Monday, May 31, 2010

Helmets, Horsemanship & Other Developments

Before you think, oh please not another lecture on why I should wear a helmet, know that is not one. I am going to talk about some personal revelations and personal choices. This past week I have been at the Calvin Center, somewhere in Georgia, earning certification in the American Association For Horsemanship Safety. . This program is written by a pair of attorneys who specialize in Equine Law and it was an eye opener on many levels, from beginner to . . . well, I don't know where the end is, yet, but I am not there!

I have long espoused the view that horsemanship will save your life, long before a helmet does, and have given examples from my 35+ years of riding and training experiences of some of the rather spectacular near misses and hits that I have taken that a helmet not only would not have aided me but might even have hindered my instinctual ability to tuck, roll and protect my body. The helmets I have tried on and worn, over the years have felt obstructive, bulky and extremely uncomfortable. As a professional colt starter, I cannot afford equipment that compromises my ability to safely do my job.

Last week, I watched a video (Every Time, Every Ride, available thru AAHS) with a segment featuring a once-professional horse trainer, also who had ridden and trained from a very early age, struggle with rehab from the irreversible brain damage he had sustained in a fall. The man, still young had plenty of awareness of who he is, who he was, and what has happened to his life. There were tears in his eyes at the end of his statement as he wished he'd have strapped on a helmet the day that changed his life forever. There were tears in mine, as well. I am quite certain, the morning before his accident, his stories and statements about why he did not choose to wear a helmet would have been much like my own.

The other segments made me cry as well. Mothers talking about daughters no longer with them. Not one of those daughters were mounted on a risky horse, there were varying degrees of ability but none were beginners. One horse stumbled on a trail ride. That was it. There were some other stories of the near miss. I was happy to see them, but they did not stop my tears for the ones who have no second chance. All I could think was, not on my watch. Not if I can help it, will I have to be part of one of those stories. I can't even imagine the horror of knowing someone in my care is gone because we missed a piece of the prevention. I have difficulty even imaging waking up in a half life, not being able to do what I love, or even speak clearly, walk or move my body because of that one single, reasonably foreseeable, avoidable choice.

It is still a piece and only a piece. I still emphasize horsemanship education and practice. There was a young girl on the video who said she felt very safe when she wore her helmet. She and I would have to talk. I think of many riders I have known that chose helmets as an everyday part of riding apparel but were lackadaisacal about seeking education in their horsemanship. That, for me, is akin to having entry level driving skills, strapping on a seat belt and expecting the seat belt to save me from having a wreck. It will protect me in many cases but why not learn to drive, while I am at it?

So, okay, this is what I have to say on this subject. I wore a helmet all week. I have tried on many brands and types and hated them all until now. I have heard of the Tipperary helmet, it's constructed slightly differently than the others I have tried, and when I set one on my head, I said, "hmm, I might not hate this." And I don't. There was another, made ironically by a company called "Helmets R Us" that I also did not hate and it is a less expensive option. I will be purchasing a helmet for myself, and will have three sizes available for my lesson students. My son and husband are about to become helmet wearers, though they are unaware of this development at the time of this writing :-)

The clinic I rode in, which was seeking accreditation through the AAHS program, written and developed by a pair of attornies who specialize in Equine Law, was one of the most grueling, intensive experiences since my college days, and I am talking about the accelerated summer sessions, as opposed to regular semester studies! I went, wondering what five mere days could add to the value of so many years of education and experience. How much value could this accreditation, this set of initials really hold? I quickly gained respect, as I glanced through the daunting syllabus of reading and study assignments. I had no idea the real challenge would lie elsewhere, a place I am the most comfortable of anywhere in the world. The saddle.

Hosted by the Calvin Center, a truly class accommodation, we had motel style rooms and I was presented with a room mate. As you know, if you know me, I am a very private person and was not sure what I would think of the arrangement. Turns out, it was a blessing getting to know Karen, as well as the rest of this group of highly talented, driven, wonderful women I had the privilege of sharing the clinic with. I was determined to do well, and their equal dedication lent strength to my own.

We rose early, for last minute study, before breakfast was served promptly at 8 a.m. Brian, the new chef, was worth the price of admission, all by himself. He greeted us every morning with a cheery grin and I swear, overcast or not, Brian brought out the sun. "Be sure and try the oatmeal," says he, "it tastes like Christmas!" And so it did. Brian does not fry, everything was seasoned, but healthy. I ate cookies for dessert at lunch, and some kind of miraculous culinary concoction at dinner and still managed to come home a pound lighter than when I arrived.

We had quizzes every day, and trust me, if you didn't know your stuff, the quiz knocked you for a loop. Many of us were like cocky young horses, certain we knew the lay of the land, and it was not long at all before our able Instructor, Brenda Hendrix, had our both ears, both eyes and complete attention!

After a wonderful lunch, again served promptly, at noon, we met at the barn at 1, would saddle our prospective mounts (I could write an entire blog on the wonderful Calvin Center horses, and may yet. I only wish I had taken my camera to the barn) and ride til dinner, at five. Once in awhile we would not make dinner and our gratitude that they held food for us was enormous. Some nights we returned back to the barn after dinner to work on riding exercises, and whether we did that or not, EVERY night saw us hitting the books, and studying til the wee hours.

Back to the afore-mentioned challenge . . . the saddle. First, I had decided to ride the clinic English, as I felt I would gain the most knowledge. I have ridden Western all my life, and have dabbled in English riding, with a few dressage lessons thrown into the mix, as I have dabbled in so many things. I even rode the riding test English, later wondering had I lost my entire mind, but that worked out. The rest of it, not as well.

We have discussed, on our chat list, an exercise known as 7-7-7. I am here to say, if you have not ridden the clinic, you don't know what it is. We thought we did, at least I sure thought I did. Seven strides at the trot, posting, sitting and standing each. How tough is that? Not so very . . . can do it with my eyes closed, and have. Then you add a piece called . . . alignment. Ohhh . . . I have long known I ride with a bracey, forward pointing leg. Years of riding colts and adding layer after layer of fear and defense has created a posture reinforced by muscle memory and tendon length.

Many of us know that to be properly aligned in the saddle, one draws a line through ear, shoulder point of hip and heel. Few of us, or so I believe, realize how important that line is for function, not merely form, at which I have always scoffed. Working to move my lower leg into a stable position, with heel landing naturally in plumb line caused me tears of frustration, pain in places I didn't know I had, and caused me to seriously doubt my ability to master those same simple skills that I thought I had, hands down, locked in, forever and unshakably.

Of the levels in which one can reach certification, I paid attention to only two. Top, which is Full, and the next one, Basic (which I thought would be a come down, and an expression of failure on my part, hah, little did I know!). What I know now, is that while I aced the study portion of the course, the years of riding in solitude and developing poor habits is not going to be overcome in a week. I recognized the problem, awhile back when I started taking dressage lessons with Missy Fladland. Those lessons and the Centered Riding group lesson I took with Brenda Messick, a few weeks ago are the only reasons I was even able to qualify as Basic. It's humbling, but not shattering. I know the further I get, in the horsemanship journey, the more doors open if I am willing to accept and undertake the challenge. To achieve Full certification, one must meet certain criteria for teaching, understanding the books and Secure Seat method, and then be able to perform the 7-7-7 indefinitely. This is impossible without mastering the first step, alignment.

My largest consolation is that I am among a group of women whose horsemanship I admire, as a body. We had Karen who teaches dressage and rides with beautiful form, Mona Lisa who had ridden one trotting horse a week previous in the past six years (she raises and shows gorgeous Tennessee Walkers, shows them barefoot and WINS, as a side note), Sonya who had taken over the family Trail Ride operation ( Check this out!) at the tender age of 14 (she's my age now) and is has a natural form and ability you would not believe for someone who has never taken a formal lesson. There was Jo and her daughter, Candace, who are at the beginning of their horsemanship education journey, and dug in and did just as well as the rest of us, for where they started. We had Marywill, a camp volunteer, whose abilities are far beyond her modest assessments of herself, and Alicia, a young camp volunteer who has the opportunity, with the education she is getting to come as far as she would like.

And of course, our own Brenda Messick. There were days, without her quiet encouragement, I might have hung up my stirrups and said, give me a Western saddle, I cannot do this and I cannot afford to fail. Brenda, though she says she had her struggles, never lost her cool, and always looked like she was mastering the task at hand. I really look forward to riding with you again, Brenda, and we will help keep each other on track! Full certification, here we come!!

There were so many unexpected gifts!! Seeing Gretchen ride her OTT, retired broodmare-now-turned-dressage horse, Rainbow again, brought tears to my eyes and a proud smile. Here is a student which is outgrowing my instruction, and it's beautiful to see. Getting to meet and ride with her dressage instructor, Susan Griesel (sp), was an honor, and added a few more tools to my bag of tricks. The women I rode with began some relationships I hope to hold on to, and getting to meet and begin a friendship with Brenda Hendrix, none of these things did I go looking for when I decided to add some marketable credentials to my resume.

Any of you who have taken my clinics will recognize these strengths and weaknesses. You saw me make changes in your horse that were undeniably visible and effecting, but then struggled to learn the methods that will allow you to make those changes yourself, at home, alone. I have learned to break things down into a step by step procedure, have learned to plan lessons through an established format that is centered upon student learning. As with everything else I have stumbled upon, I can't imagine why I could not figure out these things for myself, but these so very critical pieces of the puzzle, the human side, are here now, and I have a large project in front of me. I will be writing out my program, developing lesson series and curriculum's, that can then be broken down and individualized. This will revolutionize my teaching style, and hopefully, revolutionize the learning curve for those of you who ride with me, along the way.

I cannot say thank you enough to Gretchen, who encourage and then insisted I take this course. Without you, it could not and would not have taken place. I could not see that the means justified the end, and I was so wrong. I can't thank the Calvin Center volunteers enough. When I was there in October, the horses said many things were awry, and their futures as lesson and camp horses were in doubt. This year, the way the horses reacted to the simplest things, from catching, to tacking up, told me many good changes have been put in place. It was a joy working with them again, and the honor to be even a very small part of that wonderful program is huge. I know I have once again, produced a novel when maybe a short story would have been more in order. It was an incredible nine days, and there are more stories, yet to tell!

Contact me for info on lesson series, clinics and horse training. Thanks!


gretchen said...

OK, I just cried reading this. Beautifully written! Put this story next to Jo's lovely comical one and you have a beautiful summary of the week!

Tammy said...

Congrats, Terri, on your achievements this past week. I'm proud of you!

Horses Are Our Lives said...

oh my goodness, you did bring me to tears, with the reminder of the helmet video, and of your special words you said about me. Terri, we have grown together, and your blog has just confirmed that. I did struggle, and I had many doubts, and it taught me to never give up. My only regret is that I didn't ride Hans. next time, ok Gretchen? I will always have lesson plans in the back of my mind, as well as continued liability and especially 7-7-7! We WILL conquer this and we will make each other proud. We NEED to practice, critique each other, and encourage each other. I didn't think that I would think this way, but now I think we should go back together, with the whole group! Are you up to it Gretchen? lol

Shoofly said...

Wonderful writing, Terri. You are an articulate writer, as I've mentioned more than once. I'm proud of what you and Brenda and Gretchen have accomplished! And maybe a little jealous. lol

gretchen said...

of course i would love to have everyone back, Brenda!!! :)

Brenda H. said...

Wow, you are great writer Terri! Thank you so much for your kind words and I'm so glad we "exceeded your expectation"! Indeed, Gretchen, the Calvin Center and staff ROCK! I'm already excited to go back!

jo said...

great summary thanks for sharing.
Even though helmets are something I have always worn this clinic and that video really brought to the forefront the importance of them. As you mentioned I am just at the beginning of my horsemanship experiences. I do not want to end it all early for something I could possibly avoid by wearing my helmet. Thanks for your support and encouragement over the last week.

Good Hands said...

This was one of the coolest events of my life, and I have had some cool events. Thanks, everyone for your wonderful comments. My Tipperary came the other day, and is fast becoming a part of my riding ensemble.