So, you want to go to a horse show…
…or so you thought, until the alarm goes off at 3:00 or 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. and your fatigue, mixed with adrenaline from the nerves that now seem to be getting the better of you, make you ask yourself the question, “And why did I think this was such a good idea?”
It’s the show, remember? You’ve been planning for months, maybe years for this day, learning the rules and practicing whatever test or pattern or set of expectations are required for your particular event. But now, in the harsh reality of predawn, you feel mostly dread. And yet you push yourself out of bed and go through the motions of getting dressed and readied for your day. Too tense (or maybe too nauseated) to eat, you load the last of what you think you’ll need for the day into the car and drive to the barn.
On the way there you probably do not notice the tree, standing stately at the corner of your drive or on your block or along the highway. The enclosed capsule of your car pushes against the air outside and you will not hear the hawk’s piercing cry as it rides a thermal overhead before alighting for a while in that tree you just passed. The darkness or muffled light will inhibit any interest you might otherwise have in the grass covering the meadows, or the shrubs lining the yards in your as-yet unstirred neighborhood, or the lone wren perched on the balcony of the apartment buildings, identifying that section of the city where you live.
At the stables you are immediately taken up with last-minute details before loading your horse into the trailer, and after arriving at the show grounds you are engaged in all the to-do’s in order to prepare for your class. Unloading your horse, getting your number, the final grooming and tacking-up, putting on your good boots, hat and gloves, and heading to the warm-up arena. When it’s time to enter the show ring your emotions may vary but generally there is some form of tension involved. If you do well you are pleased or relieved or elated and if you don’t do as hoped you feel disappointment, usually accompanied with some degree of internal self-flogging. But if you’re like most of us, the immediacy of these feelings tend to fade, and in a few days or weeks after this show you are already gearing up for the next one.
While this simplified accounting may sound better or worse than your personal history of showing, chances are you’ve experienced some kind of stress during the process of preparing for, riding in or enduring the aftermath of a competition. For those of us who show regularly, that stress becomes the norm and we tend to become inured to it (i.e. become unconscious of its effects) in order to reap the momentary “high” of getting a good score, winning a ribbon or receiving a medal — or merely having the hope of such an outcome. But it turns out that the way most of us go about coping with the stress of attaining goals is not so good for our health.
At Stanford University’s Medical School, scientific research published in 1998 asserted that stress is the cause of at least 95 percent of illness and disease. Please note that we are talking about the type of stress related to physical, mental and emotional strain, usually borne of unresolved, unknown or unconscious motives (more on this later) as opposed to, let’s say, engaging in a favorite activity that challenges us at the same time. The notion of stress-related illness has been around for centuries, but since the 1998 landmark study stated here in layman’s terms, there is a growing body of work corroborating its findings.
So what does that mean for those of us going to horse shows?
Good question! And in an effort to glean some insights, I invite you to imagine yourself in the following story:
One day you go for a hike along a rustic path in the woods. At the trailhead you can already see where you’re headed because the end of the trail is marked by a tall look-out tower that hovers above the treetops about three miles to the north. Your goal is very clear and you set out with enthusiasm. In a short way, however, you come to a fork in the trail and have to make a choice as to which way to go.
Keeping your “eye on the prize” you choose the path that seems to head directly to it and continue on with renewed vigor. But a little farther down the way you trip over a tangle of tree roots at your feet and fall flat on your face. At this point you laugh it off, pick yourself up, and head to the tower. But around the next curve in the path, a low- hanging branch, camouflaged among the dense wood, catches you right between the eyes and sends you reeling backwards. Now you’re openly startled and maybe a little irritated as you swat away the protrusion and huff your way forward.
As you proceed, you occasionally stub your toe, but since you’re wearing sturdy shoes you don’t feel the pain and are able to catch yourself before enduring another fall. Then, just a mile before your destination, you encounter a huge boulder in the middle of the path. Not wanting to let anything slow you down you scramble over its surface, grabbing for hand and toe holds.
Half the way up your foot misses and you fall to the ground. “Ouch!” you yell and then mumble a few choice swear words while pausing to rub the sore spots and assess the damage. Although openly frustrated, you are as determined as ever to reach your goal. So at length you decide to head back home and get advice on how to scale the hurdle. Giving yourself a pep-talk as you hobble back down the trail, you tell yourself to “buck up” and “hang tough.” After conferring with someone you consider to be an expert on the subject, you are told to gather rope and gear for the climb. Newly armed with additional equipment, you set out once again for the trailhead.
Regaining the path with a slight limp but holding the memory of snag points along the way, you are confident that this time you will stay out of harm’s way. Reaching the boulder a second time you nail spikes into the rock’s surface, attach your ropes, and hoist yourself up and over. Emboldened by scaling the top so quickly, you try to make up for lost time and hurry down the other side, but in your zeal you slip again. This time you are seriously injured on the landing and are only able to crawl on hands and knees.
While your enthusiasm to continue has been forgotten, you are more determined than ever to make your goal and so with great effort you proceed. By the time you reach the tower you’re worn to the nub BUT you have reached your goal! Ta da!
But wait! Bear with me and re-do this same hike with a different mindset. Let’s begin again at the trailhead. We are enthusiastic about our venture, same as before. We see the same look-out tower and note its importance as our goal. But this time, rather than keeping the tower in our direct sight, we anchor it in our mind’s eye. We know it is there and we trust that it will remain so for the duration of our journey. That means that as we start along our path we can turn our focus to what is directly before us, and so as we enter the wood we notice dense growth on either side of the trail. There are many shades of green, and many different shapes of leaves adorning a wide variety of trees. Tall oaks branch out overhead and moss and ferns and herbaceous perennials crowd at our feet. The forest is dark and quiet with occasional swaths of sunlight that has found its way in through the canopy, enabling low-lying shrubs to flower in a splash of pink and red and white blooms amid the greenery. Our senses awaken further by every- thing that surrounds us and we delight in the changing colors and contours around each new bend in the path. Birds chirp and call. A soft breeze whispers through the leaves. The scent of damp soil mixes with the aroma of the wood as we come upon a fork in the trail. Pausing to reflect, it seems a good bet that both options will lead us to our goal and so we pick the way that appears to be the most illuminating.
Soon we feel a rise under our feet and note that some large roots have surfaced from a fallen tree alongside the trail. We pick our way through, noting how the large trunk is already decomposing, volunteering itself to nourish the other living organisms in its wake. Around another bend we come upon a sapling with a damaged limb protruding across our path. Taking hold, we give it a twist and it snaps at the break, allowing us to tuck it under the brush, out of the way of the next traveler who may have otherwise encountered it.
About a mile before our destination we come upon a boulder blocking our route. We are eager to keep going but the boulder is way above our head, and although there are indents in the rock where our feet could step, the surface is very uneven and appears somewhat treacherous. But as we continue to observe, we begin to note a variety of ways we could attempt the climb.
Some toe and hand holds lead straight up and over, some around to the right and some around to the left. We have never tried anything like this before, so we proceed with caution, picking our way around to the left first. Every indent in the rock is a different shape and distance from another. Some are smooth and some are jagged and some are slippery, requiring a different pressure from each hand and foot to hoist our bodies up to the next. We are just starting to get the hang of it when halfway up one side we run out of toe- holds. At length we realize we have no choice but to back all the way down. We take a deep breath and, shimmying along carefully, we find ourselves on the ground again at square one. Feeling disappointed and a bit defeated, we try the right-hand direction. We think time has been wasted, but embarking in the new direction informs us that our previous effort has actually taught us a few things, like how to secure our foot in the toe-holds and how to position our body against the angle of the slope in order to support ourselves against the solid surface.
In fact, we are now much better prepared to maneuver and this time make it all the way up to the top. Relieved, we relax our focus and notice the look-out tower, so close now that we can almost touch it! The next thing we know we’ve lost our footing and are tumbling down. We land in a heap, scraped and bruised and staring at the treetops, the wind knocked out of our lungs.
At length we sit up and assess the damage. We find that we are well enough to go on, but our aches and soreness cause us to consider our options. For one thing, reaching our goal is not a life-and-death situation no matter how much we want it. The tower will still be there whenever we get there. Secondly, where we have landed to date is not so bad. We are still in one piece, sitting in a place of beauty, and still have the ability to enjoy the wonders in our immediate vicinity. Finally, pushing ourselves on before having had a chance to regroup would be disrespectful of our level of ability and what it will take to proceed without tension — i.e. what we would be relying on to replace our current loss of actual strength.
So we sit and wait, have a sip of water and nibble on some snacks out of our pack. In a while strength returns and we intuitively feel ready to continue. Now able to focus the rest of the way down we complete the last leg of our journey, arriving at the tower with energy to spare.
• We are happy to have attained our goal ~ but we were happy on the journey, too.
• We have earned new confidence in our ability to reach our destination ~ but it was our confidence to begin with that allowed us to trust that we could learn to address whatever happened along the way, inevitably achieving what we set out to do.
Which one of these scenarios sounds more pleasant? More fun? More inviting?
“Why, the second one, of course,” you reply. “But what does any of this have to do with taking my horse to a show?”
I encourage you to reread the first scenario, this time substituting your horse for everything you encounter: the tree roots, the protruding branch, the shoes that absorbed the brunt of your carelessness, the giant boulder. Ask yourself if you have occasionally treated so-called resistances and “bad behaviors” with a similar lack of consideration, harshness and even disdain, for the sake of getting to your goal. What have you neglected to learn about your horse that led you to employ contraptions for coercion rather than learning what it would take to elicit a willing response in the first place? If asked the question on your way to a horse show, could you honestly say that you got there via that second path?
Tune in next time for more thoughts on setting goals. In the meantime, happy musings!