Friday, August 30, 2013

Indie equestrian, indie tennis player, indie life?

Great rides recently. Our picturesque fall trails have been sweetened with the knowledge that there are three apple trees of different varieties and one papple (pear/apple) tree on our route. Here, Foggy sniffs and snuffles looking for his next juicy papple with little concern about fruit or branches whacking my hardhat! If you click the above photo, you can see a short video of our ride (complete with my annoying baby talk - ugh).

That is a quick update of what has been going on this month for shorter attention spans. 

However, if you are up for a little rambling about indie tennis, indie equestrianism, indie lifestyle that has been swirling in my head since August 2, grab a cuppa and read on...

In my last post, I mentioned that my time courtside watching Maizie play tennis all summer gave me ample opportunity to ponder her unusual evolution as a tennis player. Could the success she was enjoying be the direct result of the unorthodox, forward-thinking journey she took? 

Naturally, my horse obsessed brain saw parallels to my recent success with horses. Is an indie approach to tennis, to horses, to life, inherently more balanced and healthy than a traditional one? 

Pie says, "Oh no - serious philosophizing ahead and I am soooo hungwy!
 Pweez come out of that house and give me carrots, Gwandma!"
Maizie isn't a traditional tennis player. She is relatively new to the game; she started seriously playing in 2011 when she was 12 years old. Locally, that is fairly late - most kids have had tons of private lessons by that point. She is a long distance runner so she brought her own strengths to the game - speed and endurance.

This summer we've watched something interesting happen when her quick, endurance based tennis style met advanced, traditionally trained players. Maizie is winning and it is giving perceptive fans pause.

Maizie before her first high school match in the Eagle Lobby of Cumberland Valley.
She won 6-0, 6-0 and after five matches is still undefeated!

Maizie is athletic so her strokes are fluid, but she hasn't had years of lessons with a pro or ball machine. At most matches she walks on the court with one racquet, a towel and a water jug. This is unusual in our gear loving world as everyone struggles to carry enormous, expensive tennis bags that hold eight racquets. The sport is about emulating the pros - big bags, big egos, big hitting.

Power is the name of the game in tennis today and all the local pros push it. In clinics Maizie learned to hit hard because she had no choice. She was told that she must do that. The funny thing is that she started to watch something else happening between the lines. All the girls her age and older were struggling to hit hard, yet they couldn't keep the ball in play. They were always hitting the ball into the net or out. In addition, the hardest hitters had large, round body types which enabled them to put power into each shot but actually prevented them from running to the ball or lasting for an entire, best of three set match.

Maizie on our way to tennis practice.
Click photo for a drive-by video of these sunflowers.

Maizie decided to keep power as one of her options, but she began to mix in placement and depth and allowed consistency to rule her game. By running long distances off the court she is able to run down every ball and stay fresh for long matches. 

And she is winning. At Princeton, she had to play a girl with 13 pages of USTA tournament results behind her name and Maizie blanked her. The girl was whipping balls off the court at bystanders in her fury. Back home, Maizie won a local tournament against older girls easily. She went out for the high school varsity team and is playing #3 singles as a freshman. 

That crazy-fun moment when we learned via text that Maizie would play varsity #3 singles as a freshman on her high school team.
 Sovey is smiling too!

In no way am I posting all this to brag about my daughter. Maizie is wonderful - sweet, smart, athletic - I adore her. But this post is celebrating the importance of finding a system that works for you using your own metric to determine success.

Maizie did just that. She knows how to traditionally hit every shot hard with amazing power. She understands that if you walk by her court when she is hitting like that, you will think she is a phenomenal player. Yet she also knows that at this point in her tennis life, at this local level, she does not have enough control to do that all the time and keep the ball in play. Winning points, games, sets, matches is her personal metric, the standard by which she is measuring her own performance. She wants to win points and she can't do that if she hits the ball out or into the net. Instead of wrestling a showy, large tennis bag onto the court, Maizie is focused on the match. She says that she knows she tries to get to the ball more than her opponents. She respectfully ignored the popular opinion and found her own way to play with quality given her current strengths.

Sadly, most local players have been told by their instructors that the game is only about power. The game is about power after you've mastered consistency and placement and depth. Consistent power will come to Maizie too, but she is wisely not putting the cart before the horse. 

Putting the cart before the horse is easy to do when your personal goals have to be witnessed and/or judged by other people. Too often we let well-meaning professionals - athletes, instructors, veterinarians, horse show judges, gallery owners, the list goes on and on - hurry us forward toward a prepackaged, one-size-fits-all path when their goals are usually way different than our own. 

The rub is that you have to have a tough hide to openly pursue your own path if it is counter to the traditional approach. Oddly, at least to my way of thinking, much of tradition in many areas of our life is wrapped up in "show" - how we look. Maizie was able to hit very hard in her first high school match because her opponent wasn't that consistent. She could take risks. I overheard on-lookers saying, "Oh, she is good," because she was hitting the ball hard in the accepted, showy manner. But, in subsequent matches, she had to use consistency and placement and rein in that power and the crowd was silent. Fortunately, Maizie's coach understands this, but not everyone gets it. Yesterday afternoon Maizie played her fifth consecutive match for the high school team and she remains undefeated. It takes courage to truly believe in your own goals, and trust yourself to stick to it when there are spectators, parents and peers on the side of the court or railbirds ringside at a boarding stable.

Foggy gobbling apples yesterday while I do my best not to get knocked off from low boughs.

Maizie's tennis evolution validates my current journey with horses. When I was younger I wanted to spend every free second brushing a fuzzy horse ear, smelling the fragrant muzzle, riding out through the fields. Yes, I had to take lessons and learn how to safely be around a horse and ride. But, sadly the process of lessons, in riding, tennis - practically all sports then and now - ultimately spirals into a crazy-fast path of trying to emulate the professional at the highest level. And at that level, you won't get pinned if your horse's ear is fuzzy.

In the early seventies my upper middle class existence afforded school age children like me the ability to be exposed to many recreational lessons. Mom dutifully carted me around to tennis lessons, riding lessons, piano, skiing, ballet, ice skating, roller skating, and synchronized swimming. I wasn't a Girl Scout because there are only seven days in a week. I am tremendously grateful for this well-rounded exposure. 

Yet, in all those lessons, the traditional structure based on the professional aesthetic actually was inhibiting because of my personality. The classical "correct way" was the only way I would do anything. I am a good girl. I follow rules. I listen to the teacher. I was the perfect student who "looks" perfect. I had nice equitation. I have tennis strokes that are textbook. I, too, made the exact same varsity tennis team as a freshman (only #5-go Maizie!) and everyone thought I was amazing. But, the sad truth is that I couldn't really play. I just looked good. I couldn't win. I was exactly like the players Maizie is beating now. 

I wasn't true to the sport or to myself. I didn't know how to be. I was only true to a form, a model. I ended up abhorring tennis and never played after high school. I smiled and joked that I lost my forehand but it wasn't a joke. I had such a psychological breakdown regarding tennis that I couldn't even hit a ball over the net to give the opponent the ball between points. I had to throw it. (Can you say Chuck Knoblauch?) Finally, now because of the free-thinking, non-traditional journey I'm using with horses, I am playing phenomenal tennis. It sounds crazy, but the horse adventure that I am on has taught me to play tennis correctly. Am I a better parent now? Wife? Person? 

By contrast, Maizie's relationship with tennis is a healthy one. Here she is high-fiving our family friend, Earl Follett in a tough doubles match. Maizie is 14 years old and Earl is 84! Brian and I often reflect and shake our heads in grateful amazement about how fortunate we are to be living and raising a daughter in this country right now. The acceptance of forward-thinking ideas in our society is at an all-time high and we are so lucky to reap the benefits and pass them on to Maizie. 

In the 1980's and 90's, filmmakers and musicians took the 1920's term indie and the free-thinking ideal behind it and found a way to make films and market music independent of major labels and mainstream companies. Classically trained and self-taught artists, designers, and publishers followed. An Etsy nation was born.

Certainly, the idea of veering off from the traditional in favor of originality isn't new in the arts. A favorite story is Manet's mold breaking (albeit unwittingly) 1863 exhibition of Le déjeuner sur l'herbe in the Salon des Refusés. 

Édouard Manet    Le déjeuner sur l'herbe   1862-1863   oil on canvas
The reason I adore Manet's story and Maizie's story is precisely because of their unknowing. Both unwittingly moved away from tradition. Neither welcomed contrarian outcomes nor were they attempting to be different. Their pull to follow an internal guide was stronger than a need to follow or dismiss a traditional, external scheme. 

The unknowing is important because rejecting tradition for the sake of being different is not part of the equation, especially when the health and welfare of animals is at risk. I find affected opposition, simply for the sake of being unusual, elitist and off-putting in any form. In other words, I would never advocate a bitless bridle, for example, if the need for a bitless doesn't speak to the rider. This is what makes the indie approach of today different from an anti-establishment stance of previous decades. When you are listening and following your own instincts you are not necessarily ignoring tradition. Sometimes you will embrace tradition, sometimes not, but in either case, your own passion and the quality outcomes based solely on your own metric, is the guide. Therefore, to independently think and act without either ignoring or emulating tradition is what I am about now with horses and in everyday life. It is eclectic and lovely and efficient like an Anthro inspired kitchen. It isn't matchy-matchy but it all works together.

When I was involved with horses before this recent foray, I was part of a system that was at odds with my own inner measure of success, goodness, quality. I constantly had to ignore my gut feelings in order to do things in the "correct" manner based on years of tradition with show performance as the goal. Consequently, my internal turmoil prevented true growth as a rider and horse owner. Spending time grooming and riding in the way I imagined morphed into spending time grooming and riding with showing as the focus. Just like the girl Maizie beat in Princeton, I had been sold a bill of goods. She was told that hitting hard was the only way to win in tennis. I was told that if you love horses then show/clinic/competition preparation is the only way to really become an equestrian. I struggled for years with what I saw as a natural system, a horse's life, being jammed into a human system, our equestrian world.

I have conversations all the time with "horse people" that make me think the lie is still being told. One tennis parent had a daughter on the court playing and another, younger daughter of about six or seven, sitting beside her watching the match. Somehow the conversation turned to horses (as if any conversation with me wouldn't eventually) and the mother loftily mentioned in a haughty, smug way that the little girl beside her was riding with a local trainer. I know the trainer - she is wonderful - sweet, kind, energetic. The mother continued that they had just sold the little girl's first pony so she could move up to a medium show pony. 

Suddenly I had an overwhelming urge to vomit. I never said a word - just smiled and nodded but inside I felt discouraged. I pictured a flurry of images: jodhpurs, paddock boots, mane pulling, ear peeling, muzzle clipping, coronary band clipping, fetlock clipping, braiding, "stand still slapping", tiny spurs, bathing, tail wrapping, leg wrapping, bug-attracting coat conditioners, bug repelling noxious sprays, trailers, clocks, stress, frazzled humans, lunging, heat, dust, "trading up ponies", "he just needs a job" "he just needs some groceries" - it all just hit me like a wave of emotions. 

In my mind, that world is very far away from my own measure of "success" with horses. Perhaps that specific little girl is totally fine with the journey she is starting. Watching Maizie succeed as an indie tennis player gives me hope that the next generation will have even more choices in tennis, in riding, in life.

One day, a very long time ago, I walked into my childhood lesson barn where a group of people were working on a Thoroughbred mare getting her ready for a show. They were pulling her mane while the owner, Duncan, repeatedly corrected her and told her to stand still. I was 13 years old and Duncan was probably 18, but all of a sudden I raced up to him and yanked a wad of his icky, greasy, hair with all my might. He cried out in pain. "Stand still, Duncan," I screamed. Everyone just stood and stared at me like I had gone round the twist. In a way, I guess I had. 

Finally, on August 29, 2007, six years ago yesterday, I decided I would only do with and to horses what felt right to me on the inside. If I followed a path that sometimes was at odds with tradition, so be it. It wasn't going to be at odds with what I knew in my heart was correct. I like how Thomas Aquinas talks about the four laws (eternal, natural, human and divine) that make us act or restrain us from acting. These laws work when they are properly balanced. I guess that balance was out of whack previously in my horse world. Not to get too tangential here, but when a human law is created without respecting a natural law, there are difficulties. To me, equestrian sports in many circles require an adherence to a "human law" that is at odds with natural law. Now I try my best to find a balance at my own barn.

Foggy's adorable deer ear, complete with his soft, bunny fur to keep the gnats out.
No manes are pulled. They aren't even trimmed so they can provide insulation against summer sun and winter cold. Ears are not peeled. The fuzzy inner hairs protect against our horrid gnats. Muzzles, eyelids, and lips are not clipped so my boys can feel their way around using the whiskers they need. Fetlocks keep their fringe and on many days, bodies keep the mud. 

My "winning" is safely riding every day on the trails and around neighborhoods in all weather. I do my part by keeping myself fit and I bring running/training knowledge to our rides so the horses are only asked to do that which they are fit enough to do at that time. Therefore we avoid cranky behavior caused by being over taxed physically. They remain sound and do not get sore. I do not lunge or use a round pen.

I do not use a bit and my equitation is now based on keeping my body as closely "as one" with them as possible. Sometimes that incorporates my former hunter/jumper equitation and sometimes not. I think about melting into them and breathing with them if we are in a tight, scary situation, but the two point does work wonders as it puts me up and parallel with their neck which they seem to like when they are nervous. I wear clothes that are comfortable to me and will not rub them if I am riding bareback.

My horses do not use a clock or calendar so I don't either. Our rides and grooming habits are not based on a clinic or show goal and I believe that keeps me more aligned with their world than with a human world. To me our long, daily rambles on and off the property seem stress free and sometimes shockingly safe as we encounter loud machinery, trucks, or scary, colorful flags. I do make appointments with my vet and farrier and so far have never had to cancel, but I would not hesitate to if my horses were not mentally ready for such a visit that has to be extremely foreign to their true nature. 

I am a strict parent with Maizie. I am not a wishy-washy "you set your own boundaries" kind of person. But, as a human who works with another species (!!!!), I believe in allowing horses more time and space to process my asks. I think I ask a lot of them so what is the hurry if they don't get it straightaway? They always comply which is amazingly kind of them when you think about it. 

They have to stay restrained in my pastures so I made the pastures as large as I could. I slip a kooky man-made halter on their face every day so I slip that on gently. I need them not to step on me when we walk so I ask nicely, and for some reason, they abide. Our time together just flows. I think horses like routines, but because of Maizie's activities, my horses have learned to accept my daily visits at whatever time of day I can get there. That is super kind of them not to get ginchy about it. 

They enjoy being in the stall for an hour or so a day to rest in the barn away from the elements. I know they like it because they all sleep peacefully in there. Then they tell me when it is time to go back out. Each of them nickers to tell me it is "their turn" for a ride which cracks me up on so many levels. First, it is unbelievable to me that they know whose turn it is. Second, I am so grateful that they actually like our rides.

Like my account of Maizie's recent tennis successes, I am not listing all this horsey wonderfulness to brag. I am just so thrilled to find a way to be an equestrian on my own terms and succeed. When I have a question I think and wait and see how it feels to proceed in this way or that way. Call it nature or God or intuition or even entropy, but the answers are coming from somewhere. I just had to get the human, traditional, accepted practices off a pedestal and out of the way so I could hear! In that magical sliver of listening space, happy, easy success resides in all pursuits. 

My little tennis player, Maizie, heads off to her first day of high school. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The paintings are all your own

Pie bites at a fly after a ride.

The last week or so has been spent in a green folding chair at home and in Princeton, New Jersey watching Maizie play tennis. The matches have been exciting and thought-provoking. My insides turn in knots with nervous energy and in between matches I think about the similarities between her tennis and my riding. Honestly, there aren't many thoughts in my brain that don't eventually revolve around horses, but the type of tennis player Maizie has become parallels the way I've approached horses this time round. She is an indie tennis player and I am now an indie equestrian. 

I can't help but think the indie approach to these pursuits, possibly to life in general, might be healthier than the traditional alternatives.

I have much to say on this subject and hope to write a post about this idea, but alas, another tennis clinic this morning and three adorable geldings call. So for now, some recent photos...

Sunny Monday on my Pie.

Brian and Maizie in our favorite coffee shop, Small World, Princeton, NJ.

Lovely Paper Source, Princeton. Sigh.

Back home for art show, Saturday night. Sold the last painting in my Simplicity series. Parting is always sweet sorrow - sad to see a painting go, but happy for its travels to a new home.

Glorious Foggy ride which ended in and around these small pines and fragrant locust. The locust trees smell earthy and citrus-y and remind me of riding my mare, Penny Lane years ago. Foggy loves circling around trees just like I do. He makes me giggle and brings me so much joy on every ride.

Another one of silly Pie. Poor Sovey doesn't have photos of our ride because he was the good boy who took me out through the rain yesterday. No cameras, but he kindly weathered the damp, icky pellets of drizzle just so I could get my horsey riding fix. These boys spoil me up everyday.