Defining Success, or “Camilla, why is your best friend a horse?”

Yesterday, at 5:30, I had to go take an exam on which I expected I had very little chance of doing well. I had been working for days to study all the material for the exam, and yet there was still information I didn’t know. At about 4 pm, when I was feeling quite beaten down and hopeless, I realized that there was quite a bit of value simply in attempting to do the impossible, in facing down the unbeatable foe, in going to take the exam.

In recent years, my only measure of success has been achievement (Camilla, are your grades perfect? No? Then you cannot be happy with yourself). I have applied no value to trying, only to achieving. Strangely, if I go back in time eight (EIGHT!) years, to 2005, my outlook was very much the same. However, in the years between then and now, my opinions on success have been very different, and I hope, gradually, to return to those opinions.

I believed, when I was 14, that the only measure of my success–showing horses in this case, not taking classes–was my placing. I had been showing horses for a couple of years, but hadn’t consistently showed one horse. However, that year, I started showing Innkeepers Goldseeker–not only a very fine animal, but also the best friend and teacher I’ve ever had.

It was Goldseeker who changed my definition of success. She changed it in two ways.

The first was a sort of trial by fire. Goldseeker was not a good pony when I started showing her, and we often had abysmally poor performances at shows. I never did well, so I had to define success by my own standards: Had I improved? Had I done my best? Had I completed the pattern in the class? Success and failure were no longer externally determined–I knew whether I had succeeded or failed and could be happy with that knowledge.

The second is more noble, more heartbreaking. During the last year I showed Goldseeker, 2008, she was developing ringbone, an arthritis of the lowest joint in her front right leg. By that time, she was a good pony, gave a solid performance in most classes, and often placed well. Initially, we didn’t even realize that she was developing ringbone–in the face of pain and lameness, she just tried harder. Her performances barely changed, though gradually we started noticing unevenness: she balked in the middle of gymkana (or speed) classes (usually her favorite thing), missed lead changes, and came out of her hunter (jumping) classes limping. However, when she was working, she barely showed signs of lameness. She wanted to work. The pain in her pastern (ankle) increased, and she tried harder. Eventually we had to admit (for her sake) that she was truly unsound. She couldn’t be ridden anymore. However, the courage and the heart that she (an animal, without human consciousness and logical thought) showed in the face of increasing pain and unsoundness, taught me more about trying and working hard than anything else ever has.

Recently (since I’ve been a college student), my definition of success has returned to the old one: achievement. My grades have to be awesome, in my eyes, for me to be happy with myself. However, yesterday, when I had to go take my biochemistry exam, I reminded myself that there is great value in doing something difficult, even if I don’t succeed. Trying hard in the face of great adversity is, in itself, success. I recalled why my best friend is a horse and why I so admire her courage.


My girls

…by which I mean, of course, my mares.

Mac is making tremendous amounts of progress. She is my favorite little horse.

I would love to see her (which here means: ride her) in English tack, with this trot. It’s going to have to happen soon  (just as soon as I’m brave enough to deal with her occasional pre-canter crow-hop in an English saddle). 

She also has a pretty solid jog. Here’s her lope! It’s not solid, but it is now on the correct lead, which is progress.

Here’s my quarter horse, Sirius, pretending that she is a well-broke western pleasure horse (she isn’t. She aspires to run barrels in the future). I really love this girl. This is after about 1.5 months off (I’ve been busy and putting all of my time in to Mac and my school work).

I like her because she can do that (above) and then turn around and do this:

And here I am with my very favorite girl (this is when we went to Kentucky together last year).


How to break out a horse and not die, part 1

In college, some people go to bars for fun. Some people join sororities or clubs. Some people just study all the time. Some people join bible studies, or dance, or row crew. Some people run charity events. I, however, really like breaking horses.

I guess I ought to begin by explaining the term: “to break a horse.” Non-horse people seem to believe that this has something to do with breaking the horse’s spirit or his will. I do not know where the term originated, but now it simply means to to the first part of his training. Once a horse walks, trots, canters, stops, and picks up leads (this is a reference to the asymmetry of the canter–the horse must canter left and right), he is typically said to be broke or green broke. The term is NOT “broken” (even though that sounds more grammatically correct), because nothing about him is broken, he just knows more stuff.

Here I’m going to tell about breaking out a 3-year-old quarter horse mare: Mac. She’s pretty much the cutest. She’s dun (tan/gold with black mane and tail) (I’m going to try to add a picture of her at the end of this) and she’s super smart and willing to do what I ask.

I started working with Mac at the beginning of January, about twice a week. I started by introducing her to the saddle and working her on the ground (leading at the walk and trot, stopping and backing up). I didn’t know her before I started this training, so I was also getting a feel for her personality. It’s really important, when training horses, to know what kind of individual you are working with: is she brave? is she smart? is she cooperative? If the horse is none of those things, you’ll have a long, difficult road ahead. If you’ve got one of the three, you’ll be OK. And if you’ve got two, or even better, all three, you’re set forever. Of course, there are other quirks and personality traits as well. But, when trying to explain horse personalities to a person who has never been personally acquainted with a horse, those traits are the first that come to mind.

After Mac was used to the saddle and I had taught her to trot and back quietly when when I was leading her from the ground, I started getting her used to weight on her back. I leaned over the saddle like a dead body (legs on one side of the horse on a step stool, arms on the other, torso draped over her back, gradually putting more of my weight on her and less on my feet.

After these steps have been completed (and, depending on the trainer, sometimes many other steps), it’s time to get on. Once you’re on, you’re committed. You have one leg on each side. It’s hard to bail if things start going wrong. You and your horse, in my case cute little Mac, have to be ready. I took a deep breath and got, very gradually, on. She didn’t care at all. I sat on her for about half a minute, just enough time for her to think about the fact that I was there, but not enough time for her to get worried about it. Then I got off, told her what a good horse she was, and quit for the day.


This is how I do grad school applications

I applied for undergrad in the most slapdash way anyone has ever done anything. Then, later, I applied again, because the first undergraduate institution I attended was the wrong one. That round of applications was even worse than the first: full of fights about credits and transcripts.

I’m applying again, soon, this time to grad school. This time, I’m doing it right.

I am not only shopping for a program and a school, I’m also shopping for a home. I choosing my hometown for the next four years of my life. For this reason, I’m considering state and town just as seriously as I’m considering research, faculty members, and academic programs. Findlay taught me that where I live is just as important as what I’m learning.

I’m looking all over the country, and not just limiting myself to places close to home. There are airplanes and cars and trains and buses and I’ll be able to get home wherever I end up. My family and my true friends love me regardless of location.

I’m looking for places where I can bring my horses with me. I don’t know yet how many horses or in what context exactly, but my horses are important to my mental health, to my physical health, and to my self-esteem and self-image. I need to have horses wherever I go.

I am not applying to Virginia Tech. I love VT more than I can express in a blog post, but I need to go somewhere else. If I come back, I come back, but I need to go away first, to feel justified in coming home.

I’m not completely sure what I want to do with my life, but I definitely want to be a graduate student next. I think that being a graduate student looks really great.

Training Horses

Today, I was as proud of my horse training and my horses as I have ever been.

Just to put this story in context: I’ve won classes against 20 competitors and placed against 40 of the best riders in my breed in the country. I’ve jumped 3’6″, received national and state year end high point awards, and broke several horses to ride. This moment beats those ones.

When I started riding my mare, Goldseeker, in 2005, she was a bit of a wily, unpleasant critter. I loved her, but she wasn’t well trained and there were many things that she was unwilling to tolerate. I rode her 5+ days/week for four years and showed extensively. By the end of those 4 years she was as solid as she would ever be–good at many events, and fairly quiet and sweet. Mainly, though, she liked the fast and exciting: jumping, barrel racing, reining, pole bending.

Sadly, we retired her at the end of 2008 because she was developing arthritis in her pastern joint and wasn’t sound enough to show. Three years later, her arthritis has improved considerably. I can ride her a bit and she can pull her cart. However, she doesn’t work hard.

Today, a girl with Aspergers Syndrome came out to ride. She is a junior in high school and apparently is very quiet and shy and has a hard time connecting with her peer group (as least, this is what I was told). Kay (Goldseeker’s owner) and I helped this girl ride Goldseeker. Goldseeker was quiet, slow, and obedient for this girl. The girl successfully walked, trotted, stopped, backed up, and steered on horseback. The grin on her face made every bit of horse training I’ve ever done worthwhile.

The gelding I trained and showed in summer 2009 also packed a 10 year around like nobody’s business: head set, jogging quietly, acting like this is what he had always done.

That is why I train horses. I don’t do it for money (I don’t get money, either. Haha). I don’t do it for the glory I gain at horse shows. But, if my hard work can make an unhappy teenager cheer up or a young kid gain an interest in horses, then what I did was worth it.


PS. I got a HAIRCUT.

PPS. I am finally reading Vonnegut.