Checklist

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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.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Someone I hadn’t met before bought my two books yesterday and when she handed me her check, she said something that made me snort with laughter.

After a reverent pause of holding the books I labored five years to write and publish in her outstretched arms, she remarked, “Wow, you must be, like, really famous.”

Famous by whose calculation?, I wanted to know. First of all, unless you’re Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, writing a book doesn’t instantly land you amongst the glittering rich and famous. You can count on this being especially true when you write a book for a microscopic niche industry like horses.

Sure, my books have sold far and wide within the horse world, but I’m not sure that qualifies for fame. I can tell you that Oprah has not called yet. Nor has Ellen, Letterman, or the Today Show. That’s the reality of being at the pinnacle of an activity that attracts only a few other folks, gets zero media coverage, and rarely makes the conversation list at parties and dinner tables nationwide.

In terms of mass market appeal, I might as well have written The Guide for Cartographers Under 30. Even if every single U.S. equestrian bought my book, the royalties wouldn’t add up to owning a fancy address here in California, that’s for sure. In fact, they wouldn’t even add up to buy a mobile home in a nice park. Since the release of my second book, I’m still sitting here in my cottage listening to the termites chew apart its sagging roof. I still shop at Goodwill. I still drive a second-hand economy car. In other words, being a two-time author in the equine industry hasn’t changed my life or bank account one iota.

Before I sound like a curmudgeon, though, let me admit that there has been some notoriety to come my way. It may be the type you measure in your own diary rather than the New York Times, but it’s a small dose of acknowledgement nonetheless. Among my friends, I’m a celebrity, bless their souls. To them, a published book is unfathomably impressive. It doesn’t matter if the book contains the Great American Novel, knock-knock jokes, or your mother’s recipes. A book is a book ad to friends, it makes me as credible as Gatsby or Nabokov. Frankly, my pals can’t figure out why Oprah hasn’t called yet. One volunteered to make sure she had my phone number. I assured him that failing to have my number wasn’t the reason that Oprah hasn’t planned a show for authors of horse training manuals. Unless she intended to cut her interested viewers to a teeny fraction of its current size, I doubt I’ll hear from her soon. But my friends don’t understand this. A book is a book, right?

Notoriety also came from my hometown where the newspaper ran a feature story about me and my books. The front page story included a flattering photograph and no shortage of words. In fact, the article sought to make me a celebrity in more ways than one. It dug up every minor accomplishment from my life to date. It mentioned poetry contests, basketball championships, bike races, college honors awards. Basically, it provided the fanfare and retrospective my friends were hoping for from Oprah.

**I should mention that my Vermont hometown has a population around 5,000 and the weekly newspaper that featured me comes in the form of six pages of pancake breakfast announcements and fundraisers for the fire station.

It might not count as actual fame, but I plan to take it wherever I can get it. The adage of being a big fish in a little pond doesn’t bother me. I will take big fish status any day because, let’s face it, the horse world will always be a tiny pond. Heck, I may not be able to afford a Rolls Royce just yet, but you better believe I’m laminating that front page story from the Randolph Herald and hanging it on my wall unless the termites chew it down beforehand.