Know Thyself

The arrival of spring (and soon after of summer) marks a transitional period for high school students.  The seniors prepare for graduation and their next steps as college students and the underclassmen prepare to step forward and follow in their footsteps.  Along the way, the underclassmen will embark on the same college search they’ve just witnessed taking place for with the older students and many people in their lives will want to help them along the way.  Those people will all have very specific ideas about what they wish for those students because they care about them, but if you’re one of the students in question, I hope you realize that only one person knows you better than anyone else, only one person is truly qualified to inform your final decision.

Rico and I know how to keep our cool heads in competitive situations and when there are loose horses about.
Rico and I know how to keep our cool heads in competitive situations and when there are loose horses about.

It’s you.

I’m known for my horse-related tangents in this blog, so why not continue the trend?  Last competition season, my longtime equine partner Ricochet and I were minding our own business in the warm up ring of our local rated dressage show when a shout went out across the nearby driveway and competition arenas:  “Loose horse!”

We’ve all been to shows and seen this happen before and often it’s just a matter of everyone who is mounted and near the loose horse halting and waiting for the errant animal to be corralled by a group of people wielding halters and horse cookies, right?

Unfortunately, the horse in question this time turned out to be a very large, very amped up breeding stallion who did not want horse cookies, did not want to be captured, and was instead bent on charging and herding nearly every horse he could find.  He ran up the drive and was herded into – you guessed it! – the warm up arena where Rico, myself, and a herd of about four other adult amateur ladies were sitting quietly on our horses.  They were more fortunate than I, as they were near the in-gate and could file out as soon as he entered, but Rico and I were at the far end where there was no gate – which meant that, when the stallion spotted us, his first instinct was to charge.

Shouts from the crowd and from horse show management had been flying since the cry of “Loose horse!” had gone out and everyone who was mounted was ordered to dismount as soon as they safely could.  Even as the stallion charged Rico and I, I could hear people telling me to dismount, but I stayed put.  There were two very logical reasons for this decision, readers, one of which was, quite simply, that if Rico chose to bolt away from the rampaging horse, I would go with him.  But the second reason gets to the point I’m driving to by telling you this story:

I know my horse.

I’ve partnered with Rico for a decade now and we’ve been in loose horse situations before, both in training and at shows.  Thus, I know exactly what his reaction will be when we encounter the situation – first is always surprise (“What’s going on, Mom?”), followed immediately by curiosity (“What’s s/he doing?  Where’s s/he going?  Can I watch?”)  As long as he has a full view of the action (he’s highly social and easily entertained), he’s usually not willing to join in the fray.  (He might miss something amusing if he did.)

There’s also one other crucial thing that I know about this horse and it is the following:  In a highly-charged situation, I’m always safer on his back than I am standing next to him.  People always think I’m exaggerating when I tell them this because it seems in total contradiction with his everyday behavior, which is so laid back that we joke he’s half Labrador Retriever.  Seriously.  There’s very little spook in this horse and his ground manners are so impeccable that I put him in the grooming bay and don’t even put him on cross ties when we’re at home.  (Two years ago, I left him grazing unattended on the grass near the barn while I ran in the house for a minute and while I was inside, it began to rain.  When I came out, Rico had parked himself in the grooming bay to wait where it was dry.  He didn’t even attempt to go in his stall where a flake of hay waited for him!)

But at horse shows, the Labrador behavior goes out the window, to the extent that hand-walking him at any distance farther than the wash rack is to take one’s life in one’s hands.  I call it flying the kite – he starts out low but gains altitude the farther we go until I’m hanging on for dear life.  He’s been that way for as long as I’ve owned him and, ever since the USDF Regionals in 2009 when his erratic behavior spooked another horse while we hand-walked one morning, I’ve resorted to hacking him on his morning walks.

So basically, if I had stepped down from his back while the stallion galloped toward us, I would have put myself in a far more dangerous situation than the one I found myself in at that moment.  I knew that without a single shred of doubt.  The people around me – the well-intentioned folks who were following all the correct rules of loose horse protocol – did not possess this information, however.  Many of them knew me, of course, as I’ve showed on this circuit for a large portion of my competitive career and a lot of them thought they knew exactly what Rico and I should do in this situation based on their general, superficial knowledge of the two of us and of the situation.

(Now do you see why I chose to tell you this story?)

As a college-bound student searching for your right fit school, you’re going to encounter a lot of well-meaning folks who know you on that superficial (or slightly deeper than superficial) level.  It might be teachers you’ve had in past classes, a coach from the sport you used to play before riding took up all of your after school hours, someone from church or your community, or even a relative or two.  And initially, you should take their advice in your college search because they might help you uncover a hidden gem of a school that you might not otherwise give a second look to, but when you reach the spring of your senior year and sit down to make your final school decision, it has to be yours and yours alone.  By that time, you’re the one who has done the research into the school’s programmatic offerings, you’re the one who has visited the campus and met with students multiple times to see if you’ll fit in, and you’re the one whose gut is telling you what it thinks you should do.  Everyone else might have gone part or all of the way on the journey with you previously, but in the end, the decision is yours and you need to own it completely – even if it’s counter-intuitive to the well-meaning advice that’s coming your way.

How do I know it will work out for you?

Actually, I don’t because I’m one of those people who can give you advice and put schools in front of you, but I’ll most likely never know you well enough to know what your gut is telling you to do when it comes time to send that enrollment deposit check.  All I can tell you is how the warm up ring incident turned out for Rico and I:

The stallion galloped up to us and very quickly ascertained that, as Rico is a gelding, he was of little consequence and not worth stopping for.  As he galloped behind us in search of friendlier companions, I turned Rico to follow his arc so that he could continue to keep the stallion in view and, as a group of people leapt over the fence to corner the loose horse, I dropped my reins to the buckle and let Rico shuffle calmly toward the gate so that we could exit the area.  No muss, no fuss – the afternoon’s entertainment had reached its conclusion.

I told you:  I know my horse.

(Want help building that school list before you follow your gut?  Contact me or pick up a copy of my book.)

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