Practice Makes Perfect

The verb practice means to perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency. Ray Hunt would tell us that practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. My questions are, how do I get to the point that I can practice perfectly and if I have achieved perfection in a skill or activity, do I really need the practice?

To be perfect is to have all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics in my activity; getting it as good as it can possibly be. So, recognizing what perfection is will help me to achieve it. In horsemanship, perfection requires both the horse and the rider to be in perfect harmony. Minds and bodies come together to perform a maneuver in complete symphony. It’s beautiful to watch, exhilarating to experience.

What would make perfect practice with my horse? For me, it’s first having a picture in my mind of what I want my horse and I to look like and second, understanding the elements of what I want to achieve. My mentors have done a good job of placing short videos of how I want to ride in my brain. It’s been years of riding and making mistakes that has helped me to better understand the pieces that have to come together to create that video picture. For a long time, I thought that I could “make” my horses look the way I thought they should look. I could hear the words, “set it up and let it happen”, playing in my head but, I didn’t truly understand what that could be. As a consequence, I was still making things happen and putting braces in the horses I was riding. I’m still searching for how good it will one day be but, I’m discovering smaller, more minute elements of some simple things that I didn’t realize made such a big difference to the horse. For example, all of the things that have to come together between the horse and rider to make a perfect circle with no resistance.

Is it possible that Ray was trying to get us to search for perfection in our practice not to actually achieve perfection but to discover more about how our horses are? When we bury our ego and give ourselves to our horses, we get closer to feeling what our horses can give back to us. When we “turn loose” and allow things to happen between ourselves and our horses, we get one step closer to the symphony of movement in our practice. We feel more about how our horses move and are better able to get in rhythm with that movement and then influence that movement in a way that makes complete sense to our horse. It becomes more natural for the horse to come with us and for us to go with them. It’s perfection! For a moment.

In answer to the second question I asked about needing to continue to practice; the answer for me is YES! Just because I become better with my horse doesn’t mean that I’ve achieved perfection. I never will. The wonderfully frustrating part of having and riding horses is that they will always keep us searching for something better. It’s just a part of the journey. Isn’t that just perfect!?

Good Years, Bad Days

We lost a horse a few days ago. She was a mare that we had raised and spent some good times with so, it was hard. Her death got me to thinking about this crazy life we lead and love and just how things fit together. One of my thoughts was that our life in agriculture is made up of good years with bad days that cause us to reflect and be grateful for the good ones.

A calendar year is made up of 365 days. We would have to have more than 183 bad days in a year for it to be a bad year. While I know there are people who have had years like that, fortunately, we have not. We’ve lived through years where things just didn’t go our way. We’d get hurt more than normal or have more sickness in ourselves or our livestock or not have the business run as smoothly or profitably as we’d like. But, in the final accounting of that year, we still had each other and we still had the ability to move forward and do our best to make the next year better.

Amy’s Dad would say that with horses, dogs, cats, and cattle, “If you’re going to have them, you’re going to lose them”. He was good at taking a bad situation and putting it in perspective! He chose to focus on the good days he had on the ranch and took the bad days in stride.

As we work with people and their horses we see that the people who choose to see the good things in their horse and pay less attention to the bad things, tend to get along better with their horse. The folks that think about their horse by remembering the time, five years ago, when a duck flew out of the ditch, spooked the horse, and he dumped them; have more trouble focusing on the good in their horse and he feels it.

We have the power to make things better. That’s one of the really miraculous traits we humans have. We’ve worked with many horses over the years that, for one reason or the other, just weren’t getting along with the humans in their world. By focusing on what good there was in that horse, believing that he could find the good in humans, and taking the time to let things come together, we were able to make positive changes in that horse and that horse inevitably would make positive changes in us.

It’s our choice! We can choose to let the troubles that this world will always throw at us define our years or we can choose to focus on the love and laughter that is always around us if we look for it. Hard days and hard times will find all of us. If we choose to call those days “bad days” and begin to look for the next “good day”, I believe we will have more good days that will make good years.

The next time you spend time with your horse, look for the good within him. I think that the more I look for the good in my horses, the more my horses look for the good in me. They probably have a harder time finding it in me than I do in them. Nevertheless, by searching for the good, we are likely to make more good days and many good years together!

Keeping It Real

There are days when I wonder if anything in the rest of the world is real.  We are bombarded with marketing hype promising to make our life better, faster, cheaper, and easier.  It sounds so good we’re tempted to take advantage of the offers.  We’d be crazy to not want things to be a little easier.  But, the little voice inside us reminds us that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.  We are constantly challenged to judge what is real and what is smoke and mirrors.

Amy and I are blessed to live in a place and do a job that keeps us grounded in reality.  There is a popular talk show host that likes to say he’s the Mayor of Realsville.  Amy and I must sit on the Town Council of Realsville.  Every day we have the opportunity to work with each other and with our pets and livestock in the great outdoors.   After more than 35 years of marriage, we’ve come to know and trust each other.  There’s not anything anyone could do or say to shake our confidence in each other.

Many of us that have a desire to differentiate ourselves from others around us.  It’s not that we need to be thought of as better, just different.  Maybe that’s what drives the marketers.  Do this or buy that because that’s what will make you look or act a little differently than the neighbors.  But, what about all of those people that want to be just like their favorite celebrity?  They are being sold on the things that their favorite person wears or does.  Combined with our seemingly insatiable appetite for more and better stuff, it’s not hard to understand why the marketers present things the way they do.

We in the horse world are not exempt from the better, faster, cheaper, easier mentality.  There are more gimmicks and devices offered to horse owners than I care to think about.  Some are offered by folks that really believe they’ve found a better way to help others get along with their horses.  Some are offered by people attempting to take advantage of others.  They often will play on the emotions of people that have just discovered horses.  If we were to just step back and ask how the horse would feel about an offer, we’d get a little closer to what our horse really needs.

Horsemanship is not about the people or the stuff.  It’s about meeting the horse where he lives and doing our best to understand that.  It’s about finding the feel that creates the euphoria when things get really right between our horse and us.  The reality is that the horse is the King of Realsville.  We need to forget about the newest horse whisperer to break onto the scene with the latest training methods that will revolutionize the way people work on their horses. We need to focus on building trust and confidence with our horse to get a little closer to the reality the horse lives. That’s keeping it real!

I Like To Sing

Not long ago, Amy and I travelled to Durango for the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Really great singers, poets, and artists were there regaling us with their works. I’ve always been amazed at people that can pick up a guitar, fiddle, or mandolin and make their right hand and left hand work together to make that instrument tell a beautiful story in notes. People that had not played together for a long time could sit down, talk about what “key” they wanted to play in, know what notes and words to put together and then just sit there and make nearly perfect harmonies. Somehow, they all spoke a similar language with music so what they produced always sounded great to me!

Now, I like to sing. You can ask my dogs, cats, horses, Amy, and Ben about that. I don’t know what “key” I’m singing in, I don’t always know the words, sometimes I make up the tune but, I enjoy it. It makes me feel good inside. If I start to have trouble with a project and find myself getting uptight, humming a little tune can get things calmed down and on the right track. I don’t have to be as good as the folks that sing and play for a living. Music can be an important part of my daily life without having to be perfect. I can enjoy using music in my own way for my own purpose!

Today, with most of us using horses for recreation, we don’t all have to be fantastic riders to enjoy our horses. Most of us just want to be comfortable in the saddle and feel like we have enough of a connection with our horse that we feel safe. If we’re smart, we’ve found a horse that will put up with our imperfections. One that’s more gentle than handy. Given that, our responsibility is to ride with balance, softness, and respect. Understanding how our horse operates and then using that understanding to feel our horse and create harmony in our going together.

A rider who “finds” their perfect seat can be a confident, secure rider who can relax on their horse. They will feel balanced and will allow their horse to find its balance. A balanced rider and horse will always operate more softly than those out of balance. A horse and rider that have found a mutual respect for one another will have enough confidence in one another to travel many miles enjoying each other’s company.

Don’t feel that you have to become the worlds greatest rider. Become the very best rider you can become. How it feels between you and your horse is more important than how it looks to the outside world. Enjoy each moment you have with your horse so your horse can enjoy the moments you have to share with them. You don’t have to be in the right “key”. You don’t have to know all the words to the song. And, you don’t always have to sing in tune. You and your horse can go down the trail making a joyful noise enjoying the harmony of just being together. There can be no more beautiful music than that!

Riding

I’ve been riding horses for about 40 years now. Most of that time I don’t think my horses were too impressed. As I go back over the riding I’ve done, most of it was an attempt to “control” my horse through mechanical means. I didn’t spend enough time trying to go with my horses so that they would want to go with me. Ray Hunt was phenomenal in his ability to go with his horses. He didn’t appear to have any fear. In my memory I hear him talk about how the horse couldn’t do anything wrong in the first few rides and that we needed to get with them, so the riding felt good to the horse. Most of us don’t have what Ray had so, how do we take what he taught and make it work for us?

Learn what your horse feels like when it moves out. I think most humans need to know that they can protect themselves. Just like the horse, we operate with a degree of self-preservation. To ignore that or try to push it aside is not allowing ourselves to be human. Having a plan for what we would do if our horse activates our sense of self-preservation is good. That’s why the one rein stop is a good tool to have in our tool belt. But, if all we think about is how to shut our horse down, we begin to obstruct our horse’s ability to move out without being worried. Taking the time to learn what our horse feels like just before he moves out may help us to be less concerned and go with him. We gain our horses trust and our horse gains our trust as we learn to move together.

Learn how to ride your horse with feel. One of the things we’ve utilized over the years that really seems to help people “feel” their horse is to teach them how to feel their horses’ feet rise and fall. When we know when the foot is leaving the ground, we can place it in a way that makes a lot of sense to the horse. The more we operate our horse in a way that helps him help us, the more together we get and the less defensive we both become. It’s hard to believe but, a horse feels your seat through the leather and wood that make up your saddle. They really are that sensitive to what we’re doing. It just stands to reason that an animal that sensitive doesn’t need to be pushed, pulled, or drug to get a job done. If we’re working to help them understand what we need, we’re more likely to have a partner that helps us get our job done.

Ride with balance. The more upright and balanced the rider is, the more upright and balanced the horse is. If I’m not leaning forward, backward, or side-to-side my horse doesn’t have to work to stay underneath me. If you’ve ever carried a child on your shoulders, you understand how just a little lean from them can cause you to adjust how you’re travelling. There have been folks that have focused on helping riders understand how to stay balanced horseback. Learning what they have discovered and incorporating that into our riding will really help us communicate effectively with our horse. If we learn what our horse feels like beneath us and allow our bodies to blend into theirs naturally, riding with balance can be achieved most of the time by getting rid of some old, bad habits and replacing them with habits that cause us to feel more secure in the saddle.

These things and more are what Amy and I cover in our clinics and private lessons. We’ve found that as riders take what we offer and make it their own, they become more confident and secure in the saddle. As a rider becomes more confident, their horses get better at following their leadership. A true partnership can be formed because each party is allowing the other to do what they do best. After all, the best we can get is our horse doing our thing their way. If we don’t have that, maybe we’d be better off walking.

Come Ride With Us!

Dave Stamey has a popular song entitled “Come Ride With Me” that really gets to the essence of the feelings many of us have when we’re horseback in this beautiful country we’re privileged to ride in. Amy and I went to see Dave at the Livermore Community Center this past Sunday where he performed that song along with many others. It was a nice break from our usual routine. Dave is a great performer and really engages with the folks that have come to see him. We would recommend you go see him when he’s in your area!

We had given a horsemanship clinic on Saturday with a small group of enthusiastic riders. We’ve come to enjoy those types of clinics, small and intimate, because we get to really engage with the riders and their horses in a way that a larger clinic just doesn’t allow. Our clinics are different than others for a variety of reasons; size, scope, attention to riders, and a focus on what’s important to the participants are just a few reasons why people return.

People seem to find like minded people. I believe that the folks that come ride with us are seriously looking for ways to improve their connection to their horses. And, even though we want the learning to be fun, we try to create an environment that will allow a level of focus that causes participants to retain the information that’s important to them. It’s like trying to achieve “balance” in our horsemanship; easy to talk about, harder to accomplish!

We truly believe that in order for our horses to get better, we need to get better. We lead our horse to better refinement by becoming more balanced riders and by finding ways to get them to want to be with us. We want them to do our thing their way. To do that, we often just need to get out of the way!

Come ride with us! If any of this sounds like a nice change from what you and your horse are doing together, we’d love to ride with you! With Fall weather approaching, Amy’s arranged for an indoor facility that will nicely accommodate small groups of riders. Check for upcoming events. See you down the trail!

Sam

I met a horse yesterday that touched my insides in a very special way.  Let’s call him Sam.  He’s around 10 years old and lives in a boarding facility in a beautiful part of Colorado.  He has good living conditions; a herd, pastures to graze, and people that love him. I met him because he began bucking with his riders so was turned out for several years.  When his people became interested in working with him again, they did all the right things.  They worked with him on the ground to get him more comfortable with people doing things around him.  They introduced him to the flag, ropes, and the ground work exercises they know. Still, he remained tight and suspicious of new things.  When they saddled him for the first time after all those years of turn-out, he reared and bucked.

Amy and I take a holistic approach the “problems” we encounter with the horses and people we encounter.  Amy has an amazing understanding of the horse/human biomechanical connection and is now an experienced practitioner of the Murdoch Method which helps horses find better balance and connectivity with their body.  When we were first introduced to Sam, he was wary and tight. We needed to make friends so he would trust us enough to evaluate what was going on with him.  We suspected some soreness in his back and neck was causing the tightness and the discomfort with the saddle.  He wasn’t too sore, just a little in his neck and shoulders.  The Murdoch Method employs pads placed under the horse’s feet, so we went to work checking out how his feet handled.  They weren’t as soft as we like but he wasn’t dangerous so we introduced Sam to the first set of pads Amy believed would help him accept the process.  Sam began to let down.

We asked the folks that had been working with Sam to show us a little of what they had been doing with him. It was all good stuff except that it wasn’t working for Sam in a way that caused him to want to connect with them. And, these folks were concentrating on what they were doing rather than on how what they were doing affected the connection with Sam.  It was like watching two people on the dance floor going through the dance steps without once looking each other in the eye.

When I had the chance to take the lead rope my only goal was to connect with Sam in some meaningful way. Meaningful to him.  I wanted him to feel like being with me was exactly the right place to be.  Somehow through the fog of things done to him and years of little contact, Sam came out of his shell and found me.  We danced together, looked each other in the eye and really connected.  It was euphoria for me and looked like it felt really good to him as well.  The trust that came through that connection allowed Sam to be saddled and moved out without a bobble.  The connection with one person who felt their way through the troubles and concerns inside one horse allowed that horse to let down and come into the human world with just a little more trust that everything could be okay.

That kind of connection makes for a good day.  Continually seeking those connections makes for a good life.  Agree?

Do You Hear What I’m Trying To Say?

It’s probably just me but, I find that, at times, what I think I’m saying to someone is not what they are hearing.  I take full responsibility for the miscommunication and any misunderstanding that results.  I’m coming from a set of perceptions and experiences based on the life I’ve lived.  The people I’m talking to often come from a very different set of experiences that cause their perceptions to be very different than mine.  Our paradigms are different so, when we are talking about a particular subject, a word or string of words may have a very different meaning to each of us.

Imagine how the horse feels!  The young horse is just getting exposed to the confusing world of humans.  The older horse comes with a set of experiences that make the human a good thing or bad thing.  Both horses are trying to hear what we are saying and respond in a way that makes them feel okay.  Humans have a tendency to do too much which activates a defense mechanism in the horse.  We also ask the horse to do things that are unnatural to them in their world but, that are necessary for them to thrive in ours.  Given all of that, it’s amazing our horses hear anything we are trying to say to them.

We’ve helped several horses over the past couple of months that were having trouble coping with the horse trailer.  The horse trailer is one of the most unnatural places for a horse to want to go.  Yet, if we offer them a chance to follow us into one, often times they will go and stay and cope.  When they don’t, things can get bad very quickly.  I think that putting a horse into a trailer is one of the best places to test how good our feel, timing and balance really are with that particular horse.  When we think our horse is as light and soft and willing as it can be we should try and load him in a 2 horse straight load trailer to ask him what he thinks!

Avoiding a bad experience at the horse trailer is the best way to avoid having trouble at the horse trailer.  Just like the best way to keep a horse from bucking is to never let him learn how.  If we recognize how unnatural it is for a horse to load into a trailer and do things to help him have enough confidence in us to try, we have a chance.  Sometimes it’s as simple as being aware of what bothers a particular horse and what makes him comfortable.  We will have the best chance of having our horse hear what we are trying to say if we pay attention to how he responds to the offers we make and then adjust those offers accordingly.

We were successful helping the horses we worked with get more comfortable loading and unloading into and out of the trailer.  We were also successful in helping the horse owners better understand their horses and how to help them through the rough spots that can appear with or without a trailer involved.  It’s a good day when you walk away thinking, “they actually heard what I was trying to say!”

Which End Is Up?

We’ve had the opportunity to work with some new people and horses over the past couple of weeks.  That’s always a thrill for us because not only do we have the opportunity to share some of our knowledge with someone new, we have the chance to be exposed to different ideas.  When we did a lot of day-work on neighboring cattle ranches, we saw a lot of different ways to work cattle and use horses.  It was a great way to see, in practice, ideas that might work for us.  Whether we learned what we wanted to try or not to try in our own operation, the ability to experience ideas was invaluable to our education.

Continuing to educate ourselves beyond the walls of a classroom and a formal education is one of the great things about life.  It’s a life choice.  We can either stay stuck in our ways and ideas or we can venture out beyond our comfort levels and experiment with new ideas and methods of doing things that are important to us.  Amy and I have gotten to the age and stage in life where we’ve experienced quite a bit.  We’ve found things that work well for us by doing lots of things that didn’t work as well.  It has been a blessing to be able to work with, for, and around lots of different people doing lots of different things.  Those experiences have helped us develop into who we are and what we do.

One of the endless debates in the horse community is about whether the front end or hind end of the horse is more important to control.  As our teacher and mentor Tom Dorrance used to say, “it depends”.  As in a lot of things in life, if we get too focused on one thing, other things will suffer.  Amy and I try to keep track of the whole horse; mind, body, and spirit.  By doing that we become more aware of what happening before other things happen.  We continue to develop a feel for our horse and become less mechanical.  We’ve discovered that there are times when the hindquarters are more important than the front end and times when we really need the front end to get a job done.

The more we all understand how horses see, think, and react to things, the better we can prepare ourselves and then our horse for the jobs we will do with them.  If I understand how my horse needs to move to carry my weight and do what I need done, I can help him to get balanced within his body so his feet can move how and where they need to go when they need to go.  If my horse and I fail to stay balanced in our job, we’re likely to be working against one another.  If I’ve educated my horse to the job we are doing and taught him to stay with me and stay balanced, I can let him decide what part of his body is more important for getting my thing done his way.

So, if you’re caught in the debate over front end versus hind end, don’t fret over which end is up.  Instead ask yourself if you’re considering the whole horse and the jobs you will be doing together.  Our bet is that you and your horse can find the answer together.  And, if you need some help figuring it out, we’d be happy to help!

Teacher Student

My parents were teachers so, I paid attention to what teachers did and I paid attention to what it took to become a teacher in our school system.  One of the steps in the process was to become a student teacher.  Student teachers came into our classrooms to practice what they had learned in college.  I never asked any of my student teachers how closely what they learned at college matched with what they were presented with once in a “real” classroom.  I imagine that the student teaching job exposed some student teachers to environments and attitudes they never foresaw.  That was probably one of the big incentives for having a student teacher program in the first place.

We had a chance to attend a clinic as students recently.  We try to be students of the horse everyday but, being another persons student can be both enlightening and challenging.  We don’t have a lot of ego.  We know that there are many things we do not know and many things that we know that we could do much better.  So, when we attend a clinic, we really are there to pick-up new ideas, look at something we do in a new way, and to refine our skills.  Because we both teach humans as a part of our business, we are looking for new ways to present ideas to others as well as find new things to help our horses.

I’m not a very good student.  Even when I try to listen and follow instructions, I end up doing things that cause my teacher consternation.  When I ask questions, I come across as argumentative and when I reply to questions asked of me, my answers come out all wrong.  Worse yet, when I attempt a new skill, I’ve got two left feet and six thumbs on both hands.  I’ve worked on correcting or adjusting those faults but, with little success.  Something happens to my brain and body at a clinic that I just don’t understand.  Despite all of that I feel like my horse gets better and that I come away with nuggets of information valuable to my learning journey.

The really great thing about attending a clinic is that I gain increased empathy for people that attend one of our clinics.  We’ve known for a long time that different people learn in different ways.  What we tend to forget is that different people have different reactions to the clinic setting itself.  Some people are comfortable in that setting and will say and do all the right things.  Others are more like me, saying and doing some good things and some not so good things.  What’s important for me to realize is….we wouldn’t be attending if we didn’t want to learn something.  Sometimes we take a chance and go to a clinic knowing nothing of the teacher nor the way they will present their information.  Other times we know the teacher, know how they present, and have an idea of what we may take away from our experience. Either way, we are there to learn.

As a teacher to humans about horses and cattle I need to remember that what works for me doesn’t always work for the next person.  I see and feel things differently than the next person.  I’ve worked at developing ways of interacting with my horse and with my horse on cattle that work for me.  I shouldn’t expect that those things will work for my students.  What’s important is developing an awareness of what you want from yourself and your horse and then developing a feel for when those things take place.  What you do to get there is not nearly as important as getting there in such a way that you and your horse are comfortable and relaxed and enjoying the learning process!  That’s what I learned from being a student this time.  I pray it makes me a better teacher.