Hearing Your Horse Through the Noise

Today, for the first time in my life as a riding instructor, I asked my students to consider what should be the most fundamental question: What does your horse need right now?

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Because we know what we need. We need them to trot. We need them to canter. We need them to go over that jump — no, I’m serious, go over that jump right now . . . wait, back her up, control her shoulders, I’m serious, get that mare over that jump. Right now.

What does your horse need?

To answer that question, we have to find a point of stillness. In the words of Lao Tzu, “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”

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My co-trainer, Sarah Boudreaux, has been through a lot this past year. We prefer to think of the year as fiscal rather than calendar at the barn, which gives us the freedom to say things like: “I know 2015 will be better than 2014 — but it begins on February 1st.” Sarah had some broken ribs and a concussion from a fall in 2014, and she started the New Year off right with a car accident that required the reconstruction of her knee. That’s a lot of time out of the saddle, and Sarah is the sort of rider who takes her riding time seriously. She arrives at the farm early in the mornings to get a ride in before training starts in earnest and she’ll pencil a lesson in for herself weeks in advance. Sarah doesn’t cope well with downtime.

But, let’s face it. Horses like down time. A lot.

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As the manager of the farm, I’m the co-pilot in Sarah’s misery, minus the aching pain and anesthesia and memory lapses (though it was great fun convincing her my name was Michelle on the drive to the urgent care center after that fall, and we like to blame all scheduling problems on Sarah’s pain pills — and will do so well after she recovers). Her journey is my journey because we’ve elected to do this horse thing together.

Sarah and I have spent a lot of hours over the years dissecting the trot, puzzling over hips and footfalls, perfecting canter departures and measuring bits. I can honestly say that no piece of equipment has changed our lives, whether adding or subtracting a piece of metal or leather, securing a spur or removing a noseband. We’ll keep doing all those things as long as we have horses in our lives.

But let me tell you about the moment that changed the way we ride and train from the core, from that secret place that all horse people store their passion. For me, that place rests right behind my solar plexus.

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Sarah and I were stumped. We’d reached a training impasse with her big, draft mare Matilda, who in the manner of all big, draft mares, enjoyed throwing her shoulder and barging wherever she wished. I always like to blame things on heat cycles (people roll their eyes when I use this excuse on the geldings) because hormones are secret and mysterious and invisible and they’re good for blaming a whole lot of behaviors on.

We took the saddle and bridle off and allowed Matilda to roam free in the big jumping ring. Sarah and I stood in the center as Matilda milled around and ate grass along the edges and explored the poles and standards. It was a beautiful, sunny day, all warm sand and blue skies. We discussed heat cycles. Maybe a stronger bit?

We watched the use that Matilda made of the ring, given the choice to do whatever she wished. She used it like a turn-out paddock, doing what horses were designed to do: wandering, nibbling, snoozing.

Sarah and I sat down in the dirt and closed our eyes. Being a human with all our wondering and speculating and busy-ness is hard work. It felt good to sit and shut up for a change. It wasn’t planned. It just happened because the day was warm and a milling horse is a comforting sound for people who like the sort of thing.

Maitlda is fifteen hundred pounds of pure love, but I tensed as she walked over to me and shifted around on her giant feet beside where Sarah and I sat. Matilda sniffed my hair and snuffled my shirt. She did the same to Sarah. And then she just stood with us, the big arc of her neck covering us in safety. We hung out in the arena for a very long time.

Matilda chose to be with us. Call that join up, bonding, clicking . . . whatever suits your discipline. In the words of Jayne Stewart, the big mare said “I see you.” And for once, Sarah and I said, “We see you back.” Matilda didn’t join us as a result of force. She came to us because she made a choice. How can we create a training environment where the horse can have a say in the partnership? By asking this question, I’m not advocating the absence of training or the dissolution of disciplines. I’m saying that maybe, just maybe, we should spend a little time exploring the world from their point of view before we ask them to step up a level or raise the jump.

That moment took the resentment out of my work. Whenever one of the staff called in sick, I started taking the time to enjoy filling buckets as the horses explored me with wet lips. I felt their joy at feeding time. Eat, drink, wander, togetherness. That’s what they are about.

But we all have to work. In order for me to share my life with horses and for the horses to share their lives with me, we have to be in this thing together. We can’t create a utopia where the wild horses roam free on the plains. Our world is too small for this and we humans tend to forget that every member of the herd has a purpose.

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Matilda’s training shifted after that moment in the ring. Her shoulders were still unruly, but the way she moved into the shedding blade for a scratch changed the tone of her lateral work. The steps back she took when asked to make room for a feed bucket developed into a backing under saddle. Knowing where her hind legs were improved the quality of her halt. Awareness. A dance. We finally figured out where ground work and riding merged. I wish I could find words to describe where that joining place is, but it’s as mysterious as hormones. It just is. And just when we’ve put our fingers on it, the connection recedes. So we have to keep looking for it, over and over, every time we step in the stirrup.

Sometimes life forces us to be still, as Sarah learned through recovery after injuries this year. Some of our best ideas were spawned in her convalescence. It’s a balance: work, stillness, pressure, release.

One of my favorite exercise for riders of all ages is to lead them around the arena as they sit in the saddle and close their eyes. What are they feeling? What is happening underneath them? What are they experiencing? Our minds become still when we’re forced to listen. I’ve never led someone around on a glorified, blindfolded pony ride that didn’t end in a deep breath and smile from all parties. You know that cool down breath your horse gives you? That one.

Sometimes we, riders and instructors alike, need to just shut up and listen.

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Always forward, never back.

It is never too late to be a working student.

For my fortieth birthday, I bought a new truck and I set out on a mission. Horses are my life, my career and my passion, but even though I teach people to ride every single day, I haven’t ridden for fun in nearly a decade.

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A neighborhood methamphetamine user put a slight damper on my plans by assaulting me in his vehicle (I outran him in my new truck), but by mid-summer I was making a weekly sojourn to Seneca to get myself back on a horse.

The first few weeks were touch and go with me frantically texting our barn staff from one of many convenience stores along the side of the road in Pickens county.

“I should turn around and come home.”

“Think of baby cows, the woods, the fields, the green grass. You’ve got this,” Sarah and Sara texted in unison.

“I should really come home,” — something could colic, the hay delivery could be late, the well pump might break, the entire power grid of northern Greenville Co. could go out, there could be civil war; we should become preppers.

It had been years since I left the farm for anything other than a routine errand or an emergency trip. I always left for a reason. I couldn’t think of a reason to be anywhere when I was sitting on gas station curb near lake Keowee. The sunlight glinting off the water wasn’t soothing. I tried to breathe. These trips were for me. They weren’t for business. I’d been working so long I’d forgotten how to live.

“Maybe I should turn around,” I wrote the cowboy. “I’m stuck.”

“Put it in four wheel drive,” he said.

“I think I’ll come home.”

“Try once to go forward,” Maggy texted. “You know where you’re going, remember? Remember the horse you ride, remember what you tell us: forward is better than standing still and safer than backward. However, if it is not a good day, that’s ok too. But just try to go forward. You know it works and it’s safe.”

Safe. The word wouldn’t leave me. My safety zone was a ten mile radius around the horse farm we called home. I’d encountered anything but “safe” in the years I spent as an active rider. What did safe even mean? I couldn’t answer that question but I was sick of living as if safe was a destination I could discover if someone would hand me the right map. I had to drive forward and find a new meaning.

So I went. My soundtrack for these weekly trips was Sarah Jarosz, who recently made a stop at the Peace Center in Greenville. Her song, “Dark Road”, became my anthem:

Miraculously, I picked myself up from the curb, put the truck in drive and placed my foot in the stirrup.

Endless loops against the wall of a round pen I rediscovered the four-beat cadence of the walk. My body remembered what my mind had forgotten: I was home. I was okay. I was moving. I was safe in the face of uncertainty. I forgot the what if’s and the questions and just surrendered myself to the little dun horse that was assigned the task of baby-sitting my first movements back in the saddle. The saddle was western but my legs were jacked up to an English length. I crammed my heels down and breathed and pressed until the pressure created response. I kept moving forward.

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I’d journal after every ride and stare quizzically at a page that was filled with short sentences. In this new journey, I’d lost the need for lengthy description, run-on sentences. I didn’t feel the need to explain myself. That was the first step in this journey.

About three rides in, the cowboy suggested we leave the safety of the fences and venture out through the fields and woods. I knew instinctively that if I rode far enough I would always find a fence, but I craved my comfort zone of round pen and paddock. I made it as far as the gate and this is pretty much how it went:

Me: No.
Cowboy: Get on the horse.
Me: No.
Cowboy: It’s just a trail ride, Kim.
Me: No.
Cowboy: You’ll be safe.
Me: NO.

I stamped my foot. “No. I bought a truck to start coming here and I made it, even though I was scared. The world has not fallen apart in my absence, but I haven’t been eating well and I haven’t been sleeping well and I’m trying to work through something here. I’m not ready for the woods.”

The cowboy motioned for me to give him my rein.

I stared at the little dun horse and the rein in my hand and I thought about what Maggy said about going forward.

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I handed the rein over.

The late July fields were green and there was a coolness to the woods and streams that promised relief from the thousand hounds of life that press us to always be doing and doing and doing. I followed the lead of the horse in front of me and put one foot in front of the other until my hips recalled the memory of the walk. The cowboy gave me my rein back.

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I have to document this journey. It’s never to late to be a working student. When we arrived back to the barn after the trail ride, I picked up a rope. I’ve worked around horses my entire life but have never tried roping. I thought about all those great teachers who always preached the value of being an eternal student: always forward, never back. On the drive back to my farm, I called all the mentors and trainers I’d lost touch with along the way.

“Teach me, let me watch you. Show me all the things I was never ready to learn,” I said.

And this is where my story starts.

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Arts Incubator

Sara Bouvier reading the first chapter of Khora.

Sara Bouvier reading the first chapter of Khora.

Something long overdue is happening in the stage light of the Greenville, SC arts scene. With Shea Bahnsen at the helm, the Dark Room Theatre Company’s inaugural events signal a shift from the arts as insulated disciplines, defined by tradition, to multi-mode collaborations. Missy Vaughan Kleppel, an actor and local theater teacher, has taken the project under her wing in the hopes of reproducing the safe, fertile environment she encountered while a student at Sarah Lawrence College where writers, actors, musicians and visual artists and were encouraged to create together.

The Dark Room Theatre Company is an arts incubator.

When presented with an opportunity to get my words out, it is my long-held belief that writers should tempt/coerce/bribe trustworthy actors to read their stuff. Writers prefer quiet corners and have a historical tendency to flee at a moment’s notice. I, personally, jump out of my skin if I see a weird shadow pass out of the corner of my eye. It only makes sense to employ the skill of an actor such as Sara Bouvier who has been performing and stage managing in the Greenville area since the age of twelve.

Sara literally jogged into our farm on a July Fourth several years ago and we decided to keep her. She’s a part of our staff, working tirelessly every week night to be certain all the horses are standing on all hooves and satiated, safe for the night. She tucks us in. When the hay is all thrown and the light switches are off in the barn, Sara graciously gives me even more of her time by being a first-reader for my fiction, helping me work through plot and characterization and the thousand questions that come from the insulated neurosis of a writer’s brain.

As an aside, Sara was recently going through her shelf and found a literary journal that I had edited almost twenty years ago.  We were supposed to meet.

So, when Shea and Missy asked if I would give a reading of my work for their Words and Sounds event I immediately signed Sara up for the task.  The evening included a selection of creative non-fiction by Jeff Levine along with the musical talents of: M. Lookwood Porter, Annie the Healer, and John Moreland.

Image by Shea Brahnsen

Image by Shea Brahnsen

We decided on the first chapter of my novel, Khora. Working with Sara in preparation for the reading was transformative to the editorial process of the work.  The story takes place in several locations: Istanbul, a small town in the mountains of NC, Russia.  Places become characters, as much as the characters who come from many places.  At its heart, the story is a mystery focusing on a missing work of art, a Byzantine icon, but as the characters — all outsiders who have suffered great losses — come together, they discover a community of outsiders and through it, many kinds of redemption, not always black and white.

Art needs community.

“Who’s your narrator,” Sara asked, and I realized that, although the story is written in third-person, I hadn’t defined who is chronicling the events as they unfold.

When I finally answered that question, Sara’s voice changed as she worked through the excerpt, as she absorbed the personality and nuance of the character relating the scene. This was art taken outside of its bubble of creation, art as a collaborative vocation, and far different from when Sara and I just tossed around ideas in the wee hours of the night (when not chasing off intruders, but that’s a story for another day).  We were making the story fit for the light of day.

This is how the story begins:

Two crosses, equidistant, a foot in diameter, flanked the altar of St. Anthony’s Church in Beyoglu, Istanbul.  The pews were tall and cumbersome, the benches too short for kneeling and the bones of Thomas’ knees too prominent to genuflect for any length of time.  The air smelled like wet wax and stale, whispered breath. Thomas stared at the flanking crosses for so long they merged together in the center of the chancel to form one cross:  proportionate, perfect, a compass of symmetry representing the four corners, as if time were a sextant and the intersection of the coordinates the center of the map.

Earlier that year he could not find a Byzantine cross anywhere in Istanbul, but as winter gave way to spring, he began to see them everywhere: in the crossroads of the narrow street beneath his apartment window, in the form of the basilicas, chains jeweled by tawdry stones in the windows of the specialty shops, in the merging of the jet streams high above the smog.  He believed he would find crosses in the currents of the Bosporus Strait, if only his sight was clear enough to gauge the movements of the water.

Thomas was in the business of finding the intersection of fact and myth. The city of Istanbul was a little bit of both, always changing like the seaside weather, one minute cloudy the next a shadow cast by the sun: a city divided by continents. Thomas knew that if he sat still long enough, the correct signs would find him.

I wrote the opening one grey, February afternoon in Istanbul because I needed something to do; I needed to occupy my hands.  An old friend was flying in that evening after an extended stay in Afghanistan and the character of Thomas was a way to pass the time, to chronicle my trip.  I picked the story back up when it was time to reconcile my recollection of Istanbul, a city that stores so much mystery and trauma for me, with the essential character the place had became in my head.  The novel grew from perception and heartbreak, a way to test memory, remove my blinders: a fixed point in an uncertain world.

“Is writing a compulsion,” Missy asked during a Q&A session with the authors after the reading.

It’s a safe compulsion, healthier than checking the light switches eight times before I close the barn for the evening, but my actor, my first reader, my Sara, acknowledges the compulsion and keeps me on track.  We all need someone that says, “What happens next?”

This is the sort of work that Shea and Missy are doing with the Dark Room Theatre Company.  Imagine if we all had that safe place to create, explore and produce our art, whatever that art might be.

Dark Room is temporarily located at The Wheel in Greenville’s Pendleton arts district.  They’ll be moving to a permanent location in the near future.  Until then, mark your calendars to join them Saturday, June 7th at 7:00 pm for a theatrical fundraiser: Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening and Other Plays by Don Nigro. “A night of dark, beautiful, intense monologues” starring Hannah Smith, Libby Ricardo, Shea Bahnsen, directed by Missy Vaughan Kleppel.

photo by Eric Kleppel

photo by Eric Kleppel

 

Words and Sounds: The Dark Room Theatre Company. Photo by Missy Vaughan Kleppel.

Words and Sounds: The Dark Room Theatre Company. Photo by Missy Vaughan Kleppel.

Bless You: finding the right words for fear

We need a new language to discuss fear.  This became abundantly clear to me yesterday when I visited a new dentist’s office.  I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but this was the very first time I made a dental hygienist cry.

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For the record, I didn’t raise my voice.  I wasn’t mean.

I figured there was no benefit in acting like something didn’t exist, so when the New Patient Questionnaire asked if I was afraid of visiting the dentist, I didn’t lie.  It also asked me what my overall dental goals were and I said: health.  I used short, one-word responses — which, as you all know, is hard for me.  I explained that I was prone to panic.  But I ask you who, when visiting a dentist, isn’t just a little panicked? I’m sure I’m not the first to show hesitation.

I’m panicked by a lot of things: shopping carts during flu season, monkeys, schedule changes, being far away from an exit, hauling horses on highways, the word “torturous,” (this is not an exhaustive list).  And for all the hours I’ve wasted acting like I’m fine, I’ve come to the realization that it saves everyone a lot of time if I’m just direct.

“Kim, would you like me to pick you up?
“Can I take my own car?
“No.”
“Then, I’m not going.”

The visit was a mild as far as dental visits go, just an evaluation and x rays, but it was obvious that everyone had picked up on the note of panic in my questionnaire. The dentist kept suggesting nitrous when it came time for a filling, “To take the edge off.” Which is all fine and good for people who don’t panic harder when they’re relaxed (points to self, you should see me on vacations, it’s awful).  The hygienist kept referencing this “torturous” moment that would be coming at some point in the evaluation when she would have no choice but to oversee the “torturous” x rays.  “It’s only every three years,” she said. Repeatedly.

Let it be noted that I was never once on the verge of a panic attack.  But no one in the office would have known that because they didn’t ask me.  They talked about fears a lot.  They talked about panic a lot.  They talked about how I was probably dreading a lot of the procedures, a lot.  But they never actually spoke to me about what I was feeling. I was, shockingly, fine.

But I had a little inner battle at the end of the visit, after we’d schedule the fillings and the cleanings.  I came to the conclusion that if I didn’t mention that the staff’s fear of my panic could potentially cause more panic, they’d never know what to do with those silent panickers who never mentioned panic on a questionnaire.  Or, God forbid, what to do with someone who was in the midst of a full blown attack.

“Listen, I know that you’ve picked up on the panic note in my form, but it really seemed like you were more freaked out by the possibility of me panicking than I was by the procedures,” I said to the hygienist.

She just looked at me, dumbfounded, so I kept blabbering on about how I didn’t like the going to the dentist office, like most of the world, but talking about my propensity for panic the entire time didn’t tell her anything about what I was actually feeling.  I spoke quietly.  I smiled.

And she started crying.

She told me that she also had a problem with anxiety and that the dentist chair frightened her.  She continued to cry.

I started talking about myself, my life, the things I’ve accomplished in spite of panic, my strength.  It felt like I was talking about someone else.  I told her that it may seem like I teach people how to ride horses for a living, but I’m really just there to help them manage fear, to get them to talk about it, to work through it.

She kept crying and showed me to the front office.

I didn’t accomplish anything.  I don’t know what I was trying to accomplish, but I knew that I wasn’t doing any of us any good by keeping silent.  We need a new way of responding to people’s fears, like saying bless you when someone sneezes, a response that’s not charged with our own discomfort.  A way of saying we acknowledge their distress but don’t want to contribute to it.

Maybe it’s something as simple as: What can I do to help?

Though troubled by my failed attempt at brightening the office staff’s day, I felt oddly empowered as I left the dentist’s office.  I had arrived on the other side of dread and though I might not stay there long, it’s a strangely lucid place to be, accepting, being present, stilling the chattering monkeys (ack!) in my mind.  I had visited the dentist’s office and other than that one moment when I yanked the x ray apparatus out of my mouth, I was fine.

The next question was: how do I apply this to teaching people and horses?

I think all veterinarians agree that animals also have the capacity to dread medical procedures and have the ability to exacerbate the pain of all parties involved ten-fold.  It’s just good sense to be weary of the panic response in a twelve hundred pound horse when you go at it with a needle or a weird looking radiograph machine (or a piece of paper, or a gust of wind, or a reflection on the surface of a bucket, etc.)

I’ve had ten year old children tell me, “I wish my horse could tell me what was wrong.”  I know. Me too.

But I’ve also encountered a lot of perfectly verbal, two-footed creatures who have no language to describe their fears, who cannot tell me what is wrong (I count myself amongst them).  So how do we create an environment that is mutually conducive to putting someone at ease while helping them find their strength?

For me, horses have always been that conduit.  The quickest way to smack myself out of impending panic is to have something bigger to focus on.  It’s impossible to spend a day in a barn without a constant stream of crises to be averted, things that must be attended to, my body working more than my mind.  If airplane seats come with a series of tasks or puzzles, there would be far fewer people freaking out during take off (bonus points for the illusion that the tasks were somehow keeping the plane aloft).

At our farm, a student will never be reprimanded for asking an instructor to lower a jump or suggesting that it might not be a good day for a canter.  Their only requirement is that they spend some time at the walk in warm-up asking their horse, “What can I do to help?”

They must do this if they’re having a good day or a bad day.  They must do this if they’re frightened or elated.  They must work past their fear of the horse’s panic response to arrive at a place where they can be of assistance, often by having to travel directly through their own panic response to get there.  This is riding, and there will never be a failing grade for making the decision to get off the horse and try again tomorrow.

Despite instances of mass hysteria, fear is a solitary act, and the right sort of communication has the potential to disrupt it, to send it back to the dark corner of the stall where it rests in between the cobwebs.  Sometimes the scariest thing is simply reaching out and being present in the midst of another person’s fear, or the horse’s fear, or both — even if we’re left feeling helpless because we can’t do anything to fix it.

And it’s only now that I’ve gotten to the end of this odd post that I realize, when the hygienist was crying I busied myself with the exact same medicine she had given me.  I kept talking about myself.

What can I do to help?

I’ll go use my old toothbrush to clean some tack and try to not make anyone cry today.

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State of the Farm Address 2014

If I don’t use this snow day to update the blog, I can no longer call myself a writer.   Despite the weather, there’s been so many exciting things happening around the farm and I can’t wait to tell you all about them.

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You probably knew this already, but we have a remarkable herd of horses at Bramblewood.  Just as winter and the holidays hit in earnest, we welcomed a new school horse named Penny.  This big grey mare spent the first years of her life as an Amish cart horse in Ohio and then she made her way down to the Landrum area where we discovered her through Erin Gambrell.  Geldings have always made sense to me with their steady, constant reserve and tendency to sigh at my high energy.  I’m pretty sure I’ve witnessed a few geldings rolling their eyes, either at me or in response to a rider trying to get it right.  Not so much with mares.

I’d been trapped into the myth that mares and I were too similar and consequently, that chemistry was a recipe for disaster.  But starting with the arrival of the little black Trakhener, Sheba, last winter — I’ve learned that nothing could be further from the truth. I’m a mare convert.  Mares ebb and flow.  They use their brains.  They remember — oh, goodness, they remember — and because they remember, mares remind me to be mindful of my every move, mood and reaction.  Mares take us back to the essence of horse, which is why we do this thing, slogging buckets of warm water back and forth to the barn every morning, afternoon and night when the faucets are frozen.  They’re the reason we break up the ice in their buckets and watch their every move for a change in habit or appearance or any small detail that warns that something is not right with these fragile, huge beasts.  Mares keep us mindful and thankful.

Many welcomes to Penny with her huge hears and constant, alert demeanor.

Yeah, I know her noseband strap needs to be tucked.

Yeah, I know her noseband strap needs to be tucked.

Penny handled her immediate initiation into the lesson program with good grace as we geared up for the Wofford College Interim riders in January.  We had a great group this year with many beginners and a couple riders who had shown in the A’s and the Finals.  Our theme for the month was: Forget everything you thought you knew about horses.  Riders worked with their instructors to devise a small training goal for the month and explored the theme through five mounted and one unmounted lessons.

We said goodbye to a wonderful friend as Emily Isles made her way back to the UK mid-January.  Emily lived and worked at the farm for several months in preparation for taking her British Horse Society teaching exams when she arrived home.  We’ve heard that Emily just secured a post at a stable in her region near Wales.

While Bramblewood has always offered apprenticeships, we’re getting ready to take that concept one step further.  Sarah Boudreaux and I have been utilizing all of these freezing cold off-days to develop a program of extended horsemanship studies for existing and future students.  Without Sarah’s permission, I’m calling the program Horse University until we develop a better working title.  Our inaugural Horse U. meeting will be Saturday February 15th from 4:00-6:00.  Any current student is welcome to attend.  See your instructor for more details.

Here is what Horse U. is all about in Sarah’s words:

This program is designed to give both adult and young students a solid base of knowledge that will allow them to talk intelligently about their passion as well as help increase awareness and help with critical thinking and problem solving. It is designed to give students a sense of accomplishment and growth outside of the riding arena and, no matter their ability, it will give more tools to every rider.

In our ongoing, singular goal of farm life being a haven that riders carry with them as they venture out into real life, real universities, and careers of all sorts keep in mind that this program and many others at Bramblewood can be utilized on resumes and applications.  We’re always eager to write recommendations for engaged students and I have edited more college entrance essays than I can count.  We want you to use the farm to build life skills.  Horses are so much more than an activity or passing passion.  We want you to think outside the box and allow the farm to fire your creativity.

Because that’s what it does for me.  While I’m longing for spring with every fiber of my being, this southern introduction into actual winter has gifted me with time to make some serious headway into the first draft of a novel.  The concept is still a jumbled mess, but every frozen pipe and tardy hay delivery and broken fence and truck that fails to start, every lame horse and icy bucket, every day when the rings are too frozen to ride, teaches me that solutions come with time and patience. The farm has taught me, time and time again, to not give up, to take a very small concept and nurture it like a seedling until it grows into something bigger than myself.

With my ability to kill mint plants (I’m serious) I probably should use a better metaphor.  But I’ll keep growing the mint until I get it right.  I’ll keep a better hold on my frustrations until I can hear what mares are telling me.  I’ll keep writing the same chapter over and over until the characters speak for themselves.  I’ll learn how to not end my sentences in prepositions (though I’ve filed that more or less with the mint).  I’ll keep learning the rules so I can break them and relearning the rules again to keep them intact.

I’ve never forgotten that teaching a beginner rider is a task that is intrinsically filled with more responsibility than putting an advanced rider through their paces.  Armed with this knowledge my goal for 2014 is to approach everything like a beginner.  I want to see a horse for the first time and forget the past and future while I focus on the now.  I want to see where the characters take me.

Join me on this journey.

What things have you seen with beginner eyes? What things do you long to see?

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Horse shows do not have to feel like the flu

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When my friend Erika Conklin, a Bramblewood instructor at the time, suggested we host a Schooling Show at the farm I looked at her with that combination of skepticism and shock that usually accompanies bad, yet unavoidable, news.  She might as well have told me, “The owner of that puppy you found wants their dog back.” Instead she said, “Don’t worry, I’ll do all the work.  All you have to do is show up.”

And that’s what I did our first show — I showed up and I walked around and I marveled at the transformation of our usually peaceful lesson barn.  Horses were everywhere, riders were everywhere, parents were everywhere.  There were tears and frustration and joy and expectation and underneath it all that particular tired haze of early mornings and horse sweat.  There’s really no feeling on earth like a horse show day.  My fondest childhood memories are the pre-dawn drives to Tryon and the roiling nerves and excitement of performing with my best four-footed friends.

When I was growing up, horse shows were often a time of excitement and deep anxiety.  I rarely knew what I was doing and the adults around me were often too busy to be bothered with questions.  I was lucky to own my own horses and have the ability to travel to shows, but while I craved the environment surrounding shows, my experiences as a junior rider went a long way to mold me into the stressed out, control freak of an adult who continued to show through college and into my twenties.  When I started teaching full-time, I swapped roles, traveling with students to shows.  That stressed out, perfectionist of a rider was then directing traffic from the ground, a recipe for either greatness or anxiety depending on the day.

When I opened my own farm, I started asking myself how the average rider could experience horse showing without a massive financial commitment or horse ownership.  There was no easy answer.  No matter what level, horses are an expensive sport.   Leasing is an option, but often the problem for most riders is time and availability; their families cannot transport them to the barn four or five times a week.

It’s silly to ask how showing can be a level playing field — the nature of showing is about competition and ranking.  Competition is good and everyone does NOT need to be a winner on any given day.  That said, there has to be a similarity between the gene that produces a horse crazy kid and the desire to cover every available wall with horse show ribbons.  I still have my ribbons from when I was twelve and there’s no way I’m ever throwing them out (I’ll confess most of my early ones were still being used as valances in my bedroom window until I recently moved out to the farm full time).

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I was interested to discover that even in the safe environment of the farm, riders experienced the same nervous energy and doubts that usually arise at any type of horse show.  We realized that we had an excellent opportunity to use those feelings to our advantage rather than having anxiety take over and ruin the day.

As our series of Schooling Shows continued at the farm, we started to ask ourselves how could we make this experience better. How could we make it OURS?

The answer is — the same as we do in lessons.  Just because you can canter and jump doesn’t mean that you always need to.  We moved the focus from high performance to basics.  Can you safely trot on the rail with a ring full of riders? No? Then you shouldn’t feel obligated to canter jumps, but you can still enjoy a great day of showing. Start with what you know. For what you don’t know, there’s always someone around that is ready to give you an answer.  If we have to pause a class for twenty minutes to address a rider’s question or remedy a potentially unsafe pattern, our schooling shows give us the ability to do so.

But the secret ingredient — the one thing that truly transforms our shows at the farm — is our riders’ genuine care for the success and comfort of their barn friends, both two-legged and four.  If something doesn’t go according to plan why let it ruin your experience?  Whether we’re at a home show or on the road, our riders continually amaze me with their sense of humor, maturity and true concern for the others around them.  This attitude makes showing a pleasure rather than a chore.

A horse that was trotting around perfectly the day before a show will choose his moment in the spotlight to act as if he’s never seen a corner of the ring before.  One of the greatest lessons of showing is learning how to tap into your inner reserves of patience and acceptance — even when everything seems to be going the opposite of what we’ve expected.  These notes apply to parents of riders just as much as they do to the riders themselves.  Ribbons and placings are nothing compared to sportsmanship and lasting life skills — those hard lessons that rarely come to the surface when everything is going according to plan.  Horse showing is all about self control and stress management.

No matter what level you’re riding at, the decision to show on any given day comes down to two questions:  1. Are you comfortable with your basics and 2. Is your horse comfortable with what you’re asking.  If you can answer yes to both those questions . . . there’s still no guarantee that you’ll win the class, but you’ve done more than earn a blue, you’re riding like a pro.

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