Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Fail better. Or, I learn yet another damn life lesson

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Author’s note: this appears to be yet another horse story. In fact, the horse part is a metaphor, for life. Or something like that.

You know how I really, really love my horse? And how she brings out my better angels? And how I am a far, far better thing when I am with her? And how patient and good I have been in her new training?

Yeah, well: today, I SHOUTED AT MY HORSE.

I am officially a crap person. I am a should never be allowed out in public again person. I am a say one thing do another person. There is no health in me.

That is what I thought, the moment I did it.

Extrapolation is a fascinating thing. I think about it all the time. It is seen most clearly in the universalising of the particular. Because one person thinks one thing, they assume everyone does. Thus the ghastly Universal We is born. I notice this particularly in articles aimed at women. We all want to lose six pounds; we all dread cellulite; we all crave shoes. NO WE BLOODY DON’T, I shout, in the privacy of my own head. Stop damn well patronising me, I yell, into the void. I don’t give a toss about cellulite and shoes. I want to be able to write a decent paragraph, and get my mare to lengthen her back. That will do it for me, just at the moment.

Extrapolation happens also in heightened emotional situations. The dangerous tendency is, when one does something undesirable, to think I am a bad person, instead of I did a bad thing.

So, once I calmed down, and stopped telling myself I should report myself to the RSPCA, and stopped extrapolating wildly, I started speaking some sense to myself.

Red was being really annoying. She was not doing it on purpose; my great belief is that horses are always trying to tell you something. The problem was that I could not read it. She was doing her head fussing thing, and I tried everything, and nothing worked. That was when I shouted.

The problem with learning all this wonderful natural horsemanship stuff, is that I watch glorious videos of supreme horsemen, who have been working with equines for thirty years, on perfectly schooled horses, doing perfect things. That’s what I want, I think. (See, Daily Mail: not shoes, not freedom from cellulite.) Then, when I get on and it’s not like the perfect videos, I smash down the tidal wave of blame and shame on my own head. That was why I shouted. I wasn’t really cross with her, I was livid with myself, because I found myself clueless.

The amazing thing was, that after I calmed down, and read myself the riot act, and called in the perspective police, something switched. I went right back to basics, literally asking the horse to stop, to walk on, to stop, to turn, to stop, concentrating on being as light as I could. And suddenly, she went from a tense, fussy horse, to a sweetly going, relaxed horse. She even started bending her neck, as if she were doing dressage, although I had not specially asked her to. (One of the things about horses who have raced and played polo is that they have a tendency to carry their heads in the air, and this is something I thought it would take me months and months to work on. Today, after the disastrous start, she was offering me something I had assumed would take ages of graft and struggle.)

I learnt a lot of things this morning. Specifically, I learnt that my mare needs to work. Someone much cleverer than I said that if you want a happy horse, give them a purpose. You might think that wild riding across the hayfields might be much more fun for her than doing serpentines and working on transitions, but it turns out, she really likes a job. I love her for that.

I learnt that despite the fact I failed in one moment of lost temper, I did not have to extrapolate from that that I am revolting human who should never be allowed near a horse again.

I learnt that because we have established a solid relationship of trust, the mare did not hold one idiot moment against me.

I learnt the value of perseverance, not with gritted teeth, but with an open heart.

I learnt that if I aim too high, too fast, I set myself up for disaster. After thirty years away from serious riding, I can’t just morph myself into one of those brilliant horsemen through sheer wishing. It will take small steps, time, thought, attention. Every day I shall get a little better. I can’t go from nought to sixty in seven seconds. (This small truth actually really pisses me off, but I shall have to learn to control my vaunting ambition, and enter the real world.)

In some ways, it’s quite tiring, learning all these damn life lessons. Somewhere in me is the drive to be better: to be a better human, a better writer, a better rider, a better horsewoman. It would be quite restful just to mooch along in varying degrees of hopelessness. But I think striving probably is a good thing; not lashing oneself to be perfect, but hoping for better things, moving towards the sunlit uplands. Otherwise there is just atrophy. And I owe it to my mare to be the best I can be.

It turns out that I am not quite as Zennish as I had imagined. Today, frustration and impatience boiled over. Oddly, as I write that, I feel a sigh of relief escape from my stomach. I’m just a muddly old human after all, with all the frailties that flesh is heir to. I think I had been trying to turn myself into the Dalai Lama of the equine world, and that was too high a bar. So, I’m taking the little disaster as a salutary reminder of my own limitations, and there’s something peculiarly soothing in that.

But the really lovely thing is that, afterwards, we had the best twenty minutes of riding we have achieved so far. And I worked with the pony, and she was lovely too. I extrapolate from that the most basic life lesson of all: it’s all right to screw up occasionally. It does not mean that all is lost.

And, just as my fingers slow down over the keyboard and I smile a rueful smile at my own failings, I remember what Samuel Beckett said.

He said: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

I think I may have mentioned that before. I expect I shall mention it again, because it is one of the truest and best things I know. It will do, for my thought of the day.
Today’s pictures:

17 July 1

17 July 2

17 July 3

17 July 4

17 July 4-001

The hayfields next to my house have this minute been cut, so this is the last I shall see of the waves of high grass:

17 July 7

17 July 8-001

Red’s View:

17 July 8

Actual sun today. Can you believe it?

Myfanwy the Pony, who got another gold star for her sterling join-up work this morning:

17 July 9

My very forgiving mare:

17 July 10

Oh, that lovely face:

17 July 11

I know I bang on about embracing flaws and not seeking perfection, but I’m afraid to have to tell you that Miss Pigeon just is perfect. She can’t help it:

17 July 14

The hill:

17 July 20


  1. Very well said.

    Seems also that Myfanwy likes a job too. Age? Retirement? No thank you. If Red can work, she can work too. Who knew, just a few months ago, that you would have such a lovely narrative going? Life lessons in the best possible way.

    Not all of us can be as perfect as The Pigeon.


  2. I really admire the way you are learning to get to know Red. Some people never get there because they either don't want to, or because they never try. Every day it seems you both learn a little bit more about each other, and a little added to a little eventually adds up to a lot. Love reading about your progress.

  3. This post is a massive relief for me. I do the extrapolation thing and am working on it, always working on it, so to know that someone as wise as you (and you are wise) can succumb to this from time to time makes me feel less silly for doing it.

    I love your horse stories.

  4. I have to agree I love the horse stories too. I have never been near a horse but if I had the opportunity I might quite like to get to know one. until then I am happy to read about Red.
    Looks like she figured out today that humans can be irritable as well and possibly she just wanted to say that it's okay and we are still friends. She is beautiful and clever.

  5. I found this really touching, Tania. Our animals can't shout at us so they do the whole contrary thing. I love my dear old cat with all my bursting heart, but sometimes, when she is yowling away wanting God-only-knows-what I could throw a slipper at her. She drives me fucking insane. Who knows what goes through their minds? But when all said and done they love US as much as we love them. We have the luxury of being able to express in actual words how we feel. They have their way, annoying as it may be. It's the connection of two souls at work. Your journey with Red is utterly fascinating and one that we can relate to entirely. You know, though, it won't always go your way.

  6. Maxine,

    Our dog can shout, oh BOY! can he, but he elects to shout at us only if we say one of his favourite words like GO or WALK or FOOD or CHICKEN or CHEESE and then fail to deliver promptly. Seems only reasonable to me. I don't much like being offered a cup of tea amd then when I happily and gratefully aceept, being kept waiting 20 miniutes whilst someone (OK, The Husband) footles about tidying the kitchen in a half-arsed way and making himself porridge before even putting the kettle on.

    Jeez, I guess today it is MY turn ot be irritable!

  7. As with horses, so with children. And you beat yourself up, give out hugs and cuddles and apologise and just push on with being human. What else is there to do? Luckily they, much more sensibly, also move on.

  8. A very sensible set of observations, and, as Jo above says, I could have written much the same about dealing with my children. Animals forgive, children forgive, a lot of people forgive. They mayn't forgive the Delai Lama, but they certainly forgive ordinary doing-my-best people.


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