from the "experts".

I hope you find some humor, guidance or even solace in an honest and open look at one trainer's ideas and opinions.  I share with you knowing it makes me vulnberable to do so and I hope you find something valuable, or at the very least entertaining.  And if you don't, I hope you'll at least take my advice, and not take me too seriously.

Look forward to blogging with you!!

Jacquie Ganton
(Stride Equine Arabians)

A fun, informative and reflective look into the world of Arabian horses, through the eyes of an Arabian trainer, instructor and coach.