Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Racing a Shadow

                                                by Laura Crum

            A boy and his horse—racing their shadow on the ground. I love this photo. Not because its such a great shot in any technical way (it isn’t), but it captures a unique feeling. It reminds me of my own childhood on horses…and helps me to understand what’s really important (at least to me), in my life with horses today.
            The photo is of my twelve year old son and his twenty-four year old horse, Henry. Long trotting down the arena on a sunny November day. I snapped the shot from my own horse, Sunny—one reason it is not all that sharp. At the time, I didn’t even realize what my kid was doing; I just thought, look how free that old horse is trotting, and clicked a photo. It was only when I looked at the picture that I realized that my son was looking down at his (and Henry’s) shadow. It just makes me smile.
            Something in the captured moment speaks to me. Of an old horse who is still sound and free moving, not to mention as bombproof a riding horse as ever lived, and a young boy who is still in the magical space of childhood, both of them sharing a feeling of freedom and fun. This, exactly this, is what I meant to bring to my child through horses.
            To this end I have avoided formal riding lessons, though I’m capable of teaching them and have taught others to ride. I have not steered my kid towards competing at any horse sport, though I have competed at several events myself. If my son had shown a desire to pursue and compete at something (horse oriented or not), I would have honored this with my support. But he has (so far) expressed no strong desires in this direction, and I have to admit I am relieved.
            Because though I know there are positives in competition, and there can be much fun as well, I also know the negatives. I competed for many years at cutting and team roping, and I strongly believe that ALL horse sports (and every competitive sport) do, in certain ways, detract from the gentle magic that can happen when we are not focused on improving, achieving, and competing with others. When we ride for the pure fun of riding and enjoying our partnership with a good horse…well, all I can say is that a peace and tranquility become part of the experience. An acceptance of each other’s strengths and faults. A letting go and enjoying the moment. A freedom, pure and simple.
            Freedom from focusing on just the right form, freedom from judging our own performance, freedom from being critical of our horse. Freedom from wondering if we are doing better” or “worse” than someone else. Freedom just to enjoy being on a horse, racing our own shadow.
            For those very many of you who compete at some horse sport or other, I totally understand, after twenty years of competing myself, that one can compete on a horse and still remain centered in enjoying the moment, free from over-pressuring oneself and the horse. It can be done, and many of you do it. But there are very many who do not have the strength of mind and clarity to do this. Competition is a seductive thing—the drive to “improve” can easily become the very narrow negative need to win…to prove oneself better than others. To validate oneself in the eyes of the world. And yes, you see this in all disciplines, as far as I can tell.
            What I wanted for my son was something different from this urge for achieving goals and validation. I wanted him to ride free of the need to prove anything to anyone, just enjoying the partnership with his horse. I let the horse be his teacher, as well as his friend, and I gave them many, many hours together. On the trail, at the beach, gathering cattle, in the arena. I seldom corrected my kid, or gave him direction…only when it was truly needed. And Henry has been the best teacher my little boy could ever want.
            So, no, my kid, for all his hours of riding, does not have a very correct “form”. He does not know how to pick up the correct lead. (As an ex rope horse, Henry prefers the left lead, so we lope him in that direction in the arena.) My son has a good seat and knows where to be when gathering cattle, he can urge his horse through a creek or mud crossing, pop him over downed trees on the trail, and duck accurately for low, solid limbs as we trot or lope up a steep hill. He can open and close a gate from his horse. He has waded with Henry in the surf. Both he and his horse are troopers out on the trail, not intimidated by fairly daunting obstacles, and not complaining or weakening as the ride goes on for hours.  In that sense, my kid is a good hand. But I’m sure he (and Henry) would not win a ribbon in any horseshow class on earth. And I’m fine with that.
            Perhaps the day will come when my son will want to compete at something. Maybe he’ll wish he got started when he was young, as all very strong competitors seem to begin very young. Maybe he’ll blame me…why didn’t you get me started roping or cutting, it would have been so easy for you to do…etc And all I will be able to say is some version of this blog post. I thought I was giving you a better thing.
            I’m not sure I’m right about this in any overall sense. It’s just my own inclination, and my feeling about this particular child. I’m sure if my son had been very keen to learn to rope or cut cattle, I would have taught him. If he had longed to pursue any sport, I would have helped him. And I still will, if this comes our way in the future. But for now we are still, both of us, just racing our shadows. Having fun with our horses to no purpose but the fun.
            So how about you? Do some of you ride solely for fun, as we do, or are most of you happy to be focused on some goal, whether it be a fifty mile ride you want to complete, a dressage level you aspire to, or a year end buckle you are striving for? And I am happy to hear why others think that being involved in competition is the greater good. Fire away.



Unknown said...

My son has a 5 year old filly, of wonderful conformation and tempermant. She was well started under the saddle, and he has ridden her many times in controled situations. Recently I gave him the opportunity to show her in a conformation class and he turned it down. He said he prefers to just be with her and ride. No pressure. It is his horse and his choice. Now she has a broken coffin bone and is in rehab mode, and my son who is becoming a full blown teenager seems to be losing interest. I don't know if it is because he cannot ride her, or if it is an age thing. Or, perhaps it is due to the weather, which sort of makes me lose interest too. Maybe it is a combination of all three things. I have talked about selling her, and he throws a fit. So for now she stays.
I personally would like to do some Ranch Horse Competitions and am working towards that, but my favorite days are when my best friend comes to town and we just go for a ride on some secluded trail. Just like I did when I was a kid. Riding for just the pure joy of spending time with my horse. As far as I'm concerned competing is nice, but the one on one time is what it is really all about.

Laura Crum said...

Cindy D--I know my kid may lose interest in horses when he hits the teenage years--it often happens.

I did enjoy my days of competing, so I am not running it down. I just enjoy the freedom from that pressure more--these days. A lot of people enjoy the Ranch Horse class, which really wasn't around much, back when I competed.

Thanks for your comment!

jenj said...

I used to be super-competitive... with myself. I wanted to go out there and have a great ride, and Cash and I were very successful at what we did. It really wasn't about the ribbons for me, although we brought quite a few home. It was about improving, and having goals, and meeting them.

These days I don't compete much, and I miss it. I don't miss the hassle, or the nerves, or the early mornings, but I miss the thrill of going "hell yeah, WE OWNED THAT". Sure, I can go XC schooling and have a great time and jump big fences, but it's not the same as in a show. There's not the pressure to do your best.

On the other hand, there's no pressure now. I can go blast down our "Sleepy Hollow" trail near sundown after a long day at the office, and clear out the cobwebs. I can go school flatwork just to see what buttons are there and how far I can push them. When we foxhunt, nobody cares if my position is perfect or anything, as long as we keep up and get over the fences. But then it feels like there's no room to improve. Yeah, I can get the job done... so what? I'm always looking for a challenge, and when I don't show, I don't challenge myself enough.

Someday I will find my happy medium :)

Anonymous said...
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Laura Crum said...

jenj--I'm not sure if this reflects poorly on me or what, but so far I do NOT miss the challenge of competing, but am rather delighting in the freedom from pressure and that need to be "improving." I still enjoy looking at the buckles and such that I won, and the memories of our competitive days are one reason I treasure my retired horses, but I am honestly just as fond of my little trail horse and think I will equally treasure the lovely memories of rides I have had with my son. I guess everybody's different and that's great. Its been a surprise to me how happy I am not to be training/competing any more.

jenj said...

Doh, Laura, I didn't mean to imply that there's anything wrong with not competing! In fact I kind of enjoy it, and boy was it a HUGE relief after a crazy year of showing. But having been out of it for a while, I find myself getting a little bored. I don't know what to do with myself or my horse, and there are only so many times I can go for a trail ride, to be honest. I definitely enjoy taking lessons - goes with that whole "improving" thing. As I said, we all have to find what makes us happy with our horses - it will be different for everyone. I'm so glad that you have such a wonderful time with your boys and your son - that is truly special and you have such lovely memories!

Laura Crum said...

jenj--I think its kind of cool that everybody finds a different path. I'm wondering if my son will some day have a big realization that this non-competitive path that I'm currently on is NOT him, and be annoyed with me for "wasting" all these years that he could have been training for some event (!) I guess time will tell.

Val said...

When I was a kid, I wished that I could compete. I took lessons with a bunch of rich kids who could enter every show and afford lessons twice a week. I held my own with them, even though I could only ride once a week and for part of the year, but I always thought that if I just had more lessons and got to go in shows like them I would be able to beat them. I did not get the opportunity to show until high school and college, but, honestly, I did not love it. I like to improve and better myself and my horse, but I do not like being a slave to goals and deadlines. I guess that I have too much of that at work now and during my years as a student. And showing is so expensive. I have trouble justifying it.

I love that you have given this gift to your son, regardless of how it turns out in a few years.

Laura Crum said...

Val--You are so right about showing being expensive. Its so long since I've done it that I've kind of forgotten about that part, but I used to feel terribly guilty about all the money I spent on competing.

And I hope my kid is enjoying his horsey childhood--I'm sort of giving him the life I wished I had had as a child. Thanks for the comment.

Christine said...

I love what that photo evokes for you! That's how i feel about teaching others about horses :)

It's such a beautifully exciting world, the horse world.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks for the comment, Christine. I love basing my posts on a photo that evokes a few thoughts.

Linda said...

When I first started riding, I didn't know or care about such things as leads and form either, but I did, eventually, go through a stage when I felt inferior to others who did. Now I look back and I kind of miss the ignorant me just having fun and enjoying myself and my horse.

Laura Crum said...

Linda--Its weird. I know just what you mean. In my twenties and thirties I was obsessed with performance and somewhat proud of how much I knew. I could take the correct lead (and teach a colt to do this), I could execute spins and flying changes...etc. Then I pretty much gave up riding in my forties and when I returned to it in my fifties, I just didn't care about all that stuff any more. I'm back to that teenager riding along the trail enjoying the relaxed partnership with a horse. i'm not sure if this is a step forward or backward.

Dom said...

What a heart warming photo :)

Laura Crum said...

Dom--thanks--I love that photo. It just makes me smile. Henry can still really execute a good long trot.

Unknown said...

I'm not competitive by nature, but I have a huge drive to improve my ability. These days I do it by focusing on little things, just like people do in competitions, but they are little things I care about.

I really, atthe end of the day, only care about connection. When I can go to my horse and find the words and way that put her in her "zen spot", I have earned my horse buckle.

Laura Crum said...

Breathe--I think you put that very well. In my own case, I guess you could say that I still use the things I learned in twenty years of training and competing, but I simply use them intuitively, in order to get along with my horse well. If we're loping up a hill that has a right hand bend in the trail, I put the horse in the right lead. I don't think about it, I just do it. And thus our trip up the hill is a little bit more balanced and comfortable for both of us. But I'm definitely not improving as a horseman any terms of improving my skills. I think I get along with my horses better than I used to, but I also think its because I don't put as much pressure on them as I did when I was trying to achieve certain goals. It all depends on what you want to achieve, I guess. And I think your goal of connection is maybe the best goal of all.

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