Of Broken Things

Master Chef

Watching Master Chef the other night, a thought crystallized in my head.  To get to this point in the show, the chefs are very knowledgeable, talented, and they have that indefinable thing that makes their food so much better.
          So, here they are:  a room full of the best chefs I've ever seen.  They are being challenged, and stretched.  They have to create beautiful dishes with impossible ingredients in a 20-minute window.  As they worked, sweat dripping off their brow, Chef Ramsey walked around the room.  His commentary was not encouraging.  He didn't lift anyone up, he didn't offer kind suggestions, or tell someone that they were making the right choices.  No, he was belittling.  He tasted their work-in-progress and he frowned, spit it out, and made awful sounds.  He used words like "ruined" and "ugh."
          In watching the show, I saw what Chef Ramsey was doing.


If you are not familiar with horses, the breaking process is imperative.  It is visceral, and connects the rider to the horse in ways that could not happen otherwise.  In breaking, the cowboy introduces the horse to a variety of stressful stimuli - a halter, a plastic bag, a crop.  The horse, a natural prey animal, learns to trust the cowboy.  The horse learns to accept new things, and to work with the cowboy towards a mutual goal.
          Each horse responds to this process differently.  Some horses readily hand over trust, and accept each challenge willingly.  Others are resistant.  They fight the control, and begrudge the trust.
          One of the first tensions between the cowboy and the horse is halter breaking.  Once the halter is in place, the cowboy tugs on the lead rope.  The horse responds to this pressure by a) giving in and stepping forward, or b) resisting by pulling back against the pressure.  A horse that steps forward is rewarded with a slack in the rope, petting, and encouraging words.  A horse that resists is met with more pressure, until they choose option "a."


There's a reason cowboys call it breaking.  What happens in the process is not just physical, or even mental, it's spiritual.  The result is a bridge of trust.  The horse is malleable, and ready to learn.  For some horses, this process is breaking down the ego, stripping away the will, and opening the soft core.  Once the horse is there, blowing hard and covered in sweat, training can truly begin.
          That is what Chef Ramsey was doing with his chefs.  He was breaking them.  Once he breaks through the ego and false confidence, he can begin the work of a true master chef.
          When I am being pushed to grow, I go through the same process.  I have had riding lessons where we may have been working on a maneuver, but what we were really working on was breaking me.  My coach's tone gets hard and demanding.  I hear them tell me "do it again" and "I've told you five times..."
          My heart constricts and I am frustrated.  I get angry.  I engage my will, as if I can make my body obey.  I loathe myself and my inability to do this one.  Simple.  Thing.  I try again, and again, and again.
          Finally, finally I break.
          Now I am ready to work.  Now I am ready to listen, really listen to my coach and to my horse.  I can do what I need to without pride or willpower.  I soften.  It is exactly the same thing I see in a horse when he takes a step toward the cowboy at the end of the lead rope.

Living a Broken Life

I wish I could say that I was like the compliant horse, who feels the pressure of the halter and steps forward, into the release.  My first reaction is to lean against the pressure, as if the growing process is an act of willpower alone (specifically my will).
          I used to commute 50 miles to work one way.  I did this for seven years.  In the beginning, I was excited about my job and what I was learning.  When that wore off, I made the drive because it was going to make my next career move so much better.  My attitude was to make the drive because that's what I was asked to do.  Mentally, I kept testing the lead rope to see if the pressure was still there.  I was moving the the right direction, just at the end of a taut rope.
          Then one day, I heard about serving joyfully.  I began commuting to work excited about how I would be able to serve that day.  Surely I had something special to offer, since I had to come from miles away to deliver it!  My drive shifted from a drudgery to time spent in reflection and, yes, joy.  I was stepping towards the rope, allowing it to sag in the middle, as I followed where I was led.
          Very shortly after that, I was released from the burden of commuting.  I was able to land a good job in the same town as I lived, and I was home in time to eat dinner with my family.
          I have continued this pattern in my life:  pressure, resistance, pressure, softening, release.  I hope that the cycle gets shorter, as I learn to recognize the pressure and step into it.  This last round has resulted in a beautiful new home, and a place for our horses.  I am so very excited to joyfully serve, whatever the next challenge may be!

Humbly Beautiful

          Last weekend, my daughter and I showed at the Eastern Slope reining in Castle Rock.  The judging was very conservative, and my daughter expressed frustration in her ride and her scores.  A teammate, who has been showing for about a year, scored better than she did.  Although she loves her friend dearly, it was with a tearful voice that she asked me, "Why does she score better than I do?"  
          Oh, I was full of answers and platitudes, and when I ran out of those, I gave her all I had left, which was simply a hug.  She echoed the feelings I had been struggling with, for me and for her.  The more I tried, and the more I learned, the less I was rewarded.

The Responsible One

There is a story about the Prodigal Son.  The story goes that there was a family with two sons.  The younger one, the prodigal son, cashed in his inheritance to see the world.  This son had gone out in true grasshopper form, spent all the money, attended all the parties, and was returning home, broke and contrite.  Upon his return home, his father threw a party.
          In the meantime, the older son stayed home.  The older son worked to improve his father's wealth, completing the tasks before him responsibly, timely, and efficiently.  When the father was tired, the older son worked more and sent the father in to drink some lemonade (taking a few liberties with the story here).    The older son learned the business, and worked harder than anyone to keep it going.  
          When the father rejoiced upon the return of the prodigal son, the older son stood in the yard, fists clenched in fury, betrayal, and hurt.  The father eventually came out into the yard and approached the son.  The older son shared his hurt and anger.  "Why do you celebrate the return of the one who discarded us and our love?  Why haven't you thrown a party to celebrate the love I have shown for you?"
          The father's reply was telling.  "You are always with me, and everything I have is yours."
          The older son imposed responsibility upon himself, and created rules for his relationship with his father.  He thought that his good deeds and hard work would earn his father's love.  He completely missed that what he sought so desperately, he already had.


When I show Sergio, I feel like the older son.  I have prepared for the ride, I have worked hard to earn my place in the pen.  When I am done, I think that my ride is at least as good as another, but I do not get the score to match.  
          I keep thinking that my good works are going to lead to reward.  When they do not, I am bitter and exhausted.  The amount of effort that I have put into being there, riding a technically correct ride, and controlling everything, are the things that cause the ride to lose its shine.
          The problem with showing the horse and being the responsible one is that the result is not pleasing.  Although the ride may be technically correct, it is not beautiful.  We can see that the horse is guided through the pattern, and that the horse can perform the maneuvers.  The rigidity in the rider, the defensiveness of the posture, the tightness of the rein cause us to hesitate.  Where we may have rewarded the maneuver, we detract instead.
          The real sticker to the story is humility.  The older son, in his pride for his good works refused the gift his father had for him every day.  The father said, "What's mine is yours."  The love that the older son sought to earn was already his.
          When we show our horses with humility and a desire to honor the love we have for our horse, the ride becomes not about what we do, but about who we are.  We can say to the world, "I do not deserve this horse, I have not earned this ride, but he is a gift for me.  I am going to enjoy him, and boldly ride him, and know in my heart that I will never, ever earn him, because he is already mine."

Beautiful Gift

Ultimately, that is what the ride is being judged upon.  Although I, as the responsible one, want the ride to be about what we do - a perfect spin, evenly balanced circles - a technically correct ride is not beautiful.
          A beautiful ride showcases the partnership between a rider and a horse.  With confidence, the team sets out to perform each maneuver to the best of their ability.  If a plus half spin is all that team has, but they perform it joyfully, well then, that's a plus half spin all day long.
          I am very intimidated by riding the ride that judges me and not what I do.  I am kidding myself if I believe that the ride is about anything else.  To humbly and exuberantly (can you be both?) step into the pen and perform the maneuvers with Sergio is a fine thing indeed.
          The performance as a team is important, but I can't earn Sergio because he is already mine. 

Not Good Enough

          Riding Sergio fills me with joy, and releases me from the distractions of a body at rest.  He doesn't care about what I accomplished today, or what achievements I have made.  He isn't distracted by the masks that I wear.  He only cares about the time we have together and that I am present and trusting.
          I, however, have higher expectations.  I struggle to ride him the way he should be ridden, to accept what he has to offer, and to bring my share to the team.  He is a such a beautiful, talented horse.  I tell myself that I should be able to show him successfully.
          I want to be in control of the ride, to dictate our speed and direction minutely.  I want to be able to execute every maneuver exactly according to plan.  Unfortunately, my efforts to control change the way I ride, and distort the cues I am giving to him.  Our ride ends up being tentative and discordant, and the judge can see it.  The score reflects the judge's opinion, and my confidence plunges.  When my score is announced, I hear "You are not good enough."
          The message is repeated as my coach gives me advice and feedback on the ride.  "You need to sit back when you stop him (you are not good enough)."
          As I go over my ride, I repeat the message again, "I think I turned him around better, but I got a penalty (I'm still not good enough)."
          This message has been haunting me for most of my life.  When I am in a good place, it's easy to tune out.  When times are difficult, like they are now, the words ring in my ears.  I offer up everything I do for review and approval.  If the response is critical, well, that's to be expected because I. Am. Not. Good. Enough.
Miss Goodie Two Shoes
          Maybe the message originated during my childhood, as a middle child.  My response to a house full of girls was to be the good girl, to get along.  If my older sister struggled with her grades, mine would be A's.  If my younger sister quit her miserable California job and moved back home, I would tough it out and work an awful job.  The problem is that even as I tried my best to do the right thing and to be good, what I longed for was attention.
          Naturally, no one worries about a good girl.  No one lectures her, or encourages her, or tells her she is tough enough to overcome obstacles.  No one rushes in to save her from a disaster, because she never risks having one.  Instead, they leave her alone, because she has it all figured out.  Right?  Although I was good, I was never good enough to receive the praise I craved.
          My older sister recently bought a bottle of wine for me - "Middle Sister Goodie Two Shoes."  She probably wouldn't have if she knew how much it hurt.  The description on the label pierced my heart, because it was true, every word.
The Fire
           One of my favorite quotes from the Wizard of Oz is "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"  That's because I feel like everything I do is a mirage, a carefully constructed play to hide the fact that I am not good enough.
         Riding and showing Sergio is fearful business.  Not because riding him scares me, although sometimes it does.  What is really scary is the possibility of failing.  I am afraid that everyone can see right through the self-controlled masks, right through the good girl, and discover my secret:  I am not good enough for this beautiful horse.
          The whole purpose of showing is to be judged.  I am painfully aware that I am being watched by not only the paid judge, but also my coach (who I have a sinking suspicion already knows my flaws), my friends, and my family.  When I ride in the show pen, I feel as though I am being held up to the light.  As the bright light of my desire shines through me, it reveals all of my flaws.
          This scares the hell out of me.
Don't Give Up
          Showing horses is a hard business.  The rules keep changing, and there's always someone who rides better, has a better horse, or has more money.  The cold, hard truth is that I will never be good enough.  I will never have it all figured out.
          Nobody ever promised me that I would be good at showing horses.  Even so, no matter how sternly I address my heart, I cannot deny the love I have for riding.  To quit is to give up on myself.  Maybe my dreams don't tie to the reality of my ability (or funding).  Without horses, I am lost, and empty.  So for now, I will continue to slog it out, and hope that I can find peace from my good girl, and acceptance that not good enough is still Enough.

Can you see that person dancing in the flames on Sergio?  That's me - dirty, grubby, imperfect me.
I would like to thank Emily Freeman and her book, Grace for the Good Girl, for the inspiration and for the words I just couldn't find.

The Release of Running

Today, I have a guest post from my son, Walker Rainford.  This is actually an English assignment, but he said it would be okay for me to post.  He speaks about something I feel when I ride, the unwinding of my stressed-out, cluttered self...

The Release of Running
by Walker Rainford

          If you ask most people what they would think of taking a three mile run every day, they might look at you like you’re crazy or maybe like you are one of those people obsessed with fitness. Until my freshman year of high school, I would have reacted much the same. At my father’s request, I signed up for cross country to become more active in school. While the first few weeks were difficult and left me feeling as utterly exhausted as I had thought I might feel; the more I got in shape, the more I came to truly enjoy running. Out in Falcon, with the open, endless space left before you to run, it can be an amazing opportunity to relax and find time to think without seeming utterly unproductive. The steady cadence and shorter stride of a lengthy jog might easily settle into the back of the mind, leaving the mind free to wander where it may without the distraction of a body at rest.
"...leaving the mind free to wander where it may without the distraction of a body at rest."
          As the season pressed onward, I found myself anxiously awaiting our Monday workout, when we ran north, along a dirt road for an hour or more past open fields where cattle graze. I was able to use this time to think, about my life, school, and anything else pressing on my mind.  Running allowed me to release the stress I piled upon myself, and to solve my troubles. My darkest of moods were moved to serenity by the open space and silent trails we ran. I am truly glad my father prompted me to try running, because without it, I wouldn't be the person I am today. It has brought a level of wisdom and balance to my life that I have lost in the past.
          Even after the season ends, and life goes back to my normal routine, I make time to go for a run in my neighborhood especially on the days where it would first appear that I don’t have the time to spare. The opportunity to run, even on days crammed with homework, allows me the chance to think things through, and gives me a chance to plan the rest of my evening, as well as acting as an aid to me for finding the answers to problems I’d struggled with throughout the day. This very essay was planned when I went for a jog to clear my thoughts and calm myself after a tough day at work.
          The next time you find yourself lost in a jumble of thoughts, consider going for a jog, or even a walk if a jog sounds like too rigorous a workout for the time. Find a long road, or a route that you know well, and let your legs take you where they may. The clarity that comes with a walk will likely leave you rejuvenated, and ready to go back into your life, with your mind sharpened and your body loosened. When I return home and begin on schoolwork, I’m often
able to do better and gain more if I’ve run prior, as I find that the events, both past and eventual, are no longer clouding my thoughts with questions and uncertainties.
          Even if you don’t have something looming or especially troubling on your mind, your thoughts will lead to stressors that you weren’t aware were present. The time with nothing more than scenery and your open path let your mind wander as it will, and given time, your mind will always sort itself towards that which is troubling you or concerning you, sitting at the back of your mind with a false label of something resolved or of no concern. When these are sorted out, you can almost physically feel the clarity and the calm that will reach your mind,
something we often seek fruitlessly. Your mind is an extremely powerful tool, and like any tool you hold in your hands, it must be cleaned and cared for, lest it cease to function properly. If you leave your mind and your thoughts unattended over time, you will lose the ease with which you could once think without ever realizing it. The first thing you do upon reaching this clear state brought by the time running gives to think will surprise you, being accomplished with an
ease you might have long forgotten. 

Saying Goodbye

          I will never forget the look on his face, peering through the stall bars at the National Western Stock Show grounds.  He was always eager to see me, always ready to say “hello” and ready for that day’s adventure.  Today, however, my heart was heavy.  I had just finished giving him a final hug (his forehead pressed against my heart, my arms wrapped around his head).  I turned away, this image of my Squishy burned in my mind.  His ears were perked, his eyes bright and curious.  From his posture, I could tell he was leaning forward, pressed against the stall door.  Perhaps he knew that something was different about this parting.  This time was our forever good-bye.
          Riding a horse for me is more than recreation, more than sport.  It is forging a team, whose communication is through intimate physical contact.  Signals are sent and received in a constant stream, most of them imperceptible to the observer (really, many of them are imperceptible to me as the rider).  In a contract of trust, the rider provides confidence and direction while the horse becomes an extension of the rider.  It takes time to build the relationship, time for the horse and rider to learn to read each other. 
          I originally purchased Squishy in a partnership, as a business venture.  Our goal was to buy a young horse, who would be trained and shown by a professional, and then sell him as a fine derby horse.  When Shane Brown brought him home from Texas, where we had purchased him sight unseen, I admit I was disappointed.  As I led him out of his stall, all I could see was an ordinary brown horse.  I’d been warned that he wasn’t beautiful.  My reply was “beauty is as beauty does.”  But still.  Did he have to be so plain?  Even the name he came with was common to his bloodlines:  Tejon.
          As Shane worked with him, building up his confidence and teaching him how to learn and use his body, Tejon began to bloom.  He was a talented stopper and pretty mover.  He did have a white star and four white socks.  His coat was a reddish sort of bay, so maybe not plain brown.  I stood on the fence, watching him ride, evaluating his strengths and weaknesses from a distance, strictly reminding myself that this was a business venture.
          One day, Shane let me ride him.  Shane had warned me that the horse was short-necked, but from the ground, Tejon was a nicely-formed, balanced horse.  After I settled in the saddle, however, I realized what Shane meant.  Riding him was like riding a cab-over truck, where it felt like the saddle was perched right behind his head.  During that first ride, Tejon kept checking in, wanting to know what I expected of him.  We were both tentative.  My stern reminders of the business side of this were weakening.
          After a time, we (my partner, Shane, and I) came to realize that Tejon just wasn’t cut out to be an open rider-level horse.  Since we had entered him in the big Futurity in Oklahoma, we decided that I would show him in the Nonpro class.  That fall, I rode Tejon as much as possible, in an effort to build our trust contract before we were under the pressure of a show pen.  I threw the business facade out the window and embraced a new relationship.
          For Tejon, having a Nonpro for a rider meant that there were treats, rub downs, long baths, walks in the grass, and time spent exploring the world together.   During that time, Tejon grew into an expressive, interactive horse with a compact build.  Plain ole Tejon just didn’t seem to fit anymore.  So he became Squishy.
          Squishy and I worked hard on our partnership together.  We showed at the Futurity, where we didn’t place, but we didn’t shame ourselves either.  I continued to show him during the following two show seasons.  We had some good classes, and we had some bad ones (one in particular comes to mind where he jumped sideways at the end of every stop).  In the end, we had a great friendship, but we weren’t a team.  Squishy needed someone with confidence and an ability to dominate the ride.  I needed a horse that would forgive my indecision and heal my broken trust from a prior horse.  Like a bad romance, we were both too needy.
          No matter how much fun we had when I was out of the saddle, it was time for each of us to find a new partner.  Very rarely is there a horse and rider team that can grow together, from Rookie to Intermediate and beyond.  More often, a competitor has to be prepared to bring in and let go of several horses during their show career.  Intellectually, I know this.  Emotionally, I have yet to let go of a horse.
          So it came to that fall day in Denver.  His expression on that day is crystal clear in my mind.  He had this way of getting hugs from me by butting his head against my chest.  The hugs always turned to rubs, where he rewarded my efforts with sighs and a blissful expression.  On that day, with my own sigh, I backed out of the stall, pushed his seeking nose back in, and slid the door shut.  At the end of the alley, I looked back, and there he stood.  Both his expression and body reached out to me.
          He trusted me.  In leaving him there, I was breaking that trust, and breaking our bond.  That still hurts my heart and brings tears to my eyes.  Even so, I know that I made the right decision for Squishy and for me.  Squishy found a new vocation with less precision and pressure.  I found a horse exceeding my competitive abilities, but who could wait patiently for my trust.

How to Check Your Horse for Soreness

          Being a prey animal, most horses tend to hide their pain.  Or we tend to misread their pain signals.  The pinned ears, biting, and swishing tails are easy markers; but most of us wish to know if our horse hurts long before then.
          One of the best ways to catch pain early is to get to know your horse.  Watch how he moves in the pasture, when being led, and under saddle.  Run your hands over his body as you groom to get to know the scars, bumps, and sensitive areas he has when he is healthy.
          Look at your horse from all sides.  Are the muscles balanced?  Is the horse holding himself straight and true, or does the tail or head cock off to one side or the other?  Look along the top of your horse from behind.  Are the shoulders even?  Are the glute muscles even?
          Up close, use your sense of touch and observe how the horse reacts to your touch.  It helps to know if your horse has sensitive skin, or not.  A skin sensitivity can be tested by how the horse responds to a stiff brush, to a rubber curry, and to your nails.  In observation by touch, you can feel muscular tone, check reflex response, feel for heat, and draw out pain reactions.
  • Muscular tone should be loose, with minimal resistance, much like raw meat.  Pushing on a major muscle group should flow to other areas, and jiggle.  If the muscle is tight, the horse may be holding their pain throughout their body, or just have an issue in the area you are working on.  If there is swelling or a fluid pocket, you will feel little or no resistance or a tightness, depending on the stage of the swelling.  
    • Check in the front shoulder and chest area where the muscle should have some tightness, but soreness is indicated by a guitar-string feeling.  
    • In the withers and upper shoulder area, the girth, the loin, the major butt muscle, and the hamstrings, the sore muscle will feel more like well-done meat, or cause a drawing (tightening or flexing) of that muscle or nearby muscles.
  • Reflex response is primarily in the loin and buttocks.  Draw your fingers about one inch on one side of the spine, from the loin to the tail.  Use the back of your thumbnail, with moderate pressure.  A horse with proper reflex response will tuck under themselves slightly.  Severe response or reverse response (hollowing the back) is also an indication of soreness.  Repeat on the other side.
  • Sometimes, the sore muscle will feel hot, or there will be a static charge in the area.  This is another reason to approach gently and move slowly.  A static shock will startle the horse, and you may spend more time soothing them than checking for soreness.  Run your hand down their legs and feel for heat or swelling in the joints, knees, and hoof.  Other times, a sore muscle will be bound up, cutting off proper circulation.  In that case, the area will feel cooler than other areas.  
  • Pain reactions are generally pulling away from your touch.  If the pain is severe, the horse may reach around to bite, threaten to kick, kick, or pull back against the tie.  Start your palpation gently, at the horse's shoulder.  If the horse is not familiar with you, speak gently as you work, and take breaks for petting to help the horse relax.  More subtly, the muscle itself or related muscles nearby will tighten and pull away from your touch as well.
          Observing your horse from a distance is another great way to check for soreness.  The most obvious sign is lameness or head-bobbing.  More subtle signs are shortness of stride, a stabbing stride, higher headset or lower headset, and side-to-side pelvic movement.  A healthy horse will naturally stride evenly on both sides, and the rear stride will reach up underneath the horse, causing the pelvis to tip underneath. Watching other horses as they move will give you a more discerning eye, practice this when you can.
          One final way to know if your horse is sore:  trusting your gut.  If your horse seems "off" or unwilling to perform a particular maneuver, or if working with your horse is more difficult, especially if one side is more reactive than another, they may be trying to tell you something.
          Watching your horse and using your hands, head, and heart to gauge how they are feeling each day is a great way to identify their pain quickly.  Often, catching the problem early will mean a quick solution and a quick recovery.