In which sometimes our mental calendars are a heavenly joke book

With one eye on the horizon, only one remains to watch the road beneath your feet. 
 -- Words of wisdom painted on the bathroom door of my old karate dojo

If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.  --Jewish proverb

I got a note from a Green Bean friend recently.

She's got a nice young mare as an endurance prospect, a trainer she likes, and a plan.

However, recently, she's been feeling like she's been moving backwards instead of forwards.  She feels unbalanced and frustrated while doing things she used to be able to do comfortably.

And then, last week, she hit the ground--hard.  Hard enough to require a ride to the ER, where they diagnosed a pretty impressive concussion, and recommended that she stay off the pony until her head stops bobbling (which it hasn't, yet)

"Even monkeys fall from trees." --Japanese proverb
Even non-green bean riders hit the ground sometimes!

"What am I doing wrong?"  she wanted to know.

I read through what she wrote, and I recognized a couple of issues:

  •  She is feeling unbalanced, insecure, and probably a little PTSD from the tumble.
  • The horse is green, and has so much to learn--a nice mare, but she isn't steady and trustworthy yet.  
  • Tack might or might not be an issue.
  • The concussion is not helping.
  • She has GOALS!  BIG GOALS!  And she is feeling like she's getting further away from the goals, rather than closer to them.

I think that the last bullet point is the core issue.  

Having a mental calendar with goals written on it in mental red ink gets in the way of paying attention to what is happening in the real world.

We've all been there and done that.  When I got Fiddle in December 2006, she was five years old and green broke.  She would turn six a few days after Home on the Range, the first ride of our 2007 endurance season.

"Perfect!" I thought, and mentally planned to do an LD ride at HOTR.

cue sound effect: >> divine laughter <<

2008:  still not ready for Prime Time
The problem with horses, even good horses, and even trained horses, is that they have "stuff" that moves them off-calendar sometimes.

Sometimes it's physical stuff--ulcers, or an abscess, tender soles or a saddle that pinches, or even something bigger but more subtle, like the painful ovaries that took us years to diagnose and treat. 

Sometimes it's mental or emotional stuff.

Trying to rush through the stuff generally doesn't work.  

Rushing through stuff doesn't resolve the stuff, it either squashes and masks the stuff so the stuff can grow mold and turn out even worse down the road, or ignites the stuff so that it blows up into a gigantic explosive ball of really troublesome stuff that gets stuck to everything else.

Now, how's THAT for an explanation?  >g<  

At last:  Fiddle's first LD event.
Home on the Range, 2010.

I want to suggest that having a mental calendar may be getting in the way of forward progress.  

Fiddle was physically old enough (by AERC rules) to do LD rides at age 4.  At age 6, she was still growing, still clumsy, and mentally still very green.  

I backed away from my mental calendar, and we spent 2007 walking on trails.  

Not even trotting.  It was, quite honestly, the only training my green mare was mentally mature enough to handle at that point. It was not incident-free, either.  

Until she could walk down a trail without falling over her feet, or fainting from fear, or freezing up when we got to a tricky bit of terrain, there was no point in pushing for faster gaits.

At age 7, she was still growing a little, but it was time to push her a little.  We started with dressage lessons (aka "couples therapy").  At first, Fee was very resistant.  We gradually worked through some of her issues, and began to glimpse her amazing potential.  

gaiting...but at least she could (sorta) keep track of all four feet
We weren't there yet.  

I could probably have successfully campaigned her in LD's in 2009...but that was the year we bought Haiku Farm, and I ran out of money for entry fees (not to mention time for training).  

That mental calendar got crumpled up and thrown out once again.

Instead, we spent that year learning other skills.

A different skill set for endurance horses
So, back to the Green Bean and her question about what she's "doing wrong."

My recommendation is for her to back up into her comfort zone and get rid of that mental calendar for a while. 

If that means riding a lesson horse in a saddle with a seat belt, do that.  

If it means lining the green horse up to a mounting block and flopping onto her back and just sitting there at a dead standstill, do that.  

If it means the green horse gets ridden by the trainer every Tuesday while the green bean rider does groundwork the rest of the week, do that.  

If it means going out to a friend's barn to trail ride on one of her experienced horses to regain balance and confidence, do that.

Bottom line of my advice for the green bean:  
Drop the mental calendar into the mental recycle bin.  Get back into your comfort zone, and rattle around in there until it is truly boring. 

When it's time to get out of the comfort zone, go slowly.  

"Stuff" will arise--it always does.  

Deal with the stuff, but take the pressure off by getting rid of that mental deadline. 

I'm not suggesting that this particular Bean and her horse will be delayed as long as Fiddle and I were.  But even if they do have to stand on the brakes for a while, it's not the worst possible thing.  

2011:  a regular competitor now, but still useful as a trail-building horse

Letting go of the mental calendar allowed me to reach for more immediate, more attainable challenges that turned out to be excellent background training for endurance events.

And the result: after eight (EIGHT!!! egad! it's been that long!) years, 

Skilled horse, happy rider.
Renegade Rendezvous 50-miler, 2014
I have an endurance horse who makes me very proud.   

READERS, please chime in:  

What events and situations move you and your horse off-calendar?  
Is it easy to re-form your goals?  
What helps you?

The comment box is open.


  1. "Gaiting...but" - SMH.

    Getting pregnant sure destroys one's multi-year plans. :-/ It'll be cool to restart myself and my horse next year, but I sure am ready for next year to hurry up and get here.

    1. Feel you here - can't wait to be not pregnant, or breastfeeding when it comes to my riding plans. Babies are cute but they sure don't mix well with competing!


  2. Indeed. I've bonfired my mental horsey calendar this year, since absolutely nothing has gone according to plan and circumstances keep conspiring against instead of constantly fighting it and trying to open locked doors, I've let a lot of my horsey plans go back to the more nebulous state of "someday I'll do this..." and am concentrating on what is currently working, which for me right now happens to be trail running. There's a "season" for everything, and right now, actively doing endurance isn't in season for me. That doesn't make it easier, necessarily, but useful distractions like running keep me from sitting around and pouting too much.

  3. "Rushing through stuff doesn't resolve the stuff, it either squashes and masks the stuff so the stuff can grow mold and turn out even worse down the road, or ignites the stuff so that it blows up into a gigantic explosive ball of really troublesome stuff that gets stuck to everything else." <----- This. It totally makes sense to me!

    My horse achievements mental calendar is completely cactus. It has been for the last four years - baby one, two and three on the way sure do a fabulous job of making sure that I won't be going any where or achieve much outside of my home arena with my horsey partner Copper.

    While this is frustrating at times for me - I love competing, I want to get out and see if we are on the right track and making legit progress - I am nonetheless extremely thankful that I have a super supportive husband who helps me ride 2 times a week when I have two little ones, and am pregnant with the third. Seriously, I would be at the stage in life where most mothers give up horses until their children are older without his help. And that would suck. So that keeps the "Argh we're not getting anywhere!" frustrations at bay most of the time.

    Like Ashley said, there's a season for everything. And my season is to go slow and just try to do what we can.

    bonita of A Riding Habit

  4. After a long hiatus from riding, during which my body got older and stiffer and uh, more voluminous, I adopted a big 'ole pacing Standardbred gelding. He'd raced for a long time, graced a pasture for a long time, and while he's a sweetie, he's more or less green again. I thought we'd be out riding with friends this fall, eating up the local trails, but no. It took two months to find the right bit, which turns out to be a Dr. Cooks bitless -- before that, bad steering, barely any brakes -- now, both! Saddle fitting took a month - got lucky there. He's got a great walk, but his trot is huge and his pace, good lord, it's like an earthquake. So, we walk. And practice stopping, and softening on turns. In a boring little ring at our barn. I hate rings -- too many flashbacks to teenaged dressage dramas. We're going out on the trails soon, after he moves home in a few weeks, but it's MONTHS after I thought we'd be there. I'm ok with it, though, because I am so damn grateful for him. We're gonna walk for like, a year, I think!

  5. This coming season was supposed to be devoted to getting my pony up and running again - and about the time I was to start riding him, he developed a massive case of hives, so is currently on medication.

    The trouble was making A Plan. Any time you make A Plan, it's guaranteed to come crashing down around you. So you have to sneak about, casual-like, inspecting your fingernails and saying things like "well, I guess I could go to XXXX Ride, but I'm not sure I want to".

    Over the years, I've been moved off The Plan by:

    * First horse breaks, needs pasture rest (turns out, horse #1 breaks himself on a regular basis because he's "that kind of horse" and very rough on himself and me)
    * Girl breaks, needs knee surgery (see above, re. horse #1)
    * Girl moves house, no riding for a year while things get sorted out
    * Second horse breaks, needs rehab (turns out, horse #2 has congenital problem which means early retirement)
    * Third horse breaks (operator error), feel so bummed I don't ride for nearly a year
    * Third horse is broken in a different way (pasture accident) when I decide it's time to go again (early retirement)

    [Have some successful years]

    * Fourth horse breaks, needs pasture rest
    * Fifth horse breaks, needs rehab

    [Have some success with horse #6 who spent his formative years trimming trail and babysitting greenies]

    * Girl has to throttle back due to 'overdoing it' (body says "OVERLOAD, OVERLOAD")
    * Pony breaks with allergic reaction to mystery substance

    Currently very active quilting and knitting and contemplating maybe spending time riding at some point, some time, maybe in the future ...and secretly hoping that me n the pones will be up and running again by Christmas so that we will all, maybe [inspecting fingernails], be well enough to go to XXXX ride, but of course I'm indifferent and don't really care either way. Honest.

  6. I am a compulsive planner and have to squish that tendency in my brain on a very regular basis. I absolutely agree on the "rattle around in your comfort zone until it is truly boringin there" comment. So many people will tell you learning only happens when you are out of your comfort zone, ad this is true for PEOPLE. That rule does not apply when you ass to the equation a 900 pound animal with a brain the size of my fist. Horses only learn when they can take a small wander out of their comfort zone and know they can jump back into it again if they need to.
    The best advice I got as a newbie Endurance rider was "Don't make a plan"... So I tried very hard not to. As a result I have a 9 year old horse who completed his first 100 miler this year, but I was lucky - he has a very large comfort zone. New baby has a very small one. Mental calendar for HER has already gone way out of the window.

  7. I am dealing with this as well - the best laid plans as they say. When I first acquired Ruby, I thought we'd be able to attend our first intro ride this last March, and be doing LDs this fall - ha! It was quickly apparent that she needed to be restarted from scratch and we are just now ready to start conditioning. I've also discovered that my 6 year old mare is actually 14...that happens sometimes with rescues. And she's a hot foot - I believe that if we'd started off trotting down the trail, I would have my hands full every single ride. So, we've been taking it really slow. I hope that we are able to get to an intro ride in the spring but if not, no biggie. For now, I'm enjoying the journey instead of stressing about my goals.

  8. My competition plan (in Mountain Trail, rather than endurance) shaped my own life plan this year: I retired to put in more training and competing time. That all changed when Kate and I got into an on old, hidden barbed wire fence line on a trail ride in July. Plan B has been a lot of nursing and hauling to vets. Well have to wait to see if the next plan includes riding or not. Competing again isn't even in the equation yet...

  9. What has worked for me: Stop thinking about what I want to do and when. Instead ask myself, "What do I want to do now? What CAN I do now?" Cos that's the best thing to do - deal with what I've got right now. Whenever I have started to think about 'plans' of how I could do this or that, I've 'achieved' nothing or 'gone backwards'.

    The great thing is that when I've made having fun (and making sure my horse is too) the focus, and just assessed each opportunity as it came up... I've done some amazing things that I could never have planned! I never planned to break in my mare, or qualify my borrowed gelding, or have my old gelding fit enough to do an intro ride. I just had fun each time I rode, decided whether they were ready for something right now and somehow it just happened. Bonus was that I just got to have fun with my horse without worrying about working towards some 'plan'! And really, what are plans if you don't get to have fun along the way? :)

  10. As a lover of lists and a chronic planner of all things, horses continually humble me. I WILL DO THIS! I declare. YOU WILL PRESS PAUSE! The horses echo. I may one day learn and stop this cycle, but that time is far in the future, I fear. Though there is hope; I am getting better about having very broad, fluid plans. This is helping a great amount so far.

    What events and situations move you and your horse off-calendar? - Mental break-downs from both parties have been large culprits this year. I am forced to take steps backwards and be more creative in my methodology to battle mental hurdles and break them down into small steps. Hard realization to reach, but critical for any hope at success. Physical break downs the year prior helped prevent mental break downs for a time, but because my ways did not change greatly enough, the time has come that I must learn from my errors. Thanks, Universe.

    Is it easy to re-form your goals? - It is easy when I have accepted the fact that I was the reason for the errors. Acceptance is everything for me. Once I can admit my short-comings, the path forward becomes much clearer and I become very excited about backing up and re-starting. I like a challenge, I just don't like being humbled so often. However, I'm learning, and that is so, so valuable. I'm not apt to make the same mistake more than once!

    What helps you? - What helps is the community of horse folks who are ever supporting of my efforts. Who bolster me when I'm down. The drive and passion I have for my horses coupled with my desire to do right by them spurs me ever forward...and reins me in with a wicked one rein stop every time I get too excited and big for my britches! Reading posts like this one and seeing the success of your journey helps immensely.

    Thank you so much for this post. It is something I needed to read right now as I'm struggling mentally with my own demons.


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