We all want to do our best with our horses.
Whether we trail ride for relaxation, compete at schooling shows, or hit the big circuit, we want to do what’s right by our equine partners. And this is a good thing. The trouble creeps in when we’re so busy striving for perfect that we miss excellent.
If you’re a dressage competitor, you’re familiar with the 0 – 10 scoring system. Fortunately, in all of my years scribing for dressage judges, I’ve only had to put that goose egg into a score box a few times. Sadly. I’ve only had the pleasure of writing that rainbows and unicorns score – the “perfect 10”- a few times as well.
The perfect 10 is something we’re used to pursuing culturally – from the 1979 Movie starring Dudley Moore and Bo Derek to the Olympic athletes that capture our attention and our hearts every 4 years – everyone wants a 10. But the truth about 10? It doesn’t stand for perfect – it stands for excellent -and there’s a very big difference: excellence is attainable, perfection usually isn’t.
Why Perfectionism Doesn’t Serve You
An article in Psychology Today compares how people pursuing excellence rather than perfection cope better with setbacks, learn from their mistakes, and are able to feel good about themselves, even when they come in second.
Let’s break these down a bit.
People pursuing excellence rather than perfection are better able to cope with setbacks.
Picture this – you’ve been doing well at shows all year, and if things go well at the last 2 shows, you’ll walk away with a year end championship. You’re so excited – you’ve dreamed of this for years! And then your horse goes lame. Nothing serious, but it puts you out of the running for that long-coveted 4 foot tall trophy, embroidered cooler, and bragging rights with your friends and family (and anyone who stands still long enough at the tack shop).
Your response is:
- They never drug test at these shows. I’ll just bute him up for the next 2 shows and then he can have the winter off. Nothing is coming between me and that trophy.
- OK, I’ll give him this first show off, bute him up, and then enter him in enough extra classes at the last show that we’ll still have a shot at that trophy.
- It’s only a trophy. My horse is more important to me than any trophy, no matter how big and shiny it is. I’m in it for the long game, we have years ahead of us. I have so many good memories of this year – the ribbons we’ve already won are so far above my hopes. I’ll go to those last 2 shows and groom for my friends.
If you answered 1, you’re probably (as in 150% definitely) a perfectionist. You need to cut yourself (and your horse) some slack. One or both of you are going to end up burned out, used up, or permanently injured.If you want to push yourself that hard, go into a sport that doesn’t require your horse to pay the price for your dreams of glory.
If you answered 2, you’re in the bargaining phase. Not quite resigned to giving up the trophy, still holding onto that child-like optimism – you’re walking the line between being a perfectionist and an excellentist (I don’t know why that isn’t a word, don’t you think it should be?) Hopefully, the optimistic child in you loves her horse enough not to do anything stupid, or should I say “ill-advised”, and you’ll give your horse the chance to heal properly.
If you answered 3, Are. You. Kidding. Me? What planet did you just fall from?? I mean, it’s awesome that you love your horse and you’re taking the setback in stride, but seriously – you’re going to go to the show that could have been the answer to your childhood dreams and groom for your friends? That’s almost frighteningly nice.
But I digress. The point here is that when you pursue excellence, you really do deal with setbacks better than the average perfectionist. (Is “average perfectionist” an oxymoron?)
People pursuing excellence rather than perfection are better able to learn from their mistakes.
So – to revisit the lame horse in our previous scenario – the vet feels the lameness issue could be because you forgot to call your blacksmith and your horse was over a week late for new shoes. Since his toes had grown out a bit, the change of the angle caused him to be a bit off… From now on, the blacksmith’s next visit is scheduled before he packs up his truck and drives out through the gate. You learned from your mistake – voila!
People pursuing excellence rather than perfection are better able to feel good, even when they don’t win.
So you’ve spent all season working toward that championship. You’ve cleaned up your aids, worked on improving a little every day, and when the day arrives, you and your horse just aren’t on your game. You come in 3rd. Or 10th. Or last.
Can you brush it off (after you go back to the trailer and have a good cry) and understand that it simply didn’t come together today?
Can you look at a “loss” and not beat yourself up about it?
Spend a little time thinking about how your mind works when you’re having a riding lesson, trying something new with your horse, or even preparing dinner for guests. Do you note the things that go right or the things that go wrong? Fretting over the fact that you got expensive wine for dinner and neither of your guests drink may stress you out, but fretting over the fact that your horse always bulges through the outside shoulder in leg yield to the right is going to affect him as much or more than it does you. This is where you call a time out, take a deep breathe (and don’t forget to breathe out again…), and find out what’s really going on – both with your horse and with your mindset.
If you’re in a perfectionist mindset, you’re likely to be having thoughts that include words like “should”, “always”, “never” and “why-the-heck-can’t-you-get-this-right-we’ve-been-working-on-it-for-two-weeks!?!” None of those words are going to help your horse stay straight in a leg yield. Try instead, “What’s actually happening?”
If you discover that he always budgets his shoulder when circling to the right, you’re also likely to realize he bulges his shoulder when leg-yielding to the left. Break it down until you can isolate a specific body part (or a few specific body parts).
If you’re not able to feel it, have a friend give you a hand (actually, a pair of eyes). If your friend happens to know what “bulging a shoulder” is, well then, you’ve got some pretty awesome (and useful) friends. If not, have someone, anyone, (even a spouse works for this) take a quick video on your phone. Then have a look and see if you can tell what’s going on.
By taking this step in curiosity, and a genuine desire to know what’s going on NOT so you can beat yourself up, but so you can thoughtfully and consciously work for improvement.
Perfect really isn’t somewhere we’re ever going to dwell for too long, but “better” is a great journey for you and your horse. Even though it may still be a stretch, “better” is attainable, realistic, and the “perfect” way to get to excellent.
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.
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!
When you see a horse in a group pinning its ears back and making another horse run, it seems like horse A is simply being a bully and picking on horse B; however, horse A may well be practicing to save good ole horse B’s life.
Horses’ social lives are set up in a hierarchical pattern which developed over millenia to ensure the survival of the species. The herd has a clear leader whose main function is to keep the rest of the horses safe, and one of the ways this is done is by establishing and continually maintaining a pecking order. The alpha horse (often a mare) will go around during the day and just pin back an ear or extend her nose with her ears back and expect the target horse to submit and move. She’s just checking to make sure the herd is in working order, like having regular fire drills. If a threatening situation then develops, the alpha horse is followed unquestioningly by the herd…. at least if they’d like to live to see another day.
One of the most important things to understand about horses, whether you are an occasional rider or a dedicated professional, is that horses are prey animals. They don’t see the world in the same way as you and I (literally or figuratively). As predators, our eyes are set in the front of our head and we can “zoom” our vision in and out to scan the horizon for lunch. Although the tell-tale signs that indicate a possible meal have morphed over the years from a dust cloud kicked up by a herd of buffalo to a set of golden arches, we’re still predators somewhere deep down inside.
Our horses may have been transported from the hostile plains to a cushy stall and well fenced pasture, but they’ve actually moved far less from their inherent nature than we humans. Horses bodies and minds are set up to live the life of a prey animal. Most prey animals are set up with a “flight or fight” survival response. For some species – fight is their preferred method. For horses; however, it’s definitely flight. When a horse is frightened – its first response is to run like crazy and get out of Dodge. Run first – ask questions later.
Can’t run? Then comes the fight – biting, kicking, striking out. This affects us in a domestic situation in several ways. Ever get nervous while riding and feel your horse become more and more tense? He’s sensing your fear and getting ready to hit the road to save his skin – little does he realize that it’s him that’s making you fearful in the first place. If you can rein in your own fears (relax your shoulders, breath out and let your weight sink into the lower part of your torso) this communicates to the horse that you’re fine and he will likely settle as well.
Another way flight or fight presents itself is with horses that panic when they step on their lead rope. They can pick up their head, so they can’t check for predators, so they panic and try to run. As they discover they can’t get going – things spiral and they get ready to fight – but as soon as that foot comes off the rope and they’re able to move their feet again – the panic melts away and they go back to grazing. Similarly a horse that panics when tied usually only fights till he breaks loose – once he knows his flight ability has returned, he doesn’t run to the next zip code, but looks for the nearest patch of grass and settles right down.
Horses also have some tell-tale physical characteristics of living life as a prospective lunch for some wild carnivore. Their eyes are on the side of their heads, allowing them a wide range of vision. Ever notice how a horse will raise his head when he’s nervous or startled? When his head is up, his field of vision becomes nearly 360 degrees – only the areas directly behind and in front of him are blocked. This is why you’ll often see a snorting horse running through the pasture and turning his head a little from one side to the other – this allows him to fill in the blind spots a bit better.
Horses also have monocular vision, meaning they have a completely different view out of each eye. This explains why you can ride past a jacket hanging on the fence 5 times to the right without a problem, but when you turn your horse around – he freaks out and acts as if the jacket has just been left there by a little band of aliens. In his brain, since his right eye hasn’t seen it before – it wasn’t ever there. Clinton Anderson, a well-respected and hugely popular Australian horse trainer continually reminds students and viewers of his tours and videos that it’s like having two different horses. Whenever you are working to desensitize a horse to a scary object – be sure you work on one side till the horse is relaxed and comfortable, then follow the same procedure on the other side. You may be surprised how much of a difference there can be. I’ve worked with horses who have no problem having fly spray applied on one side of their body, but go to the other side and it’s a completely different situation. By the way – if you’d like to learn more about Clinton Anderson and his well-thought-out, systematic training method – check out his website: DownunderHorsemanship.
Understanding a bit about how your horse’s brain and body work can not only enhance your enjoyment of your time together – it can also help keep you and your horse safe.
Enjoy your horse life my friends!
Until next time,