Process and Purpose

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In working with a horse, it is important that one focuses on and understands the connection between the physical process of training the animal and the ultimate goal or purpose for which the horse is being trained. The physical process of training a horse is made up of countless small interactions between horse and rider, and it is important that all of these interactions are carefully considered by the rider. If one interacts carelessly with a horse or does not ensure that each interaction supports the ultimate training goal, the horse is likely to become dull or resistant in his response.

Often times, there are multiple interconnected purposes behind any given process of training. For example, if the training process consists of encouraging a horse to engage physically and mentally, the immediate purpose might be to facilitate a compassionate and clear understanding between the horse and the rider. This purpose may, however, lead to a secondary purpose, such as allowing a horse to think independently, seeking and finding answers for himself.

This example is reflected in the process of starting colts and the purpose behind it. First, in the round pen you indirectly connect the horse’s feet and mind to yourself by correctly positioning yourself in relation to the horse. This process builds the connection necessary for a smooth transition to a direct form of connection, such as halter work. The same concept can then be applied to the transition from halter work to saddle work, in that direct connection between horse and rider via the halter will pave the way for a successful connection between horse and rider under saddle. Ultimately, this direct connection will mean that the human is able to communicate clearly with the horse and support the desired training outcome of fluid, controlled movement of the feet.

Just as correct halter work and saddle work build on the movements of indirect communication established in the round pen, each interaction builds on and refines the foundations of the horse’s training. Complete refinement can only be achieved if there is an even trajectory from indirect connection to direct connection in the horse’s training and each element is in harmony with all the others. Each process must reflect the ultimate purpose and build upon previous processes, never deserting any piece of the training along the way.

With consistent quality work, this process of building connection creates a horse that is the same in all areas of horsemanship, no matter what the given circumstances may be. With a cultivated awareness of purpose behind each element of the horsemanship process, you can reap unimaginable benefits for both yourself and your horse. Beware, though – it takes great desire, effort, and self-reflection to reap the benefits, and all of this has very little to do with the horse. It’s all to do with you!

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What Can We Do For The Horse?

img_0244At the end of the day, we do little for the horse.  Think about it –  the only things we can give the horse are peace of mind in places it naturally finds unnerving, a meaningful and enjoyable job to do, and a sense of superiority over other animals.

Horses, as prey animals whose instinct is to flee, are inclined to stay away from anything dangerous to their well-being. As riders, one of the things we can give horses is a sense of peace in ‘dangerous’ circumstances.  When a horse is encouraged by the rider to be calm and connected in surroundings that seem threatening, a rapport of trust between horse and rider is formed.  This rapport gives the horse a feeling of safety and comfort with the result that it learns to let down its instinctual guard and relax completely.

Horses can also benefit from the work that we, as riders, demand of our mounts. A meaningful and enjoyable job can give a horse a sense of focus and purpose that, once understood, can provide a great deal of enjoyment. A horse that enjoys his job can’t wait to be caught up and go to work.

Finally, by working with horses, we can teach them to be dominant over other animals. As herd animals, horses are constantly trying to establish themselves within the social hierarchy, moving up or down in accordance with their level of aggression or dominance. Horses in the wild often establish their dominance by forcing their herdmates to move away from them in deference to their presence. A newly alpha horse might need to bite or kick another horse to force it to withdraw, but eventually it will take only a look to send another horse away. When we train a horse to herd cattle or other horses, we are reinforcing this dominant behavior and instilling a valuable sense of confidence in the horse. If the horse grows to associate your training with its dominance over other species, it will come to associate you with the endorphin rush of dominant behavior.

In these three ways, we encourage the horse to grow and improve while simultaneously submitting themselves willingly to the training and leadership of their rider. This creates a harmonious partnership between horse and rider that is inspiring, and both parties will seek to strengthen the bond.

Life Learner

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A life learner is someone who focuses not on the end game, but rather on the process of continually refining their idea of the bigger picture. This continual refinement of the bigger picture is intimately connected with the continual refinement of one’s own skills.

In order for wisdom to be accumulated, it is vital that a person improve a little bit every day so that, over time, there is a steady pattern of growth. Over the course of this process of incremental growth, the bigger picture also has to change incrementally and be refined in keeping with the insights one has gained along the way. Personal growth leads to personal change, and consequently the lens through which one views reality must be refined to suit this change. As a result, the life learner is always refining his focus area and changing their views on the world as they understand it.  Life learners therefore gain a deeper understanding of reality than those who are shortsighted, and this gives them considerable insight into many fields.   

The Instagram Effect

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Something I have noticed over the past few years is people saying how perfect someone’s life must be based on their social media page, social status, or profession. All that those people see is the glamorous image that is in front of them at that moment; they never stop to see the whole picture and recognize the long process that brought the person they envy to their current point in life. I call this the Instagram effect.

Those who rely solely on social media’s edited and filtered images to make judgments about the quality of another person’s life are missing the reality of the situation entirely. I have witnessed this time and time again in my own life. A lot of people see my Instagram pictures and think I am just living the dream – and don’t get me wrong, I am living my dream – but they don’t see the other side of my life which is struggling to find my niche away from everything and everyone I know and travelling coast to coast in a truck and trailer by myself for long stretches of time. There are countless days when I would give anything to be back with my family and friends working a 9 to 5 job with a sense of security. Instead, I am always trying to make ends meet as I further my education, moving continually so that I can pursue a life of learning and serving others with the knowledge I am slowly gathering. Of course, I do get lonely and become exhausted, but tomorrow is always a new fresh day to start all over again.

The images that I post on Instagram are invariably the most beautiful and idealistic moments of my life, and this is all that those who follow me on social media see. The reality is that these images are edited to look perfect, and no one’s life (including mine) is actually true to their Instagram photos. If someone were to post honest photos of their day-to-day life, nobody would want to see it. Nobody wants to see and hear about normal every day processes or, even worse, the downsides to certain bad days.  Everyone wants to pretend that if they were that person with the glamorous Instagram everything would be easier and perfect. All their problems would go away. The sad truth is that if they saw the whole picture, they would probably think twice.

I see this same phenomenon with horses all the time. Someone sees a horse they love, they buy it, and within a month or so the incredible horse has seemingly deteriorated into a normal horse.  As George Morris always says with a great smirk, “You can’t buy this,” referring to what he has earned through hard work with horses over a lifetime. Buck offers similar wisdom when he says that “you will need to bleed” in order to understand horses and achieve refinement with them.  You can’t buy a horse and expect it to stay great unless your abilities match or exceed the education level of the previous rider.

No matter how much the “journey” is emphasized as important, however, most people don’t want to go through the hardships in order to reap the benefits. Most people want good results handed to them.  But what would your life look like without the hardships, moments of self-discovery, and the failures that ultimately lead to new wisdom? What if everything was just handed to you and life was just success after success without any effort?  Wouldn’t it be a life full of selfishness and complete meaninglessness? In my experience, the best part of the journey is going through what it takes to progress forward: striving to live a life of meaning by serving others with your special talents and passions. Without the struggle, there is no incentive to continue living life with vigor and a sense of urgency to learn.  I don’t think that I have much to offer now compared to what I will be able to offer in ten or more years, but this is what keeps me going every day.

Don’t get caught up wanting to be someone else because their life looks perfect. Let go of that illusion, and start to do what you can in reality.  Find a way to live a meaningful life by serving others through studying, applying, and reflecting every day.  Nothing is going to happen overnight, and the only way to succeed is by accumulating knowledge over a long period of time.  I wish I had some great success story to tell you about how this process has led me to achieve great things, but I am merely another person trying to survive the journey and learn from the struggle. I have faith that the process will take me where I am meant to go whenever I am meant to go there.

Audio Intake

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Audio intake is a great way to learn and continually expand on thoughts you may have been having.  Listening to audio books or podcasts are a great way to utilize time spent in a car, plane, or any situation in which you may be mindlessly absent otherwise.  The best part to me as a frequent traveler of the road, is how fast it makes a trip go by, engaging your mind in a whole different way.  For me, it really helps me reflect on the past, create new ideas for the future, and refine my thoughts with further understanding of reality.
There is subject matter for all interests in either podcast or audio book form, be sure to find time to listen daily to further enrich your mind.  Don’t get me wrong I love some music here and there, but if its over a 15 minute trip you can bet I will be listening to some podcast or audio book.  Whether it’s fiction or non fictional doesn’t matter, use the time to engage your brain on a different level.
Find dead spots through out your days that you could be capitalizing on to start to listen to some form of audio intake.  Whether that may be when you wake up, in your car, at work, before bed, during a walk, and when ever else it may be appropriate.  Spark your mind with positively enriching audio to create new ideas, reflect on old experiences, and refine thoughts that continually develop through out your life.
Audio is priceless for the stories, studies, insights, and breadth that help me to better convey my words to fit the understanding of others through their eyes.
Vast, quality intake is the key!  By combining hearing, seeing, feeling, reading, writing, teaching, reflecting, and refining; the odds of really retaining and further understanding increase.  Ultimately helping me to better understand reality and the need for simplicity.

Patch Job Junkies

Something that has always bothered me is patch jobs, or in other words, temporary fixes. Problems that are patched always come back to haunt you in the long run.  Patch jobs only delay the inevitable, and a problem that wasn’t dealt with properly when it arose the first time can become catastrophic due to continued deterioration.  If a problem does arise, deal with it properly and save yourself time, money, and stress.

Of course the best way to go about things is to avoid problems altogether by maintaining control of every situation and putting preventative measures into place, but as well all know, life happens. If you’re not able to handle something properly from the start and you’re presented with a problem, go ahead and fix it completely before moving on to the next priority.  Once you have something fixed, stay ahead of it with proper maintenance and don’t let it deteriorate causing the same problem to arise again and again.  This is the only way to get ahead, otherwise you will find yourself in a state of continual crisis management never allowing you a moment to progress beyond the current situation.  An endless cycle of patching will take place until finally everything crumbles in on you and puts you even further behind the eight ball.

So maybe the proper title for this post should be ‘get ahead and stay ahead’.  I can’t tell you how many horses I have dealt with that this pertains to, or, more accurately, horse owners I have dealt with that think there is a short term miracle patch job.  This leads me to the subject of unrealistic expectations.  Sure there are some issues that can be fixed or greatly improved in one session such as trailer loading, bridling, and other more specific situational issues, but all in all, if problems with a horse are not addressed every time you work with the animal, the issues will always creep back in.

If an owner wants to keep his horse respectable on the ground and in the saddle, then he must establish this foundation from the start.  I’m talking about the foundation that Buck Brannaman, Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt, and countless others started teaching.  Once you have that, you can always come back to it if a problem arises.  If there is a problem and the horse doesn’t have a solid foundation, then I can only say that there is no time like the present to put one in place.

Ultimately, the foundation builds confidence in the horse by providing it with guiding support in the form of the rider’s ability to connect with the horse physically and mentally through timing, feel, and balance.  If your horse has this to begin with, the rest is easy as long as you take the foundation with you as you go.

Here is where patch jobs present a problem with horses – a horse that has no foundation and is put into training has nothing to fall back on when a problem occurs. The problem only gets worse with time until the point where a dangerous situation exists or where the horse completely gives up.  If a horse gets to this point, yes, a person could put one ride on them and make them look better, but as soon as the patch is done the horse will go right back into its old habits.  In order to fix a horse like this, it takes time and consistency.

Don’t let a horse get to this point. Don’t try to fix problems with patch jobs that will ultimately lead to major issues requiring serious repair that can take forever to get back on the right track.  Try to do it right from the beginning, but if that’s not possible, then fix a problem properly and stay ahead of it from there on out.  Learn from the mistakes you make along the way so that you can avoid them in the future.  If you’re going to do something, then you had best do it in the right way; if you don’t, it will not be a matter of if it goes wrong, but rather a matter of when and how badly it will go wrong. This is especially important for situations involving horses and people in that a problem with the animal can easily become a dangerous life-or-death issue.

The only thing I know is that I don’t know!

For the past two winters in Wellington, Florida, I have had the privilege of studying under George Morris one or two days a week. Over this time, I have found myself consumed by the effort to understand what skills and philosophies lead those who are masters at their trade along the path to ‘enlightenment’. I use the term enlightenment cautiously, not in a Voodoo god-like way, but in the sense of a deeper awareness and understanding of the world as it exists. When I refer to masters, I mean those who are able to refine their craft beyond the basic level that is comprehensible to most others.

A typical day spent with George was as follows:

After he had worked out for an hour at a nearby gym, George and I met for breakfast at 7 am. From there we hit the road, venturing to many different barns where he would ride, educate, and mentor many of the top riders and horses at every level.  He usually started out by riding a few horses, then progress to teaching a few individual lessons, and finally wrap up his instruction with a clinic.  Following the morning’s work, we would head back to his house for a few hours – but only after his usual stop at Dunkin Donuts for a large hot chocolate with whipped cream! While George occupied himself with the editing of his autobiography, I was left to browse his library and read his books and the notes that he had jotted down on their pages. In the afternoon, we would head to the show grounds where I got to observe him as he walked and discussed the course with several riders, both those he was responsible for coaching and those he wasn’t. My favorite part of these afternoons was standing with him as his students rode.  He could see every mistake before it happened and every bad distance long before the horse took off. His understanding of the horse’s correctness to the jump was so well established by his years of riding and teaching that George knew what was going to happen before the horse ever did.

On one of the last days I spent with George during the winter season, he said something that had an enormous impact on my thinking. As usual, we met for breakfast, said our good mornings, and sat down. It was not uncharacteristic on such occasions for George to start the conversation by exhaling loudly and then delivering a simple but mind-blowing comment.  On this day his comment was, “You know what keeps me waking up every day?  The drive to continue to learn, the hunger to be better for the horse, the fact that the only thing that is confirmed every day is that I don’t know. The only thing I know is that I don’t know.” This is a classic example of George’s sage-like advice: spontaneous yet full of priceless wisdom.  Only after some time had passed and I had let his statement sink in did I realize how significant it was.

This statement of George’s that “the only thing I know is that I don’t know” encapsulates much of what it takes to achieve self-mastery. This in itself is a complicated subject, but for now I will only discuss what the statement means to me.

Simply put, the day you stop learning is the day you think that you have ‘arrived’, that you have reached the pinnacle of your potential, that there is no need to continue studying, applying, and refining your skills. You have reached a state of stagnation from which there is no forward progress. There is no more desire to conduct experiments in hopes of bettering your understanding and improving your awareness. You have become mechanized and routine in your approach to dealing with all situations, and you have lost sensitivity for the moment at hand.  As a result, a person who has reached this ‘pinnacle’ tends to treat everyone as though they were machines, providing one-size-fits-all answers instead of tailoring his approach to any particular situation. A teacher who has himself ceased to learn will be unable to help others think, cultivate the desire to improve, and develop an awareness of their influence on their surroundings.

As George made clear in his statement, he has never stopped learning.  He often tells me during a phone conversation or breakfast that after a recent breakthrough with a horse, he realized that he has been doing something wrong his entire life. He laughs to think that for all that time he had been teaching it wrongly. He still has a hard time believing that others listen to him when he teaches because he has these seemingly constant breakthroughs, no matter how small they are, that revise his previous understanding of the horse.

Another thing that working with George brought to my attention is his voracious reading and his struggle to understand the many variations and details of classical horsemanship.  He will read a specific book many times over the years, whenever his mood or current interest inclines him toward it. Seeing some of the books he has gone through over and over again with countless underlines, side notes, and comments in different inks has led me to appreciate just how many times he has been through the same book with different insights resulting from his labors. Each time George rereads a book, he peels back another layer of the onion to reveal a new meaning.

Depending on where I am in my journey, George’s seemingly simple statement that “the only thing I know is that I don’t know” takes many different forms, always presenting itself in a new light to reflect my current circumstances.  The sentiment behind these simple words is one that is embraced by masters in all disciplines.  The details of the “not knowing” may have slight differences depending on who is professing their ignorance, but the meaning as a whole is applicable to all areas of study and life.

Any masters who have reached refinement to the degree of enlightenment have seemingly simple, short phrases that are so straightforward that they seem trite or untrue to those who hear them. On a lifelong journey of learning, however, the continuous breakdown of these sayings reveals the complexity and deeper truth behind the words. It is only with examination and explanation that these phrases can become accessible and helpful to students at all levels. I hope that I can build an awareness of these phrases in others by explaining my thought process as I myself try to understand the deeper meaning behind them by writing about them.

I feel so fortunate for the mentors and masters I have had and will have the pleasure to study under. It is hard to imagine a life without them.