Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The rocky road to horsemanship: Finding the strength to get up

This year I found myself in Level 4 hell.  In case you are new to this blog, I passed the original Level 3 equivalent in 2003 with Jolie, my first Parelli partner, at the end of my first module at the Florida ranch, then dubbed the «10 week school».  It was at that time the first milestone requirement before being invited to apply to train as a future Parelli Professional; nowadays that entry point is the Fast Track.  Jolie was the horse that brought me to Parelli in 1999 and thanks to her, I discovered a whole new way of being with horses.  Sadly, she had to be retired immediately after I earned my green string from Pat Parelli himself.  At graduation, Pat told us that achieving Level 3 was only the beginning, a «license to learn».  It is only years later that I truly began to understand what he meant.

Jolie and I in Florida in 2003
As many of you may already know, Menina is Jolie's daughter and the perfect horse I had always dreamed of.  I imagined her, bred her and raised from the day she was born.  She is my dream horse, super talented, athletic, smart, spirited, sensitive, with outstanding bloodlines.  She also turned out to be a very challenging horse to develop, and I have written several blogs about our journey, which you can find here by looking under the label Menina.


With Jolie retired and Menina just a baby, I found myself without a saddle horse to attend Parelli University.  A good friend of mine, Mark Russell, offered to loan me a mare he had rescued from a very bad environment for my year of study at the ranchEaster entered my life.  She had been abused as a young horse and had a very poor start, and Mark had begun retraining her, but she still had baggage, lots of it.  She was rideable, but far from confident, and I ended up restarting her while at the ranch.  During my Uni modules, I rode many other project horses while studying for my first star, and at the same time, developed Easter and my rambunctious young filly.  I started Menina in her second year with the help of my mentors and peers in Colorado.

One my way home after achieving my first star in 2005, I dropped off Easter at Mark's place.  She had made huge progress and Mark was very pleased with what he saw;  he let me know that he would sell her to me before anyone else if I chose to take her.  Unfortunately, the price tag was well beyond my means.  I said goodbye and with a heavy heart, left her in Tennessee. I returned to the ranch the next winter for continued education and took Menina with me.  I was riding her, but she was still very green, and very challenging.  I got bucked off hard near the end of my course while riding in the playground.  At my exit interview, my mentors asked me to return 9 months later for the next part of my training, this time with a Level 4 horse, amongst other conditions.  My plan also included losing a lot of extra weight and getting very fit for a Colt Starting course with Pat Parelli and Rob MacAuliffeI had a lot to prove, and a very short time to get it done.  At that point, I was faced with a critical decision:  finding a brand new horse and taking it through the levels in nine months, or going to get Easter who was already approaching the required level.  I called Mark, he still had her and we negotiated a deal.  I borrowed the money and we arranged to meet in Connecticut to so I could take my new partner home.
Easter, my second Level 4 partner

Easter and I were able to demonstrate an appropriate level of horsemanship and she helped me earn my second star in 2007.  This coincided with Parelli's decision to modify the levels program.  Levels 1, 2 and 3 became easier, and the new Level 4 became the standard required for professionals.  It was quite similar to the Level 3 I had earned four years prior.  However, we were not granted an automatic Level 4 - we were asked to resubmit our auditions and demonstrate we had kept our horsemanship current.  Despite a lameness issue that kept cropping up, I started filming with Easter while still at the ranch; but she was uncomfortable and we ran out of time to get it done.  Easter went home lame and after months of vet exams and trying to get her back to sound, it became obvious she would not be physically able to continue with the level of training required to finish Level 4.  The physical scars from her past had caught up to her.  I passed most of my On Line with Easter but we came 2 minutes short of completing that savvy, and I had give up on getting it done that year.

Menina was coming along and she got promoted as my new primary saddle horse.  Still challenging however, and during subsequent visits at the ranch, I had the opportunity to get help from both Pat and Linda on how to manage this very complex mare.  I could clearly see that doing any of the Level 4 tasks was not going to be physically or mentally difficult for her, she is a natural athlete and a very quick learner.  However, I needed to develop a different style of leadership and partnership to convince her that my ideas were good ideas.  She was my first LBE horse, and what a learning curve that was!


Menina as a young horse, she loves airs above the ground!
I worked very hard these last few years developing Level 4 with Menina.  I mostly had to work very hard on MYSELF.    I was the one doing the bulk of the learning, she already knew it all and was waiting for me to get it!  The more focused I got on outcomes, the worse our relationship would get.  I was still thinking and behaving like a predator and she was the mirror.  I'm LBE, I really need results to feel successful; the idea of relaxing and enjoying the journey can be a challenging concept for me!  Meanwhile, I earned my third star after spending another five months at the Parelli ranch in 2010 which included time at Pat's barn, interning with Kalley and teaching the Fast Track.  During that summer, Menina came up lame for several months and I had to give her a rest.  Xrays showed that she had damage to her right hind fetlock that would likely limit her in the future, so while I addressed the issue with various nutritional changes, trim and treatment, I started looking for another horse to develop.  Blue Moon came into my life in the spring of 2011. 

Fast forward to the 2011 Summit, Parelli Professionals were allotted one year to complete Level 4 in the required savvies.  That meant all four savvies for 3 Star Instructors.  Despite all my efforts, hard work and long stays at the ranch, I still had not succeeded in officially completing any of the savvies.  At home, I boarded my horses at a very busy hunter/jumper barn and putting together auditions in that environment had proved impossible.  I just could not get the arena time and lacked the space and facilities to film or even practice some of the required tasks (especially on line and at liberty which require space and obstacles).  Without a partner or family close by to help with filming, and unable to find someone willing to do it, I postponed the idea of auditions until I could find a better set of conditions.   

We were given permission to film our auditions with someone else's horse, but to me, that was out of the question.  I truly feel that part of earning Level 4 is showing that you have the ability and knowledge to develop and bring up your own horse.  I believe that simply checking off tasks with a horse that someone else brought along would have robbed me of a large part of the learning and sense of completion that I needed to feel whole; I was not prepared to go that route.  I was determined to stick to my principles, regardless of consequences.  

I found a new boarding situation in early 2011, a small family owned property which lacked the luxury of an indoor arena, but had a round pen (a first for me!) and where I could have the whole place to myself during the day to advance my training and set up any obstacles I needed.  I borrowed more money so I could spend the winter on 2012 in Florida to focus on my horsemanship and surround myself with supportive friends and peers.  I played and rode with my horses every day, sometimes to the point of exhaustion.  I had been ignoring my body for a few years and it was a wreck, yet I simply could not find time to recover.  I just kept on going, I was determined to succeed.

Menina at the Game of Contact course in 2011
My first attempt to resubmit On Line failed.  So did the second one.  I was shell shocked, and my confidence was eroded.  I blamed the audition process and started losing my desire to try.  Thankfully at that point, Carol Coppinger stepped in.  I found a mentor!  She came to assess me with my horses and I was confident I was in good shape.  I was in for a shock and a huge dose of humble pie.  I thought I was ready to pass Level 4.  I was told I was not.  I had tasks, but I did not have quality.  I hit a massive wall, splattered like a bug on the windshield.  Anger, denial, chaos, I went through the whole range of emotions -- and almost quit.  I felt defeated, incompetent, used, betrayed, useless, crushed.  Years spent training in the various iterations of the Mastery Program and Parelli University, and I was not ready?  I could not believe it!  I felt like all this time, energy, money, years of sacrifice dedicated to my horsemanship were annihilated in that one moment.  Dragons from my past that I thought vanquished reared their ugly heads and started haunting me.  Carol came to see me twice and got pretty tough with me, pulling me up by the bootstraps, and kicking my sorry butt back into action again... it was appropriate, I really needed that kind of Phase 4 to pull me out of the hole I was digging for myself.  So I kept on trying...  until I had no choice but to head back to Quebec.  Facing massive financial issues, several health issues and having to resort to going back to an office job when I got home, life got even more challenging.  At that point, Carol sent me this wise note «Nothing is beyond the reach of determination.  Never give up... Just rest a while».  The advice was wise, but there was no rest possible.  I was juggling horsemanship time, work, health and personal issues, juggling to make ends meet and doing what I could to keep my Parelli business going.  It was a challenging summer and I started feeling lost and alone once more. On Carol's advice, I decided to send in the Finesse footage I had from Florida along with my new and improved flying lead changes filmed a few months later in Quebec, and I actually passed. A shimmer of light appeared at the end of the long tunnel.

I worked at this all summer, simultaneously putting a foundation on Blue Moon and trying to solve the issues that kept cropping up in my relationship with Menina.  I was tired, I was physically in pain most of the time, I felt alone and there are many days when I thought I was not going to make it.  The little flame of passion and dedication I have carried with me for all those years got very faint, and for a time, I thought it had extinguished.  But every day I got up and put one foot in front of the other, put together a plan and got myself to the barn.  I was in Level 4 hell.  It was not fun any more, it had become work, it was a job.  Of course, my horses mirrored that attitude, which was not helping our progress.  I felt guilty for imposing my timeline on them, for training hard in an arena with less than ideal footing which I knew could damage the horses, for pushing harder than I would have ideally wanted to because September 1st was approaching fast and the pressure kept mounting.  The consequences of not succeeding were very real, and everything I had built in the last 10 years was at stake.  How could my horses understand?

Just as things could not be much worse, my camera quit working!  I brought it in for repair and it took 7 weeks to get it back.  I looked for one to borrow, but video cameras are not popular in my entourage, and the only one I could find was not compatible with my computer.  I did not have the funds for a new one.  I had to wait!  It turned out to be a blessing because rather than only thinking about filming, I had to focus on refining the ingredients I would need to be ready.


By the time I got the camera back, I finally felt I had a good Freestyle audition with Menina, one I was reasonably proud of, and I passed my second savvy.  Riding always came easier to me that ground skills.  I have spent the last 40 years on horseback, but only 12 of those years playing on the ground!  Mastery of any skill only comes after 10 000 hours, I needed more hours on the ground.  I was left with finishing my remaining 2 minutes of On Line (yes, the circling game was my pitfall!) and all of Liberty.  The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time and I was 3/4 of the way there.  But life kept on happening.  On the way home from Florida, Menina had nearly died from an allergic reaction to the treatment I was using to help her joint, so I had stopped using it.  She came up lame again, and I had to give her another long rest.  Blue Moon was near ready for the On Line portion so I started filming the required 2 minutes and barely got it together for a pass.  It was not great, it was just ok, but it was off my plate.

I shifted my focus to finishing Liberty with Menina who seemed to be recovering.  We had all the ingredients, but as I attempted filming, I could see her struggling physically and mentally, she was leaving me and not happy.  This is when I decided to call the vet again and we ultrasounded her joint.  It was bad news, really bad news, and this time, the damage was irreversible.  I was told she would never be able to finish Level 4 or move on to performance as I had dreamed.  I was devastated.  She could at best be a good trail riding horse.  Anger, denial, chaos, acceptance.  It was late August, I was not going to meet the September 1st deadline AND I had to retire my dream horse.  Blue Moon was simply not ready.  Hell got hotter.

I have been told my determination borders on insanity.  However, at that point, I was left with no choice but to LET GO.  There was nothing else to do.  I could quit, accept failure and crumble.  I chose instead to start having fun again and to take care of my horses and of myself. I needed to get back to the core of the Parelli foundation, putting the relationship first and allowing the horse to be in charge of the principles and the timelines.  I apologized profusely to Menina and promised her the best life she could have.  Along with Easter, now 17, her needs had to come first and the only outcome was to keep her sound in mind and body.  Just because I was in hell, my horse did not need to be.  For the first time in months, the little flame slowly started burning again

Blue Moon, my new L4 partner
I continued playing with Blue Moon, but this time, I made sure we kept it varied and fun.  I was not going to repeat the mistakes I made with Easter and Menina, and this time, I wanted to keep intact the great relationship we already had.  I truly started exploring how to get more accomplished by doing a lot less.  Without regard for human judgment and opinion, I wanted my horse to show me I had earned Level 4 and I needed to feel proud of what we had accomplished together.  I also wanted to avoid another break down.  I worked on advancing the whole package, relationship, savvys, phases, tasks, tweaking and refining, and once in a while, sending in a video to my coach for advice.  It's amazing how much information can be communicated in a very short sentence!  «You need more connection» «Try doing your lead changes over a log»  «Use less carrot stick» «Lift the ribs» and the best one: «Relax and breathe!».  She did not send me paragraphs, she sent me one liners!  It was of course spot on, and just enough information to get me thinking and looking for the right bits of savvy so I could improve what needed to be improved.

The less Liberty I did, the better it got.  Another really important concept here.  By working on the ingredients of the relationship, calmness, connection, responsiveness, our Liberty started coming together much easier.  End of September, fall has settled in and I'm running out of good weather, so I decided to film an audition, just to see what would come out of it.  It thought it turned out good enough to send, but it did not feel great.  I had to do several takes, and by the end of the session, I was sick of it and so was my horse.  Not a great place to end.  Several weeks passed, bad weather had set in and still no news from the audition team.  Waiting is absolute torture for an LBE!  I did short sessions here and there between storms, again just tweaking the ingredients since our footing was soggy and very unstable, and advancing our circling game when I could.  Then the sun appeared again, the footing dried up just enough and I pulled out the video camera once again.  By now,  I've pretty much won my Friendly Game with filming and can finally almost forget it's there.  With an official audition already in the pipeline, this was just to see our progress and a back up in case we might need to do it again.  I was learning to take the pressure off.  It was a lovely session, everything flowed, felt easy and light.  Blue Moon and I finished feeling great and very connected, our best session ever.  It had a few technical flaws, our flying lead changes were not the best we've had, but we got it all done in one take with a happy horse the whole time who kept her eyes and ears on me for a long time even after I left the arena.  Blue Moon told me it was Level 4, and I knew it too;  I felt very happy and proud.  Carol agreed when she saw the footage.

Interestingly, my relationship with Menina started to truly expand to another level once I learned she could not physically do the things I expected of her. I am more considerate and respectful of her limitations and in return, she is bonding even stronger and giving me a lot more in the things she can do.  She has never been so compliant, respectful and sweet as she is now that I have taken the pressure off.  The silver lining appeared, the gift hidden amongst the thorns has been revealed.

For the last year, I have been looking forward to the relief that would come once this whole Level 4 ordeal would be over!  I admit there are many days where I lost track of the true meaning of Pat's vision.  Level 3 is about curiosity, confidence and sensitivity, Level 4 is meant to be about dignity.   Having done it with my horses helped me learn the importance of keeping my dignity intact as well as theirs, and I am now proud of what we have accomplished so far.  Not because it's done, but because I feel a major shift is occurring in my perception of horsemanship and leadership as a result.  I have found a path
within myself to a new level of strength, leadership and confidence, and most importantly, a strong resolve to never let outcome dictate the quality of my life or my thoughts ever again

Now that I have renewed my license to learn, a new step in my journey awaits and I'm starting over... but I might just need to rest a while.


Right to left: Tina Giordano and Carol Coppinger leading the 2* Instructor course in FL, Fawn Anderson, myself and Jesse Peters, assisting.

My sincerest heartfelt thanks to my support team:  Carol Coppinger, mentor extraordinaire who just refused to quit on me even when I quit on myself; Tina Giordano, for her help and encouragement during my stay in Florida; Kalley Krickeberg, who helped me unlock a big piece of my puzzle with Menina; Kristi Smith who flung open the door to learning; Michelle Donlick, friend and fellow Parelli student who not only saved Menina's life, but offered a place to rest and regroup, friendship and support when I really needed it; Julie Destrempes, Parelli student and owner of the barn, who allowed me plenty of space to be able to focus on this project and cheered me on through the tough days; Pat and Linda Parelli, for their help and teachings over the years; and last but not least, my wonderful partners Easter, Blue Moon and Menina, who have been SO forgiving of my mistakes and failings, have taught me a ton, and tried their hearts out every day.  They are truly my stars and my guides on the journey to becoming a better me! 

Click here for a great inspirational video about overcoming obstacles and the power of attitude.



The journey is the reward


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