Saturday, February 25, 2012

Mastering Habits

 Several years ago, I attended Gil Merrik’s Mastery Class down at Hassler Dressage. I almost didn’t sign up, as the name “Mastery Class” seemed a bit touchy-feely-vague for my tastes, but I got the impression they were a bit short on people, and I had the day free, so thought I’d be a good egg and attend. 

Boy, am I glad I went.  I was pretty blown away by how much I got out of that day. Now, years later, I still refer to my notes from Gil’s class.  Last week, in preparation for our annual “Show Goals and Planning Party,” I again reread those notes, and realized that when I applied one part of Gil’s class, I reaped unexpected results.

The part I am referring to is Gil’s discussion about moving goals forward.  He talked about taking goal planning one step further, and creating a process for achieving those goals. He explained his process, which involved making a commitment, applying certain actions to that commitment, and getting results.  He had a nifty white-board to draw all of these circles and arrows on (my notes actually call this ‘the circle thingy for goals’), but I am limited a bit by the media, so I’ll do my best to explain it in words.

It starts like this:

            Commitment + action = results

According to Gil, when commitments match up with actions, trust and integrity are created.

Underneath it all, I am a practical Midwestern girl, and I remember rolling my eyes (inside, of course—once I hit my mid 30s I learned to do that, well, sort of) at Gil’s whole discussion of creating trust and integrity. Integrity is all well and good, but not very measurable, so I had a hard time correlating “integrity” with the more concrete, usually-quite-measurable “goal.” 

Aside from that, the next part really resonated with me. He said the problem with this equation is not the results, it is taking the stand.

Because by taking the stand, I could, by definition, fail. Without a stand, there is no failure. But with a stand, there is. Failure is scary. And let’s face it, fear can easily lead to creating stories. As kids, how many stories did we tell to avoid punishment? But a story is not an action, and when we replace action with story, we get our second equation:

Commitment story = no results

But the bigger problem is, in our culture -

                        no results + a good story = kinda looks like results

But that's not true. 

                        In reality, no result + a story = no results. 

According to Gil, in this situation, there's no integrity and no trust.  He stated that taking responsibility for our words and commitments needs to matter to us.  Which I agreed with, but I’m kinda hard wired to “say what you mean, and mean what you say,” so again, I didn’t find the integrity part all that earth shattering. But seeing how clearly stories can derail results, well, that did resonate.

Gil went further. He said the additional danger of the story is it is based on your history, your past and your experiences, not necessarily all of the facts.  This may be incomplete info, but we perceive it as THE TRUTH, and boy, is it easy to fall in love with THE TRUTH – just look at all of the different religions, exercise nuts, health food advocates, the list goes on.  Once someone has fallen in love with TRUTH, we will defend our truth. A quick look at the current political climate confirms this. TRUTH is really easy to commit to, but then actions line up with the story, instead of with the commitment, which leads to no results. Which is all too common.

Last week, as I re-read the notes, I realized I had applied Gil’s process of moving goals forward to Venus, and in large part, that process had been as much a part of her rehab as the vet services.

Here’s how it applies to me—I bought Venus, and told everyone that I was going to do FEI Young Horse with her and then take her to Prix St George, which meant I needed help. So I took my first lesson with Scott Hassler, the USEF Young Horse coach.  That was my action to support my commitment.  I did my homework, and returned for regular lessons.

Before you get to thinking “well, she had this great opportunity and this great horse, of course that’s what she did.” Yea, no.  Venus was the best horse I could afford, and my budget was very, very small.  I could afford a nice front end, a nice back end, or a nice brain. I went for the back end, but the problems came out with her fearful, slightly tense brain. She ran through my aids A LOT as a youngster. 

Plus, have you seen the horses at Hassler’s? Hasslers arena was, and is, full of beautiful horses, being ridden by beautiful riders who seem never to move, or have ineffective aids, or get frustrated, and I was just trying to steer and stop enough to not run into them.

Many, many times I nearly quit going. I nearly bought into the stories I told myself -- I’m just a poor working horseperson just trying to get along, not like the rich, pretty riders down there, or I can’t afford to give up 6 hours, I could get a lot done, etc.   But I didn’t, not because of integrity, or honesty, or any other abstract term.  I kept going because going down there every-other Wednesday became a pattern, and everyone knew that was my pattern, and would ask about my lessons, which, of course, reinforced the pattern. Soon, that pattern became a habit.

After a while, that habit began to yielded results—Venus started to become more consistent in her responses, I started to develop a bit of confidence, and she and I competed in the FEI 5-year-old division. So for me, Gil’s equation began to look more like this:

            Commitment + action = habit = more commitment + more actions = results

Then Venus got hurt. I did the rehab, and put her back in training.  Frankly, I wasn't hopeful of her becoming an FEI horse. I bought into the story that she had done a lot of damage to her body, and probably wouldn’t make it.

But aside from that story, I had a habit. I was in the habit of climbing on her back and heading to the ring every day, and putting her in the trailer and heading down for Scott’s help on a regular basis. So I kept up my habit.

Last winter her training became really, really frustrating, but again, my habit was to take her in the arena, so I kept going.  When I was off of her, I would lament about her lack of progress, but my habit was strong, and I just kept putting my foot in the stirrup and swinging a leg over.

And somewhere, when I was doing what was habitual, Venus began to blossom.  She has become the light, forward, delightful horse I dreamed of when I bought her, and our short-term goal became to compete 3rd level this year, with goals of moving up in the future.

All because of mastering a habit.



  1. Your post really struck a chord with me. I have all these dreams and 'goals' and they are attainable, but I need to put the work in consistantly. It is all well and good schooling for an hour at the weekend, but if all you have done in the last 10days is lunge once you are not going to get very far.
    My 'story' is I am a mother of 2 small children, my husband works funny hours and it is hard to do everything. But in reality I can actually get the horses exercised most days, even if for only 15mins. I need to make the exercising as much of a habit as the mucking out. It is very easy to agree with people who say "wow, you must do so much" and keep bringing that 'story' out every time I can't be bothered or it is going to be more effort than i would like.

    Thank you!

  2. Thank you for this. A lot of these ideas float around in my head, but this is a really concise and coherent -- dare I say? -- story. I'm glad it's worked/working out, and thank you for the post!

  3. You guys are both welcome. The funny thing about Venus' progress is I really was talking the story as if she wasn't going to progress, and how she really wasn't working out, etc, but just kept on riding, and she progressed despite my negative stories. Routine is a powerful thing.

  4. Thanks for this post. I was having a "crisis of faith" when my horse became injured and my goals derailed for rehabbing, this post and Denny Emerson's "Long term, short term, why the rush?" post are helping me to feel better that I have time, my horse has time, we just have to keep up our routine.