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Away in a manger

Away in a manger

It’s that time of year again – although I don’t need to remind any of you who have children, or who watch television, or who shop; (although, since the Christmas decorations debuted sometime before the Halloween candy went on half-price, it’s getting harder to tell when Christmas finally arrives…)

The hustle and bustle build to a fever pitch as everyone tries to out-gift whatever they did last year. Many of us are feeling buried under “stuff” even before we unwrap (and wonder where we’re going to store) the large packages under the tree.

One of my favorite things on any night was going to the barn to do night check and hearing the contented munching as the horses  worked through their haynets. On Christmas Eve, it was even more special as I thought about that manger a couple of thousand years ago, and about the magic tales told of the animals talking at midnight on Christmas Eve.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Alban Arthan,or another day, we have a universal desire to find peace on earth.

And in the barn on those magical Christmas Eves, I heard, in every soft sigh the peace on earth we’re all looking for. It’s here, you just need to stand still long enough and quietly enough for it to find you.

 

When hope arises from the mud and darkness…

When hope arises from the mud and darkness…

December is not my favorite month. Neither is January. Or February, for that matter, despite it being my birthday month. (Possibly in part because it’s my birthday month…)

Why do all of these months fall to the bottom of my “most loved months of the year” list? Blame it on growing up in Connecticut, and then (perhaps somewhat foolishly) owning and operating a large horse farm there for a decade or so. Yeah, some of us are just not that quick to catch on…

Although I now live in Virginia and all of the aforementioned months are far less trying here than they were in the land of my youth (and early middle age), I still think of them as the months of dark, cold, mud, frozen mud, dark, cold…. you get the point. For someone who’s come to love my creature comforts, I sometimes look back and wonder, “What was I thinking!?”

It’s somewhat ironic that now that I’m in a far more temperate climate, I no longer make a living working outside anywhere from 10 to 20 hours a day. Usually the worse the weather, the longer the hours spent outside – it’s known as The Law of Relativity of Equine Colic and Miserable Weather. (OK, so I just made that name up, but those of you with horses know it’s a real thing!)

It always seemed that we’d get a hard freeze right after a particularly wet period, so all of the deep hoofprints in the mud around the gates would become ankle breaking obstacles to be traversed while wearing clunky boots pulled on over 2 paris of socks, (one of which has slid down and is now in an uncomfortable lump under your arch). This all happened in less than optimum light, often with frozen precipitation, and with at least one horse in hand. And yet….

And yet, I knew that once we hit the end of November, I could begin the countdown (in days, not weeks or months) to the day we turned the corner and headed toward spring: the Winter Solstice. Long a favorite of Druids everywhere – the shortest day of the year (in hours of daylight – sadly it still has 24 hours, just like all the others) falls around the 21st of December, and once we hit that day, we’re firmly on our way to spring. Well, OK, maybe not so firmly, there were still months to go till it was warm enough that water buckets didn’t freeze solid overnight, but the addition of that 1 minute of daylight every couple of days was enough to keep me going… I used to buy an Old Farmer’s Almanac every year, just so I could keep track of the number of minutes of daylight we’d gained. (Never mind if the weather was so horrendous that the amount of daylight was verifiable only through said Almanac).

Somehow, hope arose from those days of mud and darkness, and that small glimmer of hope was enough to keep me moving forward through the next 2 or 3 months of miserable weather. After all – we were gaining a minute or two of daylight, and soon (although perhaps not soon enough), it would be spring.

Is this mistake hurting your relationship with your horse?

Is this mistake hurting your relationship with your horse?

Do your clothes from 9th grade still fit?

Chances are good that your answer to this is a resounding “NO” (or maybe, “I wish!!) Over the intervening years, our bodies have changed. Whether altered by childbirth, injuries, or simply more calories consumed than expended, most of us are differently proportioned than when we were teens. We accept this (although we may long for that slimmer physique at times), just as we accept that our life experiences have given us greater wisdom, more compassion, and a host of other useful skill sets. So why are we so upset that our riding is now very different than what it was when we were young?

I don’t remember it hurting like this!

If we haven’t ridden in a few (or a few dozen) years, we may have creatively edited our riding memories. We remember that wonderful trip around the cross country course at a Pony Club Rally (that’s me on my first horse, O’Malley above), or the trail ride our parents signed us up for on a long-ago vacation. It could be riding double on a friends horse as the first snow fell – looking back to see the perfect hoof prints, hearing only the clopping of his hooves as the snow muffled all other sounds…

Often we don’t remember things like a sore back, thigh abductors screaming in protest when asked to carry us upstairs a day or two after our most recent ride, or the inability to lift our left foot more than 18” off the ground, necessitating the use of a (large) mounting block.

Selective memories can be a partial explanation, of course, but more likely is that we simply havne’t used those muscles in a while… and all too often, we beat ourselves up over it. “I don’t remember it hurting like this!”, “I remember when I could vault on my 15.2 hand horse – now I can’t even get on a pony from the ground!” [Tweet “The memory that so many of us feel, but so few vocalize: “I don’t remember being afraid”.”]And the memory that so many of us feel, but so few of us vocalize: “I don’t remember being afraid”.

Don’t make the mistake of viewing all of your changes as negative.

It’s time to stop making the classic mistake of thinking that riding a horse is like riding a bike and you never forget how to do it. Bicycles, except in the case of Calvin and Hobbes, don’t have minds of their own. Calvin and Hobbes by Bill WattersonThey don’t weigh 1,000 pounds, and if you decide to take a pleasure ride on a bike, chances are you’re not thinking that if you get bucked off you could end up in the hospital, out of work, and generally in deep doo doo physically and financially…

Please stop beating yourself up, my friend. Understand that sore muscles are normal. If you had taken up running in 9th grade, you would have experienced sore muscles in the beginning. Coming back to riding, sore muscles are normal. And just as sore muscles are normal – fear is normal. It’s actually our amygdala (the prehistoric, reptilian part of our brain) working overtime to keep us from being prominently featured in the Darwin Awards.

Unless your fear is extreme, in which case you might want to consider working with a trainer, a sports psychologist, or a life coach, treat yourself, your sore muscles, and your fear with a gentle sense of acceptance. Understand that the changes we’ve undergone since riding in our teens aren’t “our fault” – they are a part of the process of aging, and better embraced than vilified.

Remember that the changes we view as negative are only part of our story. While we may not be as slender, flexible, or brave as we once were, we are now wiser than we were – and that’s a change we should embrace.

Horses, Writing, Life – What to do when it all heads south

Horses, Writing, Life – What to do when it all heads south

Things were going so well.

I was writing, spending quality time with my family, hanging out with my horses, exercising, loving teaching my therapeutic riding students – and then suddenly I wasn’t. Things stopped going so well.

In the space of a week, I was diagnosed with a heart condition (no wonder I’ve been so exhausted!), and I injured my knee severely enough to warrant surgery. I missed a few days of writing, a few days of exercise, a few days of spending extra time with my horses… and then it was a week, and then it was 2 weeks…it felt like I had lost my way. Can you relate?

Plans and Dreams or Pain and Drudgery?

The truth is we’re all faced with stuff that crops up and knocks us for a loop. Health, horses, family, work – none of it runs smoothly all the time. But how we cope with those unexpected issues can be the difference between returning to our plans and dreams, or getting stuck with pain and drudgery.

We can do what I did for about 2 weeks – we can wallow, play the poor me game, whine a little (or wine a lot ;-), and just let it all wash over us. In fact, that’s probably a useful thing to do. It gives us the chance to sort out and deal with all of the ramifications of our unwanted circumstances (like teaching my therapeutic students while on crutches and having major bouts of dizziness and lightheadedness.)

[Tweet ” But there comes a time to put away the pity party hat. It’s time to move on.”]

If you read my post about meditation, you’ll remember that I recommend the app 10% Happier – Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. One of the teachers in 10% Happier is Joseph Goldstein, a man with an amazingly calming voice and manner. Joseph’s advice when your mind wanders in meditation is, “simply begin again”. I think Joseph is on to something.

We have a choice. We can continue to focus on the problem, or we can look for the solution. Lamenting the time I’ve lost exercising isn’t going to heal my knee or move me toward my weight loss and health goals. Far better to find ways to exercise that don’t compromise my knee, and simply begin again.

Throw my plans for my blog, my coaching courses, and my book out the window because I’ve abandoned my writing schedule for a few weeks or push my self-imposed deadlines a little further out, and simply begin again?

Fuss that I’m not riding or keeping on my training schedule for Bella, or spend my time doing ground work and relationship building with my horses, and simply begin again.

It’s a choice we all have – wallow or win? Whine or work?

For me? I think I’ll simply begin again.

 

You are here. Now BE here.

You are here. Now BE here.

Today, I’m going to continue to rant  preach talk to you a bit more about mindfulness. If it seems like I’m ranting preaching talking about this topic a lot, it’s because I feel it’s one of the most important concepts I cover on the Horsey Life.

Everything you do, every moment you spend with your horse, setting and achievement of every goal – all come down to this one concept.

My challenge for you today is to see how often you catch yourself going through your day on autopilot – shoulders tense, mind going ninety-to-the-dozen, and generally feeling like a hamster on a wheel.

When you find yourself in that place – bring yourself back to THIS place. You are here – now BE here.

 

 

Yes, I’m going to talk about… the “M” word

Yes, I’m going to talk about… the “M” word

“M” word? Mindfulness? Good one, but not quite. Well, you can’t mean that “M” word!! No, this isn’t that kind of blog. The “M” word in question is…..

Meditation

Yup – I said it. I just rolled out the woo-woo, hippie, New-Agey word. The word of saffron robes and incense and people who have nothing better to do… I can see your eye rolls from here, for heaven’s sake!!

It may (or may not) interest you to know that meditation does NOT require you to be able to sit in lotus position (thank God!), nor does it require you to be a willowy 20-someting clad in spandex with a serene expression and nary a wrinkle in sight. It doesn’t even require you be sitting on a deserted beach or standing on a majestic mountaintop! Who knew?

So, are you willing to stick with me (at least grumblingly) for a few minutes to learn a little about what meditation is and how it can help with your horse? Good. You never know – you might even surprise yourself and give it a try!

If you’re like many people (including me up until a few years ago), you are pretty certain that meditation isn’t, never has been, and never will be your thing. Why? Glad you asked – let me list the ways:

  • you’re too busy
  • you don’t have the time
  • you can’t sit still long enough
  • your mind won’t stop
  • you’re too busy (trust me, I used to trot this one out frequently)
  • it’s boring
  • it’s too woo-woo
  • and, last but not least – you’re too busy

I had all these reasons, and dozens more – but I got to the place where I was a little tired of living my life on auto pilot, never “finding” time to ride for enjoyment, sit and read a good book, or even sit and read a trashy book. I would get to the end of a day and wonder how the hell I got there. Yeah, not exactly the queen of awareness. And I started paying the price. Migraines, a big uptick in my fibromyalgia symptoms, being completely exhausted and depressed – I wasn’t living, I was existing, and it sucked.

So, I “tried” meditating. I would set my timer for 3 minutes and wait for my mind to go blank. It never did. I thought -“Wow – I can’t even get this right! It’s freaking sitting still for God’s sake and I can’t even do that! What kind of a failure am I???” (Did I mention how kind I used to be to myself? No? Well, you probably get the idea…)

Now, before I get into some of the benefits I’ve received from meditating (and I meditate anywhere from 5 – 20 minutes a day, that’s all), I want to tell you how it relates to this whole Find Yourself on a Horse thing…

In this post I spoke about how your horse is likely to react to you when you approach him with an agenda. Horses are much better partners when you’re fully present. Whether you’re “just” bringing your horse in from the field or you’re running barrels to win a kick-ass buckle, the more present you are, the better the experience will be – for both of you.

The first thing you need to be able to do to improve your level of presence is to be aware of what you’re doing. But awareness does not just happen. Let me repeat that: Awareness does not just happen. It takes work, it takes awareness… wait – if we need awareness to become aware… Yeah, the whole chicken-and-egg thing, I know. And here’s where meditation becomes a useful little tool.

Make meditation your bitch.

When I say “useful little tool”, I really mean make meditation your bitch.

Meditation isn’t just for hippies any more. It can help “normal” horse owners (does such a creature exist??) with things like remembering your dressage test, controlling your road rage, alleviating your constant stress, oh yeah, and giving you a better relationship with your horse and the key people in your life – especially yourself!

Meditation isn’t just for hippies any more.

By sitting (or standing, or walking, or lying down, or riding) in meditation, you step back from the chaos that is your mind. You detach long enough to realize that your mind is chaos, but that chaos is not you – not all of you, anyway.

Meditation helps you observe the rabbit, without getting dragged down the rabbit hole.

So if you’ve “tried” meditation and found that “it doesn’t work” (see above), you’re going at it with the wrong expectations. You see, meditation doesn’t mean your mind goes blank. It means you start to find tiny spaces between the to-do list, questions that pop up, memories of your grandmother’s plum cake – God, that was so buttery and good and …. Hey! I’m still thinking here!!! Yes. You’re a human being. We think. Get used to it – but, not so used to it that you believe that’s all there is.

Mind the Gap 

Remember that tiny space between the questions and the memories of the plum cake? That’s your first opening into the world of meditation. That tiny fragment of open space allows you to realize that there is a space not occupied by thoughts. A place where you are a human being, not a human thinking or a human doing.

Mind the Gap

If the first time you meditate, you have a gap that lasts for about a millionth of a second – congratulations! That’s a great place to start. If the first time you meditate you have no gaps at all – congratulations! That’s a great place to start, too. The important thing is you started. Don’t expect miracles overnight. (I’m still not a willowy 20-something with no wrinkles and oodles of serenity).

Once you see that little chink in your thoughts the first time – notice it. Remember it. The following day, you may have 2 tiny gaps. Notice them. Remember them. As for the endless stream of thoughts? No worries – they’re not going to just go away, (because that would probably mean you’re dead, and that would suck, too…) What do you do about the thoughts, the itch, the ache in your left ankle from getting stepped on last year? Nothing. You don’t have to try to evict them from your mind. You don’t have to tally them, worry about them, or feel guilty about them. They are there – so just let them be there. (Isn’t it nice to have something you don’t have to do anything about?)

I Do It My Way

As you may imagine, there are thousands of “right” ways to meditate (explained to you in the thousands of books, apps, courses, and videos about meditation). I simply sit in a comfortable position (on a chair, not on a meditation pillow, mountain top, or beach), close my eyes, and focus on my breathing. Just noticing the breath going in and out of my body. I don’t change my breathing or try to breathe a certain way – I just breathe and notice the breath. Thoughts come up, I notice them, and then I come back to noticing my breathing. Sometimes I come back to noticing my breath within a few seconds, sometimes it’s not until the timer goes off at the end of my meditation (damn that plum cake!), but that’s fine, too. You see, one of the best things about meditation, is that there’s no wrong way to do it.

If you truly want to see benefits in your (horsey) life from meditation, commit to a week or so before you decide that A) Meditation sucks B) You suck at meditation C) I suck because I recommended you try meditation in the first place.

For those of you who want to explore meditation a little further and don’t want anything preachy or woo-woo, check out the app 10% Happier – Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. It’s available for your mobile device of choice. 10% Happier was developed by a team led by Dan Harris, an ABC News anchor who started his meditation journey after having a panic attack… on live TV. (Kind of makes forgetting your test in the last dressage show seem pretty insignificant, doesn’t it?)

The app is part instruction manual, and part humorous autobiography of how Dan found meditation to be helpful. If it turns out you love his self-deprecating humor/actual useful advice style, check out his book on Amazon. (This is an affiliate link – when all tens of millions of my readers order this book from this link, I shall retire to Tahiti and continue to write my blog from there). 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story.

Whichever path you choose, I hope you’ll give meditation a try, and that it becomes at least a small part of your daily routine. While you aren’t likely to become an Olympic-calibre rider overnight, it will help improve your relationship with your horse – and that’s what this is all about, isn’t it?