Embracing What Is

Embracing What Is

None of us signed up for this. The pandemic, the social and political turmoil, the fear. To be blunt, things kind of suck right now. We’re in survival mode, and the best we can hope for is a reluctant acceptance of our circumstances… right?

What if I were to challenge you and say that now is an even more important time to embrace what is? What if we were to look for one positive thing every day? What if we developed our practice of gratitude so that we appreciated things that went unnoticed before?

It’s important to know we’re not alone. Having some sort of safety net in times like this can make the difference between navigating the crisis mainly intact, or picking up the pieces when all is said and done.

We, as horsewomen, have a safety net, therapist, warm fuzzy, and amazing listener all rolled into one – our horses. Horses have a way of grounding us (and I don’t mean by bucking us off!) Their daily routine doesn’t involve watching news of the latest death tolls, getting a swab stuffed so far up their nose they expect to have it come out of the back of their head (seriously, COVID tests are NOT fun), and heading out to shop at 6:00 a.m. in hopes of finding some toilet paper and avoiding too many other shoppers. Horses can be our ultimate path to being grounded in the present – and to embracing what is.

Being present is something I talk a lot about in this blog (you can read other posts HERE and HERE). It’s so easy for us to let the noise in our heads take over. When things are “normal”, we have a constant playlist of inner conversations, what we need to do, what we wish we hadn’t done, what on earth we could have been thinking when we did THAT… Pre-COVID we were rarely fully present – we had a routine (read: rut) that we’re in, we become automatons marching through our days. That was then…

In these during-COVID, and hopefully (eventually) post-COVID times, it’s all too easy to cling to those patterns to try to maintain some semblance of normality in our lives. There are big changes taking place, and undoubtedly more to come.

Changes, especially ones out of our control, can be frightening. It feels safer to block out as much as we can and try to keep going. Here’s a challenge your horse and I have for you – the next time you see him (or her), stop for at least 30 seconds and just observe him. Is he relaxed? Is he holding tension anywhere in his body? Or is he just busy frisking your pockets for peppermints? Whatever he’s doing, chances are he’s embracing what is (especially if “what is” involves peppermints!) He’s not worrying about the future or regretting the past – he simply is.

I realize that horses have the luxury of not having to deal with groceries and masks and hand sanitizer and a lack of toilet paper, but we can still take a page from their playbook. For 30 seconds, just stop. Take a breath. Relax your shoulders. And think of one good thing about right now. It can be something as major as not having had any of your friends or family becoming ill, or as trivial as the fact that the store not only had toilet paper, but they had your brand!

Will this change your life? Probably not. It won’t make COVID go away, it won’t stop racial and political unrest, it won’t bring people’s jobs back; but, it will give you one tiny piece of your day that you can own. It’s your chance to embrace what is.

Embracing what is is a choice. It’s a very conscious choice that needs to be made over and over until it starts to become a regular part of your life. Next week, I’ll be discussing the difference between response and reaction.

In the meantime, stay safe, and do your best to emulate your horse, and embrace what is.

So why, exactly, are we doing this? Knowing the “why” for your Horsey Life

So why, exactly, are we doing this? Knowing the “why” for your Horsey Life

If you’ve ever set goals or been working on something challenging, you’ve probably heard that it’s important to know your “why”. It’s important for things like fitness goals –  having a reason that you’re emotionally connected to makes it easier to go to the gym or head out for a long walk when you’d rather sit and read a book.

Knowing your why is equally important for your Horsey Life. While learning about/spending time with your horse hardly seems as difficult as the last 36 minutes of a 30-minute aerobic class, you need to be completely connected to your why to keep you on course when demands from other areas of your life try to encroach on your precious time spent on your Horsey Life.

Here’s an example, pulled directly from my life over the past couple of weeks. I’ve been busy with an article I’m writing for the United States Dressage Federation’s magazine, the Connection as well as requesting and compiling horse show information for the USDF Region 1 Omnibus. It’s grant writing season, so at my job (I’m the Operations Manager of a small non-profit), I’ve been on deadline with applications, follow-up reports, and budgets as well as doing press releases, social media and web updates along with newsletters to publicize a special event we’re hosting in May. And I had committed to a weekly post here on the Horsey Life.

And then my Mom’s health started to decline.

At 99, it wasn’t totally unexpected, but it meant arranging a trip from VA to CT so I could see her. I’m so glad I went when I did. My daughter and I drove to CT Thursday morning, and Mom passed away Monday morning at 3. My sister and I were there with her. That is a big why. I’m heading back to CT this weekend for her Memorial Service and to spend rare time with my 4 siblings. Family is important to me – another big why. But this year, I’ve added another priority into my life – me.

With everything going on, it would be so easy for me to just do a quick feed of the horses twice a day and not worry about spending too much time with them, but I made a commitment to myself that this year, I was going to start taking care of myself. I’m 61, and if I’m going to live to be 99 like Mom did, I sure want the next 38 years to be the best they can be, and that means taking care of myself. One of the things that’s really important to my physical/mental/emotional well-being is spending time with my 2 horses.

Yesterday, in the midst of entering dressage show information into the Omnibus, billing shows for their listings, and then typing all of the opening, closing, and show dates for March, April, and May into an e-blast (complete with links for each one) and working on the article for the USDF Connection, I headed out into the sunny, warm afternoon to walk the fence line, scrub and refill the water troughs, and spend some time with my “ponies”. It was an extra trip to the barn in the middle of the day – usually, I go a.m and p.m to feed – and every minute of it helped restore a little bit of my soul.

I realized at the end of last year that spending time with my horses was a critical factor in truly enjoying my life, but I had often only been doing the maintenance stuff and it was becoming another item on my to-do list rather than a deep, renewing experienced, so it became a very big why.

So this week, really take some time to figure out your why(s) around your Horsey Life (beyond just the fact that you love horses and want them to be an important part of your life). Make sure you know why they’re so important to you. That deep knowing could sustain you through those times where there are so many other important (and often urgent) demands on your life.

If wishes were horses

If wishes were horses

If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride…

I know this may sound obvious, but one of the first things that’s required to make a start on your Horsey Life is… a horse! You don’t need to own one or to go to any great expense in the initial stages, but starting off on the right boot-wearing foot is absolutely vital.

With a laundry list of factors to sort out, let’s start with the most important  – safety. This is vital while learning a new skill in which your partner weighs +/-  1,000 pounds. You want to feel comfortable in your learning situation. If the horse you have access to is difficult to handle, or the person you’re dealing with is anything other than patient and kind (both to you and the horse), you’d be well-advised to turn around and head right back out the gate. There’s too much at stake here – not just for your Horsey Life, but for all the other parts of your life as well.

#1 It’s all about who you know

The easiest way for most women to start their Horsey Life is to find a backyard that has horses.

Obviously (at least I hope it’s obvious), don’t touch anyone’s horse without their permission. Horse owners get pretty cross when someone stuffs their fingers into their horse’s mouth and then complains (or sues) when they get bitten.

OK, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s break this down a bit.

If you have a friend (or a friend of a friend) who has a horse or rides regularly, ask if you could come by and pet/groom/clean up after their horse. Plan on doing something nice for this horse owner like baking them brownies or giving them a $5 gift card to Tractor Supply. Ask in advance if there’s anything you should know/bring/wear, set a time and then DON’T BE LATE. (Don’t you hate it when someone types in all caps? Got your attention though, didn’t I 😉

Equally important as your arrival time is your departure time. Know up front if the person providing the portal to your Horsey Life has an hour to spend with you or just 20 minutes. It’s just minding your manners (your Mom would be so proud!)

This is often the best way to dip your toe into the water trough and see if you suddenly realize that horses on the other side of a fence are amazing, but when you don’t have that handy-dandy barrier, they’re downright terrifying! (Again with the whole looking-like-an-idiot thing – better to have a moment in someone’s back yard than at a public barn with half a dozen 10-year-olds in attendance. Just sayin’).

#2 Ask a pro

The next place on the list is a lesson barn –  one that teaches riding lessons, or has pony camp, or something of the sort. The advantage of going public is that many lesson barns are set up to deal with curious Horsey Life newbies. Ask them if you could book a lesson to get a bit of hands-on with a horse. Remember, these folks are professionals, and while they enjoy teaching, they still have to pay the feed bill at the end of the month, so again, be punctual and prepared.

If after a lesson or two of Horsey Life 101, you’re ready to begin riding lessons, you’ll have the advantage of already knowing the instructor and possibly the horse you’ll be riding for your lessons.

Caveat – make sure the barn you visit is reputable (and don’t rely on Yelp reviews to help you decide). Since it can be hard to “know what you don’t know”, ask someone at the local tack shop or feed store, or contact leaders of local horse clubs like 4H or Pony Club for suggestions. These folks are invested in keeping people safe, so they’re likely to be a good source of info.

#3 Happy Trails to You

My next suggestion is to check out a local (and again, reputable) trail ride/dude ranch facility. The horses used at well-run facilities are generally safe, well trained, and used to dealing with novice riders.

It’s a good idea to visit the facility before your ride. Have a look around at the horses, the staff, and the overall condition of the place. If the horses look cranky or not well-cared for, or there are customers riding in shorts and flip-flops, fences are broken and things are messy and disorganized – proceed directly to the nearest exit and ask your friendly 4H or riding club leader to give you another suggestion. If the care of the horses and facility aren’t up to par, standard safety precautions could be ignored as well.

When you find a place that looks well-managed, speak with a member of the staff, be very honest about the fact that you’re a beginner, and see if you can spend 10 or 15 minutes with a quick overview of horse handling 101 before you hit the trail.

#4 Pay it forward

An often overlooked option to get some horse time in is to volunteer at a local rescue or therapeutic riding center. Because these barns generally require a good number of volunteers, you may find that you can get some basic horse handling instruction.

One thing to remember is that not all the jobs you’ll be assigned will give you actual hands-on time with a horse. You might be cleaning stalls, painting fences, or cleaning tack. Do every chore efficiently (and cheerfully), and the people in charge will notice you (trust me on this), and you’ll stand a better chance of moving up the ranks and becoming a side-walker in a therapeutic riding program, or a grooming horses at a rescue.

So whether you start this journey in a small back yard barn or at a large commercial facility, I hope this is a useful resource to starting your Horsey Life.

Welcome to the Horsey Life

Welcome to the Horsey Life

Welcome to the Horsey Life

My goal in creating this blog is to share some of the knowledge (and wisdom) I’ve gathered over the past half-century or so of my own horsey life.

Think of this as you’re home away from the barn.. A place to learn, and laugh, and grow. A safe place where women like you, like us, can explore the myriad of facets of our horsey lives.

Who I am, where I came from, and why I’m here

My name’s Penny Hawes, a life-long lover of horses and teaching people about them. I’m now in my 60s, but I started riding when I was about 10, got my first horse at age 12, belonged to 4H and Pony Club, then went to England after high school and took the British Horse Society Assistant Instructor’s Certification at the Talland Equestrian Centre. 2 years later, I moved to England after marrying a lovely man I met while in the UK.

I taught mostly kids on Thelwell ponies, but some of the kids’ Mums who’d always wanted to ride decide to start lesson as well. They’d always wanted to ride, but circumstances didn’t allow it.

When we moved back to the States, we leased a farm and started our boarding, training, and teaching business. Eventually we bought a fixer-upper farm with 42 stalls on 42 acres. (When I say “fixer-upper” I mean “fixer-upper” as in “the-indoor-ring-had-collapsed-and-every-time-it-raomed-there-was-a-foot-of-water-in-the-stalls-fixer-upper”.) My husband and I taught dozens of lessons per week, and I also trained and competed dressage horses.

As I began teaching more midlife women who were new to the Horsey Life, several of them said they’d like more than just riding lessons, they wanted to learn more about the other 80% of the horse experience, so I created d a 6-week unmounted course called Find Yourself on a Horse.

The course covered all the things that come up when you start or re-start riding in your midlife. We talked about how our strengths and challenges were magnified when dealing with a sensitive 1,000-pound prey animal, and how they could judge their own mental state from what was mirrored to them by their horses.

Now, if you’re like most “women of a certain age”, you’ve been societally conditioned to avoid risk and public failure. And when you’re learning new skills with the aforementioned 1,000 lb animal, the fear of looking like an idiot can overshadow the fear of getting injured.

My goal with the Horsey Life is to help you learn and grow, and to remember that everyone else is so busy trying not to look like an idiot that they don’t have time to see/judge you.

One reason why birds and horses are happy is because they are not trying to impress other birds and horses.         – Dale Carnegie, How To Win Friends and Influence People

What to expect

While this blog is geared to midlife horsewomen, it’s particularly pertinent to those of you who are just beginning your horsey life, or just picking it back up after years away.

Some of the posts will be under the “Horsey Life 101” category, aimed at women new to this Horsey Life, and some will be categorized as “Welcome Back”, created for those of you who are getting back in the saddle (metaphorically & literally) after a life-gap. The lines between the two are somewhat blurry, so feel free to jump around and explore posts that interest you.

While teaching is the core of what I plan to accomplish with the Horsey Life, I hope to teach with humor and humility, growth and gratitude. And to remind you that it’s never just about the riding.

Comments? Questions? I’d love to hear about your Horsey Life! Please say hi in the comment below!

10 Ways to Find Yourself on a Horse

The Beagle

As a mid-life, happily married woman, I have to confess, horses add a lot to my life that I just don’t get elsewhere. They fulfill my desire for beauty, for nurturing, for connecting with another life form, and yes, even for petting something warm and fuzzy. (Although the Beagle would insist I can fulfill my entire warm fuzzy petting needs with her…)

The reasons for the depth of the connection between horses and women are myriad, but even though many of us are aware of the connection, we’d like to make it stronger, or we simply go on in our habits (which might be decades old) of interacting with horses, and therefore miss a lot of the advantages of spending time with these amazing creatures.

I started this blog to help women become more mindful in their relationships with their horses, with the important people in their lives, and, most importantly, with themselves. I’ve owned horses for 45 years, and been an internationally certified instructor for most of that time. I’ve owned and run a large boarding, training, and lesson barn; taught everything from kids on ponies to adults who were working on national rankings in the dressage arena. I’m a certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor and Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning, and I’m an avid student who has learned (and continues to learn) important life lessons from horses. I’ve picked up a fair amount of wisdom (as well as knowledge) along the way, and I’ve helped dozens of women find their way. I’d like to help you, as well.

I’ll be focusing on 10 key areas over the weeks and months to come. They are:

  • Awareness
  • Understanding
  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Communication
  • Confidence
  • Goals
  • Planning
  • Balance
  • Harmony

I’ll be posting on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I hope you’ll join me on this journey and that in some small way, I’m able to help you find yourself on a horse.

Five ways with connect to your horse (and your life!)

Five ways with connect to your horse (and your life!)

In the last post, I spoke a bit about the need to put yourself first. The trouble a lot of us have with that is that we have no idea where to start. We’re not even aware of the need to start – we cruise through our life on auto pilot, and quite frankly, our auto pilot probably isn’t taking us anywhere we really want to go.

How often have you arrived at the end of a commonly driven trip and realized (with some alarm), that you don’t remember most of the drive. This used to happen to me so frequently that I worried I’d run someone over and never notice! Fear not – I’m here with a few simple exercises to help you start getting back into the driver’s seat of your life.

Please note – I said simple, not easy. Changing a habit, or starting a new one requires work – it’s not like suddenly flipping a switch and becoming aware of all the magical sights and sounds you’ve been missing most of your adult life. But trust me, the effort you put into these exercises is worth it – and the one who’s likely to notice the change in you first is your horse.

Horses, as I’m sure you’re aware, are prey animals, and humans are predators. (The fact that your horse lets you sit on her back kind of makes you appreciate her even more, doesn’t it?) The whole prey animal thing is why we always teach horse-newbies not to run and jump and yell and make sudden movements and noises around horses – their reaction to being startled is to get away from the thing that startles them as quickly as possible.

The interesting thing is that we don’t have to be thinking about eating a steak for horses to be reminded that we’re predators. Have you ever approached your horse in the field with your agenda for the next hour running through your head? There you are, marching through the pasture, looking down and mumbling, “I’ve got to catch Precious, take her in and groom her – and since she’s filthy that will take at least a half hour, and then by the time I tack up, I’ll have 20 minutes to ride, 5 to cool down, and I’ll just manage to get home in time to get dinner on the table…..”  Then you look up and your horse has started determinedly walking… away from you…. You, my friend, have approached your horse like a predator. A woman on a mission is not someone a horse feels like trusting implicitly, so spend a little time with these exercises before you see your horse the next time, and see how much she appreciates your efforts.

Breathe. This should be a no-brainer, but quite honestly, most of us tend to hold our breath or breathe very shallowly when we’re concentrating intently on something. News flash – so does a predator when they’re getting ready to pounce on their next meal. Don’t believe me? Watch a cat stalking a cricket (or mouse, bird, or just about anything that moves). The intense concentration, very shallow breathing, muscles tensed…. So can you blame your horse for avoiding you when you head out to the field to catch her when you’re über focused on your agenda? Try adding a few deep breaths before you open the pasture gate (or stall door, if your horse is in). Be sure to breathe in deeply, hold for a few seconds, and then exhale – allowing your shoulders to drop. Add a couple of head and shoulder rolls, and then go catch your horse. Chances are, she’ll be a lot happier to meet you half way.

Let it Be. More than just an iconic hit by the Beatles, Let it Be is how I deal with my agenda when it pops into my head. I don’t mentally berate myself for slipping up and getting stressed by thinking about tension-creating stuff. I just acknowledge it, let it be, and then come back to taking a deep breath, relaxing my shoulders, and connecting with my horse.

10 Second Check. This is a great exercise to use any time of day, but especially right before you get out of the car at the barn, or just before you head out to the barn if you’re fortunate enough to have your horse at home. The 10 Second Check offers 2 options – start at the top, or start at the bottom. I’ll start at the top for my explanation.

  • Stretch your mouth open wide, then rotate your jaw around a little, then close your mouth softly – feel for tension in your head
  • Gently roll your head once in each direction – feel for tension in your neck
  • Perform a shoulder roll – up, back, down, and relax – feel for tension in your shoulders
  • Tighten your arms muscles, then relax – feel for tension in your forearms and biceps
  • Clench your hands, then roll your wrists and relax – feel for tension in your wrists, hands, and fingers
  • Pull your stomach muscles in, then let them relax – feel for tension in your abdominal muscles
  • Tighten your buttock muscles, then relax – feel for tension in your low back or hips
  • Tighten both thighs, then relax – feel for tension in your thighs
  • Tighten your calves, then relax – feel for tension in your knees and calves
  • Rotate your ankles and curl your toes, then relax – feel for tension in your feet and ankles

After doing your check, repeat the tightening and relaxing on any area where tension or stiffness lingers. Complete the exercise with a deep breath in, hold for a few seconds, then exhale, relaxing the shoulders. Now you’re ready to see your horse.

Do You Hear What I Hear? In addition to being the name of a great Christmas song, this is also a great exercise to remind you to be truly present the next time you go see your horse. Since I started in a musical vein here, let me bring in another song – “Till There Was You“, from The Music Man (also covered by the Beatles). The lyrics relate that “there were bells on the hill, but I never heard them ringing”, along with a handful of other decidedly non-mindful situations. The upshot of the song is that falling in love made the singer blissfully aware of all the joys surrounding him. The good news? No new romance required! Before you connect with your horse, simply stop and listen. Take a few deep breaths in and out, relaxing your shoulders, and listen. Even if you don’t hear bells on the hill, you may hear the best sound of all – your horse’s gentle nicker as she greets you.

An Alarming Idea. This is more of a reminder to do your exercises than an exercise itself. If you’re having a hard time remembering to do a few deep breaths during the day, or you find your shoulders are really tense as you’re working in the afternoon – set an alarm on your phone or watch – pick a gentle sound if possible, and when your alarm goes off, take 10 seconds to breathe or do the 10 second check. If possible, set your alarm for 3 or 4 times during the day. Each time you hear it, you’ll become more mindful about checking in with yourself.

Hopefully after adding these 5 exercises to your routine for the next few weeks, you’ll be relaxed and able to  fully enjoy your time with your horse – and you won’t have to worry about whether you’ve run over someone on the way!