“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…..
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?
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!
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If you’re like many women, getting to the barn to ride usually happens after you’ve spent the day at work, taken care of the family, done a load or 10 of laundry, and tried to find the cupcake pan that you knew you had for the school bake sale last year…
Your list may look different, but however you slice it, you’re usually pretty tired and stressed by the time you head to the barn for a ride. Sound familiar? If it does, I’ve got some great news! You can do a simple exercise that will take less than a minute (on most days, anyway), and will allow you to walk into the barn and greet your horse with a relaxed and positive attitude.
Introducing: (Drumroll, please…) The Magic Box!
OK, I can see the eye rolls, but bear with me a minute. If you’re tired of arriving at the barn stressed, and it’s been forever since you were relaxed at the beginning of a ride, you owe it to yourself (and your horse) to read on. Here’s the deal.
What it is: The Magic Box is an exercise to help you not bring your baggage into the barn. You can use an imaginary box, or you can get an actual box that you keep in your car, under your saddle rack in the tack room – anywhere you have access to it before you go see your horse.
How it works: When you arrive at the barn, do a quick mental (and physical) inventory of your current state. Tense from an argument with your daughter? Crabby because your co-worker baked double chocolate macadamia nut cookies even when she knows you’re trying to lose weight? Whatever it is that you’re lugging around with you – take a deep breath, exhale, and deposit it in your Magic Box. Whether it’s anger, frustration, or even fatigue – put it in the Magic Box, and leave it there till you’re done with your ride.
Note – sometimes it helps to imagine your negative feelings as a physical presence (assigning them colors like red for anger, yellow for frustration, etc.) Once you can “see” your negative stuff – place it in your Magic Box, and make a pact with yourself that the Box stays closed till you leave the barn.
If you go to the barn directly from work, using a physical box will allow you dump in your brief case and heels right along with the self-abuse you’re giving yourself for eating 2 of those damn cookies.
Why it works: By taking a minute to do an inventory of your situation, you bring awareness to it, which is the first step in affecting a change.
Physically – Once you’re aware of the tightness in your shoulders, clenched jaw, and stiff neck, you can take a deep breath, do a few shoulder shrugs, and prepare for your ride with a more relaxed body.
Mentally – Ditching the negativity puts you in a better frame of mind to actually enjoy your whole ride.
So, you get to dump your baggage and enjoy your ride and your horse gets an owner who is fully present and relaxed. What could be better? Well, as an added benefit, you may find that when you finish your ride, you don’t feel the need to reopen your box and take back any of that baggage. Then even your family benefits by having you smile your way through folding a load or 10 of laundry. Oh, and that cupcake pan? Check with your son – he used it for his art project right after the bake sale…
The Bengt Ljungquist Memorial Championships are going on at the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington, VA as I write. The first weekend of November will see the Great American/USDF Regional Dressage Championships take place in Williamston, NC. Although qualifying for both of these championships was my “big goal” for 2012, Atlas will not be attending either event.
Oh, it’s not for lack of good intentions – I must have a 6 lane superhighway to hell paved by now. It’s not for lack of time – I have 24 hours in each day, just the same as the hundreds of riders whose horses are stabled in Lexington right this moment, and the hundreds more who will descend on Williamston with their horse trailers packed with tack, feed, rain gear and dreams. (more…)
We’ve all heard the expression that volunteers are the lifeblood of many organizations – well, my friends, horse organizations are no different.
I spent this past weekend volunteering at the Virginia Dressage Association fall show which also included the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Region 1 Championships. To say that it took a lot of dedicated volunteers to make this amazing event run like clockwork is like saying that it takes “some effort” to train a Grand Prix horse – a huge understatement.
This weekend we had riders (some who volunteered around their ride times at the show), spouses, children of various ages, friends and students. They were a great group to work with. Without our volunteers, the show literally could not have taken place. A little sampling of what our volunteers accomplished this weekend? Check out the (very partial) list below.
- secured sponsorship from a wide variety of sources
- handled all the necessary USEF and USDF paperwork
- hired officials, such as judges
- handled all of the paperwork involved with rider entries (and believe me, there is a lot of it!)
- set up rings
- decorated the entryway to the show office
- acted as ring stewards
- acted as scribes for the judges
- scored the tests
- ran the tests from the judges’ boxes to the scorers’ office
- dragged rings to maintain optimum footing
- watered the flowers
- organized (beautifully, I may add) the awards ceremonies, making sure all the horses were in place with the correct ribbons on time
- took down all of the rings, judges stands, flowers, decorations, etc at the end of the show
- dealt with making sure that all of the appropriate post show paperwork was handled
Without a great volunteer coordinator and a management team who treats their volunteers exceptionally well this show might have run differently. What did our volunteer coordinator provide for us? Things like amazing catering for lunch every day – freshly made soups, salads, bread and desserts along with coffee always at the ready and plenty buckets of candy appropriately placed; sweatshirts, tote bags filled with goodies and door prizes daily. VADA is very wise in knowing that if the volunteers are well treated and made to feel special, they’ll want to come back again (even if it’s only because of the soup ;-).
Virginia Dressage Association (VADA) is also very wise in that riders are required to volunteer a certain number of volunteer hours in order to be eligible for year end awards. VADA goes a step beyond this; however, and also has a Volunteer Incentive Program (VIP). Three tiers of gifts are offered for volunteers who spend 12, 24 or 50 hours (Bronze, Silver and Gold levels, respectively). This also adds an extra boost of encouragement to riders who aren’t currently competing to help out the organization.
What does this have to do with you (if you’re not a member of VADA?) It’s really two-fold. First off, if you are a board member of an organization (which is often a thankless volunteer position), be sure to analyze not only what you’re getting from your volunteers (or not), but what you’re offering as well. People seem to be busier with every passing year, and with the tighter economy, it’s hard for many to be able to volunteer like they were once able. Be creative, check out other volunteer-driven organizations and see what they’re doing to attract – and retain – good volunteers. Secondly, if you are the member of any organization, see what you can do to help. If you only have an hour to offer, believe me – a well-run organization will put that hour to very good use. And remember, if there are 8 people with “only” an hour, there’s a full day of volunteer work right there.
Moral of the story – maybe love does make the world go around, but volunteering for your favorite organization will not only get you a little love, but quite possibly ensure the future of your group. Volunteers really are the life-blood of many organizations.