An Equine Cure for a Type-A Personality.

WMNubeGallopFirst, consider the horse. He is a majestic, elegant animal with a free spirit–intelligent, playful and spontaneous. He is nothing short of awe-inspiring. He canters over the earth with his muscles rippling and his tail flagged, drinking the wind like cool water. He has been the very image of freedom and beauty since the beginning of time.

Now consider the Type-A rider. Psychologist Saul McLeod writes, “Type A individuals tend to be very competitive and self-critical. They strive toward goals without feeling a sense of joy in their efforts or accomplishments. Inter-related with this is the presence of a significant life imbalance.  This is characterized by a high work involvement.  Type A individuals are easily ‘wound up’ and tend to overreact. They also tend to have high blood pressure (hypertension).”

“Type A personalities experience a constant sense of urgency: Type A people seem to be in a constant struggle against the clock. Often, they quickly become impatient with delays and unproductive time, schedule commitments too tightly, and try to do more than one thing at a time, such as reading while eating or watching television.”

And he continues, “Type A individuals tend to be easily aroused to anger or hostility, which they may or may not express overtly. Such individuals tend to see the worse in others, displaying anger, envy and a lack of compassion. When this behavior is expressed overtly (i.e. physical behavior) it generally involves aggression and possible bullying.”

That seems a little harsh. And gratuitous. Maybe even mean. As a recovering Type A individual, I notice a lot of us are impatiently attracted to horses. We crave synchronicity with this beautiful, ethereal animal. They do say opposites attract, but that’s just the beginning.

I’ll use myself as a bad example. I was 25 years old and showing my one-of-a-kind work in the best fine art jewelry gallery in the country–on 5th Avenue in NYC. And at home my baseboards were spotless.

Then I entered the twelve step program for recovery, meaning I bought a horse. He was a brilliant weanling who I could mold perfectly who would train me to exhale. Again and again, to the point of hyperventilating in the beginning.

There’s a word left out of that long-winded Type A definition; the one word hurts the most to admit: self-loathing. We push too hard to make up for our imperfections, yet we stay conscious of each one. We see them in our horses. A strategy to fake leadership can work to a point with some horses, if you are a big enough bully, or if art and beauty don’t matter to you. I was out of luck on both counts. On the bright side, I didn’t enjoy feeling like a loser either.

Type A riders like control a bit too much. Some of us control freaks micro-manage our horse’s nose into being afraid to take a breath–before we clear the mounting block. Type A’s and horses are kind of a perfect storm. The harder we try, the less we receive, the more we demand, the more resistant the horse becomes, the bigger the fight…but most of us internalize it stubbornly. Then if it’s a really bad day, a giggling kid rides by bareback and mocks all your work. But Type A’s are not quitters, so we double down.

Then, if we have a very good horse, he doubles down too, refusing to submit to soul-killing repetition and mind control. He requires equality, the thing we doubt most about ourselves.

We should have just gone to therapy in the first place because we can imagine a better way. We are haunted by beauty: some riders and horses have a synergy and together they ride just to the edge of control–and balance there, sharing perfection. There is brilliance in the art of the edge, but you have to give up some control to let the horse be there–you have to trust him. These are the moments that hook us forever because we become vulnerable partners. Our rules and restrictions fall away and in the moment, we are as authentic as a horse. It might happen doing flying changes in the arena or it might be picking a trail over uneven ground. It’s humbling to feel your horse rise up under you and offer himself.

And if you feel it once, just an instant, the addiction takes hold and we try to re-create it at all cost. That desire is our doom and for a time, things get worse by our own force of will. Instead, like a surfer waiting for the perfect wave, we have to stay open and be ready to go along.

Our intention is to make perfection, but perfection is already a horse’s natural state. Thinking that we need to micro-manage the horse is the ultimate vote of no trust. The more we hold our horse or correct the mistake before it happens, the more our horse loses confidence in his own ability. We damage their balance and rhythm but most of all, we stifle their personality and individuality. We end up damaging the traits we loved the most and progress is simply not possible–we are in our own way.

It takes a strange courage to un-control the outcome. Truth be told, Type A’s aren’t that into freedom and trust after all.

I’m lucky. My horses never had much tolerance for my intolerant ways. And since I was Type A, I controlled myself…to give them time to answer; time to be beautiful and intelligent. Hush. I had to quit nagging long enough to let him volunteer. Then I had to find my manners and let him know how I felt. It required honesty, in the moment, beyond external noise. I had to be real in order to progress.

The best reason to improve our riding is that it allows the horse to work his magic on us. The more we get out of his way, and let him carry himself, the more he gains the confidence to partner in our dance. Our riding should not limit the horse’s best qualities but rather, encourage the horse help us possess them also.

It’s a perfect plan: equine passion pulls us past the self-loathing part and then horses mentor us to wholeness. We can learn compassion where there used to be criticism, and baseboards be damned, so much more about ourselves to like.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Rule of Thirds

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The Rule of Thirds is a design term used when an object is not centered, but instead has visual tension because its placement creates movement within the frame.

On our farm, a good herding/guarding dog, like my Tomboy, is never at the center. She frames things differently, too. Instead she is on the move around the edges because it’s her job to guard the center. And that center is always me.

Headed to the barn with Tomboy.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

The Grandfather Horse. Not Dead Yet.

WMOldManI haven’t written about the Grandfather Horse in over a year. Most of that time, I was scared half-to-death and the rest of the time, I was laughing too hard.

I know I’m supposed to credit whatever equine skills I might have to my trainers (I worked with the best,) and the famous clinicians I rode with (they were famous for all the right reasons,) but when the scabs all healed, my greatest mentor was Spirit, a $600 spotted colt. He has done it all. Twice. And with me on his back. That last part was really hard.

No one taught me more about wet t-shirt contests and unplanned vaulting. About reining and dressage. About how to be a horse. He quite simply taught me everything worth knowing. I don’t believe in soul-mates, but if I did, the Grandfather Horse is mine. I doubt the Dude Rancher would disagree.

I’d like to say Spirit, retired to the respected place of Grandfather Horse in our herd, was such a good teacher because he was easy to understand. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He was a challenge to ride: quirky, emotional, not particularly athletic, and with a little too much try. (As I a trainer, when clients tell me who their horse is, in my mind I switch the pronouns–what she says about her horse is true about herself. Probably true in my case, too.)

These last 12 years of forced retirement have been sheer hell for both of us. Watching him slowly deconstruct with old age has taken more courage than anything I ever tried in the saddle.

We had a decrepit routine. He shuffled along, baby-stepping with his eyes perpetually teary and sunken. I learned to schedule his Annual Emergency Sheath Cleaning. The first time, I thought he was dying. His sheath doubled in size in one day; his eyes showed the pain. Now I mark Old Man Smegma on the calendar. The vet probably has a less descriptive name for it.

There was chronic diarrhea and the tendons in his front legs gave way to bent knees a decade ago. His arthritis was audible. As much as he loved a roll in the sand, he did it rarely. Neither of us thought he would make it back up. I tried being stoic like him. He was holding his own, the best he could, but he lacked his usual humor. Maybe he didn’t recognize himself. I notice at this age, I don’t.

It changed last spring. He held a good weight all winter and come February, his weight plummeted. He didn’t eat differently, but he developed a decidedly bovine appearance. He had thigh gap, significantly less cool in horses. His back dropped even more; he barely had a memory of muscle. It happened so abruptly that I thought I was losing him. It was obvious enough that people mentioned it to me, with a euthanizing look in their eyes. Like I didn’t know all of his contemporaries were gone already.

The Grandfather Horse was already getting twice as much beet pulp by the time the dentist mentioned his missing teeth. I reminded him of the one pulled a few years earlier, but he corrected me. Most of the rest on that side were gone–since his last check-up! Shouldn’t I have seen that many on the ground?

I started trying different feeding strategies, I broke a couple of my own rules and slowly, the weight came back. I scrutinized everything every day.

WMOldRoll Sometimes he trotted a few strides to his dinner when he came in at night. Then the first real sign of change: when our farrier was here and he flicked his tail in her face and actually pulled his hoof out of her hand. Both of us cackled like hens–he felt good enough to behave badly for the first time in years.

He’s laying down more again. It sounds like 2000 books falling off a table and I flinch to see it, but he’s rolling and sunbathing again.

All horses, no matter how good they are, have a tragic flaw–that rude love of a bad habit. When he was younger, Spirit liked to bolt when the halter came off for turnout. A split-second lapse of focus and you could simultaneously get your toes crushed and an arm dislocated. Zero to sixty in a joyous rocket launch. It’s happening again! On especially fine days, he even spooks.

My Christmas present? I heard hooves pounding and when I got to the pasture, the Grandfather Horse was running the younger ones ragged. He was flashing his tail and galloping along like a box of rocks.

He just seems to feel happier. My friend–with the oldest horse I know–says at a point her mare’s joints fused a bit and the arthritis hurt less. I think my Grandfather Horse may have lived long enough for this special senior discount. Either way, he’s got a second wind and he thinks aging gracefully is the worst kind of lame.

The Grandfather Horse is happy again and I’m like the teacher’s pet who raises her hand, “Oh, oh, oh!” and tries too hard. He’s had decades to get used to my awkward ways, he knows I catch up eventually. So, he’s sterling in the moonlight. He shows me how to feel the afternoon sun in a whole new way. He’s born-again beautiful; it’s irresistibly bittersweet.

This week we lost a beloved barn member and when the dead animal transport people came, they gave me a senior discount. Perhaps an ironic call to arms?

We’re still not the most graceful pair, but world, beware. It’s 16 days till Daylight Savings time and less than a month till calendar Spring. New grass is on the way. There’s a good chance we’ll plan a Spring breakout–me and the Grandfather Horse.  We’ve got nothing to lose and we’re not dead yet.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

(Wishing my cootacious Dude Rancher a defiant birthday.)

PS. If you like this blog, you’ll love my book, making its way to publication at AnnaBlake.com

Weekly Photo Challenge: Symmetry

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Infinity Farm is on the flat, windy, treeless prairie, where there’s no top to the sky and the low-billowing earth creeps along without much drama. There’s a symmetry to the landscape you can learn to love.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Left in the Dust: Your Ridiculously Slow Response Time.

WMNubeTack2jpgHave you noticed that horses are incredibly quicker than we are? I’m going to tell you the good news about that, but it’s going to take a while to get there.

Horses have the fastest response time of any common domestic animal. Yes, they measure these things, and horses are quickest to perceive and respond to stimuli–partly because they are prey animals. Sharp awareness, coupled with the ability to flee immediately, is crucial to survive in the first place.

Conversely, humans have a conscious thought process that’s arrogant enough that we think we know what’s happening–without even using our senses. We think too much, to the point that we live in a dream state, a predator’s luxury for sure. Although it’s true that we do startle from time to time, we can also sleep through fires and earthquakes. Again, it’s a miracle that natural selection gave us a wink and a nod.

I’ve heard the actual number–a horse’s response time is 7X quicker than ours. We don’t have a chance. How are we supposed to be the leader when we start this far behind?

Step one: Think less, sense more. Leave the thoughts of your day at the mounting block, along with any other benign intellectual activity. Instead of chattering away in your thoughts, get quiet and take in what your senses tell you. Start with your body; check for stiffness and when you find it, breathe into that tight area. Then feel your horse exhale and relax that area in his body. Is your horse’s poll tight? Loosen your neck and jaw. Use of few moments to fluidly follow your horse’s stride, like a mutual massage, connecting sit bones to spine. Then say thank you.

Horses live in the present moment, forever sensing their surroundings in real-time. They notice the environment in detail, but they don’t wish it was summer. They are aware of every part of your body that’s bigger than a fly, but they could care less about your Olympic aspirations. Horses are a bit Buddhist that way. So, bring your wandering, day-dreaming mind gently back and put it into your seat; settle into the inner world. If we want to have any chance of keeping up with our horses, we have to still our distracted thoughts and feel the now.

I know… feel the now is a bliss-ninny phrase that’s boring and quiet, and it’s so much easier to let your mind run like a rat-on-a-wheel, planning world domination, but stop. Go back and mentally get your horse. Change your point of view to his side.

The more rhythmically the horse moves, the more he relaxes, and to the degree that we take part in that, we become one with our horse. The only way to influence his brain is through his body, and he wants that conversation quiet and reciprocal.

When your brain is eventually quiet you can hear your horse speak. Does he have an opinion about your hands? Of course he does, and he’s right. Listen to him. It doesn’t mean that you can’t ride on contact, it means that you need to let him teach you how to do it and he will do that by communicating through his body to yours, while you ‘listen’ with each one of your senses. For all the physical drama of riding, it’s a sport of interior awareness. Riding is the place where you and your horse’s awareness aligns.

Any riding technique is only as good as the horse and rider’s perception of each other.

You can strike a correct pose in the saddle, but your horse is looking for more communication than that, and he doesn’t speak English.  Follow him physically until you get to the vulnerable place inside where you can lead him mentally. Dressage riders are famous for riding with a seemingly blank stare in the vicinity of their horse’s head. It’s because they are not looking outside, so much as feeling inside. It’s also called oneness.

Once we find that place of partnership, then we can begin to negotiate asking the horse to come along, even if his response is faster than ours. Our guidance becomes a calming thing that provides him with a sense of well-being and with that confidence, he feels safe enough to respond in a less prey-extreme way. In other words, now your slow response time is something he likes about you. You begin to seem a bit presidential.

But then the two of you sense that fearful feeling of an almost imaginary thing, before the tiny thing, before the small thing, before the quiet thing, before the audible thing, before the accelerating thing, before the screaming bloody murder thing, and finally, the I-am-so-gone-dead-flop-sweat thing. Think eyes squinted shut, hands over ears, and an endless la-la-la screeching over top of everything. Your horse is responding badly and yes, 7X faster than you.

And at long last, here’s the good news about your horse responding 7X faster: if you manage to stay present enough to maintain that physical communication that lets him feel you, and you give him a breath of help from your gut to his, even if it comes late, he will sense it immediately and remember that you’re his safe place. And then he will come back to you 7X quicker as well.

I don’t know if they can measure trust like they do reaction times, but if so, I’m guessing that increases about 7X, too.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Please consider following my author blog at www.annablake.com for news of my upcoming book. Thanks for your support.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Scale

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Scale is when one recognizable object is used to define the size of a second object. But photos can lie.

Coming or going… The actual scale of Andante, TB X Beglian, and Bhim, JAB gelding (just as big) are equal in our herd. Even the mares think so.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

The Stepford Horses, Dominated to Submission.

Remember the Stepford Wives–a little too submissive, a little too darkly docile? I saw horses just like them last week and I’m still in a snit. They were at a riding facility–a group lesson of fairly novice western riders. Each of the horses had a shank bit, each of the riders used spurs. The horses moved like the zombie-wives who had lost the will to live… altered into submission by their self-important husbands. If one of the horses did lift his head to see where he was going, there was a hard bump on the bit, metal on bone, painful enough to shut down or kill forward movement in any horse. That’s where the spurs came in. (There is also a dressage version of this, of course.)

*If you think domination is good horsemanship, you’re wrong. Seeing your horse cower underneath you is ugly.*

WMdrivelineI’m preaching to the choir. If you read this blog, I doubt you ride this way. My actual clients, who always think I’m talking about them, all know for a fact this isn’t them. I’m not accusing any of you of being this kind of brutal, soul-killing rider. Still, balance and forward can always improve, and in an attempt to relieve the PTSD burned onto my eyeballs, can we talk about balance and willingness?

Let’s compare riding a horse to driving a car. It’s a lousy, demeaning comparison because even though some horses are expected to perform mechanically, in truth, riding is an art involving lightness and partnership with an animal of intellect and emotion. Not like cars at all.

To begin, a horse has a drive-line at the girth area. In other words, where the rider/driver sits in the saddle. All energy to move ahead comes from behind the drive-line, so the hind-end is the engine/gas pedal, and in front of the girth is where the brake is.

Forward movement is the finest virtue a horse can have; the ability to cover ground in a rhythmic and relaxed way. It begins with the horse’s soft, strong hind leg stepping under to push forward, allowing the energy to flow softly over his back, through his withers and his poll, and landing sweetly on his lips. The result of this push from behind is that the horse’s poll is soft and his head on the vertical, like horses moving at liberty. It’s a rider’s goal to recreate that relaxed liberty sort of energy; to let it flow sweetly, passing through the rider in the saddle–at any gait.

That’s the idea, but if the poll is tense everything changes. There’s a delicate front-to-back balance crucial to the horse. To the degree that the rider creates tension in front, or lays on the brake, forward is impeded because forward isn’t defined by the speed the horse is moving, but instead the horse’s effective, flexible use of his body. Just as you wouldn’t drive using the gas and brake simultaneously. Just as you couldn’t run easily in a cinched-up back brace.

Still, we land in the saddle and immediately bump the horse’s nose down, or use a rein to pull his head to the side before the first step. Some trainers do it, but it isn’t any more effective than turning the steering wheel when the car is parked. Using the hand brake, meaning the inside rein, before the horse is even moving, makes a horse lose balance and rhythm–even at the halt. What could have been a dance, ends up in a bar brawl. And I might be ranting about those Stepford horses again.

A good rider always has more energy from behind (gas) than restriction in the front (brakes) but it’s a fine balance. We move off at a walk, engaging our seat and legs and letting the reins rest. In Dressage we want the horse moving forward to the bit, in support of his natural balance, roundness, and flexibility at the poll. It takes finesse, lightness, and sheer will to stay out of his way.

Most of us unbalance our horses when learning. It’s our nature to pull on the reins for control or an impression of the desired outline. So we cue stop and go simultaneously, confusing the horse by grabbing his bit and spurring him forward. Or soft hands can flow with the horse’s movement, creating no resistance and getting none in return. Hands can ride the brake every stride, or rest lightly on the wheel, careful to not over-correct. Hands are the aid we should use least while riding.

How can you tell if you ride the brake, being too restrictive with the reins? That is so simple–your horse tells you. He’s tense and upside down. He flips his head or tries to pull the reins out of your hand. It isn’t disobedience, he’s letting you know by sending your resistance right back to you. It’s what happens when you tap the brake–the ride gets jerky. You can choose to take the cue gratefully and continue the conversation; you can be as responsive as you want your horse to be. Or you can shout him down and punish him when he asks for kindness.

If the excuse/thought crosses your mind that you need a stronger bit, read this (here.) Especially if you think your horse will run off if you let up on the brake.

For what the horse does under compulsion… is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer. -Xenophon, b. 430BC

The saddest thing about fearful Stepford horses is that they are silenced, never to waltz, or sing into their rider’s ear. By correcting the horse before he’s had a chance to volunteer, the ride becomes flat and two-dimensional. As hard as it is on the horse, it’s the rider that loses the most.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.