Till We Have Faces

 

shanghai snow

Her jaw dropped when I answered her question that I’ve been working for Courtney just over five years now. I know, it’s starting to sound like a big number – at least in comparison to the years I’ve been trotting around this world. I mean, that’s like being well into grad school. All she said was, “Wow, I’m really surprised. It’s just that you’re both still so excited!”

I had to smile. I love that our excitedness abounds and surprises! It makes sense expecting things to dry up, but maybe we’re just like wine baby, getting better with time. Ooph. Yea, it hurts to leave that cliché written. Ha. It’s true that we’ve spent a whole lot of time together. We’ve been around long enough to learn a lot of weird little details about each other. But to me that’s when things start to get really good. I don’t like just scratching the surface. I like to stay. I want to know all about you so that I can love you more fully. I want to stick around long enough that my walls start to let down and I’m fully me. Deeper is richer. I’m guessing it’s fairly rare to have such a gem of a person as a trainer and mentor… I feel really lucky to have someone who really cares, who’s really invested both professionally and personally. That in and of itself should be enough to stay excited!

Courtney is great at keeping the communication lines open as a trainer, as a friend, and as a public figure. I think that’s one of her super powers. Me on the other hand… I’m hungry for openness, honesty is royalty in the land of my priorities, but I’m more afraid to be seen. Keeping a lot of thoughts to myself hinders a lot of things including learning… both in and out of the saddle. I’m discovering that I simply need to say exactly what I’m thinking out loud in order to open the door for growth. Complete authenticity brings clarity to thoughts that are muddled when kept inside. It reminds me of a quote that I love from one of my favorite books Till We Have Faces.

 “‘Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.’ … I saw well why the gods do not speak openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

I climb the unnecessarily tall mounting block and swing my leg over to settle into Shanghai’s saddle. The coffee hasn’t quite kicked in. My back is a little stiff and sore from the combination of the cold and my last string of lessons, but my first thought is, This seat feels like home. Shanghai, you feel like home. I start to think about our last conversation about his training in a lesson with Courtney.

For far too long Shanghai has had an unreliable right lead canter transition. I can’t guarantee that he’s going to stay round in either the transition from walk or from trot. It’s not even subtle enough that I would be able to hold him together in a test if I needed to. He either decides to be good or he decides to fight it. Basically, he’s the boss.

It’s not for lack of trying to fix it. Trust me, it’s an embarrassing little hole that I’ve spent a lot of time trying to fill in, but all I’ve done is make the ratio of good transitions to bad transitions a bit more in my favor. I kept coming up with new theories of where he needs to be more supple, where he needs to be straighter, how I need to set him up so that it’s completely natural and easy for him to make the right choice to stay round. With all that babble I made more good transitions, but I still couldn’t count on it. I couldn’t count on conditions being perfect enough every time.

I was determined to solve the problem by the time Courtney got back from New Zealand. But alas, in our first lesson back I hung my head saying I still haven’t fixed that transition and it’s driving me crazy! Why is this still an issue? We’re bigger than this. He’ll be showing Second Level this year. We’re grown up enough not to have this problem!

I finally poured out all of my thinking… I explained my suppleness and straightness theories that have helped adjust the ratio… but that it just isn’t reliable. She told me that I just need to tell him NO. He has to understand that it is a mistake. I’ll have to be a little tough telling him to stay round and that he’s simply not allowed to come above the bit. I understand the concept, but for some reason this little turkey with the hold on my heart has me convinced that I’m not allowed to push the issue in that way.

I’m realizing I might be loving him to a fault. I think sometimes the big red hearts in my eyes (I know you know the emoji!) keep me from seeing straight when I’m on him. I question whether I would have the same thought process on any other horse? It’s perfectly natural to make him sensitive to my leg to go forward or sideways, but when I tell him to respect the bit in that transition he gets really offended and sort of says, You yelled at my mouth, so I don’t like you and I’m not going to try anymore – not this time OR the next time! Courtney listens to my reason for hesitation but looked at me a little funny as if that’s really not something she can picture being a reality with this horse.

She said for us to just try the N-O word, and that we’ll see what happens. He has a more subtle evasion in the transitions within the canter going to the right, so we start there. When I push him forward, he braces a little instead of suppley pushing into the bit. So when I told him to go forward I was proactive with my hands instead of passive saying, you WILL be round enough and you will go INTO the bit NOT above it as we transition from normal to bigger canter. It’s the same rule he needs to know in the transitions between the gaits. Courtney and I regrouped after the canter work… “So that worked, right?” she asks.

Now is when I have to lay out all of my concerns. Just spit out whatever is clouding my instincts. It’s the only way I can clear up my brain to believe in the solution when I’m working on my own. I explained, “Yes, that worked well, but sometimes when I’ve tried making that correction on my own he will get mad and start to back up as an evasion. Flashes of screwing up his future take over and I back off and change my approach. I’m afraid of making this horse ever think backwards.” Even just saying things out loud make them clearer. Courtney pointed out that by avoiding the problem, giving in when he goes backwards is exactly what teaches him to use that as an evasion. Whereas if I just calmly hold my ground and insist that he needs to be round even if he’s backing up, he realizes that backing up doesn’t change anything. Obviously his rider doesn’t care about where he’s going, he just needs to be round in the process, so he scratches that evasion off the list. Duh. Big red hearts getting in the way much??

Since I’ve changed from too often saying, “It’s ok Honey Pie Sugar Cookie, I know you didn’t understand that, let’s try again and do better this time!” to saying, “Hey, that was a mistake. This is where you went wrong. Do it right this time.” He has complied with the rule and has stopped making the mistake. Simple.

I don’t need a life full of cheerleaders and neither does my horse. This is where it’s so valuable to trust someone to listen to my babble. Listen to exactly the thoughts that are swirling around in my brain, and then go ahead and slap my cheek if it needs it. Be direct. Be literal. Instruct. Show me where I’m wrong. Help me see my ridiculousness so that I can see past it and fix it. Encouragement is important, knowing when you’ve done it right is essential, but a storm of pom-poms doesn’t get us anywhere.

No more hiding. No sugar coating. No editing to sound like someone else. Just my thoughts or lack thereof. What do I have to lose? I can’t build on what I know unless I lay out the bricks that I already own… there for me to see and there on the ground for others to see and help me stack. No guessing games. No invisible bricks. We have never had to be alone in building our houses.

My Fly is Down

fall colors

For a while I’ve been rolling around in the deep. I’ve been dwelling on how there’s a huge lesson in the importance of humility to be a good student. One of those lessons that can’t just be learned once. I’ve been trying to figure out how to weave in how much pride gets in the way. I even came up with a list of C.S. Lewis quotes on the subject. Instead of getting too heavy on you guys this time, I just want to say, never be too “grown-up” to lay down your defenses and simply say, “Yes, ma’am” to the little things.

How can we learn if we don’t humble ourselves before we come into the arena? It’s the little things that can be embarrassing to be called out on. Nobody wants to hear that their fly is down or there’s a twig or something stuck in their teeth when they can’t even remember how long it’s been since their last meal. Ha. Just as it can be hard to be taught a basic lesson that your brain may have downloaded a month of Sundays ago.

We still need to fix it.

Listen up and zip your pants so you can move on to being a professional. I’m well versed at these lessons as I’m a fairly awkward human being. That’s probably an understatement. I’m the girl with coffee and/or breakfast stains on my shirt every single day because I’m too amused by my klutzy self to pay more attention. Maybe I’m fooling myself thinking that I could fix it if I wanted to… but that’s beside the point.

Coffee stains are one thing, basics in training are another. Basics are the foundation from which all impressive things are formed. Without them, there will always be a hole in the training. In my last lesson on Shanghai I finished warming up and then explained to Courtney how I’ve been focusing on getting him off my right leg and catching him with my left outside leg. As I demonstrated using my arm to show the job of my inside leg, she stopped me and even corrected my demonstration. “I know it seems like no big deal”, she said. But as I used my arm as my inside leg, it made my body incorrectly shift to the outside – just standing there at the halt. It doesn’t seem like a big deal; I was only talking, right? It wasn’t even the actual body part that I use when riding forward. But, “It’s even the way you think that needs to change.” she explained. Even when I demonstrate using my inside leg, my body should naturally think down on the inside… almost like it’s scooping with my inside aids instead of pressing what looked like flat and straight on their side. That way I’m sure to keep good balance. As I rode around thinking, It’s even the way you think… it was exactly the cure to fixing our balance. Wow. When I use my inside leg now, I imagine that rooted downward feeling that Courtney demonstrated from the ground. That’s where it starts.

Thanks to Clair and Lendon, I was lucky enough to collect a handful more of those little things riding with Lilo Fore at Bel Air last weekend. 🙂 “You need to be like this!” Lilo bellowed as she firmly planted her level fists on the countertop. “The horse needs something consistent to go to. Level hands make a level bit.” She stressed.

For a long moment I feel a little lost in my body. My normal programming as Koryn the trainer has been set aside and I feel like I should be on a lunge line so that I can just focus on how to think about what I want to feel, how to hold my hands, how to use my body. The next step feels like it might be learning to post the trot! That awkward paradigm shift passed before too long and I found the nice straight, steady channel from leg through seat to bit that Lilo was looking for. Everything feels simple and I can make small effective corrections without weebling and wobbling through so many bigger corrections to get there. Less is more!

“You never see the top riders unorganized – no matter the horse.”

That statement rings over and over in my mind. Keeping my right hand up was a large pat of balancing myself out. Lilo pointed out that it likes to live lower than my left. Since then, I’ve spent a good chunk of my mental capacity focusing on keeping my right hand up. I look in the mirror expecting to see that it’s TOO high. If I’ve learned anything from Courtney and Lendon, it’s that in order to fix something, it’s better to make the opposite mistake than to slowly move in the right direction. I want to hear, “That’s too high. I love it!” But what my reflection shows is simply level hands. Crap, I need to fix that!

As I cantered around on Fargo, just starting to collect him after a stretchy warm-up Lilo says to me, “You’re pushing too much with your seat.” I’m surprised, because that’s a new one to me and I’m not trying to push with my seat. I can feel that there’s power in my motion, but this amount of power has been my neutral. Perhaps a trying to encourage push from behind neutral. Can that be a thing? Apparently not, because when I repeated back to her to make sure I understood correctly, “This is pushing too much with my seat?” I hear,“ Yes.” Well, alright then. Surely Lilo knows! So I think about how I can find some notches to take it down. I imagine the looseness my hips feel when I’m plopped into a couch – still keeping good posture with my core, but hips doing no more than relaxedly following the canter motion. Immediately I feel Fargo’s collection improve dramatically. He has somewhere to bounce now that my seat isn’t driving him flatter! It felt like it couldn’t be. It felt like almost nothing changed. But to Fargo, everything changed. Ohhhh it’s the little things. The seriously not so little… little things!!!

Also, there’s so much more clarity now when he tries to escape the collection by pulling through his shoulders. It’s easy to have good timing for a quick, little, and simple half halt saying, Nope, stay right here under this seat with me dude… and he’s right back with me. With less push on my part, I become more of a pillar. I’m quietly following instead of that little bit of chasing – pushing ahead of him. How can he be underneath of my seat pushing and forward in front of my leg if I’m always moving a slither of a pace ahead of him??? Now my patient looseness gives him an invitation to relax his back and bounce up to me. Oh happy day!!!

So, yea. Can I go on a little bit about some of the other kind of little things that have been singing to me? It might just be 1989 getting to my head but… It’s the big smile from a baby who’s just so excited to see that you’re around. It’s the bright colors on the trees falling to the ground but promising to be back. It’s the candle in the birthday cake. It’s the song lyrics that you can feel all the way in your bones. It’s the horse that is so willing to learn from you and let you hug his strong neck as long as you need to. It’s the person sending a note just to remind you that you’re on their mind. It’s the tip of the fluorescent helmet from a construction worker as you wave a thank you. It’s sharing the same space as friends who speak your heart language… It’s the little things.

Red

writingred

 

It’s story time! My best friend challenged me to blog about red lipstick. I was hoping to satisfy that by just slipping it in somewhere as a quick and silly metaphor, but now I’m thinking that might be going against the whole point. It’s funny how much weight a simple little act of Taylor Swifting your lips can carry.

For years now I’ve wanted to be able to rock bright red lips. What girl doesn’t go through this phase or at least of judging those who do? It seems like a fairly petty mind battle! It’s not really about the color. Sure, it can be fun and sexy if it’s done right, but it’s really about telling myself that I’m not the girl for whom that product was put in this world – being daring and loud and experimental is not something I am supposed to do. I’m the horse girl. I’m the get down and dirty, sweat and blood kind of a human being. So that means I need to play by those “rules” of that predetermined, assumed persona all the time, right? Wrong! What’s with the boxes??

Someone once asked me if I didn’t like getting really dressed up or if I didn’t like to often. I responded around about, “It’s not that I don’t like it, but I just don’t like looking like I’m trying too hard… or something.” (If it’s guaranteed that people around me will be all dolled up too, then great!) But really, I think I’m just afraid to stand out and of any attention that may bring. I’m incredibly afraid of someone assigning me to a box that’s the wrong shape for my heart.

I’m going to go a little bit deep here for a minute. Another dearly dearly beloved friend of mine sent this text to me the other night. “I think realizing that you need no one’s permission is the key to grace… and that includes permission from yourself. Permission giving is still being in control… grace is about recognizing that you can’t be in control.” Boy that summed up so many of the thoughts swirling in my brain with clarity I had not quite put my finger on. How did I get so lucky to have such brilliant friends? Read one of my favorite blog posts of hers here.

So instead of waiting for permission, why don’t we just accept that if we keep waiting, if we keep trying to have control, if we never let go of our insecurities, or let down our guard and peer out of our safety box, we never let grace in… and without grace, let’s face it, we’re toast. So why not drop all this talk of permission and boundaries and boxes? I don’t want to be the one to tell grace that she is not invited into my home. So what if she forces me to reveal and accept who I am or what I don’t understand about myself. She’s probably going to help me to teach my head not to always overrule my feel.

When I was a very little girl, I was completely obsessed with the “Pony Pals” book series. I was in a club that would send me two new books every month or so. I couldn’t wait until that day when a package addressed to me would come in the mailbox. I would spend the whole day buried in the little adventures of three horse-obsessed friends: Carol, Stevie, and Lisa. One part has stuck with me through all these years – I think it was Stevie who on once noticed a girl in the barn or at a show wearing fingernail polish. She saw it and thought to herself something judgmental along the lines of not wanting paint to be on HER fingers. I think it was YEARS after I read that before I let polish touch my fingernails again. Stevie was a fictional character, but she was my kind of girl. I wanted her to like me. I wanted her to be my friend.

The red lips (and fingers!) lesson is conveniently relevant to those spinning wheels of mine that are afraid to make mistakes when I ride. I distinctively remember one of my lessons with Lendon during one of the Robert Dover Horse Mastership EDAP weeks. I think things were basically going ok during my ride, but apparently I was too locked inside of my head… too zoned in… trapped in Tangoland. (Tango was the name of my trusty steed) During my lesson some of the other riders and auditors were sitting in the gazebo at C. Lendon gave them the job of holding up any given number of fingers for me to count and call out every time I passed by them. If I didn’t stop staring at the arena or my horse’s ears long enough to do so, I got yelled at. 🙂

There are lots of should and should not do’s, but sometimes I think I need to give myself the rule not to spend so much energy worrying about all the rules and lessons learned. Nothing changes if we’re always thinking of what we shouldn’t do or wish we hadn’t done.

Rules make me feel safe, like as long as I don’t do THAT I’ll be doing ok. Or if I just stick with what has worked for me in the past, I won’t fall off the deep end. But being stagnant is smelly and no fun at all, and being totally lost in my brain, checking off the do’s and don’ts before I make every move just sort of makes me miss life… Miss the experimenting that leads to figuring out what is even better than what I already know. Plus it seems kinda snobby to always be in lock-down processing mode.

Later, we went to Stillpoint Farm and watched some of the trainers there ride. At one point Robert was schooling an FEI horse while coaching another rider. Thinking and yammering away while making his horse do fancy things…? There was a group of us there, and Lendon specifically called out to me, “Koryn, could YOU do that?”… “Uh, Noooo.” Ha. Must focus. Must control. Must think. Must. Not. Make. Mistake. Hmmm.

I’m definitely not getting at, “Rules are made to be broken.” No, rules are important, and lessons are learned for a reason, but not everything has to be black and white. Why not let in some Red? So if you see me around somewhere sporting red lips, or say, blue strips in my hair… please don’t laugh. I’m either already very aware that I look ridiculous or finally proud of myself for lightening up and living outside of my box!

Whoa, Give. Letting Go.

A simple but important lesson that has stuck out to me lately is, “Whoa, give.” I like to think that I’m not one to sit in the saddle and just hang on to the reins, but often I hold on just a little too long. With a light connection it could be that I just have hands that are lifeless or too vague in communicating my aids. Sometimes I try to just hold on to the correction I’m trying to make – whether it’s actively holding or just unchanging, I wait a few strides too long, one stride too long, even a half of a stride too long. I don’t relent the control.

It may have started simple, but as usual my brain spins and tries to take things deeper – bear with me. My train of thought goes something like: Whoa, give. –  Short whoa, clear give. – Whoa, let go. – Whoa, trust. – Reminder of good balance, let go and see what comes of it.

There’s a reason that so much is written on letting go. Come on, you know that you hear Passenger cooing about it on every other radio station. It sells because it’s hard, and everyone seems to struggle with it in some way, shape, or form. We can relate. It could be control, fear, a relationship, an idea or plan, bitterness, resentment and baggage that’s so old you can’t even remember why it still weighs so heavily, or whatever…  Isn’t it all the same with training? Horses and riding lessons tend to teach me at least as much about myself as remembering to put my heels down and figuring out the timing of my whoa, gives.

I tend to want to hold on a little too long. I want to make my own vision happen all on my own. I want to sit down, close my legs, and hold on to that rein until I create the push, until I make the butt sit, and so that I don’t let those shoulders get away. But if I never give my partner the chance to react, if I don’t trust him to stay when I let go, if I don’t let him show off how he can dance and live and shine, well then he just won’t. I put a glass over the flame. I try to make that fire burn by keeping it close, by holding it tight, but I suffocate it.

Holding on slows progress. Holding on feels natural, instinctive, easy. Letting go seems more like a decision. But oh the world is lighter and fancier when it’s gone! Holding on, whoaing longer and tighter does not make you anymore in control. Without the give, without the instant willingness to let go, there IS nothing to trust. You can’t control the result you want without giving it the chance to exist. 

Letting go leaves a space for bigger mistakes to happen. If something goes wrong, you can’t give yourself credit for trying to avoid it or not letting it happen. Holding on gives that security. Holding on keeps the fear at bay. Letting go makes room for progress. Letting go allows the magic that we can’t see or grip a chance to come in and shine.

There’s a large element of trust and willingness to trust; however, if the horse doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain and continues to run around like a freight train, then of course after my clear give I must give a bigger correction saying, “Hey, that little something I just did, yea that meant something! Specifically… whoa boy!” Courtney said something like, trust that he knows what it means. Yes, correct him if nothing happens, but give him that chance to understand my quick little whoa, give or else he never will.  It makes such a big difference in the lateral work, transitions, mediums… everything really. That clear give, moment of trust, just allows him to step up to the plate and bring the spark. I can feel the energy from behind go over his back and up to his poll. I can feel his feet dancing a little lighter off the ground – a feeling that I can’t quite create, a feeling that only he could show me was even a possibility.