The Black Box and the Gold Box

On my old Mac computer there was an application that could be programmed to automatically empty the trash at midnight.  I am kind of funny about these things, so I always wondered where the trash actually went.  Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, I am assured, and it took a lot of energy to create some of the things I put into the trash, so I wondered where they went.  To amuse myself, I made a black hole icon and placed it near the garbage can and envisioned that each night at midnight the little trashcan turned over into the black hole.  As the documents passed the event horizon of the black hole, they were ripped atom from atom and returned to the primordial soup of the universe, hopefully to become part of something really fabulous in their next life.  That lead me to thinking about experiences, good and bad, and what we do with them.  Do they just stagnate in our minds?  Could we empty the trash?

In my mind, I created a small black box and a fabulous, lavish gold box that for whatever reason has looping necklaces of pearls draping over it. (Three of the big pluses about visualization are that you can decorate as you wish, no one has the right to judge your vision, and money is no object.  Bonuses, all.)

The black box is small, but it has infinite capacity, and nothing, not even light, can escape it.  It empties automatically at midnight into the black hole, while I peacefully sleep.  It takes no energy on my part for it to empty.  You might have already guessed that I put negative experiences in there, and not just the biggies.  Maybe I couldn’t figure out why a horse reacted the way he did today.  Maybe a student just could not understand the way I was explaining a technique and we didn’t come to a good solution today.  My point is that the black box is for the big baddies that haunt people for years, and also for just the little
niggling stuff that clogs up the thought process.

The first thing I threw in that black box was that little sniveling voice that lives inside of all of our heads that says, “You’re not good enough,” or “I think those people over there are saying bad things about you.”  As soon as the black box was installed, I chucked that little snarky gnome right in the box.  It felt great.  I couldn’t wait for midnight to come.   Now, it actually took some work to get rid of the gnome.  I was new with the black box technology and the gnome was a powerful little beastie.  It took me several days to get him stuffed into the box so that he stayed there, but he did go back to the primordial soup eventually.

That’s all well and good for the gnome.  It is important, however, to be still and examine all incidents before you throw them in the black box.  After all, it is excellent to be rid of the haunt of a bad experience, but it is wise to suck the marrow out of the bones of what it has to teach you first.  This is the very hard part of bad experiences; to sit quietly with them, think fearlessly and objectively about your role in their occurrence, examine what you did and what could have been done better.  The really big prize, the point of the exercise even, is to honestly own that information, intend to put it to good use, and then put the experience in the black box, go to sleep and let the haunt go.  When you become very comfortable with this process you can do it instantly in real time.  A good example of this can be found in Horses Understand Apologies.

The first time you use the black box, the process will likely have you feeling a little silly.  Partly it is the silly that makes it good.  You can even punt the gnome into the box if it makes you feel fabulous.  As you become skillful with the use of the black box, you will feel how truly liberating and powerful it is.

The Gold Box, you know, the one with the pearls, is also liberating and powerful.  It gives you a place to store every positive experience which can then be pulled up at will in those moments of self-doubt that life brings occasionally.  The Gold Box is infinitely large, a handy thing.  In the beginning you may not think you have things to put in the gold box.  Your tendency in the past may have been to focus on the problems, the accidents, the hurt and the disappointment.  None of those things go in the gold box.  If you think you have nothing to put in the gold box, start small.

Next time you walk out to catch your horse and he nickers to you and walks up with a soft expression in his eye, put that in the gold box.  When your horse stands politely in the cross ties, put that in.  When he picks up each foot politely for picking, put that in.  When he stands still for mounting or you have a nice walk depart, put that in.  If you trot today with your hands quiet relative to the horse or you feel really in balance, put that moment in the Gold Box. You can also put non-horse things in there.  If your kid or somebody you love smiles at you or hugs you, put that in there.  I have one of my dad pushing me on a tree swing on a beautiful June day.  Sun on my face, long smooth arc of the swing through the mild air, smell of green grass, my dad’s grinning, sun-browned face, just playing.  I go there a lot when warming up for dressage.

Filling up the Gold Box does a host of really fantastic things.  It switches your focus from what isn’t good about your horse or your riding or your life to what is good.  You are encouraged to notice your horse and yourself being  and experiencing good.  This is a vastly more gentle way to treat yourself and those around you, horse and human, than critiquing.  Probably the most important thing that filling the Gold Box teaches is gratitude.  Gratitude for the little positives leads to bigger positives.  If you are petting your horse and thinking what a great horse he is while he is trotting along, he is going to feel that relaxation in your body and become more relaxed himself.  Horses are incredibly perceptive.  When he feels your good thoughts, he’ll become more confident and produce more good work.  You’ll be on a spiral of increasing relaxation, on to more Gold Box Moments.  And no matter how many moments you stuff in there, the Gold Box simply expands to hold them. Infinite.  No worries.

Before you put things into the gold box, just as with the black box, examine them.  Ask yourself what role you played in the development of this good result.  Were you particularly thoughtful and methodical in your training?  Did your kindness result in your horse looking forward to spending time with you?  Did you solicit expert help in finding the right horse that performs so well?  If you had a great canter depart, was part of it that you cued at the right time and in the correct manner?  It is easy to place blame on yourself or others when things go wrong.  It needs to become easy for you to notice what role you play in influencing positive outcomes.  Your self-talk needs to become predominantly positive.  This in no way means that you need to share with others these thoughts about your many small and large successes and how fabulous you are.  If you did, you’d start to notice people crossing to the other side of the street when you approach.  This is self-talk, the ultimate Inside Voice.  When you replace a gnome with a cheerleader in your head, horses and people will notice your internal change manifested outwardly in  the fearlessly kind way you treat yourself and them.

© 2010 Camie Stockhausen.  All rights reserved.

Horses Understand Apologies

horse and riding landing from a jump while the rider smiles and waves

Camie and the wonderful Carolyn Mare. Photo courtesy Derith Vogt

A friend asked me to ride her wonderful mare on a cross country school this Mother’s Day.  The weather was glorious, calm winds and sunshine, with a delightful absence of bugs.  My friend tacked the mare, handed her to me, and got in her pickup truck to meet me at the start box.

I had about a half-mile hack between me and the start box, and during the first quarter mile walk warm up, I marveled at my friend’s trust in handing me this magnificent animal.  There were no special words of direction from my friend, just an affectionate pat to the mare and handing over the reins to me in complete trust.  I was humbled at that, and the mare, and amazed at my friend’s apparent inner calm while I rode off with her fabulous partner.

Then into trot on the hack to the start box and I got to thinking about my recent struggle to Push Back the Walls and I was extremely grateful for the time I spent contemplating larger jumps, since today would definitely include them with this mare who was schooling Prelim.  Then on to canter work and the pre-flight checking of the craft:  right turn? check; left turn? check; canter to trot?  Check;  trot to canter? Check;  rebalance canter?  Check;  Gallop and come back?  Check.  Satisfied with the communication system and quite warmed up, we were ready to do some jumping.

We started out over some smaller jumps and the mare was a rock star.  She was keen, smart and in the moment.  The rider was having an acclimation period to the mare’s particular scopey jumping style, however, and found a few new definitions of “in the back seat.”  After about three jumps, we were dialed in.  Then we went on to some training and prelim level jumps that went well.  Cross the stream with a little hesitation, and on to the coffin complex, piece of cake.  The mare was starting to get self-congratulatory—a spring in her step and a cheeky arch to her neck.  Lovely to have a fine fit mare who shares her joy in the green grass of spring.

Then we went on to the steeple chase jump, pure fun.  Then the step combination.  This is a two bank combination with one stride between them.  The first time through it went quite acceptably, but not smoothly.  I gave her a rub, told her what a good girl she was, did a large circle back and re-presented.  I cleverly chose to compress her too much, ride too far into the base, miss the distance, scramble up the bank, put in two strides on the first level, and asked her to stop so we could work it out, rather than go up the second.  Brave mare on a mission that she is, she jumped the second bank from a halt, whereupon I unintentionally hit her in the mouth.  Ugh.  I felt terrible.  We had missed the first distance because I over-rode and killed the engine and buried her, and the rest fell apart through entropy.  I mourned powerfully inwardly for a few seconds.  I then told her I was sorry in words and gestures.  I let her walk on a loose rein, while I pulled up the Lucinda Greene “How to ride a bank” recipe card in my brain rolodex, picked up a canter, re-presented and had an acceptable ride up the steps.

That mare never missed a beat the rest of the day.  She accepted my apology entirely.  She never questioned, she never held a grudge.  We dropped off banks into water and left a vapor-trail of pure yee-ha over the tiger trap.  And I was reminded of two lessons from her:  Most of riding happens between your ears–pull up the brain rolodex card for each jump before you jump it; and when you mess up, fess up, own it and carry on.  The best apology is doing better next time.   Huzzah Carolyn Mare.

Push Back the Walls

It is springtime and I am in a happy mood.  We had record-setting snowfall this winter, which made lots of people pretty cranky.  For me, winter was mostly amusing, because it came in with a fury and made it known it was here to stay, so I accepted it.  I actually was thankful it didn’t give us little peeks of spring only to dash our hopes against the dreaded frozen snowbank of despair.  I didn’t try to ride horses in 4-foot snowbanks with sharp winds biting our faces.  I gave in to the howling winds and undulating expanse of white in my outdoor riding arena from January to about mid-March by feeding extra hay and giving lots of kisses and cookies to plenty-warm muzzles.  I set to humming a happy tune while cleaning the closets in my house and dusting ceiling fans.  I went into total acceptance of the reality of what this winter was, and it made it a really lovely time for me.

But we all love spring when it comes (and spring with the spring cleaning done is a knockout combination.)  The flowers and seeds are planted, the birds are back and the air smells pungent and fresh.  The horses are out at grass when not working their one hour or so per day and their coats are getting slick as the last bastion of dead winter hair releases its grip.

And now I have to learn to ride again.  This is the only part of this spring that is seriously harshing my buzz.  We’ve all had those moments where we realize that what used to be easy for us is now daunting.  Whether that is riding outside of an arena, cantering or whatever your used-to-be-comfort zone encompassed, we all have experienced the moment when we realize our world of possibility has shrunk.  At that moment we have a choice: either live in the shrinking world, or push back the walls.

Last fall I was galloping and jumping somewhere around 3’6” and flirting occasionally with 4’.  And it was easy.  It was thrilling.  It was a gift from the Universe that I thoroughly enjoyed and was grateful for.  This spring feels like starting all over again, and it doesn’t help that I have a really Fascinating Pony (FP) in for jumping training.  We are up to 2 feet which looks giant to me right now from the vantage point of 12 hands.

Each day when I feed, I walk by my jumps, which had been set at 1’-2’ for FP training.  Over time that height had started to look normal to me.  The me of last fall would not have considered them even warm up fences.  One of my horses literally shies at fences set that low.  (This I found out right after informing an international  clinician, who had asked about my and my horse’s experience, that 4’ hunters were in our past.  I trotted away at his direction and had an inglorious stop and near unplanned dismount at a 1’ vertical.  Spectacular.)  But after this winter of not riding and the early spring of cavaletti and 1’ grids, 2’ was looking big to me.  The walls of possibility had slowly pushed near enough to me that I had to keep my elbows in to turn around.  So I made a plan to push back.

I started by changing the default setting on the jumps to 3’.  This required a lot of extra work because every time before I worked FP, I had to lower the jumps and afterwards, I had to raise them.  But something about walking past those jumps set at 3’, which looked a little big to me at first, stirred a memory from last summer of walking championship level eventing courses and at first saying “Oy chee mamma, that’s big.” And then walking them again  and maybe again, and finding them acceptable on further consideration.   The easiest part comes next: simply putting those jumps between the gunsights of my wonderful horse’s ears, and thoroughly enjoying being lifted effortlessly over, flying and grinning.

After a few days the 3’ fences in my arena were not big to me anymore and I jumped the made horses over them while they yawned and my heart raced.  It occurred to me when I untacked their unimpressed selves that humans think entirely too much.

So tonight when I feed I will set the jumps to 3’6” and look at them a day or two, get my mind around the height and then canter on down to them and jump them.  It won’t be easy at first, but easy will migrate home to roost like the predictable bird it is.  I will be back and I will feel better, and who knows, maybe I will crank them up more and look at them with feed buckets in my arms, and feel future easy flight.

This process of pushing back the walls is like wading into a cool spring-fed lake.  We walk out and the water gets deeper and colder and we wonder if we should continue or just go back to the warmth of the sandy beach.  When we choose to take the plunge and glide, swimming along in the balmy top few feet of the water, we remember that the acclimation process we had to go through to get there was simply the appropriate price of admission for the ride.