It is good to have some appreciable level of fitness when your horse does something extravagant and unexpected like this bit of air time... (Luke Klemm, Camie up. Jay with the video camera.)

It is that time of year when lots of people either a) put on the holiday 7 pounds and just learn to love their new shape or b) put on the holiday 7 pounds and go all manic with the workout resolutions, in this year’s case on January 3rd (Too hung over and/or tired on New Year’s Day and this year January 2nd falls on a Sunday, the resolution killer.  Who can start a serious workout program with that much lounging to be done?)

Last winter produced record snow for our part of the world and what started out as character-building in January, turned in to absolute will-shattering, never-ending tedium by mid-February.  It was absolutely impossible to ride with no indoor.  The horses had confined themselves to the 10′ feet around the barn because that was the only snow they could keep trampled down enough to walk around on.  I had to do something, so after I cleaned every closet and rearranged every room in the house out of sheer desperation for activity, Jay and I decided to join the local rec center which has some treadmills and a track, raquetball and basketball courts.  It was pretty easy to work out every day.  It was a big stress reliever and our bodies actually started to take on a some form of a shape, other than “roundish”.

As spring and summer came, we were plenty active around our place so we dropped our membership and picked it up again a week before Thanksgiving this year when the days started getting pretty short.  I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to go inside a building and work out when it is light and pretty outside, but when it turns dark early outside, I am attracted to a bright building with people who are actively not hibernating, like a moth to a deck light.

So I started working out and it bummed hard.  Of course I was comparing the fitness I had worked into last winter with where I was starting in the fall. I know better than to do that, but I went all momentarily stupid and did it anyway.  Active as we were over the summer, apparently the cardiovascular part of the equation is not challenged by mowing pastures and riding horses.  Who knew?  Jay joined in about a week after I started and hit the same wall.  By that time, I was pretty much back on track and, ok, I’m a naughty-bad wifey sometimes, so I’ll own that it was kind of fun to see him struggle as I had that first week.  Heh, heh.  For better or for worse for sure, honey, but if you are sucking wind and sweating because you procrastinated and I am fairly whizzing along with a light step and glow, I will not stop myself from smiling and cheerfully asking how your workout is going.  It’s in the fine print honey, really it is.

And there are days where working out still is a slog for me.  Such as, I can definitely feel a drag on my workout if I had more than one beer the day before.  Rats!  Or too much soda.  Double rats!  And some days it is hard to get started.  “My Ipod is out of charge.” “That dog walk I did today should cover it.” “My socks are downstairs in the dryer.”  The answers are “Your Ipod is optional.” “That dog walk was way too easy to be considered exercise.” and “Go downstairs and get them.”  Go.  Go.  Go.  Workout.  So I do.  We try to go every day, but it turns into 5 days a week.  Sometimes my teaching gets in the way, sometimes Jay’s work does.

I had no idea, though, that today was going to be a real payoff.  Today I got on a client’s horse to help square him up for an exercise they were having a challenge with.  I have really long legs and I didn’t feel like messing with her stirrup length, so I just flipped the stirrups over the horse’s withers and rode stirrupless.  I did a lot of canter depart work and lots of cantering for about 20 minutes.  It never occurred to me while I was riding that I really haven’t ridden much lately because of the footing and the arena project and I am therefore seriously out of riding shape.  As I rode, I was so focused on the horse that I didn’t think about that.  Then, at the end of the ride,  I was sliding off and I thought, “Ho, Nelly, that wasn’t smart, I am going to be really sore.  This might even hurt when my feet hit the ground.”  And when that is going through your head, it is a long, anxious way down from a 17h thoroughbred.

And nothing.  I felt great.  Not a twinge anywhere many hours later.  And no, I’m not 18 anymore.  All that stuff they say is true.  Just do it.  Or my personal favorite, “Excuses don’t lift up your butt.”  You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to train for a marathon, and it doesn’t have to take over your life.  My walking program is 33 minutes long.  I crank the heck out of the elevation on the treadmill for two minutes, then go back to a level that is easy for me for two minutes.  I do a little interval training repertoire that I made up.  I keep changing it as my body acclimates.  It is totally Camie’s made up fitness plan.

Effective, not terribly pretty... Camie on Derith Vogt's lovely mare, Carolyn

So, if you’ve been thinking about getting in a workout program, go on, do it.  Do whatever works for you.  Go all crazy fancy, swim on Tuesdays, join a spin class, get all yoga-ed or keep it simple.  Like cross country riding, a workout program doesn’t have to always be pretty to be effective.

Solstice lunar eclipse

Long-legged turtle-necked horses of the arctic

Winter is a great time for a lot of things but, quite disappointingly, naked pagan dancing is not one of them.  Cold weather and Seinfeldian shrinkage notwithstanding, tonight is the best opportunity for naked pagan dancing in winter in 372 years.  Why? Because tonight, starting at 00:33 CST a lunar eclipse will occur on a solstice.  That hasn’t happened since 1638 – pretty cool. NASA’s page about it is excellent.  My goodness, Dr. Tony Phillips is a scientist who can write concisely and understandably, and apparently he knows some good graphic artists.

So what do I plan to do with this information?  Well, I’ve been watching the visible satellite at intervals today to see if there is even a chance at a clear sky tonight. Visible satellite images are for total weather geeks, as we know that the usual satellite images that you see on television are infrared (IR) satellite images, which are really an indication of the temperature of cloud tops, which are then represented by differing shades of white.  Pooh pooh, IR is not real data.  Visible satellite imaging is ground truth.  Ok, cloud truth.  However, weather geek strategy falls to dust when the sun goes down, since visible satellite is just that, a visible picture of clouds taken from a geosynchronous satellite 36k km above the earth.  When the sun goes down, the clouds are not visible.  Wah.  But I digress.

Anyway, there appears to be a break, or at least a thinning of the clouds that may pass over our house in central Iowa just around the right time.  So, here’s my plan.  Set the alarm for 00:25, put on boots and a big coat over my jammies and go out on the deck and watch the earth’s shadow take the first small bite out of the bright white disk of the moon.  Then I’ll probably watch that for a bit.  Snap a few pictures.  Then I’ll get sleepy and go lie on the couch for a few hours.  Then the alarm goes off again at 0300, when I will get up and put on really warm clothes and take a few pictures of what should be a blood red moon.  I’ll go out and see what the horses are doing.  I love any excuse to walk out to the pasture  in the quiet of night and be with the boys.  Maybe they’ll be in the barn, where they can come and go at will.  I love that they’ll probably be awake as day, the same way they are dozey as night at 10 a.m. everyday.  Their sleep cycles aren’t like ours.  They don’t stay up 16 hours straight and sleep 8.  They like it best to stay awake 3 hours and sleep 30 minutes or something.  I once had an off track thoroughbred who laid down in his stall and fell into a deep doze between dressage and xc at his first show.  He popped awake for xc and galloped like a metronome around the course.  King of the catnap.  Crazy.

With all the puttering around tonight, maybe I’ll be a little tired tomorrow.  Maybe I’ll have to sneak off for a catnap.  I guess I’ll be sleeping like a horse.  Enjoy.

We’re all alone, together

My professional life is a double one, that is, that I spend half my working time with horses and riders, and half my time working with computers and research scientists.  When I’m not covered in horse hair, I work at Iowa State University in the Office of Biotechnology.  Here’s our website, which is a primary responsibility of mine.  I spend a lot of time listening to exponentially-intelligent people who have invested their time and talents in a formal education system.  Then it is my job to make some of what they say to me understandable to real people.  I make very good use of a digital audio recorder because there is no way I could get the details of what they say down on paper as quickly as the words flow from their genius mouths.  It is perspective-changing, empowering, and sometimes daunting to be around such sophisticated skill.

And so I got to thinking about how most of us learn to ride.  For me, there was very little formal education about it.  I flopped around on a wonderful black and white pinto shetland pony, playing cowboys and indians, “teaching” him to drive (that very humbling and funny story at another time), had a few lessons here or there, went to 4-H meetings and learned whatever I could, read a lot and basically trial-and-errored my way through it until later in my career when I could commit to some serious clinics with some teachers with very sophisticated skills.

Recently, I’d been thinking that my meandering path to horse competence was somehow flawed.  It lacked the discipline of the University-trained Ph.D., even though, by now, I have done enough independent study to have earned a Ph.D. in my chosen field.  But then I saw an article yesterday about Diana Pounds, who manages the Iowa State University website.  Managing a major university website is a huge responsibility.  It is the face of the university to the world on the internet.  It will be looked at by some of the brightest minds at the U’ and by thousands of prospective students and parents who may or may not choose to spend their tuition money as a result of what they see on the website.  Donors peruse it.  It is a big deal, and it is created, maintained and critiqued by a sea of people who are classically educated.

I was thinking about that the other day when I read an article written about Diana’s work.  From the article:

And she’s well acquainted with plodding her way through unfamiliar cyberspace, being totally self-educated in the ways of the Web.

“Lots of us are self-taught, because we had to be,” Pounds explained. “The technology sprang up, and we all had to learn to do HTML.” Pounds’ curriculum included a variety of online “how-to” manuals, as well as “20 to 25” books on programming and Web design.

So, Diana, then, is producing a web site  at a very high level, with millions of dollars on the line, with no formal training to do it.  No Ph.D. of web design.  And people look to her for help and answers, and she delights in her work and is great at it.

Learning to ride horses for many of us is like that – an adventure in independent learning.  Just you and your horse figuring it out.  Because most people learn independently, they don’t have the benefit of being able to say to themselves or others, “Hey, I can do this, I’ve got my Ph.D. for goodness sakes.”  That sort of external validation is a daily boost to the confidence.

But as riders, we can earn external validation every day.  Horse are perfect mirrors of their riders, just like a computer is the perfect mirror of its input.  Garbage in, garbage out, of course, but also, great input can result in great output.  Put the HTML in correctly and the page happens.  Miss a letter of the code and some really wacked errors will happen.

In the case of horses, if the horse understands what the rider is communicating, the horse’s expression is relaxed and happy and he performs his task with ease.  Good input creates good output, just as in the case of learning to make a web page.  Nonsensical input to the horse, even something as minute and invisible as rider tension, can result in bad output.  When you get the riding right, just like getting the HTML coding right, you get something which is a pleasure to experience.

So ride on, have some success, and be fearless, make mistakes.  Mess around with the code.  See what your horse says to you and try again.  You have a perfect mirror right there in your horse – your personal professor of external validation.