“Permission to Screw Up, Sir!!!”

I would not exactly describe myself as a perfectionist.  Anyone who has seen the inside of my car would definitely agree with me, and I have managed to bumble through life without ever bothering to balance my bank account, taking the attitude that “close enough” is a legitimate approach to topics involving decimal points.

But there are some things in my life to which I attach the maddening importance of success.  Riding is one of those things.  Writing is another.  I want very much to be GOOD at these things and it bothers me when I fall short of my own expectations.  It bothers me a lot.

I come by this honestly.  I was raised with a father who insisted that the only acceptable grade in school was an “A” and the only measure of value to participation in a sport is to win.  (I was once grounded from watching television for six weeks in middle school because I brought home a “C” in Home Economics.  Apparently I was quite average at cooking and sewing in the eighth grade!  There has been little discernible improvement in these subjects since then.)

Despite my early lack of interest in mastering the domestic arts or understanding calculus, I nevertheless absorbed the lesson well that being average at something is simply not good enough.

What a shame.

Don’t get me wrong, achievement is a wonderful thing.  Striving for a win is a powerful motivation to do what is necessary to grow and improve.  But if you believe that perfection is the only acceptable end result, then mere mortals like you and me are doomed to failure. And if you believe that winning is the only thing that makes an endeavor worthwhile, it becomes very easy to justify not even trying.

You need to give yourself permission to screw up.

I was recently reminded of this during a lesson on my horse Rainy.  I’ve been riding for 45 years and I still meet with a trainer as often as possible so I can continue getting better.  At this point in my riding career, my lessons are less about making physical improvements than they are about making improvements in my mental game.  During my lesson last week, circumstances seemed to be conspiring to set me up for failure.  I was preparing for a horse show, so I felt that I needed my schooling session to be perfect to get us ready for the upcoming weekend.  The weather was unusually chilly and my horse started out fresh and unfocused.  The zipper on one of my boots broke near the beginning of my ride.  I had to stop and change into paddock boots and wrap my calves in polo wraps before continuing on to my jump school.  (Embrace The Suck!)

I warmed up over a few fences and I was riding very conservatively.  It was OK, but I know well the difference between jumping that is micromanaged by the rider and jumping that flows naturally without overt interference.  The more I focused on trying to make each jump perfect, the more I got in my own way.

I stopped.

My trainer and I have known each other a long time. She looked at me and said simply “Give yourself permission to make mistakes.”

You know that feeling when your brain cracks open and you get a clear vision of understanding a problem?

I started over.  I literally let go of my horse physically while I also let go of caring whether or not the result was perfect.  And guess what?  The result was, well, pretty much perfect.

Here’s how it works.  Our bodies are programmed to manifest in reality the images we carry in our minds.  If we worry and stress about making mistakes in our performance, then that is where our mind is focused.  And our bodies do their best to make those mental bloopers come to life.  Worried about missing the distance to the single oxer across the diagonal?  Let it go.  Give yourself permission to be less than perfect (maybe FAR less than perfect), and you give yourself the freedom to focus on positive images and work with whatever you’ve got.  So instead of thinking “I need to nail that distance to the oxer or my round is ruined”, instead you’re telling yourself “I need to maintain a good rhythm and a good canter and whatever distance is there will be fine.” And it WILL be fine.

As a friend once told me right before I walked into the ring, obviously nervous, “Oh my gawd Tosh, it’s not as if you’re trying to cure cancer!”

Exactly. We do this for fun, right?

I continued this mental exercise through the remainder of the week.  At the horse show on Sunday, once again the universe tried to play with me.  My experienced, well prepared horse was WILD when he got off the trailer. I borrowed a lunge line from my trainer and Rainy spent 15 minutes bucking, snorting, and squealing as he circled around me.  The new boots I ordered after my zipper failure on Tuesday did not arrive in time for the show, so I carefully wrapped black duct tape around one ankle, holding the broken zipper closed.

But I refused to allow these challenges to derail my attitude. I was relentlessly positive and wore my less than perfect circumstances like a crown.  I was determined to show the universe what I thought of her sense of humor.  As I rode around the schooling ring, I repeated over and over to myself statements that fit into my “permission to screw up” mantra.

My horse settled nicely and the duct tape held.  And most interestingly, I had no nerves whatsoever.  All I felt was a calm focus and simple happiness at being there. While my results in the show ring on Sunday were not as “perfect” as they had been in my lesson, they were still pretty darn good.  For one reason and another, it’s been three years since I’ve shown this horse over fences and I am nothing but thrilled at his comeback so far.

But my bigger thrill is the new tool I’ve put in my mental toolbox.  In fact, I’m using that tool as I write this blog post.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, but I hope you like it and find it useful!  If not, let me know why and I’ll try again in a week or two.  😉


Let’s ride!

Embrace the Suck

“Obstacles do not block the path, they are the path.”

I love this proverb.  It speaks to an attitude of mind that is applicable to everything we are trying to do.  We can face challenges with frustration and disappointment, or we can understand that the challenges are what make the journey worthwhile.

There’s another phrase I like that captures the same sentiment, in a little more straightforward language.

Embrace the suck.

Think about it. Reaching our goals is hard. Pushing ourselves physically and mentally is hard.  Reaching outside of our comfort zone is HARD.

Embrace the suck.

Are you trying to improve some particular aspect of your riding?  Maybe your leg is a little weak and your sadistic trainer has suggested riding without stirrups.  But riding without stirrups makes you feel even more weak and insecure and has your thigh and calf muscles screaming.  EMBRACE THAT SUCK.

Maybe you are having trouble staying off your horse’s back when landing from a jump and your (surely evil) trainer has suggested riding more in 2-point position to strengthen your base.  But practicing 2-point makes it hard for you to walk the next day.  WALLOW IN THAT SUCK.

Maybe your riding skills are strong but competing in a horse show in front of an audience and actually paying money to have someone judge you makes you feel like you’d rather throw yourself out of an airplane without a parachute. CELEBRATE THAT SUCK AND BAKE IT A CAKE.

I’m serious. We have willingly chosen to participate in a sport that is littered with uncontrollable variables and dependent upon the cooperation of a large fragile animal that is genetically predisposed to leave the scene.  Riding is very challenging and requires years of concentrated effort to achieve a moderate level of skill.

In other words, you could work hard at riding for a long long time and still not be very good at it!


By accepting and even welcoming that which is hard and frustrating, by recognizing that setbacks and disappointments are the path, and not a deviation, by embracing failure as a necessary component of success, we are then open to seeing and appreciating our moments of brilliance.

Our brief, focused, intense pinpoints of perfection.

I was at a horse show this weekend and the conditions were less than ideal.  It was blustery, cold, and drizzly on and off throughout the day, and my horse Rainy was fresh and enthusiastic about showing off his athletic ability. There was bucking involved.  And squealing.  I spent a ridiculous amount of time in the schooling ring, just cantering.  Lots of cantering.  Cantering is wonderfully rhythmic and calming, and for my horse it’s a great way to blow off extra steam and settle into a zen space.

At one point I cantered across the ring to change direction and without hesitation or any break in rhythm my lovely horse changed his lead at the same moment that I formed the thought of a lead change in my head.  No big deal, right?  Every well-trained horse should have a nice lead change.  But this horse is returning to work and competition after a long lay-off.  One of the challenges we are facing in his return to real work is that he has seemingly “lost” his lead changes.  They used to be easy, almost automatic, and now they’re not.

I am embracing that small suck.  I am relishing the opportunity to work through the step by step training process to reinstall the lead change.  As Rainy is reliving his youth through a revitalized energy level (there was actual BUCKING AND SQUEALING), I am reliving the happiness I felt the first time he and I went through this stage together.  Of course I have felt frustration about it.  But the obstacle is the path, and how grateful I am to be going down this path again.


“The Flying Change”

      Henry Taylor


The canter has two stride patterns, one on the right lead and one on the left, each a mirror image of the other. The leading foreleg is the last to touch the ground before the moment of suspension in the air. On cantered curves, the horse tends to lead with the inside leg. Turning at liberty, he can change leads without effort during the moment of suspension, but a rider’s weight makes this more difficult. The aim of teaching a horse to move beneath you is to remind him how he moved when he was free.


A single leaf turns sideways in the wind in time to save a remnant of the day; I am lifted like a whipcrack to the moves I studied on that barbered stretch of ground, before I schooled myself to drift away

from skills I still possess, but must outlive. Sometimes when I cup water in my hands and watch it slip away and disappear, I see that age will make my hands a sieve; but for a moment the shifting world suspends

its flight and leans toward the sun once more, as if to interrupt its mindless plunge through works and days that will not come again. I hold myself immobile in bright air, sustained in time astride the flying change.



Let’s ride! 

Just Keep Moving!

There are three topics that are the most popular and widely read on internet blogs.

Personal finance, cooking/recipes, and health/fitness.

I know practically nothing about finance (beyond how to keep a horse and show on a limited budget, which might be a good blog topic later), and my cooking prowess is laughable (which is why I asked for a subscription to a meal delivery plan for Christmas – I still like to eat decent food even though I can’t cook – and that might be another good topic for a later blog post).  But one thing I can discuss from a rider’s point of view is fitness.

Don’t get me wrong, I am by no means a fitness guru, and I am certainly not a doctor, so….

Disclaimer: Please consult the advice of a physician before starting or changing a fitness routine.

Although if you tell your doctor that you ride 1200-pound flight animals over uneven terrain and random obstacles, they are likely to tell you that you’re crazy.  So there’s that.

And let’s get one thing straight.  When I talk about fitness, I am not talking about the size of your body or the number on your bathroom scale.  There are good riders of all sizes and shapes in just about every riding discipline and there are suitable horses out there for riders of all sizes and shapes.

But in order for us to be the best riders we want to be, and DO EPIC SHIT like we want to do with our horses, then we need to achieve and maintain some minimum level of fitness to allow that to happen.

For the sake of our own physical and mental health, we need to be at least fit enough to be able to do the things we are passionate about.

I’m not talking about running marathons here.  Although, If you are passionate about running marathons, ROCK ON YOU ARE A BEAST AND I SALUTE YOU.

I’m also not necessarily talking about riding competitively at some upper level of the sport, although that too is definitely something to be admired. But let’s face it, the vast majority of us just want to ride and enjoy our horses in any way we can.  Maybe you want to show every weekend or maybe you want to gallop out in the fields or maybe you want to hook your little mini horse up to a cart and go for a drive.  All of that is awesome!

One of the most inspirational people I have ever met was a woman in her 70’s who still managed her own farm by herself and every day tacked up her equally elderly horse for a walking-little bit of trotting-trail ride around the property.  She was DOING EPIC SHIT.

That’s how I want to be. I am 51 years old, and it’s not unusual for me to be the oldest competitor riding at a horse show, and twenty years from now I still want to be doing it.  And I want there to be enough of us oldsters out there doing it that they have to create a division just for us.  We’ll call it the “Adults Who Qualify to Collect Social Security” division.  Or “Adults Who Wore Rust Breeches Before It Was Trendy.”

But how?

Just. Keep. Moving.

I truly believe this is the key.  Barring injury or infirmity or other circumstances beyond your control, JUST KEEP MOVING.

And if you have horses in your life, the horses can be both the means to follow that directive and the incentive as well.

The best way to make fitness easier to achieve is to make movement a part of your regular life routine.

I keep my horses at home and I have for years and years. I hate, loathe, and despise going to the gym and I won’t do it.  But I’ve never needed to!  I clean stalls, stack hay bales, move jumps, unload feed bags. I walk horses in from the field and turn them back out.  I dump water buckets, repair fences, and shovel sawdust.  Who needs CrossFit?

You can do it too and you don’t need to live on a farm.  If you own a horse and keep it at a boarding barn, offer to clean your own stall.  Help turn horses in and out.  Set jumps for your trainer.  At the end of your ride, get off and walk your horse for ten minutes in hand.  If there are trails on the property, walk the trails and do some cleanup and maintenance.

If you don’t own a horse but ride at a lesson barn, ask if you can groom and tack up the horse yourself instead of having it done for you.  Offer to assist with beginner lessons as a leader on foot, jogging alongside the ponies as their little riders learn how to post or walking with them as they learn how to steer.  Volunteer to help with hand raking the ring and jump repair.

Just. Keep. Moving.

Walk everywhere that you can.  Get a dog and walk it.  Get your neighbor’s dog and walk it too.  Get your neighbor and power walk the neighborhood while you discuss the world’s problems and solve them one by one.  All of this will make you feel better and will support your goal of becoming a better or stronger rider.

And of course, you get stronger as a rider, by riding.

A few years ago I was riding in a hack class at a horse show, and for whatever reason the class went on, and on, and on.  It felt like we never stopped trotting, and then we cantered for a few more miles.  I was out of breath, and furious with myself.  It’s hard to show your horse off to his best advantage when you can’t breathe, and it’s not very nice to be hoping that someone will fall off so that the endless cantering will stop.

After that, I changed my riding routine to specifically address fitness, both mine and the horse’s.  In the ring, after a suitable warmup, I spend a continuous 20-30 minutes on solid flatwork.  Mostly trotting, but also including good, engaged walk work and a mix of forward, medium, and collected cantering, with lots of transitions, lateral exercises, and changes of direction.  Outside of the ring I have a long, moderately sloped hill where I alternately trot up the hill and walk down or canter up and trot down, again keeping my horse engaged, on the aids, and interested.

This type of routine works to improve the fitness of me AND my horse and helps me to reach my goals.

We went from this:

To this:

Let’s ride!