Trusting the Process

If there’s one piece of advice I’ve heard most often lately, it’s probably this one: Trust the process.

As a chronic worrier and control enthusiast, trusting anything in particular doesn’t come easily to me. I recognize that I have a tendency to give up on things when I can’t jump directly from “starting out” to “end result.” And since I stepped out of the world of more traditional horsemanship and into the world of natural horsemanship, I’ve had to adjust to some pretty major shifts in thinking. Like, for instance, I would’ve never dreamed that I’d take my third ride on my green-broke horse as a half-day trail ride. Up a mountain. In a rope hackamore. But after having been through the process of training her myself in her groundwork, and then watching 3-Star Parelli Professional Terry Wilson start her under saddle, and having seen techniques that were sometimes counter-intuitive to me turn her into a different, more confident horse… I was finally ready to trust to process.

Sure, I might not know what I'm doing, but my horse looks awfully good!

Terry is a big believer in the power of the trail ride. He’d only put a handful of rides on Juno before taking her out on the trails near his property, and it was plain even to me what a positive effect it had on her development. After my first two rides on Juno, both in Terry’s round pen and neither of them terribly inspiring for me — in the sense that they revealed to me what an awful rider I am — I was certainly ready for something different. Terry thought a day on the trail would be just the thing; he’d ride Juno to begin with while I rode one of his lease horses, Jane, and if all went well we’d switch and I could ride my own horse. Terry’s wife Lvonne and our friends Laura and Bridgette joined us with their own horses, so we had a pretty decent-sized group, and the weather was beautiful, cool and overcast.

Terry and Juno leading the way

We hauled in to West Fork, scraped the previous day’s mud off the horses and got everyone tacked up, then we headed right out on the trail. You wouldn’t have known that Juno had only done all of this once before — and on that occasion they’d had to turn back after only a mile or so, because Juno’s unshod feet were a bit sore on all the rock. This time, Terry and Juno went right out in the lead, and she didn’t flinch away from tight horse-high vegetation, bridges, or even the singing cowboy on her back. (Hey, everybody likes a good Canadian sea shanty.) In short order, Terry proposed that we switch and I get up on my own horse for our first trail riding outing together.

We covered eight miles and six bridge crossings. We rode near the front of the pack, in the middle, and all the way in the back, but it was all the same to Juno. She naturally prefers to give the other horses plenty of room, so there was no need to constantly remind her to keep her distance from the horse in front of her, and she didn’t feel the slightest urge to rush home when we turned back. She was, in short, the perfect trail horse, and gave me the gift of the most enjoyable trail ride I’d ever experienced. And though I’ve suffered all kinds of confidence and fear issues when it comes to riding horses, when I was out there on the back of my own horse, in the middle of the wilderness, I didn’t feel even a moment’s worth of fear or doubt. Even though I’d had a bit of an emotional explosion just a few days earlier, I trusted Terry, I trusted my horse, and I trusted the process that had brought us to where we were. I trusted that it would keep taking us further.

Me and Juno, trailblazing!

Progress is often an uncomfortable thing. You don’t know yet what to do, or how to do it, or whether you’ll ever get it. You’re outside of your comfort zone — sometimes way outside of it — and sometimes you’re compelled to take risks to keep moving forward. That doesn’t mean you have to take up daredevil riding or do something that’s unsafe for you: it just means that you might need to put your pride on the line or sacrifice your usually zen-like emotional state for awhile. But with the right knowledge, the right attitude and the right support you can do things you never dreamed you’d do — even if it’s just taking your horse on a trail ride.

Terry Wilson is a 3-Star Parelli instructor living in Pagosa Springs. He teaches lessons and clinics all over the US and Canada, and I strongly encourage you to take advantage of his knowledge and general awesomeness by booking him for a clinic. Also check out his website and his Facebook page! This post is a follow-up to The Long, Dark Horseback Ride of the Soul; if you haven’t read that post yet, you might want to have a look. You know, just to see what I’m like when I’m a bit less emotionally balanced.

The Long, Dark Horseback Ride of the Soul

My horse Juno and I don’t really share a typical horse/human history. For a start, she’s in her late teens, and she’s spent more years in the wild than she has in the paddock. She’s the first horse I’ve ever owned. Oh, and by the way, I have no idea what I’m doing half the time. It’s not really what you’d call a recipe for success, but somehow Juno and I have muddled along, with a harmony that comes of being kindred introverted spirits. I’ve mentioned before the particular challenges of moving beyond where we’ve been and into the exciting world of saddle training, which for a horse of Juno’s age isn’t necessarily an easy proposition. But I’ve always known that it was possible, and in recent years we’d reached a point where the only thing standing between Juno and a truly spectacular future was me.

Years ago when I first began to admit to myself that I wasn’t qualified to start my horse myself — which admittedly wasn’t until I’d taken my third ride on her, which ended with a spectacular unscheduled dismount — I didn’t really know what to expect. What I discovered was that there are some trainers who, when you say the word “mustang,” will immediately say no without hearing anything else. There are quite a few who won’t even bother to think about starting a horse as old as Juno is. (Horses can live into their thirties or even forties so she’s really kind of middle-aged, but younger horses are without a doubt easier to train, and a lot of equestrians would consider her practically over the hill.) And there are some trainers who, when you tell them the horse you want started is both teenaged and a mustang, will laugh until they’re red in the face and then offer to loan you a gun so you can just kill yourself since you’re apparently intent on dying anyway. (Cowboys are secret drama queens, apparently.) And it usually didn’t matter anyway what many of those rough and tumble trainers of the American west thought, because watching most of them work with horses was enough to convince me that I never wanted them to touch mine.

Luckily for both Juno and I, we wound up in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, where I’d taken a job with Parelli Natural Horsemanship and suddenly found myself surrounded by both experienced horsemen and fellow students who were on the same horsemanship track and speaking the same language that I was. And when I asked around about who might be able to start Juno under saddle for me, pretty much everyone I met recommended 3-Star Parelli Professional Terry Wilson. When I ran into Terry and asked him about training my horse, he was a little surprised at her age, but he was game to give it a go. He warned me that Juno might never work out as a saddle horse, but he was willing to try.

In deference to her age and introversion, he started off slow — compared to what he’d do with a young colt, anyway — with plenty of groundwork, filling in the holes I’d inadvertently left in her ground training and helping to get her accustomed to saddles and cinches, which was something I’d always had trouble with.

Wearing a western riding saddle

Ponying out onto the road with a pack saddle on

He was mounting bareback in the middle of their first session; by the end of the first week, they were out on the trails.

Riding out on Terry’s acreage on day 3

I knew that all of Juno’s groundwork, and her inherent good nature, would make things easier than Terry likely expected, but I had no idea how quickly they’d progress. I’ve had the very good fortune, with Terry’s kind cooperation, to be able to watch nearly every session he’s had with my horse. I’ve accompanied them out on trails and learned a remarkable amount just from watching everything that Terry does. It’s been amazing to see how much my horse is really capable of, and how much more I should be doing with her. And of course, the more I watched her progress under Terry’s tutelage, the clearer it became to me that one day, very soon, it was going to be up to me to ride her, to keep her moving forward both literally and metaphorically, to be the leader in our herd of two.

To put it succinctly, I was petrified.

The day of reckoning arrived today — Terry had suggested that after his session with her, I should get on and ride for a bit — and it would be fair to say that I spent most of the day at work vacillating wildly between excited and scared as hell. Not scared of Juno, or of getting hurt — even green as she is, I know her, and feel quite confident in her and in Terry’s work with her — but rather scared that I wouldn’t be able to be the leader she needed. Scared that I wouldn’t know what to do or how to do it. Scared that I’d set Terry back in his progress with her, and that I’d never be the rider she needs me to be.

So I sat and watched Terry work with her, as he ran her through the basics again and made sure she’d be okay with a rider that bounced on her back and flailed at random, which she was… though it was more than a little humbling to realize exactly how necessary that would be before I could get on. Then Terry asked if I was ready to ride, and I said yes, because no wasn’t even an option, no didn’t occur to me, no was not in my lexicon. So I went into the round pen, and I got on.

I wish I could give this story some sort of Disney finale where as I rode, I realized that I could be a leader, that I did know what to do, that I wouldn’t be setting my horse back at all. Rather, the experience was quite the opposite. On the one hand, it was incredibly thrilling after all these years to be sitting on my horse, feeling all in all calm and confident about being there (but slightly panicked about being able to follow Terry’s directions, because my mind was stuck on a bit of an endless loop that went, “Holy s***, I’m riding my horse!”). On the other hand, I discovered that I hadn’t been worried enough. I thought I’d be bad, and I was worse.

Everything I’d ever known about riding — which I can’t say was much — I suddenly forgot. Fine motor control was a thing of the past, as was language comprehension. When I asked her to walk forward, Juno kept diving nose-first toward the fence and sidepassing, which was awfully fancy, but would’ve been even more impressive if I’d been aware of asking for it. When I posted the trot she thought it meant I was about to go flying out of the saddle, and obligingly slowed down to save me from myself. Whenever I asked her for something, it was more of a timid suggestion than a confidently worded direction. When Terry asked me for simple maneuvers it felt like he was demanding rocket science.

After I’d managed to somewhat laboriously grasp a few basic concepts, I asked her for a bit of trot so we could end on something I could actually accomplish, and then I unsaddled her (and started training her to stand with her nose at the tie rail, even when she’s not tied, because by God if there’s one thing I can accomplish it’s training my horse to stand still and not move). I got her a dish of grain and held it for her while she calmly chowed down, undoubtedly secure in the knowledge that of the two of us, she’s by far the cleverer one. Terry left me to put her away, and headed up to the house (probably to pour a stiff drink, poor guy).

I watched Juno eat and relished the way that she’d occasionally turn her head into my hand for a rub, with a confidence and self-assurance that even a few months ago she didn’t possess. I reminded myself that nobody starts this journey knowing everything — or even necessarily anything — that they need to know. I gave myself credit for being proactive, trying to get more time in the saddle before bringing Juno home and even working on enrolling in some formal lessons in addition to all the DVD studying I could do at home.

And then I buried my face in my horse’s neck and had a complete emotional meltdown.

Horses are good for things like that, though. Juno just stood and curled her neck around me a little (I suspect she was giving me a “wtf?” look behind my back, or maybe just subtly inspecting my pockets for cookies) and waited for me to stop weeping like a little girl, which I’m only slightly ashamed to say took quite a long while. I apologized to her profusely and repeatedly for not having worked harder to be the partner and leader she needs me to be, and I promised to do better if she’d just try really hard to keep me out of the hospital while I tried to catch up. I pretended for awhile that she understands English, which clearly she doesn’t (otherwise, you’d think she’d respond a bit faster when I say things like, “Hey Juno, it’s dinner time!”).

I know it’s not necessarily anything to be ashamed about, having a moment of complete mental break and just absolutely losing it. I know it was about more than one lousy ride, and that I’d piled work stress onto personal stress with a shaky foundation of overall uncertainty about life, but as I drove back to town, still sniffling, it was hard to even begin to gather the scattered shreds of my dignity, much less think about putting myself through the same wringer again tomorrow. It isn’t the riding that’s a hardship, it’s more that when you’re in the saddle, you have to face yourself.

The moment I walked in the door, my friend and temporary house-guest Gina wanted to know how the ride went.

I told her, in all honesty, that it had been simultaneously awesome and horrific.

“Good,” she said. “That means you’re learning.”

I’ve been keeping an album of photos from Terry’s sessions with Juno on Facebook; if you have any interest in seeing a great many pictures of the process, along with occasionally-helpful commentary from me, check out the first album and the second album on Facebook. You don’t need a Facebook account to access these public albums! And if you’re on Facebook and would like to friend me, please feel free!

Edit: Wow, this blog sure has gotten a lot of attention! My thanks to the WordPress gods for Freshly Pressing this entry, and to my colleagues at Parelli for finding it interesting enough to post the link on our official Facebook page. If you’d like to continue following the saga of Juno and I, please check out my follow-up entry, Trusting the Process, wherein we go on a trail ride and nobody dies.

Born to Be Free

You won’t often hear me talk about rodeo. A big part of the reason for this is that, as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that it’s both useless to tell other people how to conduct their lives, and it’s foolish to spout off opinions on subjects you don’t know too much about. I don’t feel like I know hardly anything anymore, and my life’s become a richer thing since I started asking to be taught instead of arrogantly insisting that I already knew all I needed to know. In my experience, that kind of conviction often exists in the void left by a lack of real knowledge and experience. The world exists in a million shades of gray, and even when you’re certain of yourself, it’s still important to acknowledge the reality that you’ll never bring anybody around to your viewpoint by laying in with your spurs or trying to whip them toward the finish line.

So while I might not like the way I see a lot of people ride at the rodeo — just like I might not like the way I see a lot of people ride in Grand Prix dressage — you won’t hear me talk much about it. I might also wish that more equestrian sports rewarded softness, feel, finesse and the health of the horse instead of simply performance. I might cringe to see a horse hurt or a calf bowled over or a kid pinned beneath a steer, but I understand that even in the best circumstances accidents happen, and I don’t think that every rodeo should be judged on the basis of the kind of wanton cruelty and careless carnage that some rodeos call sport. My point is, I would normally have very little to say about rodeo, because I feel it isn’t my issue, my cause, my fight, or my world to be commenting on. But tonight at my little local small-town rodeo, I saw something that I do think of as mine. I saw these.

saleauthority_trio

If you don’t know what you’re looking at, I’ll be glad to tell you. The white brands on these horses’ necks means that they were wild horses, once. At some point in their lives — probably late in their lives, and I make that assumption for reasons I’ll explain in a moment — they were rounded up by helicopter and brought into captivity.

I won’t get into all of the arguments, politics and opinions surrounding the wild horse issue. There are whole books on the subject, and in this particular post it’s not the point. The fact is, these horses came in from the wild and they weren’t going to be put back again. They could’ve been adopted into private homes, but it’s unlikely they were even given that chance. The large white “U” you see clearly at the end of each brand — a match to the smaller U that you can’t see at the beginning of each brand — means that these are “sale authority” or “Burns amendment” horses. Simply put, sale authority strips away protections or sale prerequisites from wild horses who have been judged to be over ten years of age, or who have failed to adopt at three events. These horses, from the look of them, were probably deemed to be sale authority animals on the basis of age.

saleauthority_grandmotherThe fact that they wound up as bucking stock on the small-town rodeo circuit isn’t illegal or even frowned upon. It is within the government’s right to dispose of them as they see fit. You can walk away with one of these horses for a low, low price — I’ve seen them sold for a dollar — and then if you want to put it on the next truck to Mexico to be turned into horse steaks, you can do it. I know all that. I don’t agree with it, but I know it.

Still, walking up to those pens and seeing those brands on the horses was like a punch in the gut. Perhaps they were younger than they looked, but to me it was like stumbling across a group of grandmothers who’d been pressed into service as gladiators. It felt demeaning in a way that I still can’t entirely explain.

saleauthority_grandmother2

But then,  that feeling itself isn’t necessarily rational. I eat meat, and those animals on my dinner plate undoubtedly suffered worse. The domestic horses in that bucking horse collection had clearly been through the wars, too; one seemed to have more branded flesh than unbranded, and another had a bleeding wound ripped into his hind end, most likely from the constant miserable fighting going on in the pen. But it was the presence of mustangs there that for me stung the worst. This wasn’t the life they’d been meant for. Their dignity was gone. And knowing that they’d fallen here from freedom seemed somehow almost unbearable to contemplate. Better perhaps than the other souls penned with them, they knew what they’d lost.

saleauthority_run

Though they’d spent most of their time in the pen with their ears pinned back, warning all comers not to venture too close, once the stock contractors brought them out for a mad run around the arena, you could see a little spark flare. Their ears came forward, at least some of the time. They moved as one unit, as if they’d never held each other at bay. And they stretched their legs out like if they could only run hard enough, they could fling themselves into another life.

The rodeo announcer assured us via loudspeaker that bucking horses love their jobs, that they perk up at the sight of the chutes. He also assured us that this stock contractor’s fine animals were ranch-raised, and came from long lines of bucking horses.

He said that they were “born to buck.”

Presumably, this was supposed to reassure the crowd that there was nothing unsavory about the evening’s entertainment. But I watched one of those sorrels gallop past me, with the wind picking up its mane, and the neat white brand beneath gave the lie away.

Herded back into their pens again, the horses only stared into the far distance, and kept their silence.

saleauthority_distance