As much as we can look ahead to achieving or creating change in life, the bottom line is that there are certain factors that make up who we are that can’t be changed and recognizing this is the difference between wisdom and insanity:
Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
This goes for myself and Talisman – who we are today is a result of our physiology and history. As simple as this sounds, it’s actually been a long journey to see it and compassion is a work in progress.
There is a book by Mary Twelveponies which I found in the library as a kid (side note – I wrote to her about my pony Candy at about age 11 and she actually wrote back to a kid in Tasmania!):
There are no problem horses, only problem riders.
No question that most horse issues are indeed human created through species mis-communication and a lack of understanding. HOWEVER, it becomes very easy to turn this into a space for blame and an expectation that resolution requires change on the riders part. Certain things we can’t change – our physiology and our history. We is who we are.
There is no question Talisman is a handful at times and I’m not exactly a picture perfect rider, both are things that I’ve been carrying around for years as being my fault (see above book title), deficiencies that only exist through my inability to change. Do you see why I look for teachers to facilitate change ? Its about sanity: Don to work with Talisman’s mind and body (through me), Erica to address rider biomechanics issues and Lynn to help me see a path through the mental equine landscape. While all are areas of growth, it is sometimes difficult to see progress in the day to day challenges and remonstrations (see above definition of insanity).
Change of perspective
A couple of things happened recently that allowed for a change of perspective starting with Talisman.
The first, I was at the Horse Park and watched as a gorgeous leggy chestnut warmblood was being tacked up with a jump saddle while tied to a trailer. The horse naturally reminded me of Tals color and build wise, however it was his presence and vitality radiating from him that cinched it (pun intended). As the man mounted and headed towards the arena, the horse broke into a jog with his neck arched, ears pricked and the rider sitting without tension allowed him to jog and prance. I then saw Talisman beyond the physical resemblance – the excited happy expression, the natural exuberance and more than anything a powerful athlete at peak physical condition.
The second thing was at a big horse show and one horse in particular in the Grand Prix show jumping event. Cantering in almost sideways, you could see him (assuming a him) trying to angle in a bit of a buck – nothing malicious, just the horse saying “OMG lets go already!” while the rider was sitting calmly focused on the round ahead. You could see the constant conversation between horse and rider their whole round – with the horse saying mainly “I got it – let’s go!” and the rider saying things like “slow down a little it’s a steep turn” and the horse replying “I got this – let’s go!”. The horse did have it, they got a clear round and made it into the jump off where they placed pretty highly – not quite win but I think third or fourth. Anyway, in the awards ceremony this horse was still up and dancing around to the point that the rider ended up leaving the arena and coming back on foot for the presentation and stood there as the others galloped the victory lap.
What became apparent in seeing both horses, is that even though they are/were a handful – they weren’t / aren’t “bad” horses with “bad riders” – they are show jumpers and in the case of the Grand Prix horse an incredibly talented one at that. There is a reason why they are show jumpers and not packing beginner riders on trail rides – they are athletes.
Both unrelated events brought clarity into Talisman’s history – and who he was before coming into my world. His job for most of his life was being a show jumper who traveled the A rated show circuit, and his way of being is not inconsistent with other show jumpers. When he is feeling full of beans, prancing around and on the verge of exploding – this is the power that allowed him to succeed at his job and jump huge fences. His former owner before last remembered him as being a character with a huge jump who couldn’t make it at the grand prix level. Which, after our years together is a case of duh – he hadn’t learned how to balance himself behind and there is only so far a big jump and athleticism can get you, combined with back issues which she mentioned. So there you have it – he learned to be powerful, fast and agile as means for self protection and that can’t be unlearned – it’s a core part of who Talisman was/is as a horse.
During turnout when Tals passages and does a collected canter with his tail flying like a flag behind him, able to sink back behind to effortlessly change direction on his haunches. He is breathtakingly beautiful, the epitome of power and grace – my heart bursting with pride and admiration (see video). This is who he is and it would be wrong to even consider trying to change him into something that he isn’t – like a nursemaid to a nervous trail rider.
Beyond History is Physiology, the years of jumping big fences, cribbing and the stress of showing took a toll on Tals body, and its been a long road to tackle these to the point that he is sound and comfortable. Hearing the owner before last mention his back problems means that pain has been a part of his ridden world for most of his life (poor bloke). Its only in recent years that I’ve managed to connect some of these dots and eliminate them to the power of my ability. The line connecting cribbing and back pain – Tals stall and yard are hot-wired to prevent him from cribbing and the mid back muscle contraction as he pulls (queue chiropractor). The joint damage in his left hock and right front fetlock where he is almost bone on bone, ameliorated with joint injections, glucosamine shots, feed supplements and NSIADs. The line connecting regular shoeing with pads in front and being able to extend his shoulders and tracking up underneath himself behind, without small stumbles, bad steps and chiropractic. The last line being stomach and gut ulcer pain to surly behavior, managed with supplements and medication as well as hay nibble nets.
The downside is that in all the management if one element slips or lapses then we are back to challenging behaviors due to pain. When he hurts its like a radio station gradually fading into static where the communication is blocked by white noise, its hard to get him to listen as you’re competing for brain space with static and there have been times when he is mentally gone and just have to wait (survive) until he is back enough to be present and communicate again.
High maintenance yes and worth every penny priceless. No joke – my 22yo teacher (as of last Wednesday) is moving better than ever and the only thing senior about him is the year of his birth. Age is a big factor as it’s not going to slow down and managing the bad days will be just as (if not more so) important than what we accomplish on our good days. The point at which there are more bad than good won’t be a criticism of my care or abilities – it’s just life, and another conversation will begin. I am hoping for more good though.
Baggage and history are also facets that can’t be changed as a rider / horsewoman. I grew up riding bareback and jumping anything that I could from a young age without any instruction or guidance beyond books. Which in Tasmania in the early ’80s were mainly English – as in from England, and side note consequently thought that you needed to wear a jacket and tie to ride (after all that was what all the illustrations showed). It wasn’t until my early-teens that I joined pony club when a neighbor had space in their trailer and invited me to join them. Lingering memories are of being told that I couldn’t ride and attending the local PC shows and earning a few ribbons in jumping. Funny thing – I can also remember a fellow pony clubber showing me how I could get my horse on the bit by seesawing on the reins and kicking (lol – have come a loooong way). Point being is that I learned to ride by staying on and having fun, not about conforming to ideas about what a good rider is (heels down, elbows in, shoulders back etc).
It was only in later years when I rode an upper level dressage horse that I had an epiphany – I needed to learn how to ride!
Horses being passion that can not be denied – lead me to Deb and leasing Ms Reba, a senior schoolmaster who was showing 1st level into her early 20s before retirement (Deb and Reba). Deb taught the Mary Wanless Ride with your Mind approach and it clicked.
There is a reason why Deb (bless her heart) introduced me to Tals in the first place after Reba and said that he would be the horse who would teach me to ride. In retrospect – by ride – she probably meant learn how to be a smart rider and my journey with Don has illustrated this.
When a horse is as big and strong as Tals is – you can’t look to hardware and brute force him to make him do what you are asking especially if he is hurting and feeling belligerent. All the curb chains, twisted mouthpieces, tie downs and tight nosebands won’t give the rider the leverage they need if he really wants to be “bad” – only smart riding. What I’m learning is that smart riding is sometimes not riding and saying things like, “He isn’t happy when I get the saddle pad out, I should call the chiropractor and do something non-mounted instead”. It’s also been the school of hard knocks with tough lessons that push me so far beyond my comfort zone that it becomes a tiny barely recognizable speck vanishing into the distance.
Talisman’s big heart is his saving grace – nothing he does is overtly malicious and it’s inconceivable for him to deliberately attempt to hurt me or anyone else and will go out of his way to help (be a good boy) and that is what keeps me going.
Alongside the past is my body and age – I am short and chunky and have short arms and legs, and am “middle aged”. No amount of salad or treadmills will change these…. I will never have the effortless grace and confidence of a young, tall, slim, long legged and short waisted rider. Not saying that I couldn’t loose a few pounds (okay 10ish) but ultimately it won’t change my body type – I’m still going to be short and chunky, however I don’t beat myself up about it.
Age is a train that isn’t stopping or slowing down for anyone…. and we’re all aboard it. There is the physical process of course, however there is also a mental side that is worth noting. Gone are the teenager days of reckless gallops and jumping (while fun also included a number of falls), I like staying in the saddle thank you very much. Seeing and managing risks are a part of getting older, and fear becomes an element to manage that didn’t used to exist – which is hard because you still remember being the person who wanted to see how fast your horse could gallop. Fear creeps into the subconscious and while not being overtly scared, does change reactions. Most of riding isn’t a conscious do-this do-that it’s about feel and connecting to feel. The things you do without thinking – that is where fear makes its presence, and that is why coaches are invaluable – pointing out what your body is doing without your knowledge or approval.
The one thing that my years of bareback riding gave me in spite of my body is balance. I am encased in the body that was given to me – and nothing I can do will change this.
It just means that I have additional challenges with a big moving strong horse that I need to overcome as a part of my growth as a rider. Debbie McDonald is inspirational in this respect – she medaled in the Olympics and is only 5′ tall (and also has a certain big chestnut warmblood in her life) and see that her height didn’t preclude her from making it to the top in international dressage competitions.
Struggles and confidence
A quote that I’ve learned to keep in mind when faced with challenging situations:
Smooth seas don’t produce skillful sailors – Lynn Austin (or in my mind – smooth seas don’t make good sailors).
Erica (bless her heart) regularly tells me that Talisman isn’t an easy horse and that I’m doing a good job with him, which is sometimes hard to hear after a difficult lesson because it goes against the “rider is always at fault” philosophy. I’d developed certain hardwired survival responses from my early years that are difficult to change, e.g. on my pony bareback I learned to lean forward and grip with my knees if I wanted to stay on when she took off at a gallop and I did (both). When Tals is in full on GO mode – and both Erica and Don are telling me to sit back and put my legs underneath me I have to battle my default instinct to hunch, grip with my knees and push into the stirrups (see fear above). Staying on is sometimes work – but I’ve managed to be become very good at it, only once has Tals thrown me and that was back in the early days with him and confronting the bully mode (another story).
It gets incredibly frustrating though when the two steps forward, one step back sequence turns into a full on square dance and find it hard to see what is forward and what is back when the universe is spinning at high speed.
Higher self chiming in here, “All is forward when it comes to growth – it is only a matter of perspective”.
Which is so easy to say typing on a keyboard in front of a computer – and a very different matter when your focus is survival. I don’t know how it happened but somewhere along the years rather than seeing challenging rides on Tals as contributing towards our growth – they became evidence for an indictment of our lack there of.
With growth a synonym for change – part of this journey is accepting that which can not be changed: History and Physiology. Talisman will always be an ex-show jumper with who cribs and has joint issues and is a senior, and I learned how to ride by staying on and will always be 4’10.
What can change is my relationship to these and maybe allowing for more compassion within myself during those challenging situations. What can be clearly observed from a distance and after time (sitting in front of a screen), it is seeing it in the moment that is the hard part.
A few weeks ago I had an amazing opportunity to ride in a clinic with Sofia Valenca and Goncalo Linhas (visiting from Portugal) just outside of Austin TX, at the center for the Horse Boy Method (with Rupert Isaacson, Iliane Lorenz and team). And on the trip along with half chaps and a helmet, brought along a bunch of emotional baggage around my riding abilities (or lack of). For years my riding has been exclusive to Talisman, such that my perception of my abilities as a rider had warped to the point that all I could see was my incompetence and riding in an unfamiliar setting on strange horses and receiving coaching from unfamiliar people brought it all to the surface. It was Rupert’s kindness and Sofia’s patience – as well as two sweet willing horses that really allowed me to let go of the baggage and embrace the experience (to the degree that I could – there were a few tears).
My struggles around cantering were an area that I wanted to work on, and knew that I’d lost a lot of confidence. Tals brain will click into jumper mode and then its off to the races, and with the joint issues have been reticent to ask for a canter on the chance that he gets bouncy and strong, and if there is any element of pain then add dangerous behaviors and limited communication due to brain static. It’s been a while since we’ve consistently cantered, and with Tals now moving better than ever feel that its time to continue this part of our journey – however we both have baggage and history making it difficult for the other. Queue Texas intervention.
Every day of the four days I did some canter work and as ugly and messy as the first day was, eventually I found my seat, found my transitions and most importantly found the joy (side note – laughter can be used as downward transition aid). There was no dragon in the horses belly threatening to explode or bolt, and once I realized this was able to relax and enjoy it while keeping my comfort zone at least in sight.
Aside from meeting some wonderful people and horses, the other piece that I came home with is a greater appreciation for the competency flow:
And an insight that I’d been spending almost all my energy focusing on only one aspect – Conscious Incompetence, rather than seeing that my competence as a rider span all of them. The realization that I’m doing something wrong (my left hand did what Erica – really???), and other areas that I struggle with managing (my left foot came forward and pushed in the stirrup again even when I was trying to not do it), some that I am proud and acknowledge the effort it takes to execute laterals and create collection (100% brain space the whole time), and the other areas like balance and staying on that I don’t even think about (most of the time).
It is said that learning to ride takes more than a lifetime, and am pretty sure that at my rate it will take at least two, we’ll see.