If you appreciate compelling stories about increasing safety while decreasing human failure when performing complex tasks, I highly recommend the book The Checklist Manifesto. While much of the book addresses the fields of surgery, aviation, and skyscraper construction, I found it very relevant to horse training.
Among other cogent points, author Atul Gawande presents studies that show human error can be greatly reduced when clearly stated protocol exists to follow. Interestingly, one of the key steps of successful aviation and surgery checklists, he believes, is each team member introducing himself or herself at the start of a task. This seems to have the effect of better working together as a team rather than a group of individual specialists operating on their own. Especially during mishaps and emergencies, this becomes important.
I got to thinking about how, if at all, checklists might improve the safety or outcomes of horse training/riding. I’m not entirely sure how they might apply in all scenarios, but I could think immediately of one where they could assuredly reduce accidents: trail rides. Many wrecks that riders have on trail rides could be prevented by 1.) more conversation pre-ride about expectations and goals for the ride, 2.) checking gear, and 3.) making sure their horses are mentally in the right space. I propose the following checklist for riders to use at the start of a trail ride with friends or barn mates, regardless how well you might or might not know each other. I recommend not proceeding on the ride until the following steps are counted for:
1.) riders introduce themselves and horses, voice any concerns, and state goals for the ride (ex.: “This is my five-year old gelding; he has trail experience but mostly only in open grasslands, not on narrow paths; he can be excitable when encountering other horses on trail. I’m hoping to do a walk-only ride).
2.) check to ensure girth is tight
3.) confirm that you can keep your horse’s attention on you for at least 10 sustained seconds.
4.) State the designated route, potential hazards (i.e. a spooky herd of goats at mile 2).
These steps might sound too simple for seasoned riders to implement. But pause for a moment and think about how many mishaps you’ve heard about on trail that could have been avoided by riders operating together more as a team.
Getting riders who plan to ride together talking to each other is a big piece of this. It sets a tone, prevents timid riders from “saving face” and not speaking up, and clues all riders in to potentially challenging dynamics. The simple steps above also allow any rider to note when perhaps someone else in the group is not able to keep her horse’s attention and to say something. Maybe the group can hold up and wait while this rider does some groundwork or takes a moment to settle her horse down. If nobody says anything, the likelihood that this horse acts up and causes trouble for the group increases. You might have your own step or two that you want to add to my proposed checklist, which is fine. I would argue that consistent practice of this kind of tool will help out many horses and riders.
Who Are You Calling a Badass?
In the past few years, a previously unsavory sounding term has become a hip way of describing someone with admirable, credible traits that the rest of us esteem: badass. In fact, a quick Amazon search turns up nearly a dozen self-help books with badass in the title (e.g. You Are a Badass, How to Unleash Your Inner Badass, and so on.)
Last year a colleague suggested that part of our roles as riding instructors and trainers was to give our students a sense of this strong, satisfied state called badass.
I pondered this idea, but then arrived pretty quickly at the conclusion that within the horse world, badass is not in short supply. I did not need to lead my students to it; they found their way to it almost daily. It was, after all, what drove them out to the barn year after year, to long sweaty trail rides, to reaching for goals and buddying up with an animal ten times their size. If anything, my students show me what it means to be badass, not the other way around.
My student Marilyn turns 80 next year and still rides four times a week. She insists on keeping her stamina up despite getting winded after the second lap of canter. You have to push me, she urges when I want to ease off and give her a rest. Last year, when the muscle loss of passing mid-70’s caught up to her, she got tired of feeling weak. So she began working with a personal fitness trainer for the first time in her life. Marilyn is feisty and determined, an inspiration to anyone younger that hopes to re-vision what it means to age. I would argue that I have nothing to teach her about being badass.
My student-turned-pal Donna picks up Corazon and I every Thursday and trailers us out to ride with her at one of our local parks. We frequently find ourselves bush-wacking through Manzanita, routing around eroded cracks in the trails ruined by drought, negotiating unnervingly steep descents. It’s easy to forget Donna is in her 60’s and only learned to ride horses ten years ago. Her sense of adventure and focus often make me forget she has not been doing this her entire life. She and her mare compete on the Competitive Trail Riding circuit out here on the west coast, and every time she recounts one of their most recent successes, I wonder if I would have the gumption to take on a new hobby as challenging and complex as horseback riding in middle age. Again, I tend to think I have no insights about becoming badass that Donna has not already lived and breathed, and in turn inspired me by.
And then there is my student Sunny from China who is in California attending university. After college, she plans to return home to join the family business. For now, though, she has a horse at my barn and is impressively committed to him. Five days a week, she takes a bus from campus 25 minutes to a downtown parking lot, retrieves her car, and then drives 30 minutes to our barn to care for Diamante, her Quarter Horse/Arabian gelding.
She juggles all that while serving as an Economics tutor, pulling down top grades, and running her dorm. Last weekend, Sunny brought Diamante along with us to her first Ride and Tie race (a sport involving two riders and one horse, where riders alternate running on foot and riding the horse). She had heard my stories about the crazy sport I enjoy and thought she wanted to try it. One scant year earlier, I had been working with her on the rudiments of riding, like canter leads and controlling her speed. Now here she was, wanting to tackle one of the most challenging events I could think of.
Our first night at the Cache Creek ride camp, it poured rain. Our tents and gear got drenched, the clay trails turned slick and sloppy. After the first few miles we got ahead of Sunny and did not see her for the rest of the race, so we were unable to coach her through what proved to be one of the most difficult races I had done. I worried about her and Diamante out there on course as it continued to rain. A few other teams came in, each with their own stories of surviving what had become an incredibly punishing event. Finally, an hour later I saw Sunny crossing the finish line pale and exhausted. She sat down on the tailgate of our truck woozy and unsteady for the next thirty minutes as we kept checking on her. She said her stomach felt off, and that Diamante had taken a fall on the final muddy descent but had scrambled back up unscathed. Later, we discovered that Sunny fractured her foot in the same fall. But she never complained. Nor did she consider the ride anything but a success; she has already begun planning for the next race.
Among the horsewomen I know, being badass has nothing to do with self-help books or empowered strategies. It’s just the humble steady act of showing up to do something they love every day. There is no self-congratulating or overblown sense of oneself, or even the recognition that what they are doing is badass. Much as I would like to think my role as an instructor helps them reach this enviable state, I know I am at best a tiny sliver of their experience. Anyone with horses finds her own way to being bold and motivated, challenged and clear-minded, assertive and open-hearted.
Why Let Dog Owners Have all the Bliss?
Why Let Dog Owners Have all the Bliss?
I watched the slender older lady lean against the fence observing her fluffy white dog. Both looked marvelously content, she huddled inside a hoodie sweatshirt in the fog and he nosing around the wood chips off-leash. I studied them with curiosity because I have often wondered about the purpose of dog parks like this one.
A few dog owners I know take their pets to these enclosed public spaces so they can romp around and get exercise. Or at least that was what they told me, the emphasis being exercise. Watching this lady’s sweet dog mosey around the corral, I was unconvinced that he was getting any more exercise than if he had gone for a leash walk. Two other dogs arrived at the park with their owners, sauntered free of their leashes, and set about some slow motion sniffing of the perimeter. Both owners found a seat, folded hands in their laps, and adopted the same serene expression of the older lady. I noted the complete contentment that came from watching their beloved animals without any of the challenges or focus that accompanies the hands-on training for skill or behavior.
As I watched this woman in her Zen-like state basking in her dog it struck me what the real point of these parks was. I’m not a dog person. But all of the sudden I wanted to share in this world. I wanted a place to take my horse Corazon someplace I could do nothing but observe him in all his awesomeness amidst a group of inferior steeds, all while convincing myself he was getting exercise or some other positive training outcome.
I have known horse owners who found great pleasure attending competitions for the chance to lean against the show ring and watch their horse strut his stuff. Their satisfaction is not contingent on being the ones on-board competing the horse. They are plenty happy to allow some other competent rider this role. For them, it’s the stress-free seat on the sidelines watching that brings them more enjoyment. But horse shows involve a lot of logistics, time, and money. Would it not be better if we had a version of dog parks instead? A place we could indulge in watching our horses prance around but without the hassle of showing, or hiring a trainer, or teaching him special skills? A place void, really, of any competency requirements?
The longer I observed the older lady and her fluffy little dog, the more I regretted previously scoffing at people like her, even privately. I had scoffed because I assumed the dog park was an owner’s lazy replacement for hands-on exercise and training. Now I saw it was a marvelous space where owners can sit Buddha-like and let their insides smile from the sight of their non-verbal companions. In the challenges and time expense of our daily hands-on training, we can sometimes forget why we got our animals in the first place. Maybe dog parks protect that joy for us.
Personally, I know that the casual moments of hanging out with Corazon around the barn or tied to the trailer remind me how smitten I am with him when his training might be in a frustrating phase. If we had the equivalent of a dog park, I just might be swooning all the time. I could find a comfy seat, forget about his balky half-pass, and watch the sunlight highlight his shiny dappled coat. I would watch him flip his excessive mane around, assess himself as prettier than the other horses. I would swell up with pride for no strong reason at all, except that I can claim him as my own. And the person next to me would do the same for hers. So, think about this. Why let dog owners have all the bliss?