Seeing is Believing

Right there in yoga class, my mind and body formed a conspiracy against me. For thirty seconds, I held plank pose in what felt like a perfect imitation of a yoga master. I felt the straight line of my back and long neck, the open spread of my chest and shoulders, palms pressing firmly into the ground yet not straining. It all felt correct and effortless, maybe even graceful.

Then I glanced to the right at a mirror next to me. Whoa, was that hunched up, straining figure ME? My rounded back looked like a turtle shell; my shoulders slumped and chest collapsed. That girl in the mirror couldn’t possibly be me. Where was the grace, the long straight spine? That girl looked like Quasimodo crawling up the steps at Notre Dame.

I turned away so I could focus on feeling my body again. Wiggling a little here and there, I fixed the problems and knew that surely now I was close to perfection. For validation, I turned again to the mirror. WHAT?! Nothing changed from before. A lip-biting, sloppy hunchback gazed back at me.

Obviously, my body was betraying me. How could something feel so different from the way it was actually happening? Initially, I thought this trickery might be karmic payback for the lessons I’ve taught in which I end up being the equivalent of the yoga mirror for students. A common exchange goes like this:

Student: But my leg IS back.

Me: No, it’s not. It really is not.

Student: It MUST be. It feels so far back.

Me: No. It’s not even close.

These exchanges, while indeed necessary for a student’s learning, leave me feeling like a buzz-kill. I end up being a messenger of negativity at the moment someone thinks she is doing really well. Everything feels great, her body is giving feedback that she’s succeeding, and then I come along and tell her that her body is lying.

Too often, I deliver these bubble-bursting tidbits into the gaze of a wide-eyed student, whose blank expression says “but…but… how can that possibly be?” Their innocent stare wonders for a moment if perhaps I am lying. Maybe I just want to deflate their egos and make them work harder. Or I’m just a mean person. Let me assure you, devoted students, that I had similar thoughts about the cruel mirror in yoga class. Was this some kind of prank?, I pondered. Did the mirror need cleaning? Or maybe it was foggy.

No. It was the age-old curse of being human. I call this flawed human reality the curse of being deceived by our bodies. Thus, the events we are certain we’ve created have not actually happened. So, even though my spine feels long and straight, it is not that way at all. It is, more accurately, slumped, hunched, compressed.

Dispelling my belief that this disparity was due to karmic payback, I read the scientific explanation behind it last week. As it turns out, human brains are wired for eternal frustration, at least in the case of learning motor skills. The region of our brains that know how to perform a physical task differs from the region that signals neurons to create movements for tasks. The part of your brain that tells you how to perform sitting trot, for example, is different than the part that triggers impulses to get the job done. You can tell yourself to stretch thighs down and back, keep your eyes up, elbows at your side, and so on. But this does not, unfortunately, translate to the right results.

This mis-wiring of brain and body certainly monkey wrenches our attempts to learn technical sports like horseback riding, where so much depends on the feedback of body sensations. It’s just plain unfair, in fact. On my bike ride home from yoga class, I contemplated this. I wondered what good could possibly exist in this way that our brains work (or don’t work) with our bodies. It definitely impedes our learning process. And it can wreak havoc on our notion of progress, not to mention the demoralizing of our egos.

Then, I remembered watching a video clip from a recent schooling session with a young horse. The schooling session had felt okay but not great, so I got home expecting I already knew what was on the video my student shot. However, her video clip revealed a much better session. My horse LOOKED a lot better than he FELT. I watched the television pleasantly surprised. As footage reeled, my smile grew. A genuine contentment claimed me. Instantly, I was thoroughly satisfied with the horse’s schooling, even though moments before watching this footage I felt nagging discontent.

Moments like these, I realized, make the mis-wiring of our brains and bodies not only tolerable but preferable. Like an unexpected gift, these moments tell us that we’re doing a whole lot better than we thought we were. They change our reality from usual self-bashing “This is not going well, I should quit while I’m ahead” to a self-congratulating “Hey, look at me, I’m pretty awesome!”

What’s better than that? I argue that few things come close in terms of delivering happiness. The sudden surprising evidence that, no, you are not doing a terrible job but are in fact excelling, deserves our appreciation. So, to the Gods of evolution, I would like to say thank you. Thanks for our flawed human creation, for our strangely functioning brains. Thank you for bodies that defy our commands and for brains that can’t tell when they do. But most of all, thanks for when this works in our favor and leaves us feeling awesome.

A Fit Horse is a Mixed Blessing

Life is nothing if not seasoned with ironies and, while I try to see it otherwise, this reality often brings colossal disruption to my days. Fortunately, on lighter-hearted days it delivers a humbling chuckle to a task I previously might have thought I had the answers to. At that moment, some unexpected twist brings its irony to the storyline.

Lately, these moments have proven the certainty of a mantra my father used to chant when I was growing up. “A fit horse is a mixed blessing,” he said at the beginning of competition season every year. He liked to remind us of this at the height of our intensive conditioning period during which my family spent what seemed like every waking minute either exercising our horses or researching and planning how to get them even fitter. Then right in the middle of all this focused relentless effort, my father would utter his mantra.

At the time, it felt like he was being a curmudgeon. Why would we invest so much time and energy getting these horses fit if he was now telling us that our goal came with a trade off? He preferred to think of himself as a voice of reason, a fact he reminded us about as our now fit and hyper steeds channeled their honed athleticism into unruly behaviors.

I have spent the last three years writing, publishing, and promoting my book Equine Fitness. The book and the entire concept of fitness figures prominently in my life. It represents the center of my belief system, which is that every equine athlete needs to be physically prepared for any job we ask of him. Many training ruts that I witness are due to the horse not being strong enough, coordinated, or physically capable to perform what his rider wants. I’ve had the pleasure of watching numerous riders finally reach their goals just by addressing their horses’ fitness needs. Likewise, I have seen riders improve their OWN abilities by getting themselves stronger and stretchier in the right spots.

This all explains why my training and lessons focus a fair amount on this topic. And why I spent so much time writing a book on it. In sum, fitness will make your horse better. The fine print to this proclamation is that it will also prove my father’s mantra.

Luckily, most riders have such busy lives with work, families, and modern day obligations that their time limits restrict them from getting to the level of their horse’s wow-I-feel-really-great-and-turbo-charged. Many horses hover just below that level of totally fit (and more difficult to manage). But for the riders who do find the time to apply my book, I think I need to write a follow-up title What To Do With Your Now-Fit Horse.

These steeds, now bristling with strength and vitality have extra juice in their step, more sass and spunk to their nature. Good strong blood pumps through their well-toned and supple muscles. Primed to tackle hard exercise without fatigue, they throw themselves eagerly into workouts.

These are all euphemisms of course for the fact that they can be a total pain in the butt. Suddenly, they have morphed from docile pasture potato into the equine equivalent of your triathlete friend who annoys you for lack of being able to sit still.

Many of my students have helped their horses transform from lumpy to lean, from easily fatigued to stamina overdrive. I’ve applauded their efforts, cheer leading them through productive workouts and making them vow ongoing consistency. And, yes, part of my responsibility is to dissolve the occasional exasperation that arises as their steed expresses punky tendencies due to newly found fitness.

“No, no, it’s good!” I reason as their faces pucker up in annoyance. “He feels great; that’s wonderful!” And these horses DO feel great, really great. The downside of this, obviously, is that the better they feel the more exercise they need. Which requires an availability of time that anyone with a life doesn’t possess. Plus, many fit horses can turn into…well, butt heads to be around. Therefore, no matter the merits for horse and human, fitness becomes a hard sell.

This became especially true on Tuesday as I watched Sparta– a charming Thoroughbred cross gelding– interrupt his leg-yield for a projectile movements best described as spronking. All of the sudden, he tucked his butt underneath and bounced through the air three times like a Jack Russel Terrier and then settled back down to work. The disturbance happened so quickly that his owner remained perfectly in balance and immediately carried on with her leg-yield. I had to suppress a chortle seeing the twinkle in Sparta’s eye. Just a few months before, his owner had to spur and beg him through his workouts. Now, in the height of summer with a full tank of exercise and fitness, he felt so good about his work that he was offering up a little extra spunk.

“No, no, that was good!” I told the rider, lest she become agitated.

We carried on with the lesson, making it only a few more minutes before Sparta bounced himself sideways across the arena like a boy on a trampoline. This time, his rider dropped one rein, quickly reeled it back in, yanked him back out to the rail and got on with business. His antics were losing charm, though. She rolled her eyes and sighed heavily, bordering on annoyance. Being the gentleman that he is, Sparta quit doing maneuvers that involved hopping and springing. Instead, he channeled his energy into speed. Lots of it. He started trotting a little faster at first. Then, by the third corner, he gained considerably more speed and raced down the long side of the arena. By the next turn, he was moving so fast that his rider could not get her seat and stood up in the stirrups, balancing over top of him as if standing on a surf board in choppy water. Sparta kept zipping around the arena like he was trying to set a personal speed-trotting record. His rider bobbled around trying to getting his attention to slow down, now visibly ticked off that our lesson was heading in such a disastrous direction. Sparta snorted through his nose, pricked his ears forward. He lifted his back and swung his legs with a range of movement rarely seen from him. In fact, he looked like a world class dressage Warmblood for a moment. Any onlooker could tell that his body felt good and he was pretty excited to be out for a workout. None of this changed the fact that his owner was more annoyed with him by the second, though. Unable to slow him down and still bobbling around in the saddle, she started admonishing him. She told him to knock this off. She told him what a butt head he was being.

One more time, I stepped in. “No, no– it’s good. He feels great!” I reminded her.

Well, if this was his version of feeling great, she said, then she preferred him feeling crummy. After yanking at the reins and getting him to slow down and then finally to stop, she admitted that the power of his gaits did feel incredible. And he was clearly strong and performing better than ever. But why did that all have to come at the cost of him being a butt head?, she wanted to know.

There is no good answer for this, nothing that will fully satisfy an annoyed rider. I paused and cleared my throat. I acted as if I were channeling wisdom from dressage masters centuries earlier. “Well…” I started out. “A fit horse is a mixed blessing.”