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.
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.
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.
“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?
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.