Professional Rookie vs. Rookie Mindset: The Recipe for Living Out Loud
“So why didn’t you just get another horse?”
The BF and I were lying in post-coital exhaustion in his basement bedroom.
I had been relating the story of the previous afternoon’s riding lesson with my very talented trainer Terrie, who had worked me so hard I ached all over.
Her half-Arab pinto gelding Bo is a banshee. New to this arena, he has a very bad habit of feigning terror at trees, familiar blue barrels, imaginary gollums hiding behind logs. Ask anyone with an Arab. Or, for that matter a mare. Or for that matter, any horse that has decided screw this. I wanna graze.
That means a great deal of effort not only to stay seated, but also to force this headstrong animal to stay inside an invisible line close (but not too close) to the fence. It’s a broad range of neck signals, heel signals, the whole lot.
I’ve been riding since I was four. I am still a rank rookie- not because I’m not a damned good rider. But because having a rookie mindset allows me to be constantly learning something new.
It’s highly entertaining to be cantering along the inside of an oval, and suddenly your horse is moving at speed towards the inside of the ring while his head is pointed in the opposite direction. Don’t ask me about the physics. They’re horses. My job is to fix the physics.
Terri had me do figure eights at the canter (Bo likes to bolt), slow to a trot in the center next to a jump, then pick up the opposite lead going in the other direction. A four-footed animal like a horse that is cantering around an oval or circle leads with a particular foot. Getting off on the wrong lead not only throws your mount off balance, it can be a bumpy ride. I don’t have a lot of padding back there (a fact the BF has on occasion commented upon, as in, you have a couple of bowling balls for ass cheeks, which I took as a compliment) as a woman in her mid-sixties. No cushions.
Bo not only had never done this before (me either ) but he freaked when we didn’t go where he by god wanted to go. It took a great many figure eights before he did what I wanted. My arms and legs ached. I panted harder than the damned horse. You can’t imagine how much effort it takes to relax your upper body, your arms, relax your neck all when what you instinctively want to do is pull on your horse’s mouth like crazy. That’s exactly what you mustn't do. You telegraph your tension to the horse and that exacerbates the situation. Riding is a collaborative effort. However you can be perfectly willing while your horse is signaling go screw yourself with his ears.
A headstrong horse like Bo, the harder you pull to the left, the more he goes to the right. It’s as predictable as summer rain. You rein gently, you use your body, remain calm, and stay infinitely patient. That is, before you dismount, find the offending log and bash him on the butt a few times. Not really. But trust me, the thought occurs. Rookies hit their horses. When you have a rookie mindset, you learn how to work with your horses.
By our last round, Bo performed perfectly. It was the first time either of us had ever done it, and in a new arena to boot.
Terrie was delighted. So was I. I rewarded Bo with lots of pets, gave him some apple treats and came home to collapse in a hot bath.
“So why didn’t you just get another horse?” The BF pressed again.
The BF has never ridden. First of all Terrie only has Bo for classes, for now. Second, and here’s the real lesson, any damned fool can sit on a beautifully- mannered horse and look like an expert rider. Many damned fools do, then they think they can ride, and they go on international trips close to me. Then their horse bolts, or shies, or rears, or bucks, or bites, or backs up, as horses are wont to do. Then the rookies find out they can’t ride for shit.
Not that anyone will admit to being a rookie at that age.
I was on a seven-day ride in the south of Spain last year with ten women who precisely fitted that description. For some thirty years they’d ridden fat little (what I call) “afternoon tea ponies” in Britain, and claimed to be expert riders. Not only could they barely trot without screaming, they most certainly couldn’t canter. For the polo player and me, it was a bore of a ride. No headlong gallops along Spanish beaches for us. The guide had to play to the lowest common denominator. These women- all close to my age, couldn’t even mount and dismount without assistance. Forgive me ladies, but there are no mounting blocks in the mountains.
Thirty years riding basically the same animal, doing the same things over and over again guarantees a very low level of skill. In any sport, any activity. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years” is meaningless. How far have you pushed outside your comfort zone? When have you come home so drag-ass that you can’t walk, and can hardly fuck worth a damn?
One loud complainer stated that her lovely grey had “piggy eyes.” He tried to buck her off repeatedly. (I would have too.)The guide had to put her on a fat little afternoon tea pony for the rest of the trip. For my part, I went into the corral, and gave “Mr. Piggy Eyes” a rubdown, to which he responded with enthusiasm and affection. The horse wasn’t the problem. She had lied about her ability in the same way many of us do, claiming competency based on the number of years vs. the quality of our experiences. A rookie blames the horse.
Terrie’s been my trainer for about six years now. She has put me on some right assholes for horses. Horses that would run to a fence and try to scrape me off. Horses that tried to bite my foot off. Horses that start backing up the second you leave the stable area, leaving their best buddies behind. Then they buck. Horses that….well, you get the picture. Invariably, the next trip I took to ride in another country, some damned horse would pull the same trick on me. Many tourist horses, and even those which aren’t, will test their rider’s ability and resolve. They’re anything but stupid. It usually takes about ten minutes for my mount to sort out that I’m not a sucker. They can tell by the way you sit, the way you hold the reins. Whether you jerk their mouths, which is not only cruel and stupid, but it ruins the horse.
Frankly, some rookie riders deserve to be bitten, bucked off and bashed in if they take out their ignorance and inability on an animal. Don’t get me started.
One favorite is that horses will demand to eat along the trail. I’ve heard the riders whine “But he’s hungry.” No, dummy, this horse gets very well fed every single night and more. He gets to graze at most rest stops. He’s testing you. You give him permission to jerk the reins out of your hands so he can graze, you’ve just told him who’s boss. And it ain’t you, baby.
The BF frowned for a moment, then he got the point.
I’m a very serious equestrienne. I am not claiming competence in shows or competitions but simply as someone who has ridden all her life and all over the world on a vast variety of animals, tack and temperaments. One of the reasons I ride is because it is constantly demanding everything of me. When I take lessons from a trainer who pushes me hard I know she’s helping potentially save my life in a dangerous situation. They’ve happened. That can’t protect me from horses that simply want me off (which happened twice last year resulting in considerable injury. To Terrie, too), but for the rest of these occasional reprobates, a little determined but loving guidance can lead to a terrific ride.
Riding banshees is what makes me an advanced rider. Not an expert. But pretty damned good. I don’t panic. I know what to do. Without having to ride the bad boys once in a while, I have no real skills. I still get caught off guard. I get thrown. As with any sport, if you do it long enough you will have emergencies. I’ve lost my main parachute twice, my scuba gear has failed at depth, I’ve had horrible bike accidents, had to land a dead aircraft, I could go on. If you and I don’t push the outside edges of our skill sets, we can die. Especially if you’re as harebrained as I am to engage in these sports at this age.
Just as when a pilot learns to fly in a flight simulator (as a pilot I’ve been in one) you can’t predict what you’re doing to do until you are in a vicious storm, lose an engine and you’ve got folks on board.
It’s not the same thing. You can turn a simulator off and get out. Nobody dies. Nothing but nothing teaches like road rash. What are you going to do when the stakes are everything, including your life? (I know I know, take a photo and put it on Instagram, and then text your best friend and say Guess where I am now?????)
There are people who will only ever ride afternoon tea ponies. That’s just fine. But they are professional rookies. I won’t ride with them any more. You hand over international airfare plus several thousand bucks for the promise of wild gallops on a Spanish beach and end up walking your beautiful, swift, spirited horse for seven long days because a bunch of amateurs think they’re advanced riders. I guarantee, you will end up doing what I did: pay a small fortune to a horse outfit in Madagascar for a private seven-day ride.
Age doesn’t confer wisdom (how many old assholes are running the country right now?) any more than time in grade, time in service, a phrase from my military days, necessarily conveys competence. When we decide we’ve “read enough books” (Jared Kushner in a lovely example of what’s wrong with the Royal Family: he’s effing stupid) or we can’t possibly learn anything else, we promptly become professional rookies. We don’t grow, explore, erase our boundaries. In other words, we march in place for decades.
That’s a perfect recipe for professional rookie-hood.
Here’s a recipe for just the opposite:
- To pilfer Eleanor Roosevelt, Do something every day that scares you. Yup. Wear Depends if you have to.
- Constantly ask: How can I do this better, differently? Who can I interview, talk to? Where can I find mentors who will challenge my world view? What I think I know? Who’s willing to piss me off enough so that I can dump my precious POV?
- Hire a coach. Hire more than one in different areas of your life. Mostly where you need the most help, based on feedback gleaned from #2. Sports, business, life, makes no difference. We all desperately need feedback. Afraid of it? Welcome to a very deep ditch of doing your life the same way over and over and over. You might as well be a robot. Wait. The Administration is full of them already. (We don’t need no stinking books)
- Learn to say I don’t know. Please teach me. You can’t pour water into a full glass. Especially if it’s full of shit. Most of us are full of shit, present company included, when we walk around saying I know, I know, I know.
- Stay open, soft and curious. It’s not just our physical arteries that harden. Every aspect of our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual selves stays limber, flexible and lubricated with challenge, risk, and failure. The most rigid person going ass over teakettle down the stairs breaks the most bones (I’ve done that, I’ve done that, 32 concrete bastards in Iceland. I fell like a microwaved Gumby doll. People in the hotel nearby were taking bets.)
- Embrace failure. The sickening American standard of do it perfectly the first time every time freezes a great many of us in place. Scares the shit out of anyone from ever trying something new. My god, I fail all the time, daily, regularly. And thank God. That means I am trying. All the time, daily, regularly. I face plant so much my nose is growing out of the back of my head. But then I have such a big outdoor rug in my nostrils you can’t tell.
- Learn to laugh. A lot. All the time, daily, regularly. That will not only save your life but you’ll live longer, be happier, and each successive time you fail you will find your funny. Besides if you’ve recently eaten a burrito you’ll fart, and if THAT doesn’t make you crack up then something is seriously wrong with you.
The first thing I did after spitting all the blood out of my mouth after being kicked in the face, shoulder, ribs and teeth by a pissed-off horse in Turkey was make a joke. You should have seen the faces of my Turkish guides who were terrified I was going to expire on their watch. It was hilarious.
The first thing I did after being thrown at the gallop by a rangy pacer in Kazakhstan and breaking my back in four places was get up, stretch, and make a joke. Then I spent ten days in two different hospitals. In the Russian one I nearly impaled my bare foot on a used syringe the nurse had dropped on the floor the night before after stabbing me in the butt cheek. You can’t make this shit up. I’m sorry, that’s just funny.
But I’m back riding again. Challenging, pissy, demanding horses.
Because I refuse to be a professional rookie. At anything.
Wanna live out loud? Go find a boundary inside you. Learn to erase it. Do it again. Then find out how much fun it is living outside the lines. Don’t settle for professional rookie. A rookie mindset will keep you learning, evolving, mastering, and by god, laughing.