Friday, July 4, 2008

Life Imitates Art

In many ways, horse ownership is metaphoric for life itself. I've learned many valuable lessons and insights from my horses. I often find myself waxing philosophical, finding a symmetry between horse behavior or horsekeeping tasks and aspects of myself, my job or life in general. In honor of Liz's beloved Ariel and "first loves" everywhere, here is just a little of what I've learned.

Shit happens. When Pokey first came home, he was confined to the front 2.5 acres while we finished fencing the back half of the property. It took several hours a week to clean up the poop but, to my surprise, the chore quickly became something of a Zen experience.
Call me crazy, but not only do I not mind any smell associated with horses, I actually find it all quite pleasant. I'd get in this "zone" where my mind would wander to the normal BS that is corporate America these days. Suddenly, it all seemed so simple: shit happens. It piles up everywhere. Sometimes you can't avoid stepping in it. No matter how thorough you are, sooner (there is no "or later" about it) someone's going to make another mess you'll end up having to clean up. You just have to keep shoveling.

Bad boys are bad boys. OK, I confess: in my younger days, I had this thing -- call it a tragic flaw -- for bad boys. You know the kind: rock star good looking, really rough around the edges, dark, brooding, aren't happy unless they're flying down the road at 100 mph with their hair on fire, bottle of Jack in one hand and a joint in the other, keep you wrapped up in knots trying to guess what might happen next. Yeah, you know what I'm talking about and don't even pretend you don't! They can take you to the highest high and send your heart into the deepest abyss in a New York minute. Bad boys kicked my sorry psychic ass for a good part of my adult life,
because my sense of self was not strong enough to stay grounded and look out for ME. I finally had enough and eventually hooked up with a really NICE man, the long-suffering Mr. Fry. It took almost a year of having my heartstrings yanked in twelve directions at once to realize that what I had in Poco was just the equine version of a VERY familiar animal. And you know what? Bad boys are just insecure, scared little boys who are acting out to keep from getting hurt themselves. If you let guys like this intimidate you, you are setting yourself up for emotional (perhaps even physical) disaster. Bring it on, Psycho Gelding. I've got your number and I ain't skeered o' you no more, big guy!

Even if the sky is falling, R-E-L-A-X. It's not enough to ACT calm.
You can't PRETEND you're the boss. Horses are way too sensitive to be fooled by window dressing. No matter how counterintuitive it may seem or how hairy the situation, I need to relax; my horse needs me to relax. In the first days of owning Poco, I was completely unaccustomed to the sheer size of him, how spooky he was, and how quickly he could move. It was Thanksgiving weekend when Poco came home and my primary directive from Heather was to do whatever I was comfortable doing with him and to learn to relax around him. If I felt myself tensing up, I would sing Christmas carols. It's impossible to be tense while singing "Joy to the World," "We Three Kings," or "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Recently, after a remarkable month of compliance and success, Psycho Gelding showed up out of the blue and on a tear. I loaded him in the trailer and took him to Heather's, half afraid he'd behave perfectly. Just the sight of Heather, who BTW, has never laid a hand on him, causes Poco to hyperventilate. He knows she gets her way every time. He surprised me though, and as soon as I got on, he started acting up, just hinting that he might be thinking about maybe rearing or bucking -- "I could, you know." The first word out of Heather's mouth: "RELAX." Then she told me how to deal with the bad behavior. He kept messing with me for a little while and each time he did, my instructions always began with "RELAX." Before long he became compliant and we were both having a great time. This was the first time I was actually able to best him in the saddle and it was GLORIOUS. We were both in our rightful places and were comfortable with it. Works with horses and works with life.

The brain and the heart are mightier than the whip.
At first, Poco's whole attitude when given a command screamed, "MAKE ME!" It was clear he had been handled roughly and had been forced into doing his job. To me, he is not an indentured servant at my disposal, nor a farm implement with which to accomplish a task. We are a team; he is my partner, my friend. It would be easy to simply longe his proud cut ass until he's exhausted, then hop onto a more or less compliant animal, which is obviously what at least one human in his past did to him. The first couple times Heather tried to work him in a round pen, he just ran himself full tilt into heaving exhaustion. Early on I figured out I needed, and, more importantly, wanted to develop a relationship with him where he was allowed the time to develop trust and a willing attitude. I HATE to be rushed. It infuriates me when I feel FORCED into doing something. I don't like scary movies or haunted houses -- I don't like being scared AT ALL. My horse and I are very much alike. You can saddle Jaz, hop on and be on your way down the road immediately. Poco needs time to THINK, to figure things out for himself, to realize he's not going to die. He's come such a long way because we've taken the time to understand him and teach him things in ways that make sense to him and don't scare him. He is learning to trust and I am learning to be trustworthy.

Give the rest of the world a break. You won't find a kinder, more patient, tolerant teacher than Jazu. The more clueless or helpless the rider, the more Jaz looks out for them, building confidence, allowing the rider to work on improvement. It is not in his nature to take advantage of a person's inexperience. Jaz also knows when to raise the bar and challenge his rider, long before the rider knows it. Students (or employees, or someone being mentored) advance further and faster if empowered, if given the opportunity learn from their mistakes rather than having undue attention called to them. It's about progress, not perfection.

There's more -- way more -- I have learned from my horses. For now, I'll end by saying, my horses have enriched me and given me a different perspective with which to view my world and my life. They teach me daily how to be a better person.

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