The Same Old Simple
One of the challenges of being a trainer who writes for magazines is the creative impulse. This aim to create clever sentences or descriptions fuels any serious writing habit but especially one intended for publication. Often present is the desire to brand oneself by presenting novel ideas. When writing training articles, though, this creativity comes with responsibility. Too much flowery prose, personalized angles, or re-invention of information leads readers away from the simple, timeless points of training horses.
We writers and trainers must compose and deliver information tactfully, as sobered as that seems to our inner artists. When we relent to too much creativity, we start crafting articles—or giving clinics—branded to our own flair. We add layers of complication, nuances. We color things to catch or keep students’ attention. In other words, we steer away from the responsibility to present plain old simple information over and over again. Reinvention is a seductive taunt, especially in the modern world of personal marketing. But when it replaces sound, useful information we have done the whole industry a disservice. We open the door to further re-invention, creativity uprooting fundamentals.
I read a dressage article recently that captivated me with its colorful language and complex images. It described a handful of training concepts in a beautiful but abstract way. From a reading perspective, it pleased me. But had I climbed on my horse trying to use the information from that article, both of us would have been tight and confused pretty quickly. For all the stylized language and originality of concepts, the article failed to offer simple, straightforward points to take away. My mentor, Manolo Mendez, always chanted simple, simple. Don’t get original or creative; keep your training simple.
Of course, when your livelihood depends on garnering a large clientele, this advice can be difficult to adhere to. I have done my share of looking enviously at trainers who have invented their own training systems or brands, marketed personalized steps for training horses. The newness or coolness of their programs garners them big numbers of students, and presumably income. Those of us committed to the simple, universal, unexciting principles of developing horses sometimes wonder if we’re missing opportunities.
For me who knows the power of words, it comes down to a responsibility. Trust me, I could write a narrative for my next magazine assignment that would make you giddy with inspiration and coolness and reinvention. But in the context of training articles, I will not allow my creativity—or personal branding—free rein. In other areas of my life and writing, yes, but in horse articles I will not deviate from Manolo’s simple, simple.
Understand this: reiteration of universally practical wisdom can still be deeply satisfying, timely. It remains the material we owe it to ourselves to write and read. Again and again.
Who, Me?—A Pain in the Butt?
It starts innocently enough. We amuse dinner parties with inconceivable stories of all those horse owners who give the rest of us a bad rap, the high maintenance ones. These are the group of people who do and say things that the rest of us cannot relate to. They make themselves impossible to fathom, uncomfortable to be around. Then, eventually in the telling of a story along the way, we pause to admit that defining high maintenance is a matter of perspective. This means, even while it’s incomprehensible, someone else might be story telling about us right now.
I reflected on this last week while writing my groom a two-page summary of feeding instructions for my horse Corazon. Mind you, Corazon requires no special dietary protocol like medications. This note did not contain information that would keep him alive, comfortable, or allergy free. Instead it outlined my preferences for feeding him, specific requests that my groom needed to follow simply because I wanted her to. These involved several extra steps than tossing grain in my horse’s bucket. Among them were: soaking, rinsing, grinding, and mashing. Then, of course, there was the protocol of how to enter his pen and feed him so that he remained mannerly and polite about his routine.
Whoa. I realized suddenly how fussy and nitpicky my instructions sounded. Was it possible that I bordered on high maintenance? I figured I better develop a quick framework for separating myself, hopefully, from full-blown pain in the butt status. This way, I could do a self-assessment the next time I was guffawing over someone else’s mind-boggling absurdity. I could be sure I was not just telling stories about myself. Here is my outline of considerations that might define us equine enthusiasts as high maintenance:
A complicated nutrition/supplement program tops the list, and might be the first sign that you’re making life with horses more complicated than it needs to be. I know owners who, by the time they have assembled their horses’ daily regime of supplements, medications, and feeds, don’t have time to ride. They drive all the way out to the barn to spend an hour mixing, mashing, and dosing their horses’ food but don’t actually get him out of the stall to enjoy or exercise him. The feeding program soon takes on a life of its own, which makes it nearly impossible for these owners to ever take a vacation. Nobody else is competent or reliable enough to follow the minutiae of steps involved.
Mind you, this intensive feeding routine brings these owners a form of satisfaction and pleasure. If they were to streamline or cut it out, they might lose a small window of happiness each day. But here it’s probably worth noting that within community settings, like barns, our own individual pleasures might stir someone else’s stress. This brings me to the second point in my high maintenance guideline: overly frequent calls/texts/emails/messages to the barn owner or trainer. For as much as we each love hearing about our horse, the recipient of our messages does not updating us. Inquiring once a day or every other day about your horse’s health and happiness is okay. More than that just gets you labeled. I like to remind my students that if I talk to them on the phone more often than my mother, they are getting a little high maintenance.
A final consideration in the community horse-keeping setting is what I call hysteria matching. Ask yourself: does your level of hysteria over issues match those around you? In other words, when you find yourself raising your voice and getting pretty worked up about the fact that someone forgot to put on your horse’s fly mask, ask if others would have this as a normal reaction. When the horse across the fence looks at yours cross-eyed, or maybe even reaches across and nips him, consider whether the frenzy you have worked yourself in to seems on par. When the night help accidentally puts on your horse’s stable blanket instead of his rain sheet, do not freak out on him unless you can say for sure that your level of shrieking and harsh remarks are indeed a reasonable and acceptable means of communication.
Now, with these simple starting points for keeping ourselves from being the center of dinner party stories about neurotic horse enthusiasts, let’s assess ourselves from time to time. Let’s ensure the stories remain about those other people, the really crazy ones.
Taking the Glamour out of Business Travel
Our differences began to enumerate right around the time I admitted I needed to call this kind of jet-setting work—life on the road as a clinician—something else. At first, I thought of it by the same title given to the well-heeled individuals working for big companies who occupy the luxurious seats at the front of airplanes: business travel. For the fact that they and I alike traveled to locations both wonderful and dreary to deliver our expertise, we seemed to share professional descriptions. I have since sobered up to the reality that a traveling horse trainer shares very little, if anything, with those on bona fide business travels. I guess that leaves us among a marginal group maybe best called obscure career travelers.
To start with, there is the issue of in-flight seat price and privilege. Those company men and women sit much closer to the front of the plane in seats like La-Z-Boys, placidly reclined with carbonated beverages already cupped in their smooth hands before the rest of us have wrestled luggage overhead and squished down on to our tiny cushions. By comparison, the rest of us are sweaty and frazzled. A carbonated beverage will not make its way to us without an equation of smooth air, flight duration, and benevolent attendants.
Then there is the difference of attire between the bona fide business folks and we obscure careerists. The front-of-plane folks, making their way to fancy meeting rooms instead of dusty arenas, appear as buffed and clean as mannequins. Everything about them looks pressed, tidy: shirts fronts, hairstyles, cuticles, handbags. In contrast, my finest work outfit, consisting of jeans, polo shirt, and paddock boots looks unkempt. And while it was crisp clean when I took it from the closet that morning, my jacket usually bears several horse slobber streaks from a quick stop at the barn en route to airport. My paddock boots have lost the ability to hold a shine when polished, and I would not know the first thing to do with a designer handbag.
When I was growing up, I often watched my mom swing her suitcase in to the trunk of her car and head off to teach at stables around New England imagining the glamour of her excursions. I thought about the novelty and energy of each new location, how her life on the road seemed so exotic. My childhood imagination put it on par with being a traveling performer of sorts. I assumed my mom, like the business travelers I wrangle my suitcase past looking serene and content in their on-board La-Z-Boys, was wined and dined every night. I figured she slept on silky sheets after working all day with courteous students.
It turns out I misidentified the glamor in my mom’s travels. She herself was an obscure career traveler, meaning that, as I do today, she slept in strangers’ basements, barns, and an uncanny number of sheds. She drank coffee, occasionally palatable and accompanied by food, and then walked out to an arena to spend all day on her feet teaching a rainbow of personalities. Eventually, she got to put her suitcase back in the car and come home. She showed up looking pensive, exhausted. And her weariness, I have discovered, did not come from staying up too late in a fancy hotel room surfing entertainment options. It came from swatting away the smelly barn dog nosing her legs under the host’s dinner table, from endless hours on her feet and breathing arena dust, from feigning politeness through fatigue, from navigating students’ moods: grouchiness, emotional bursts, distractedness.
All these years later, I can see my mom’s—and now mine—career for what it truly was: incredibly hard, often gratifying, but decidedly not fancy. Perhaps the airline industry has not yet thought of this, but I would like to propose a new seating section for those of us who desperately need to get off our feet and hold a cold beverage before everyone else. Right behind the big comfy recliners up front, I want to see a few rows of seats for those of us with a few wrinkles in our trousers and very rough cuticles. Bring on the obscure business traveler seating area.
Let Me “Help” With That
The requests, too good to be true, seemed to peak around July. As the sweaty and strenuous weeks of hay season approached, our phone began to ring. Friends from comfortable homes in coastal Connecticut and Boston begged to come visit the farm for a few days, assuring us they would be nothing if not helpful during this busy time. What they had not yet learned was that city dwellers and farm labor rarely mix in a helpful combination.
For the few realistic enough to recognize that manual labor is rarely as much fun as it appears in movies, farm chores still held the prospect of a wholesome, fortifying detox from urban life. It seemed to promise the simple, mind-clearing rhythms that edified an individual against the hurried and noisy existence of populated places.
As the tractors rumbled in slow motion mowing our fields in pillowed rows for baling, city friends arrived with suitcases from far off locations. We served them sun tea on the porch and watched fireflies ignite the quiet night sky with magical flashes. Our visitors slept that first night with their windows wide open inhaling the earthy sweet smell of cut grass and clean air and then awoke to a pancake breakfast with homemade jams and syrup. Between bites, they told us how lucky we were to have this lifestyle, this blissful rural life that was already clearing their senses in short order. They looked like peaceful Bodhisattvas over their plates of buckwheat pancakes.
Then we put them to work. Staggering to keep pace stacking hay bales, they sent their hearts in to an anaerobic zone. Within hours, their backs clenched in spasms, their knees hurt. Their hands blistered around baling twine.
By the following morning, moods had shifted. Euphoric sighs and smiles were replaced with grunts and nods over coffee mugs. Nobody mentioned the luckiness of rural life. Our visitors had awoken feeling neither fortified nor wholesome. They felt plain broken. They were tired and sore and faced another day exactly like the last, the relentless physicality and exposure to weather crushing their spirits. By now, a few of our visitors were felled by allergies—hay, hornets, pollen. Fisting their burning eyes, they asked what other tasks besides hay they might do, assuring us they still planned to be helpful.
We weighed this optimism against the realities of the other undesirable tasks they might do: shovel manure, scrub slimy water troughs, or dig fencepost holes under a hot sun. But usually by this point, we re-considered whether we should just send them home before their view of farm life was completely tarnished. Ever grateful for an extra pair of hands, we also nurtured an unspoken responsibility to not ruin a city slicker’s idealistic notion of rural life. After all, it was through an urbanite’s unrealistic rosy view of our farmsteads that validated why and how we chose such a hard existence day after day. Didn’t we, too, still want to believe in the romance? The wholesomeness? Didn’t we want to uphold some thread of delusion about the sweetness of this lifestyle?
In the end, we assured them they had helped enough already. We handed them more sun tea and ushered them to the porch, watched as they sat back and soaked up their version of clean, blissful farm living.
Relax, I’m Just Trying to Praise You
This particular student cooed “good boy” between a few slurping kiss noises for nearly half a circle before hearing my instruction to carry on with things. By carry on, I meant to get back to the point of what we were doing. The student had nearly achieved it when she folded over the horse’s neck and began praising him in a classic example of what I call the Praise-Flog Equation. This is where riders praise their horses, often without warrant, while constantly flogging themselves to higher standards. It makes for a tricky instructional setting.
When I tell these students they have done a nice job, they insist, no, it stunk. When I laud them “good, good” they grimace and insist it was not good. They maintain such unreachable standards for themselves that sometimes I can’t tell if they actually enjoy riding or not. And yet towards their horses they accept quite little effort for big praise. I have found myself wondering if they praise their children for the mere thought of going to school but not for actual attendance. But I digress.
Earlier in my career, it seemed like part of my job requirements as a teacher were to understand this incongruence of expectations for rider versus horse, to figure out these complex psychological riddles. I tried to puzzle through students’ disjointed, confusing mind states. I won’t claim I excelled, but I tried. It did not take long to admit that we horse trainers are not adapted for psychological ponderings. We are very ill-suited to getting inside—and understanding– other human beings.
Normally, I assume that since riders hire me to teach them certain things, they want to learn these things. But then right at the moment I am urging them towards a specific feeling or cue, a Praise-Flog student will abort a potential ahah! moment by throwing down her reins to praise her horse for something that might have, but did not, happen. Or as I am verifying the accuracy of her techniques with positive feedback, she will sputter and spew at me that she is not possibly getting things right. As I assure these riders prone to the Praise-Flog equation that, yes they are doing well, I am dismissed even more. As a young professional, I spent a good deal of time standing in the center of the arena confused. Why was this student harrumphing at me when I, the professional, told her something positive? And yet when I told her to expect a little more from her horse, she looked at me like I was a heartless ogre.
Trying to un-spool this incongruence of expectations can lead an instructor to consider a whole slush pile of inner workings. Is this student aiming some mis-placed frustrations at me from elsewhere in her life? Is she compensating for a feeling of inadequacy? As I said, entertaining these sorts of reflections sends a horse trainer in to realms that he or she is not meant for. We end up standing around confused quite a bit of the time. We are trying to read through a student’s scowl to determine if she is heeding our instruction or wishing we would go away. And, truth be told, we are trying to work our way in to that Praise-Flog equation to get ourselves a helping of gushing, satisfying praise each day. Now, if we can just figure out how to understand the inner workings of other humans.