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.

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