Thursday, January 25, 2018

Spring Training

Living in the northern part of the US we end up having a prolonged off season for both horse and rider.  As the snows pile up and the footing becomes treacherous our training schedule takes a necessary break.  The cold temperatures mean our horses (and ourselves) often pile on the pounds as added protection from those brutal elements.  All of this means that spring can be a very trying time as we attempt to put both ourselves and our mounts back into action and rebuild the muscles that may have been lost over the winter months.

As a rider I try to get ahead of this curve by adding some sort of exercise program into my winter regime.  Not only does that help to fight off the winter "fluff" but also keeps the core strength that I rely on as a balanced rider.  I like to use core building exercises like Pilates and Yoga to help with balance, focus and core strength.  Today as I was trying to smoothly go through the motions while becoming more and more aware of the fatigue in my winter soft muscles I was forcibly reminded of what my horses go through in the spring. For me, I am able to see beyond the burn and the shaking and the sweating (and, I'll admit, the swearing under my breath) to see the goal and the payoff for the hard work.  As a human I am able to set a goal and work towards that goal with conscious determination.  But, what about our equine partners?

The cruel trick of physiology is that the muscles that we lose first are the ones that we have to work the hardest to develop.  The smaller muscles of inner core strength and posture for both us, and our horses are the most difficult to maintain.  Those are the muscles that our sedentary lifestyles find they don't need for survival.  So, while I haven't done any weight lifting this winter, my biceps aren't too far off from my typical summer condition.  My abdominus rectus, hip flexors and extensor spinea muscles are unfortunately far below what their normal strength is in peak riding season.  These three muscle groups are at the core of good strength, posture and balance for humans, and coincidentally, for horses as well.
Human muscles of balance and core strength. They function to keep us aligned like a perfectly balanced Jenga block pile. Image from

Equine muscles of balance, and core strength. They function as a draw bride to help raise the back. Image from Eitan Beth-Halachmy.
As I began my own spring training season, I had to first adjust my weight.  Like my horse, I had been turned out to pasture a bit this winter and was enjoying the fruits of communal eating at the "round bale" of the family table over the holidays.  The extra weight makes exercise that much more difficult by diminishing my flexibility and adding stress to my joints.  Therefore, diet was the first step to my spring training regime.  For our horses we tend to do the opposite and start first with exercise, pushing our horses to "work up a sweat" so we know they are burning calories and taking that fat off.  If we are trying to build athletes with a good work ethic, I don't think this is the best approach.  While "fat and sassy" is a thing for some horses, especially the youngsters, some older horses will find their work more difficult with the added weight.  Consider adjusting your horse's diet before beginning (or in concert with) your spring training program.  Cutting calories while maintaining dry weight intake is generally the best approach which is why I prefer a moderate forage first approach to feeding for horses that are under moderate to light work.  I don't like to cut their dry matter intake to less than 2.5% of their body weight but by feeding a less calorie dense feed you can diminish those calories and still keep food in front of them.  It is important to remember not to cut important nutrients when cutting calories and a forage balancer or mineral supplement is a great way to ensure your horse is still getting the vitamin and minerals he needs (especially salt in the northern states in winter).

You can use the body condition scale to assess your horse's weight prior to beginning your spring training program.  For horses that are a body condition score of  7 or below, they can probably handle light work without too much stress to the joints and muscles, keeping in mind, of course, any pre-existing conditions like tendon injuries or mild arthritis.  Warming up those joints prior to increasing intensity is so important for joint health.  If your horse tends to go out on the end of the lunge line and re-enact the Pendleton Round-Up before settling down to work, consider instead hand walking for 10-15 minutes prior putting on the lunge line.  Those full on leaps of unrestrained joy prior to really getting warmed up can be more damaging than the rest of the work out.
The areas of interest when examining a horse to determine body condition score.  A score of 1 is a severely emaciated horse while a score of 9 is an obese horse.  We like our performance horses to lie between the 5-7 range, closer to 5 the more demanding their work. Image from

Understanding muscle fatigue is a very important part of understanding how to strengthen those muscles and prevent the overall body soreness that will limit the try in our equine partners.  I am going to discuss specifically working with muscles for strength and form, and not endurance.  Endurance conditioning relies on building the capacity for anaerobic respiration within the muscles.  For our purpose I am considering the strength it requires for the horse to hold himself in self carriage, like a yoga pose.

Without going into the nitty gritty nerdy details, it is important to have a working understanding of muscle physiology.  The muscles function like an engine that has two sources of energy.  The most efficient form of energy is the gas that the body provides.  This gas (glucose) is delivered to the muscles via the blood stream.  Like the gas sitting in the carburetor (perhaps dating myself here) there is always just a little gas sitting in the muscles for basic function.  Under work the muscles can quickly deplete the local supply of glucose and then have to switch over to the reserve tank.  This reserve tank is not as efficient and burns fuel in the absence of oxygen.  Though the body can produce fuel in the absence of oxygen, the bi-product, is continuously converted to lactic acid which is responsible for the stinging burning feeling in tiring muscles.  Through conditioning we increase the time it takes between the first tank and the reserve tank as well as make the secondary reserve tank conversion more efficient causing less build up of lactic acid.

The good news is that the muscle fatigue process is fairly quickly reversible with the influx of oxygen from the blood stream which allows for the rapid conversion of lactic acid back to it's precursor form. This is the importance of the rest phase of exercise, especially as we are building muscle strength.  So, the old, "no pain, no gain" thing is true to a point.  But the more the burn, the longer the recovery rate should be.  It's also pretty difficult to explain the theory to your horse which is likely experiencing the exact same pain and struggles that we are as we are reconditioning these poor fatiguing muscles.

Horses are blessedly programed and built a little bit differently than we are.  As prey animals they are genetically programed to not show weakness.  So, a horse that is experiencing muscle fatigue may or may not show this overt discomfort to it's owner.  The physical desire to continue to perform may override the pain to the point of actual damage to the horse.  This is why horses get overwork injuries frequently.  They just don't know to show discomfort while they are working.  But, what they are also very good at is remembering how something felt the last time they did it.  Have you ever had the experience of working your horse with a new concept which the horse seemed to pick up with relative ease only to come back a few days later and have nothing but trouble with it?  Odds are the horse experienced some degree of pain with the exercise, mastered through it at the time but in the infinite and wise equine wisdom, decided that exercise was best avoided in the future.

So, it is up to us as riders, coaches, and partners for our equine athletes to recognize and understand the limits of the body and work to build those languid winter muscles back up to super star strength over a period of time.  Short periods of contraction, paired with adequate periods of rest are the best way to begin to build those muscles back to working strength.  Any of the maneuvers that require the horse to engage those small core muscles of balance should be done in short intervals in the beginning of spring training with periods of rest and release through stretching exercises.  If you do yoga yourself you know that in the beginning, any of the strength and balance poses are difficult to maintain over an extended period of time and would be impossible without intermittent breaks using child's pose.  The free frame is our horse's child's pose.  The free frame allows the horse to stretch those long muscles that work in apposition to the smaller, shorter muscles of balance and self carriage.  Those must stretch to develop suppleness to work in opposition the shorter muscles of flexion.  As your horse becomes stronger with consistent work we can hold those poses longer and longer with less periods of rest.

How can you be sure you are not asking too much of your horse?  Be a conscious rider.  You can feel how easy or difficult it is for your horse to hold a specific maneuver with softness and correctness.  As I struggle to build strength, the first thing that happens to me as I fatigue are the whispered cuss words.  For my horse it is loss of softness to my aids, and generally my hands first.  If a maneuver (say shoulder in) requires strong aids from the rider, it is likely a difficult maneuver for the horse.  It doesn't mean your horse is dull, or unwilling.  It may just mean those muscles are weak and unconditioned.  Those are the times where you look for that moment of softness and settling into the maneuver before releasing and rewarding with the free frame and stretching.

Pushing boundaries and rewarding the try is a delicate balance that we walk as we work towards making our horses the athletes that we envision.  When in doubt, I recommend rewarding try always.  The muscle strength and development will happen.  Our horses are built to be better athletes than most of us are.  Do not make the mistake of pushing muscle development in exchange for damaging try.  It doesn't matter how great of a pep talk you give your horse, the peppy encouragement of "one more time!" that may work so well on exercise tapes is meaningless to the horse.  The blessed relief of that long stretch, however is something they can definitely appreciate.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Work Life Balance

Looking back on the past year I am gratified, proud and honestly, a bit exhausted.  2017 was a banner year full of trials, new experiences and learning and growing.  Before the year is mostly a blur I wanted to try to put it all into perspective while it’s still fresh in my mind.  I also wanted to speak to both my colleagues in the veterinary profession as well as my fellow busy horsemen struggling to find the time to chase their horsemanship dreams.

As a full time mobile veterinarian who is half of a busy rural practice, my life is already pretty full.  There is little down time when you are a veterinarian and as I often tell young, perspective veterinarians, being a vet isn’t what you do, it’s very much who you are.  Our profession is recognizing more and more that finding the balance between life and work is increasingly important as our colleagues struggle to run a busy practice while still having a family and hobbies outside of saving animal’s lives.  At the recent AAEP convention in San Antonio, Texas I was pleased to see on the list of lectures a series addressing work life balance and burnout.  Our key note speaker, kicking off our event this year, was Nigel Marsh.  Nigel is a well-known author and speaker on the topic of work life balance.  He has a popular TED talk titled, “How to Make Work Life Balance Work” and is the author of “Fat, Forty and Fired” and “Overworked and Underlaid”.   Unfortunately, veterinarians are traditionally perceived as being work-a-holics because of our inability to stop caring when we walk out the door at night.  Our clients can be demanding, especially in times of crisis, becoming accusatory when we are not available.  Because we care, we give more and more of ourselves, time and time again until there is nothing left.  This combination of a population of work-a-holics that cannot turn off the compassion when the day is over and a clientele that has an often fierce loyalty and ownership of their family veterinarian has created an environment in which we see one of the highest professional suicide rates.  The struggle is very much real and something that needs to be addressed openly and honestly.  It was very gratifying to see these lectures well attended by the veterinarians at the AAEP convention this year.  One thing that we can thank the generation known as the millennials for is the popularity of work life balance and the realization that it is okay, and quite desirable to not work 15 hour days 6 days a week.  And even better, those kinds of hours are not the sign of a successful practitioner but one that has poor time management skills.  It’s a big shift in the way we think as a profession. 

Semen Testing at the V-X ranch.  Photo Credit Amy Peterson

When Cowboy Dressage entered my life I was walking that fine line between successful practice and burn out.  The off-hand remarks about “while you were off on vacation . . .” as if me taking time off was the cause of the owner’s calamity can cut to the core.  Taking time off can become more stressful than just continuing to work and there were numerous weekends that I abandoned plans because it was just easier to keep working than it was to try and prepare everything to go out of town. But, I really wanted to be a part of Cowboy Dressage and my partner is forever encouraging me to chase my dreams and have a life outside of the practice.  So, this year I consciously decided to chase my Cowboy Dressage dreams in every bit of my spare time away from work.  I wasn’t sure how this was going to work.  Not only did I have a full teaching schedule, I was also working on writing a book and attempting to advance to the next level up in the Cowboy Dressage Professional’s Association.  With only 2 weekends off/month it wasn’t easy planning my clinics and shows in pursuit of this goal.  By the middle of January I had every weekend between February 1 and October 30 scheduled and booked.  It wasn’t easy, but with excellent support at home from my amazing husband and with my partner and assistant on my team I was able to keep all the plates spinning at once.  

I think it’s important to note here, especially since I am talking about work life balance, that adding more to your schedule isn’t always the way to address the balance between work and life.  Certainly, there is stress involved in always being on the go.  But, when you make the conscious choice to chase your dreams, rather than being forced through circumstances to fill your schedule the difference is quite extraordinary.  Plus, this path of craziness had a beginning and an end in sight.  I wasn’t signing on to go like a bat out of hell for the rest of my life, just for the majority of the year.  The rewards of filling my life with Cowboy Dressage made up for the sacrifices I was going to have to make in free time, trail riding and spending time with my family for this year. 

One of the points that Nigel Marsh made that I really agreed with is that work life balance cannot be measured on a daily basis.  On the days that I am a rock star veterinarian I am a lousy wife, horse owner and family member.  On the days that I am a loving devoted wife I am a lousy veterinarian.  On the days I am a perfect teacher and horseman I am a lousy wife and vet.  If we are to take the measure of our lives using only the imaginary scores we give ourselves at the end of the day we will likely be failures every single day.  So, when I was working, I was working.  When I was teaching I was teaching.  When I was riding, I was riding (mostly, more on that later) and when I was writing I was writing.  Though my schedule was packed to the breaking point, I was able to focus on what was most important to me on that day and give myself over to it completely.  This is in stark comparison to all the days I used to try to squeeze my life in between emergency calls. (I still have to do this, sometimes, but I used to do this EVERYDAY).  When you are trying to live your life and work and enjoy your friends it becomes very difficult to do any of those things well.  You become bitter when the phone rings and interrupts your riding.  You become anxious and resentful to friends and family because you cannot bear to let them down by leaving the reunion to go to another emergency.  You can’t concentrate at work because all you can think about is trying to get home before the sun sets so you can squeeze some time on the Cowboy Dressage court before you have to ride in front of a judge this weekend.  It is impossible to try to balance a busy life daily. 

So, while I made the conscious choice to chase my dreams this year I was nervous about what that would mean for my business.  I was relatively confident that my family and non-horse friends would forgive me my abscesses for one year (though to be honest I am still working on making that up to them!)  What I was most worried about is that because of a busy travel schedule I was taking more time off work during the year than I ever had in the past 3 or 4 years combined.  Also, the supplemental income that I make from teaching Cowboy Dressage which funds our attendance at Gatherings and clinics would take a hit because I just didn’t have as many weekends to teach.  But, here is what happened as a result of chasing my dreams full steam ahead for 10 months. 
Teaching a clinic at Lucky Duck Ranch.  Photo Credit Nora Knight

I was able to share my passion and knowledge about Cowboy Dressage with folks across the Northwest helping to build and grow Cowboy Dressage in areas that had never experienced it before.  I managed to achieve the required test scores to rise up not one but two levels in our Professionals Association despite spending about 1/3 of the time in training my own horse that I usually do in a year.  I finished my first book in collaboration with Eitan learning more along the way than I ever thought possible.  The deeper understanding that I built through long conversations about footfall, aids, horses and life are memories that I will forever cherish.   And, the biggest surprise for me, my business has never flourished more.  By the end of October we had surpassed our financial goals for the year. 

Doing "exams" on some young goats.  Photo Credit Carolyn Frank
I was expecting to see a decline in my income this year because of working less days out of the year.  What happened instead is that I worked harder and longer on the days I worked so that I could then take a few more days for a clinic or spend a few extra days in Grass Valley with Eitan.  Because I was so fulfilled and happy with my days focusing on Cowboy Dressage, I was a better veterinarian as well.  Instead of being bitter about working yet another weekend, I could buckle down and work hard knowing I would have the next weekend to spend at a clinic sharing Cowboy Dressage or at a Gathering attempting to garner the test scores I needed to advance.  My time spent with Cowboy Dressage has absolutely made me a better veterinarian.  I am kinder, can relate better with my clients and patients and am happier in my work than I have been in the past 15 years.  For my veterinary colleagues, especially the solo practitioners, yes, I did lose a few clients.  You know those clients that begrudge you the time off and refuse to see your partner (our practice is never without emergency coverage and one of us is always on call).  I also lost a few that assumed that because I was pursuing another “job” I was going to quit being a vet so they quit me before I could quit them.  I even had a few of them spread rumors that I wasn’t working anymore.  This is the stigma that our profession must rise above.  There will always be clients that are fickle and demand that their needs come before yours.  Because we care it is so difficult not to feel guilt and let those clients get to you.  When I was building my practice those clients were the ones that most contributed to my feelings of burn out.  I don’t miss them. 

For my fellow horsemen, let me tell you about my time with my horses this past summer.  I did more traveling without my horse for teaching than I generally do.  Because of the time spent on the book I didn’t get the time in the saddle I typically do.  When I was home I was always on call, so my saddle time was often short or interrupted unless I was attending a clinic.  This meant that when I did work my horses, short sessions were all I could manage.  Short concentrated training periods became the norm for me this past summer and long leisurely trail rides or playdays in the arena didn’t happen at all.  I was initially worried that this would mean less progress for my horses, but they made more progress this summer than ever before.  Granted, I didn’t get my 3 year old going but that had more to do with breaking my hand in July (oh yeah, I worked and rode and taught in a cast for 8 weeks this summer as well).  I used to not even bother to attempt to ride my horse if I didn’t have the entire afternoon available.  Now I realize that even 30 minutes is enough time to refresh some concepts, refine some cues and build fitness in your horse.  Thanks to Eitan for instilling in me, that very important life lesson.  It’s not the time in the saddle, it’s the quality of that time.

Riding in the Spokane Gathering.  Photo Credit Margret Fabion

A strange thing happens when you stop making excuses and start making things happen.  Life will never stand still and tell you with open arms, “now is the time to chase your dreams”.  It will never be easy to change your life, take chances or go out on a limb.  I used to tell myself that it wasn’t possible for me to do this or that due to my career, or being on call, or the expense of taking time off (the plight of the self-employed; there are no paid vacations).  Taking time off just wasn’t an option and I would have to wait until things slowed down a little bit.  Well, if you are doing it right, life isn’t going to ever slow down.  You must decide what is important to you and then just do it.  Nike has that one right. 

Chasing my dreams in this way hasn’t been without sacrifices, of course.  My parents had a big move this year and because of my schedule I wasn’t able to be there to help the rest of the family with the daunting task of readying them for the move.  That was tough.  My stepson and daughter also had a brand new baby this year that I have yet to meet.  Friends and family were supportive and understanding of this crazy year but I am looking forward to some down time to catch up with them all this winter between my busy practice season and busy riding season.  2018 promises to be just as busy as 2017.  Life isn’t going to slow down for us for a while.  I am okay with that.  Hopefully all the people I love are okay with that too. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

My horse doesn't. . .

As a large animal veterinarian I spend the majority of my spring traveling around and performing annual exams and vaccinations in preparation for the busy summer riding months. I both love and dread this crazy time of year. For many of my healthy patients this is the only time I will see them in the year. It's good to catch up with the owners and scratch some old friends that I may have known since birth.

It's also the time of year that many of my patients are handled for the first time all year. They may have been turned out to pasture or kicked out and on round bales all winter. They can look a little rough and often act a little rougher. And we may as well be honest;  veterinary procedures are not always pleasant for the horse.  We make the visits as painless and positive as possible because the last thing any veterinarian wants is a patient that doesn't like them.

You can tell a lot about a horse by how he or she handles certain unpleasant tasks but you can tell even more about the owner of that horse and their expectations for the horse's behavior.  For instance, when I go to look in the horse's mouth and the owner smirks and says, "Good luck with that, you can't touch that horse's mouth."  Now, some horses have a reason for defensiveness about the mouth and are a constant challenge to handle that way.  I can usually tell which ones are actually fearfully defensive and which ones have just never been taught to accept handling.  And, no, I'm sorry, it probably does not mean they were twitched by some "cowboy" at some point.

Some owners are very apologetic and embarrassed about the poor ground manners of their horses but others, seem to be even proud of the fact that their horse is tough to handle.  Or they laugh it off saying, "I wouldn't want somebody looking in my mouth either!"  The problem is that these horses that are tough for me to handle during routine veterinary examination likely have holes that you have trouble dealing with in your partnership as well.  That's not always the case, for sure.  I'm not unrealistic.  I have a few patients that I have to have the owner do some of the vetting like vaccinations or blood draws because their horses just aren't handled by other people often and trust is not always transferable.

But, here is my challenge to my fellow horse owners.  Don't let these little picadillos just become part of your expectations for how your horse will behave.  If you have a list of things your horse doesn't do or doesn't like, I would make it my priority to address those because until you do, it is bound to rear it's ugly head at the least convenient time.

Teaching your horse to accept a de-wormer or oral treatment or have their feet handled or stand still for a vaccination is part of teaching your horse to be a good citizen and is every bit as important as teaching them to whoa or jog or change leads.  Too often this is left  to the veterinarian that if you are lucky only sees your horse once every year.

It's all about your expectations.  If you expect and accept that your horse is difficult to worm and just use the feed through to get around that issue you can also expect that won't ever change.  Or you can expect your horse to stand like a gentleman and allow oral treatment without a fuss.

So, if you have one of those horses that has trouble with annual veterinary examination or fights you to de-worm him or doesn't like his mouth touched or you have trouble bridling, here are some tips for how you can help your horse become a better citizen.

First of all, if your horse is difficult for oral medication you cannot only work on it twice a year when you de-worm them.  Two fights a year, even if you win, will not fix a horse that is tough to treat orally.

Be sure that your horse is comfortable with all of his mouth being handled.  As an owner you should be able to (respectfully) run your hands over your horse's entire muzzle including the nares, gums, lips and chin.  Make sure that when handling your horse's muzzle you use a flat cupped hand with good contact so that you aren't tickling or annoying him.   Once you can handle the entire muzzle and lips with the horse standing and accepting it (without you holding him there) you can start to work on his gums.  You should be able to rub the gums above and below the incisors with your finger tips.  Many horses will learn to really enjoy this as it is one of Linda Tellington-Jone's tips for relaxation of the horse.  From there you can move to inserting your fingers along the bars and inside the lips.  The key is to have your horse accept all of this without you having to hold him there tightly by the halter.  Maybe it becomes part of your routine before you mount up.  Devote 5 minutes of your time to making sure your horse is okay with all of that.

Next you want to add a tube that you can introduce into their mouths.  If your horse is fearful or really bad about having anything near his mouth I would start with an old empty tube that does not have any trace of medication left in it.  Start just like you did with your hand and get him used to having that tube rubbed all over his muzzle then start asking the horse to accept the tube in his mouth.
I do not advocate using your finger to introduce the tube.  The goal is to have the horse soften his mouth and accept the tube without your finger being in his mouth. The step of handling his mouth and lips and gums was part of teaching him to accept handling and not be fearful.   Wait for him to be ready to accept the tube before you force the issue by using a finger in his mouth.  I bit my horses the same way.  I don't force the horse to open his mouth for the bit.  Wait for them to soften and pick it up themselves and they will forever be better to bridle.  

Once the horse is able to accept the empty tube you can fill it with something scrumptious like molasses, honey, applesauce etc and start delivering some little treat if he keeps the tube in his mouth long enough.  You want to be able to administer the medication slowly so that they don't spit it out and so they don't get into the habit of having a wad of something crammed into their mouth and then they are released.   If you give the de-wormer in a big wad and then hold the horse's mouth closed until they swallow it that's not much of a reward to the horse for them calmly accepting the medication.  Instead, give it slowly, allow the horse to work it around his mouth and then you can remove the tube without the fear that they are going to pitch the whole thing.

It doesn't take long to address these issues if you don't make a big deal out of it and work on it every day.  I spent a year teaching my horse that he didn't need to have a coronary when I got the clippers out.  I'm ashamed to admit that for years I just drugged him until I finally realized that if I didn't fix this I couldn't really call myself a horseman.  So, I made it part of our daily saddling routine.  We started small and in the beginning they weren't on.  They just rubbed over his body.  Then eventually I started turning them on for a bit.  Then I started running them up near his bridle path.  Etc, Ect. Until I could clip him without a halter on.  It took a year's time but only a minute or two out of routine every day.  With intense time concentrating on the issue I probably could have fixed it in a matter of days, but who has time for that?  I want to get in the saddle too!!  Obviously you can approach these things either way.  As long as you are making progress each and every time you are doing it right.

I do want to make a caveat for issues in the horse that are fear based and not just failure to accept.  It can be hard to distinguish these things sometimes but as horse owners we need to be detectives in our horse's behavior and attempt to determine if the behavior we are witnessing is driven by fear.  Fear based behaviors obviously can be addressed but they take more time and patience.  You cannot reprimand a horse that is afraid.  It adds to the fear and for many will make them combative.  Learn to read the difference between fear and misbehavior and if you have any doubt at all which you are dealing with seek help from an equine professional before proceeding.  Fear in the horse is often expressed through vastly increased heart rate, short shallow respiration, trembling, tight lips and tight eyelids and fleeing.  Horse's can be afraid of what they don't understand so fear doesn't mean there was any abuse or tragic event in their past.  Fear from lack of understanding generally goes away quickly.  For some horses, fear behaviors can be so deep seated they can take years of patience and redirection of energy before they can accept the object they are afraid of.

Almost everything on your "My Horse Doesn't like . . . " list can be addressed and improved.   It should be every horseman's priority to make their horse the very best citizen they can be.  All of these little pieces are part of that citizenship.  Raise your expectations for your horse's behavior and I think you will be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Year End Musings

As I sit here by the warm fire while the temperature continues to drop outside, I am working both on wrapping up projects from 2016 while looking into the future of 2017 and all the promise that it holds.  I love this time of year (other than the weather that often keeps me in the house and out of the saddle) for the opportunity of reflection. 

The closing of the year, while arbitrary in the grand scheme, is a perfect time to look back on the accomplishments and struggles of the year that has passed and attempt to align goals and resolutions for the shiny fresh new year that is to come.  I love to get my new calendar for the upcoming year and mark those fresh clean pages with must attend events for the year to come.  It is amazing to me how quickly those once clean pages become full until suddenly I'm down to one or two open weekends for the year to come.

I enjoy being on the go and reaching for new heights and perfecting new skills.  I love the challenge of time management and generally find myself more efficient the less time I have available.  I've always worked better under pressure and that hasn't changed as I've grown older and wiser. I pack as much into the day as I can until the all the plates I have spinning start to wobble a little and I'm forced to not place another spinning plate on a stick.

That's why this time of year is so good for me.  I can stop and breathe and look at all my spinning plates and see which ones need to keep spinning and which are wobbling beyond repair.  I like to make goals that are realistic and attainable as well as some that may not be reached in the coming year but spur me to keep stretching and reaching. 

That "go go go" mentality is the one thing above all else that gets me into trouble in the saddle.  Unfortunately, my love of filling in the pages on that bright shiny schedule is completely lost on my horses.  They don't feel the need to schedule each and every day.  They don't care about the busy season of Gatherings that we have coming up.  They really don't care if I've packed my schedule to the point that I only have an hour to work with them that day. 

To the horse the new year really is just another day.  Horses live in the moment.  There is no yesterday and there is no tomorrow to the horse.  There is the right now and right here that is their reality each and every day.  Chico certainly didn't contribute to the list of goals that I made for him and I for 2016 and I expect he will be just as reticent to contributing this year.  The farthest ahead he thinks is whether he is getting that horse treat he can smell in my pocket any time soon.

So, as I schedule and make my plans for the busy New Year for both me and my horses I am going to make a note to take the time it takes when I'm working with my horses.  There is no clock in our arena.  Time stops when we ride through that gate.  We may ride for 10 minutes, we may ride for 90 minutes, but the length of time is not dictated by anything other than the journey that my horse and I are on.  I may never change the way I march headlong into life filling my day until it overflows but I resolve as my New Year's resolution for 2017 to ride to the beat of my horse's heart.  That's the only time piece we need. 

Wishing all of you a wonderful 2017.  May the grass be knee high, the creek crossings free of boulders and the sun always at our back.  Happy Trails!

Jenni and Chico enjoying some sun and taking some time to let it all soak in. Photo credit: Haley Moats

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Punishment Principle

Sometimes owning horses feels like a permanent self help course.  Each time I accept a new lesson and grow in my horsemanship I feel I am one step closer to that zen place of inner peace.  The true horseman is master of his emotions.  He is patient, understanding, and in the moment.  He is aware of all those little things happening around him without wasting time and energy worrying about the next appointment or phone call that is waiting after he gets back to the barn. Most of all he spends time in self reflection thinking about (my family may call this phase obsessing)  how to address a particular problem or theory.

This week I have been doing a lot of thinking about punishment as it applies to training our horses.  There is a prevailing belief, in the world of horsemanship that teaches us that when the horse does something wrong (ie in opposition to anything that may or may not have been requested of him) he is being bad, disrespectful or downright dangerous.  If we don't immediately put a stop to it, the horse will eventually move forward with his evil mustache twirling plan to take over the stall, the barn and eventually our lives! It is up to us to maintain the upper hand at all times or they just might figure out they are stronger than us! Indeed, time spent in the barn around horses produces a certain "toughness" of character.  We joke that because we can "handle" a 1200# animal that a problem person is nothing!  Watch out, world, horse girl here!  I admit to reveling in that feeling of control and power myself as a young girl and I highly doubt I'm the only one.  I think that is actually part of the appeal for most women that spend time around horses, isn't it?

It is important to understand a little bit about behavior modification and the terminology if you plan to do any training at all, whether children, dogs or horses.  They all respond in a similar fashion. The two most common types of training are positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.  The positive and negative describe the addition or subtraction of stimuli and are not associated with negative or positive connotations.

Positive reinforcement is the addition of something desirable in response to a desired behavior.  The positive is almost always a food reward but can also be the promise of a food reward delivered at an unspecified time.  This is the basis for clicker training and the way most of the performing marine mammals are trained.  It is widely considered to be the most effective training modality, creating a long lasting and fairly predictable response.  It has an interesting history in horse training with those firmly in the camps both for and against this form of training.  As a veterinarian I see positive reinforcement more commonly (and incorrectly) used as a distraction technique.  This is not how positive reinforcement is meant to be applied.  You acting as a human Pez dispenser to keep the horse standing quietly is not positive reinforcement, this is bribery.  Giving a treat to reward a horse that has stood quietly through a procedure is positive reinforcement.  There are a few big name natural horsemanship trainers that are adamantly apposed to positive reinforcement (treating) in training as it "spoils" the horse.  When used ineffectively (like the human Pez dispenser) that can certainly be the case.

Negative reinforcement is the removal of something undesirable in response to a behavior.  This is the classic training paradigm that is used in almost all of our work with our horses.  Our aids are effectively the "undesirable" that is removed in response to the desired behavior.  Many people blister a little at the "negative" in negative reinforcement.  If it helps, think of it as "subtractive" reinforcement.  When used with effective timing and feel there is nothing abusive about negative reinforcement.  This is not a pain or fear based training paradigm. It is the addition of pain or fear that moves negative reinforcement closer to punishment.   As with all behavior modification, a positive experience makes the behavior more likely to be accepted and repeated.  When fear and pain are introduced into the equation, those become the stronger association making the behavior association unpredictable.

The natural horsemanship movement has been a wonderful thing for many people, women especially, either returning to horses or finally following their dreams of owning and riding their own horse.  Within the natural horsemanship movement there is a teaching paradigm that really emphasizes the theory that any time a horse doesn't immediately respond to your request he is being disrespectful and dull and we need to follow that up in anyway we can to get the results we desire from our horse.  The phrase do as little as possible and as much as necessary can escalate quickly from application of negative reinforcement training to punishment.

Punishment can be in one of two forms.  You can have negative punishment which is the removal of something, generally a treat or food reward, in response to an undesirable behavior.  A good example would be removing a treat from the horse's reach if he takes it too abruptly.  Positive punishment is the addition of something due to an undesirable behavior and is much more common in training our horses.  An example of positive punishment is jerking on the bit if the horse pushes on your hands, or spurring or kicking repetitively if the horse ignores your leg.  Probably the most common punishment we see, especially in natural horsemanship circles, is aggressively backing the horse that crowds or creeps forward out of your space.

The problem with punishment as a behavior modifier is that it is almost impossible to apply accurately to change or affect the undesirable behavior. For punishment, either positive or negative to be effective both contingency and contiguity must be well paired with the behavior.  Contingency means that every time the behavior is exhibited the punishment is administered.  Contiguity means that the punishment is delivered right away rather than delayed .   For punishment to be effective, the punishment must be delivered within 1-2 seconds of the behavior, and the horse has to understand the relationship between the action and the handler's reaction.  If the punishment is delayed several other behaviors may occur before punishment making it confusing to the horse which behavior is being discouraged by the punishment.

The horse, in almost all instances, simply does what he thinks he has to get by.  It is our anthropomorphism that projects motive onto the horses.  We want to believe our horses love us.  We want to believe that we "know" what is going on in their heads.  This is exactly what gets us into trouble when we are in a training mode. This is why great horsemen seem to have the patience of Job when dealing with a horse that the rest of may look at and say, "Man, that horse is a jerk!!"  The horseman knows the horse is only doing what he thinks he has to and is in search mode, trying to find the right answer to this new herd dynamic he is faced with.

All horse training from our very first haltering experience to developing a flying lead change is the result of rewarding the horse for the desired behavior.  In most instances we cannot force a horse into a behavior.  The better the horse is at searching for behaviors (we call that try) and the better the trainer is at rewarding those behaviors (timing and feel) the faster and further the training will go.

When we change our training paradigm from negative or positive reinforcement to negative or positive punishment we change the rules on the horse.  Punishment can actually produce unwanted behavior as the horse responds to the action of the punishment without understanding the behavior that induced the punishment in the first place.

A good example of punishment resulting in an undesirable behavior would the head shy horse.  Obviously, biting is a dangerous and undesirable trait that we see in young horses.  It is a natural extension of their teething and learning phase of development.  It's as natural to the horse as it is to the toddler gnawing on whatever is within reach.  It is very difficult to effectively punish the horse for biting without creating undesirable behavior.  Hitting or flicking the young horse that is biting will either induce a fun game of grab ass or if you hit hard enough or often enough a horse that is difficult to handle around the head, eyes, ears or mouth resulting in somebody down the road complaining about how the horse must have been abused.  (Enter an endless stream of horses presented to the vet because the owners cannot deworm, clip, or handle the horse's ears).

Instead, good behavior modification in that situation would be to encourage a different behavior or negative reinforcement in the form of the horse running into pressure when he attempts to bite.  A well placed elbow or maybe redirecting the energy into moving the feet will be more effective than combat.

Most people will agree that the very best and effective horsemanship comes from a place devoid of human emotions.  Anger, fear or frustration has no place in horse training.  Punishment comes from those places within us.  In an attempt to sterilize these actions of emotion we see some trainers who laugh as they punish the horse or make a joke of it. "Oh, I'm sorry, did you run into my stick?"  Laughing or playfully saying oops after punishment is for the owner, not the horse.  It makes us feel better about inflicting punishment for an action that we couldn't prevent, redirect or avoid.

I can hear what you are saying to yourself under your breath.  I can hear it because I would have been saying exactly the same thing 5 years ago.  "So, what are we supposed to do then? Just let the horse walk all over the top of us?  All lovey dovey and touchy feel? No way!"

I am by no means advocating that we hand over leadership to our horses.  They still need to understand that we are the leaders and they are the followers in our little herd of 2.  They need to understand this and accept it not because we will kick their lily white hiney if they don't but because we will keep them safe and secure if they do.  This is a fundamental shift in thinking that took me a few years to completely understand, especially after the few years I spent drinking the kool-aid of one of the most abusive natural horsemanship trainers out there.

So, how do we use the theories of positive and negative reinforcement and avoid resorting to punishment to produce the most effective and long lasting behavior modifications in our horses?  In all cases of behavior modification it is the motivation behind the behavior that the horse is most likely to remember paired with the timing of the release or reward.

For instance.  Imagine you are sitting in your chair and there is a sudden sharp pain in your butt.  When you shift your weight the pain immediately goes away and so you can choose to either continue to sit in the chair in the adjusted position or go find another chair.  If it's the first time, you may continue to sit there but if it happens over and over again you are probably going to want to avoid that chair in the future even though the pain can be immediately avoided.  You may even go so far as to avoid all chairs of that design in the future.  That is pain associated negative reinforcement.  It resulted in you avoiding the chair, which was the desired behavior modification, but left you with suspicion of chairs of that sort.  So, it was effective in modifying the behavior but resulted in additional unwanted fear and pain associated behaviors.

If you are sitting in the chair and somebody comes up and whallops you over the head until you move to a different chair your response may be immediate but it may also make you fearful of all chairs in the future.  You may even decide that you should maybe just remain standing.  This is positive punishment.   This is precisely the type of training that often produces horses that won't load.  The horse walks up to the trailer, takes a sniff and maybe stops to consider the change in lighting or angle of the floor since the last time he saw this trailer and WHACK!  Suddenly he is punished for checking it out.  With enough application of punishment he may decide that the trailer might be a refuge and jump in, but the next time he approaches the trailer he is more likely to remember the punishment for the approach then the cessation of the punishment for entering the trailer.  This again results in a desired behavior modification in the immediate sense but instills additional unwanted behaviors as well.

If you are sitting in the chair but there is a cookie (or glass of wine for the more sophisticated among you) next to the chair across the room you will probably eventually move over there to enjoy the treat.  However, this is a choice that you are making.  If you don't have enough desire to make the choice, say the cookie isn't your favorite or the wine is red instead of white, you may not choose to immediately make that choice.  The trainer has no choice but to continue to wait for you to make the choice.  Maybe not feeding you breakfast the next day will increase your "try" and willingness to search for a different chair.  This is positive reinforcement.  It's one of the reasons that it is difficult to incorporate into our training under saddle.  Until we can figure out a bit that dispenses a treat after the required maneuver we are probably going to be stuck with negative reinforcement as our main training regime.

The most common and most effective to date for most of our equine training is negative reinforcement without punishment.  In order to prevent negative reinforcement from becoming positive punishment we have to learn to wait.

Consider the chair example again.  What if instead of a sharp pain you just felt a nudge or pressure or maybe a change in balance like the chair wobbled a little when you sat down.  You may not immediately change your seat but eventually it would become uncomfortable and you would select a different chair.  If you were particularly sensitive to wobbliness you may change right away.  If you are easy going by nature it may take you a second.  You continuing to sit in the chair is not disrespectful to the chair.  You are not trying to be a rebel.  You just don't have a good enough reason to move.  Once you move and decide it's better in the other chair you will probably avoid the wobbly chair in the future.  You will have no chair animosity or fear.  You will freely try other chairs and maybe even become a bit of a chair connoisseur developing a taste for really nice comfy chairs.

This is how we build try and softness in our horses without developing fear or pain.  We retain their trust and their desire to follow our lead because we build a place where it feels good to sit in our chairs.   We wait for the try and we reward it when it happens.

From the very beginning when working with our horses some will have more try than others.  We must hold onto whatever try they are born with and attempt to cultivate their try by always rewarding the smallest amount of it.  If we keep the horse searching with try they will be more likely to stumble upon and remember the right answers to our directives without the need to resort to pain associated negative reinforcement or positive punishment.  We are such an impatient species.  We have agendas and goals and check lists.  The horse does not.  The horse desires the bare necessities and puts up with us for reasons that only God could expound on.  We owe it to the horse to be the very best human we can be.  Sometimes that means letting go of all the things that make us human in the first place.  Emotion.  Impatience. Agenda.  Drive. Anger. Frustration.  Let go of it and just wait and be with the horse.

There will be times in any training program when things go south.  That's the nature of attempting to align the minds and souls of two very different creatures.  Punishment will happen out of either necessity or frustration or desperation.  That's okay.  Recognize it for what it is and try to see how it perhaps could have been avoided.  As luck would have it, we are dealing with one of the most forgiving of all the beasts on the planet.  Just don't excuse it as good training.  Punishment is a last resort and is the least effective of all the training modalities.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Cruising down the hill

Typically I spend a great part of my summer out riding the mountains in north Idaho and Montana.  This year we have had very little time for such activities as our days have been spent teaching folks how to ride on the Cowboy Dressage court.  Today Dan and I took the morning to go and ride one of our favorite local trails and attempt to put some good trail miles on our young horses.

I was riding my 5 year old gelding who has had a bit of trail time now and Dan was riding his 5 year old mare that has had trail time but not mountain riding.  She is fairly steady out there and willing to go just about anywhere as long as she can follow another horse.  Luckily, my gelding prefers to be in the lead so it works out well.  Dan's mare did great up the hill and kept up with little trouble.  Going down the hill was another matter all together.

Dan really struggled to get Cali to willingly go down the hill in a collected and balanced frame.  She would instead hollow and throw her weight to the front end and barrel down the hill like somebody popped the clutch.  When Dan would try to slow her down he would end up bracing his feet, the back would get more hollow and she would trip on the rocky ground we were traversing.

Not a fun way to spend an afternoon and Dan was getting pretty frustrated as well as pretty beat up.  We got to talking about it on the way down and discussing options to help her figure it out.  Dan's previous mounts just naturally balanced themselves going down hill and he never had to help a horse figure it out before.   I've not been so lucky.  All of the young horses I have put trail miles on were the same going downhill.  Maybe it's my bad luck in the mounts I've chosen, but I have found that it takes some time and patience and not to mention some nerves of steel to develop a good balanced down hill gait in most horses.

You would think that this would be a none issue for a horse, wouldn't you?  Shouldn't the horse naturally know how to walk down hill?  Perhaps a horse raised out on open range that has been navigating hills since it was a foal will not have these issues.  I don't know because I haven't started one like that.  But my horses are raised much like a lot of folks horses on fairly level ground and then trained in a round pen and an arena.  We get ours out on the trail pretty early but those are short little drops without long steep down hill inclines.  Just because you have been walking your whole life doesn't mean you know how to properly balance going down a steep incline with a big pack on your back.  It takes some time to figure out. So, those of you who may struggle with this in your own horses, here is how I help my horses learn to go down hill.

First your horse has be far enough along in his training to understand to break at the poll and soften through the head and neck.  I honestly don't have a clue how you would slow one down who couldn't do that because everything else I'm going to talk about starts there.  If you can't get vertical softness and support the horse that way, you are probably going to have trouble stopping the forward momentum down a big hill.  Teach the horse to round and soften to rein pressure first just at the halt and then again as you work through the walk and jog.  You have to have a good brake with vertical softness because you cannot rely on the one rein stop on those trails.  Quite often the most dangerous trails are the narrow sheer steep rock trails.  If you can't regulate your horse's speed without bending them around in a circle you better just let them coast to the bottom because getting to their feet may end up in you tumbling off the cliff side.

Before you embark on the down hill part of the trail, take a moment to put the horse together beneath you.  Shorten your rein and elevate the head and neck just slightly with softness at the poll.  This helps to shift the weight from the front end to the hind end.  If you wait until your horse is already careening down the hill it may be to late to stop that foreword momentum.

I don't lean very far back in my saddle going down hill.  I can remember in 4-H we were taught to stay parallel to the trail.  So you would lean forward or backwards at the same angle as the ground beneath you.  What ends up happening if you do that is that generally going up hill your standing in your stirrups with your feet far behind you and going down hill you are leaning far back over the cantle with your feet jammed in front of you.  Anyone who experiences pain in their knees or ankles when doing long days in the saddle in the mountains, this is why.  You are bracing on your feet instead of keeping an active seat.  As with any form of good riding, your seat is very important as an aid.  You aren't just a passenger up there on the horse's back but responsible for helping the horse to adjust his weight with every stride.  If you are taking all the weight in the stirrups you become a big lever on his back instead of a part of his stride.  I do lean a little both forward and back as the hill dictates but try to always keep my seat engaged and my legs balanced beneath me.

This balance becomes very important when helping the horse to learn to shift his weight to his hind legs.  In a horse that tends to barrel down the hill he is probably leaving his hind end out behind him instead of driving it forward.  If you soften the poll and elevate the head and neck you can ride the hind end forward and up under the horse and encourage him to shorten his frame.  (For you Cowboy Dressage folks, this is why mountain riding is so good for the building short frame in your show horses!).  To do this you would raise your hands just slightly on the shortened reins, deepen your seat a little and move your legs back on the rib cage to talk to the hind legs and ask them to come forward one step at time.  Then you are taking the impact of the down hill movement on your seat and thighs and not on your knees and ankles.

The other important safety tip when helping a horse to learn to go down hill in a collected frame is to not get into a fight with them.  My Morgans often feel they are the ones who know best about the speed necessary for down hill flights and it can be a challenge to convince them I may have a better idea.  If the footing is at all rocky or dangerous, like I mentioned above you don't want to take their attention away from the footing by bumping or pulling their heads around to stop them.  Instead draw the horse to a stop with firm pressure on both reins until his feet stop and he softens at the poll and you can collect his frame again before asking him to move forward.  This is one of the only times I advocated direct pressure on both reins.   Be sure that you are riding with a bit that pressure on both reins isn't going to cause the horse to react by flipping or popping up.  Keep your hands low and hold that pressure backwards until the horse stops.  When the horse has stopped completely give him a chance to settle, pet his neck and breathe then soften the poll, ride the hind end forward and ask again to move down the trail in a shortened frame.

Another common problem for young horses learning to navigate down hills is for the horse to get crooked.  This is generally due to the rider attempting to shorten the stride and slow the horse.  Rather than the horse stepping up underneath themselves they attempt to evade that frame and step the hindquarters sideways.  On steep mountain trails this can lead to tripping and falling off the mountain.  Use your legs to keep the horse straight underneath you.  Again, if it's not working and the hind end is attempting to pass the front end, draw the horse to a stop and start all over.

Now, we don't always want to have to help our horses down the hill.  It's a lot of work and if you are doing 25 miles you do actually like to stop for a minute and just ride and enjoy the scenery!  Creating the horse that can navigate a trail with some self carriage, no matter the terrain is what every long distance rider has in mind for his perfect trail mount.  So, riding the brakes down the hill is not conducive to building self carriage in the horse.  As with everything we do, when the horse is going down hill and softens and gets into the proper frame beneath you it is important to release the reins and reward the horse and see if he can carry it forward for a few steps by himself.  You may need to pick him up and balance him after only a few steps but the release is important if you want to avoid having to carry the horse down every hill for the rest of his life.

I sure hopes this helps some of you that may be dealing with a run-a-way horse down the mountain.  Great trail horses are not born, they are made.  A good trail horse should really be the best broke horse in the barn.  All that fancy arena stuff is even more important when you get out into the great wide open.  Do your homework to make your horse safe and sane and perfect partner out on the trail or you may wind up walking home the hard way some day!  Happy trails!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

It's Now or Never

I am a very lucky lady.  Believe me I know that.  I’m living the dream working in the area I grew up in and doing a job I picked out as a star struck 10 yr old.  I have a successful business, a wonderful marriage and  I make a comfortable living.  It would be easy to say, “I’ve made it!” and settle comfortably into getting on with the business of day to day living.

But that’s not who I am.  I am a driven person who has always enjoyed pushing myself to the limits of what I think I can achieve.  Learning is a life skill and I am a passionate learner. The only other thing I’ve ever wanted to do with my life besides be a veterinarian is be a horseman. So, now that I’ve reached my first goal it’s time to attack my second.  I’ve set my goals on the trail of learning as much as I can about the art of horsemanship. 

 I have a very scientific mind that suits me well as a veterinarian but I also have a bit of an artistic streak.  I enjoy many performance arts such as dancing, singing, and (dare I say) yodeling.  Horsemanship is a form of performance art, in my opinion.  I don’t consider it a sport because the main ingredient, just like for a dancer, is an equal dose of timing and feel.  You have to feel the moment, the movement, the rhythm and the energy in order to reach new levels of awareness and timing to communicate with these graceful and talented animals.   Like any artistic performance, the secret ingredient is passion beyond the ordinary.

 As a full time veterinarian with a busy practice many are surprised that I have the time to pursue my passion like I do.  I blame that on the history of my noble profession.  Veterinarians are a passionate, dedicated lot.  That dedication is one of the things (besides an obvious love of animals) that made me choose this career.  But, more and more, instead of letting our profession define us until burnout takes us, we are learning as a group that being a veterinarian is what we do not who we are.  I’ve heard that the veterinary schools now spend a bit of time on that very subject preaching balance in all things.  I had one professor in my 4 years of veterinary school that preached balance to my class.  He was our favorite teacher and taught during our toughest academic year.  For most of us we were so buried in academics and chasing those high test scores that I doubt we really heard him.  But later, as I started to feel the crushing weight of burnout I heard his voice in my head a lot.   We are a hard working group, for sure.  There are no illusions about this being a 9-5 job.  But burn out and suicide are profession wide problems because of our inability to create balance in our lives.  Veterinarians are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than the average person and twice as likely as their human doctor counterparts.  I get it.  I’m not saying I was ever suicidal, but I definitely was approaching critical burnout after only 10 years.  But how do you take control back?  How do you become the captain of your life and your dreams?

I think many people can relate to what I’m talking about.  I hear over and over again as I travel and teach on my weekends off that they wish they could go to a show, or a clinic, or travel to see an event.  If only time would allow.  I hear a lot of somedays, and maybe whens and once I’ves.   I used to say those things as well.  As a solo practitioner for 10 years, days off; not to mention weekends off, were a dream that was far out of my reach.  The profession that I had chosen and loved just about did me in in a short span of 10 years of hard work.  I didn’t even take the day off to get married.  I did a castration on the way to the wedding and a plasma transfusion hours after the ceremony.  My clients were incredulous and very grateful but not one of them said, "Good grief, no, don’t come today!" 
Thank goodness, for my sanity and the well-being of those around me that all changed when I was able to find a partner willing to share the load.  I thank my lucky stars every single day for that lovely lady who takes calls two weekends a month so I don’t have to.  Finally, I have to opportunity to pursue a life beyond just my career.  Maybe it was going to so long without it that made me realize how very important and precious my time is.  

 Life is a fleeting thing.  There are only 24 precious hours in every day and only 7 of those days in every week.  It’s up to us to choose how we live those hours.   In my early years in practice I used to tell clients that called that I was so busy that I couldn’t possibly do it until after 10 pm that evening.  In my naivety, I expected them to hear the exhaustion in my voice and say, “Oh, gosh no.  It’s not critical, just come another day.”  But, do you know what they usually said instead?  “We’ll be up.  No problem, just come when you can. We have plans tomorrow so we can't do it then.”  Everybody else's time was always way more important to me than my own.
Nobody is going to hand you your time.  You have to fight for every precious moment there is and spend it as wisely as you can.  Don’t waste your life and those precious moments doing the things that don’t matter in the long run.  Chase your dreams as hard as you are able.  Go on that trip.  See that show.  Take those classes you’ve always wanted to take.  Life doesn’t slow down, ever.  Don’t wait for it to slow down. 

 So, for me, my dream is to become an accomplished horseman.  I understand that because of my other life choices I am woefully behind on the journey to this life skill.  Most true horsemen are pretty well along in their progression by the time they are my age.  I could give you a long list of reasons why my dream is unrealistic, unattainable, and out of reach.   But that would be counter-productive.  Instead, I decided 2 years ago that I was going to chase this dream as hard as I could for one year.  If it proved too hard, or too expensive then I would quit.  Instead of quitting, I found ways to make it work and for me it meant taking a second job teaching so I could dedicate time and funds strictly to chasing my dreams.  So, I’m working just as hard or harder than I was 10 years ago when I was building my practice.  The difference is I have balance.  I work hard at being a veterinarian and I work hard at being a horseman and I divide my time fairly evenly between the two.   It has required sacrifices, for sure, but the rewards have been tremendous.   

 So to those of you making bucket lists, or talking about the somedays or maybe laters, I urge you not to lose track of that time.  Take those small impossible steps to make your life your own.  Nobody gets to take it with them when they go.  "Keep your face always towards the sunshine and the shadows will fall behind you. " Walt Whitman