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.
They say that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. As midlife riders who have been out of the saddle for a while, we’re more likely to wish we could repeat it! How is it that the carefree (and pain-free) days of riding as a teen have morphed into days filled with fatigue, fear, and frustration?
We remember (or hear) stories about kids who jumped their ponies through rings of fire or over piles of their friends stacked up to create a good-sized jump. Galloping across fields with nothing more than a halter and lead rope on our horses… what were we thinking?
My main riding discipline eventually became dressage for many reasons, one of which is that I’ve always been kind of a chicken rider.
My not-terribly-brave youth didn’t involve jumping horses through rings of fire, or over piles of my friends and acquaintances. It didn’t involve a lot of (intentional) galloping across open fields. It did; however, involve trail riding (usually by myself) up the mountain near our house. I’d either ride up the slopes of the ski area (only in the off-season), or the section of the Appalachian Trail located a half-mile or so further down the road (both of which were completely against the rules of the ski area operator and whichever governing body makes up the rules for the Appalachian Trail.) What was I thinking??
My little Quarter Horse/Arab cross mare, O’Malley, was a former cow horse, so she was fine with going up mountains, climbing over fallen stone walls and jumping fallen trees, but when I think now about going out for hours on my own up a mountain on a horse at the age of 13, it seems like it was a level slightly above chicken.
I remember the lessons when my riding instructor had me jump the little brook at the ski area. It was a nice natural obstacle, and, it was fun, although a bit scary. Going back to the ski area years later and looking at that “little” brook, I felt incredibly fortunate that my little 14.2 hand cow horse was an honest horse with tremendous heart. The brook ran about 8’ below the top of the banks, and where we jumped it, probably around 10 – 12 feet wide. What were we thinking???
I remember riding my mare to our regional high school for VoAg open house day when I was a freshman. I can’t remember exactly why I rode her the 12 or so miles on that chilly morning. We didn’t own a trailer, so perhaps I couldn’t get a ride, perhaps it was just a nice way to be allowed to get to school late (and earn props for having ridden a horse to school). The trip covered several miles of dirt road, but also several miles of windy two-lane roads with no shoulders. At any moment, a truck could have come along and plowed into us, ending the whole trip right there and then. What was I thinking??
The trek to school that day was followed a year or so later with joining the local Pony Club. Neither O’Malley nor I were big fans of stadium jumping, although we both loved cross country. (That’s O’Malley and me in the cover photo). I rode to one of the Pony Club lessons (which was only about 5 miles from home) for a showjumping lesson one day. The plan was I’d ride back home at the end of the lesson, but the unplanned flight headfirst into a jump pole and consequent concussion changed the plans and I didn’t get to ride her home till 2 days later. I was grateful that my naturally chicken-shitted nature meant I always wore a helmet, but I had lots of friends who only wore them in the show ring. What were they thinking???
Fast forward a few decades…
And just like that, we’re suddenly in our 40s (or 60s). How did this happen? One day we’re jumping over possibly less than suitable obstacles and the next we’re hauling our kids to riding lessons or watching them graduate from college.
It occurs to you that if you’re planning on riding again, you’d better get on with it. You figure out a way to make it work around your already stretched schedule (and budget), and you’re so excited to be getting back to riding. You were like a fish in water on horseback. All of that freedom and those lazy afternoons riding up and down the sides of mountains or jumping over stacks of friends. It’s going to be so wonderful to feel that again.
And then… it’s not. Not wonderful at all. Doubts, self-flagellation, frustration – all vying for the top spot in your beaten-up psyche.
We wonder how the heck we could hesitate about riding again. We wonder what our out of shape bodies will look like in riding clothes or sitting on a saddle. We see the other midlife women who look like they have ridden at least an hour every single day of their lives, and the gap in our riding seems more like the Grand Canyon than the brook at my local ski area. Could we be feeling… fear?
Those of us who weren’t the “go-jump-over-fallen-trees-in-the-woods-bareback-with-a-halter-and-a-lead-rope” kind of brave kids recognize the pit-of-our-stomach fear. The sweaty palms and shallow breathing we experience when faced with new, possibly dangerous situations. That fear is obvious. We may not like it, but we recognize it for what it is – a healthy dose of fear that your amygdala has thoughtfully conjured up in an attempt to keep you from doing something ridiculously stupid (like jumping trees in the woods bareback with a halter and lead rope).
The more difficult fears are those which slip in under the radar. They’re not directly tied to something that has the possibility to cause imminent bodily harm. These are often social fears. I-don’t-want-to-look -like-a- idiot fears. And these are the ones most likely to cause self-flagellation.
When a task that was easy when we were 13 is now is difficult, our first thought is often something along the lines of, “What the hell is wrong with me?’” (At least that’s one of my first thoughts). But we’re judging our 40- or 60- or 80-year-old selves by 13-year-old self standards. Ladies, we need to stop doing this. Seriously, just stop!
Easier said than done, right? Heck, we have decades of self-flagellation under our belts. We’ve elevated it to an art form. But although we have no problem slinging insults at the person in the mirror, we would be horrified to even think of speaking like that to a friend, an acquaintance, or even somebody we don’t actually like.
We’re great at making allowances for other folks. We see another midlife woman riding and we think, “Well, I think it’s wonderful that she’s taken up riding again. She amazes me – she hasn’t ridden in 35 years!”
Here’s a little tip ladies, she probably used to talk to herself the same way you talk to yourself. Hell, she probably still does. But the important thing is that she’s gone one step beyond the self-directed trash talking. She’s gone toe to toe with that voice in her head telling her she must be an idiot to even think about riding again. She sees the extra 20 pounds she’s carrying, she feels the fact that a half-hour lesson wears her out, but she has made the conscious choice to extend herself some grace.
“Grace – a disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency” Merriam Webster
According to the good folks at Merriam-Webster, grace can be defined as: “disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency” An instance of kindness. That’s all it took for that woman to move past her weight and questionable level of fitness. She. Made. A. Choice.
To (poorly) paraphrase Hamlet, why does it seem nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageously poor opinions of ourselves? We need to catch ourselves when those hateful words are drumbeats in our minds. We need to take a deep breath and say, “Enough. I’ve had it with the negative opinion I have of myself. I’m not the first woman to come back to riding after a break, and I won’t be the last.” You need to notice the inner hater and shut her down.
Until you reach your judgment-free (or at least judgment-reduced) place, please, do me a favor. Every time you ride, imagine my voice saying, “Well, I think it’s amazing that you’ve taken up riding again. You amaze me, no matter how long it’s been since you’ve ridden.” Each time you go to the barn, keep imagining that my voice is cheering you on until one day, your own voice will be ready to be heard.
It’s not going to happen overnight. That bitch has been running your brain for the last however many years, so this is going to take some consistent, concerted effort. You’re going to wonder if you’ll ever stop being mean to yourself. If you’ll ever just enjoy riding without all the judgment. Take heart, you will. We will. Hour by hour, day by day, week by week, we’ll start scraping away the crust of self-hatred and find that there’s actually a pretty wonderful woman underneath it all. It takes 9 months to grow a new human, so maybe we should consider this a 9-month plan. We’re not growing a new human, we’re uncovering the one who’s been there all along.
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. They 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.
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:
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.
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!
You need to start putting yourself first.
Your horse would really love to spend an hour or so with you. I know, I know – you’ve got a to-do list a mile long. You have to take the dog to the vet, get another load of laundry done, and you’re in charge of the
The bake sale…
church bake sale. (We all remember what happened the year someone else ran it because you were having your gall bladder removed…) So you don’t get to the barn to ride as much as you like, and you can’t remember the last time you took a whole Saturday to hang out with your horse, even though it’s your favorite thing to do. It’s so peaceful, and you love the sounds and smells and feel of your horse… but you really do have a lot to do, and you hate to be selfish or let anyone down…
But here’s the deal. If you don’t start putting yourself somewhere near the top of your list – who will? Yes, the dog loves you no matter what, and the pastor is always grateful to hear that you’ll chair yet another committee; and your trainer is always happy to put in an extra ride on your horse; but have you ever considered that you’re being unfair by running around doing all this nurturing and managing? I’m not talking about being just unfair to you; but unfair to your dog, your pastor, your family, your horse, and even Brenda that ran that disastrous bake sale… The truth is, not taking care of yourself is the ultimate act of selfishness.
Not taking care of yourself is the ultimate act of selfishness.
Follow along with me here. You like to give everyone your absolute best, whether it’s your family, your horse, or your committees. But to give your best, you have to be your best. You have to recharge your battery every once in a while! You can’t get water from a dry well, my friend! And by always being the one to do everything, you’re denying others the chance to feel that sense of fulfillment you get by helping others. Give someone else a chance to enjoy the warm fuzzies of being an incredibly useful person.
And you always did want a horse drawn hearse…
I’m not the only one advising you to put yourself first. If you’ve ever flown, you’ve heard the flight attendant remind you that should the oxygen masks drop, you should put on your mask first – yes, you first – before your grandchild, your husband, even your dog.
“But isn’t that being selfish”, you ask? “Not in the least!” I reply. Think of it this way – if you help everyone else and then die because you didn’t bother to take care of yourself, who on earth would plan your funeral? That’s a heck of a lot of work to ask someone to do, and you had always hoped for a horse drawn hearse…
So take a little advice from me, and your horse…. Put yourself first for a change! Your horse will thank you for it.