Corn and Conscious Competence

Eddie the horse in corn

Eddie the 17h tb says, "Knee high by the Fourth of July?"

I was out on a hack today with my eventer, Eddie.  We do a lot of hacking around for conditioning on the land our kind neighbors allow us to ride.  Most of it is CRP ground, but there are a few short stretches of  crop ground we sometimes pass through.  This spring it was easy to hack on down between the corn rows, avoiding the small plants, but in the last week, aided by a lot of rain and then a week of sun, the corn has shot up to the extent that 17h Eddie found himself having to stretch his neck up in order to see anything in the sea of cloying corn leaves.

Temple Grandin wrote a great book called Animals in Translation.  One of the many theories she puts forth in the book basically says that the lighter-built animals within a type of animal are generally more sensitive and quick-to-react to outside stimuli than their heavier-built counterparts.  I tend to think of the more reactive animals as “brighter” though I note that I don’t mean this to mean more intelligent.  I think of those animals that are slower to react as “duller”, and this does not imply less intelligent, just less reactive.  So, for instance in dogs, a greyhound might be considered brighter than a newfoundland and a draft horse might be considered duller than an arab, just on Temple’s theory alone.  Temple goes on to say that the lighter animals within a breed are usually brighter too.  So a spindly-legged tb could be predicted to be brighter than a more solid-type tb.  This holds true in my experience in general and in my barn at the moment.  Charlie, our foxhunter, is a bigger, heavy tb, still purebred, just heavier-boned, and he’s just as steady and sweet as the day is long, and he’s not given to over-reaction.  Eddie is a skinny, long-legged, long-necked wisp of a narrow tb and he is as bright as they come.  He is given to Anxiety Groans when he is uncomfortable or doesn’t understand things and I guarantee that if there ever really IS a mountain lion near us, he won’t be the one it gets.

So, now I’m on a hack with Eddie the Bright in a cornfield up to his ears, with the leaves pressing against his body from muzzle to croup, withers to hooves.  He gets light on his feet.  He lets out his Anxiety Groan. He breathes faster.  He champs at the bit and his pace quickens.  I simply put him in a shoulder fore (really, it’s no problem, the corn row limits the angle, like bumpers in a bowling alley) and let the distraction of its effort, combined with a consciously relaxed elbow, quiet hugging leg and steady breathing, settle him.  He gets to the other side with little problem.

Eddie’s little moment of anxiety, though, reminded me of the progression of learning how to ride.  When I was a kid, I had the Greatest Shetland Pony in the World, apparently, judging from all the horror stories I hear of other peoples’ experiences with shetlands.  Cricket and I spent many afternoons playing cowboys and indians with my sister and  her horse, who was born at our house and who we imaginatively named Grasshopper, since, if you have a Cricket, you obviously need also a Grasshopper.  We were 8 and 14, and thought we were clever.  Oy.  Anyway, a favorite tactic of Cricket and I was to enter a cornrow at the end and pretty much gallop down it to get away from my marauding sister on her much faster horse who was too wide to follow.  Cricket was entirely unfazed by the lack of visibility, swinging corn ears and pressing leaves as we bucketed down the row, partly because he knew I would pick something delicious for him to eat once we escaped the marauder.

Then I had my friend Ruth out and we went for a ride, me on Cricket and her on Mariah, a big, kind morgan we had.  Mariah was a beautiful, well-mannered bay, and quite tolerant.  So I was surprised when I led Ruth, trotting down the corn row, only to be rapidly passed by a white-eyed Mariah and clutching, shrieking Ruth.  I had no idea that the claustrophobia of the leaves and the lack of ability to see over them could cause a horse to do that.  At that moment I became aware of my incompetence.  The first step in learning is Unconscious Incompetence where I had merrily lived before that moment.  I had been enjoying, unaware, the benevolence of the Sprites Who Protect the Ignorant.   Now I was in the land of Conscious Incompetence, with all the heaviness-of-being it brought.  Conscious Incompetence, to me, was extremely uncomfortable and I had to move on ASAP.

Ruth was a farmkid with good balance and a heckova good sporting sense of humour.  Mariah’s eyes popped back into her head as soon as she got out of the corn, and we had a nice day of it, other than the niggling thought in the back of my head concerning the fact that I had no idea in my 8 year old brain how to teach Mariah to not be scared of the corn.  And I really wanted her to not be scared of the corn.  So I read books and asked anyone who might know how I might desensitize the mare to the corn.  I learned some tricks and slowly desensitized her and she was ok to walk in the corn, but not trot or canter like Cricket.  I had to get more tools.  But where?  The people I knew were fresh out of ideas and probably wondered why I was so obsessed with cantering a horse down a corn row anyway.  My little brain said that if Cricket could, somebody had to have taught him.  I’d never seen a horse just canter down a corn row by himself, so somebody had to have taught him, I reasoned.  (Ok not entirely logically sound, I know, since most horses don’t have the opportunity or reason to canter down a corn row, but I never got that far in my little kid reasoning.)

About the same time, I started taking dressage lessons, after a fashion.  Since I was more wild child pony jockey than classical equestrian, my instructor spent a fair amount of time frowning and teaching me circles and how to carry my hands.  One day though, I must have finally gotten somewhere close to getting it, or simply bored her silly.  She started talking about bending the horse on a straight line.  Shoulder in, haunches in, shoulder fore, haunches out.  We just brushed the surface in that night’s lesson, but I was on fire.  Now again I hit the books and quizzed whoever I could to learn more.  By my next lesson I was doing a fair shoulder in, that actually made my instructor smile.  The little wild child monkey might not be a complete waste of space in the lesson.  It took every ounce of my brain energy to get my body and the horse’s body to do what I had read about and was picturing and practicing at home, but by jiminy, her smile said I was doing it or something in the same zip code as it.  Welcome to the world of Conscious Competence.  In this place we master, on fledgling wings, what we later will do without thinking, with ease, as muscle memory does its magic.  This place of Conscious Competence is a land of private work that happens only between the rider’s ears.  No instructor can do this for her rider.  The work of Conscious Competence is the basis for the axiom, “Princes learn no art truly, but the art of horsemanship. The reason is, the brave beast is no flatterer.”

I soon learned the power and usefulness of being able to influence the individual parts a horse’s body.  When a horse’s body is yielding to the rider’s leg, and when his poll is relaxed, it is easier for him to stay mentally with the rider and to relax.  If the horse and rider are trained properly, they can communicate in times of crisis, such as when a horse can’t see over the corn leaves and they are being touched all over by the leaves.  I could put Mariah in shoulder in in the little grass paddock we had, could I do it in a corn row when she got worried?  The short answer was no, not for quite a while.  I needed to have the connection without effort, to have it in my muscle memory.  Unconscious Competence comes to those who are motivated to put in the work, and time is undeniably an element of work.  It took a lot of practice in the arena before our communication was good enough to be helpful to the horse in an anxious situation.  But it did come for us, and it was really fun to canter a big horse down the corn row!

Whatever you want to do, be fearless.  Be hungry, try, make mistakes, endure setbacks.  Celebrate every victory.  Learn from every setback.  Put your eye on the prize and do not take it off.  The beauty of Conscious Competence is that it dances with the one that paid the cab fare.   Do you have the change?

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