In Praise of Small Bites


I’m a fan of the small-bites approach, to many things, but I suffer doubt whether it’s all that effective.  Our culture generally screams for the whole hog.  Go big or go home and that kind of thing.  Taking small, regular bites seems somehow weak, boring, un-American.  But now I’m convinced.

I used to go big most of the time.  Riding my bike up a steep section, I did it as fast as possible, both to conquer the challenge and to get the difficulty over with so I could rest on the downhill.  I cleaned the whole house in a flurry, and then did almost nothing for much too long.  I lived on an intensity-collapse cycle.  I got a lot of stuff done.

Then I started riding a young horse.  He freaked me out a couple of times with his power and independence.  When he was in a tough spot, going big was no longer an option.  Not for me.  If I bore down and pushed him through these things, he would likely have escalated further before we got through, and I was already past my limits.

On great advice, and with no other plan, I started on the small bite approach.  I worked with or rode him to the degree I could without going too far beyond my comfort zone.  That wasn’t very much at times.  Because it was emotionally so challenging, I couldn’t ride him for very long or do very much before I needed to regroup.  I noticed no change, my entire focus was getting out there and getting to that edge.

I was skeptical.  Small bites move slowly.  They are tedious.  Change is almost imperceptible.  Day after day, I still felt nervous, I still did small things.  The top of the hill stayed just out of sight.

The gradations of challenge with Bridger the colt go kind of like this: groundwork (unmounted) –> riding in the small round corral –> riding in the larger corral –> riding out on our 25-acre property –> riding out around the neighborhood.  At the start, I did 100% groundwork, and slowly started adding portions of the next steps.

Yesterday, I hardly did any groundwork, skipped the round pen, spent a few minutes riding in the corral and then spent most of the time on the road around the neighborhood.  I felt almost no nerves the entire time.  Suddenly, after all those tedious, tiny bites, change erupted.

I like small bites.  I clean my house a little bit every day (well, that’s the plan).  I tackle parts of chores and leave other parts for the next day.  I push quickly up the hill if I want my heart to beat faster, otherwise I stop and look around.  It really works.



The Om in Horsemanship


It’s pouring down rain, so there won’t be much horsing around today.  My goal of riding Bridger every day as a cure for our woes is on pause this day.  But there’s plenty of time for thinking about horses and life and stuff.

Horseman Peter Campbell says something like “the problem is not the problem, your attitude about the problem is the problem.”

My “problem” with Bridger is very simple — there are things he needs to understand better and ideas he has that I’d rather he didn’t.  This wouldn’t be a problem at all except that the process of teaching and redirecting him can be scary because I sit on his back and he is large and powerful.

But even so, it’s my attitude that creates the problem.  When Bridger gets fractious or lost, there are a couple options.  If I were Buck Brannaman, I’d ride him right through it without blinking because I would know I could.  Or, I could see the issue developing, mindfully dismount and address it from the ground.  Neither is a problem.

What do I do?  Fear grabs me, or maybe frustration, and right behind come self-doubt, self-criticism, dismay and a bunch of other complicated emotions.  My muscles tighten, my mind trips offline.  I’m lost in a feeling storm, useless for giving my horse the direction and confidence he needs.  If I’m not careful, I can start blaming Bridger for the whole mess.  And voila — a real problem.

FDR would have answered Peter Campbell nicely, adding, for example, that all we have to fear is fear itself.  Or anger or jealousy or despair.  My yoga teachers would nod sagely — notice where your mind goes when your body is challenged, they say, is it necessary?

How many times a day do we create problems with our emotions and reactions where, in fact, there is simply a circumstance?

Yoga and horsemanship point me in the same direction: stick with exactly what is for a while and let the rest go.  Next time I get on Bridger’s back, I’ll be really trying to do just that.

Going Steady with Fear

I rode Bridger today.  You’ll understand something about that if you read this earlier post.  It means a lot.

Last summer, Bridger and I hit a big glitch in our progress.  I asked him for a little more than he was ready for, so he gave out a little buck, which was enough to unseat me, which was enough to crack my ulna.  Neither the buck nor the crack were such a big deal.  The killer was the fear that immediately colonized me.

Fear has not been a big thing with me.  Not on a conscious level, anyway.  I’ve had plenty of dicey moments on mountain bikes, on snow-covered slopes in the backcountry, with lightning on the alpine tundra, in class 4 river rapids after I fell out of the boat.  I’ve unexpectedly come much too close to male moose and grizzly bear cubs.  Each event had its adrenaline-soaked excitement and some hindsight shivers, but each easily became a great story to revisit over a beer.  Not so with my fall off Bridger.

I am inherently, helplessly scared of heights. I grow dizzy and watery too close to a precipitous fall.  I feel compelled to go over — if someone forced me to spend too long on a tiny ledge, I might have to plunge over.  So I do have that fear, but I handle it by simply avoiding the situation.  I tried rock climbing, which would have been a good match for my other mountain hobbies, but there wasn’t enough in it to overcome the visceral fear, so I left it behind.  I admire views from a safe distance.  I can’t leave Bridger behind or stay at a distance.

After my fall off Bridger, pictures of people riding horses made me queasy.  Being around my horses at feeding time gave me all-over prickles.  After my arm healed a little, I got on my older horse, Jack, who is as reliable, slow and calm as they come.  I felt sick and loose-limbed.  I shed tears.

I mostly got over it.  With the superb help of friends, a couple sports psychology books and patient Jack, it eased up and left me.  Meanwhile, Kathleen was busy helping Bridger get over his own problem.  Six months after the fall, I was riding Bridger in the backcountry on an unfamiliar trail, having a good time.

This year, we hit another glitch, but on a smaller scale.  You can learn more about that here.

Again, I backed up and brought Kathleen in.  Again, it got better after only a few weeks of focused effort.

So today, I went out by myself and rode Bridger.  I fought back butterflies before I got out to the corral.  I talked out loud to myself when he wiggled his head and slewed his ribs the wrong way and acted like there was a mountain lion in the bush.  It worked out pretty well, but I think I have begun a long-term relationship with fear.  For (maybe) the first time, I have a thing, and a family member, that cannot be denied or left behind and that evoke a new kind of fear.  I’m very happy I got myself out there and had a nice little ride today, but there is much more to understand.