Cowboy Magic

I have written a good bit lately about my fancy, first string horse. The horse I want to write about today is my first horse- well my first horse since childhood. I went through my teens, 20s, and most of my 30s without my own horse. Finally I managed to scrape together a few thousand dollars and purchase this guy.

The Big Gris Gris

He didn’t look quite like this when I got him. He wasn’t even three years old yet. He was skinny, and and several inches shorter. His color seemed to change on a weekly basis, so I won’t go into all that. He has been every version of grey that a horse can be.

Gris Gris is a Trakehner, a breed known for its intellegence and , some would say, sense of humor. I have seen G2 run through a pasture with a 6′ length of plastic tubing in his mouth- chasing the other horses and thoroughly enjoying himself. He can untie any know and open most locked, chained gates. He will rip the clothes off of most other horses just for fun, but will keep his own.

Hey! Give that back! Mom!!!

The horse in the burgundy blanket is the one from Spain. This picture was taken on his first morning at my house which is a long way from southern Spain. I bought him a neck piece (think turtleneck) to go with his blanket since he had no winter hair to speak of. Notice that it is not present in this shot.

What? I was just playing!

When I walked out into the paddock, G2 was waving the neck piece in the air, taunting the poor new kid to come get it! The other grey, a persnickity Oldenburg mare, was telling G2, “You are soooo busted.”

Before I move on with my story, I have to say a few more things about this fabulous horse. Other horses loved him. People loved him. Judges loved him. I still love him! All he had to do was enter the arena, pack me around and win a blue ribbon (sometimes red). More importantly, we always got really good scores and comments from the judges. When he bucked, which he sometimes did out of pure exuberance, the judges wrote that he was “playful” or “energetic.” Had G2 been any less of a horse he wouldn’t have put up with being my learning horse. He was that good.

X Halt Salute
(coat rule was waived b/c of heat)

The Champ After a Day at a Show (the big ribbon means he was the high scorer and champion of that level)

Somewhere along the way, G2 injured his stifle. That’s a bit like our knee but higher up. His promising show career was at an end. Not that I gave up that quickly. I spent every spare cent I had, and some I didn’t, to try to discover what was the matter and fix it to no avail.

Fast forward about six years to yesterday. I will spare you all the vet trips, therapies, and heartbreak of watching him become yard art. You didn’t think I would get rid of him did you? He’s only 13 now! Back to yesterday… I had been talking with my farrier who also happens to be a cowboy who starts horses for folks and gentles problem horses. I took G2 over to my farrier’s house for what I hoped would be some cowboy magic.

This is not the face of a horse who is worried by a little thing like a plastic bag on the end of a whip! He’s thinking,”Maybe I can catch it!”

We both had some concerns about hopping on a horse who hadn’t been ridden in at least six years. My farrier got on, walked and trotted a bit, then told me to get on! G2 was happy to tote the guy around cowboy style. So…

What next?

You will notice that I am dressed for English riding. Those pants still work fine in a Western saddle! Other than jeans, I don’t own any Western riding clothes, or tack either.

G2 and I poked around the arena a few times, but he started to get a little tense every time I tried to use some of the old dressage buttons. Then it dawned on us- G2 will never be a dressage horse again, but he may be OK packing people around! I used to take him on the trails all the time as a reward. He loved it!

This story doesn’t have an ending of any sort yet, it’s just a possibility. G2 was getting sore after 45 minutes of “work.” It was work after his time off. I’m going back this week for more rehab for G2 and maybe for me. If the big Gris can stand it physically, he will be re-educated so that he knows he will not be asked to carry himself like a dressage horse. That means I have to learn to ride Western! Happy trails to us all!


Unemployment, Deployment, and Dressage

A lot has happened since my last bit of noise. Among other things, I have been to another horse show and officially joined the ranks of the unemployed. The reason I link these two particular events is that, unlike some folks, I have to have gainful employment in order to support my equine habit. I also like finding connections between seemingly disparate things. It is one of life’s great ironies that I have always craved the time to train myself and my horses on a more serious level, but have always had to work. Now I have the time, but… see where this is going?

Last weekend’s show was what is known as a schooling show. In dressage that means you don’t have to put on the coat and the tidy whities, and you don’t have to braid your horse’s mane. I did anyway just because there is always a lot of down time at shows.

It’s all about the hair!

I did reasonably well considering that  my ribs are still quite sore from that fall (see previous post “Well, I Never!”). At Training Level Test 2, we got a 66.8%. There was a time when I would have been ecstatic with that score. Now I know just enough to be able to beat myself up for the pilot errors and to know just what the judge was talking about when she said “ride with brilliance!” I was trying to draw a deep breath and be better than average. That is not an excuse, just an explanation.

My trainer rode my horse at Training Level Test 3. She was brilliant, even if my young horse was trying his best to take a nap. She and horsey got an 8.5 (out of 10) on one canter pass, and she did ride brilliantly. The judge said so! She pretty much does that on any horse she gets on though. Definitely one to listen to and emulate.

So, while I try to figure out how to further my dressage career, such as it is, I also have to figure out what I am going to be when I grow up… again. Last time I checked, training of any kind for me or my horse was not free.

Being unemployed also gives one considerable down time. Another dilemma. Do I spend more money to get more training to get another job, or do I continue to spend money that will soon run out to chase the dressage dream? I point to more job training (back to school?) for me because there aren’t a whole lot of jobs out there for what I do.

I’m reaching deep into the internal blogosphere for this one, but like the Grinch, my puzzler is sore. My attitude could also use an adjustment.

Just do it!

Did I mention that I could return to my old job, sort of?  In order to do so, I  would have to apply to a contractor,  and then go through the training that I have been delivering for the past year. This applies to all of us who got let go. Put another way,  I would have to re-enter government employment at a lower status that that which I previously held and sit through training for a job that I have successfully trained for, done, and trained others to do. Even got a meritorious service award.

In dressage the only time there are mandatory do-overs is when you or the horse has been injured or you have to start all over with a new horse. I’ve had to do that three times! We expect setbacks in the horse world, and my story is far from unusual or even exceptional. It certainly isn’t tragic. It doesn’t give me a bad attitude to see others have better “luck,” even those people who seem to have more than their share of fortune’s favors.  I’ve had some pretty good breaks, help from friends, a great trainer, and have gotten some pretty decent scores in the dressage arena,  and am looking forward to more of the same. That said, we have a saying: Ride the horse that gets off the trailer!

So why do I feel like I have been kicked upside the head (or maybe in the gut)? I think it’s time for me to saddle up and get over myself again. My favorite attitude adjustment ever is waiting for me out by the gate. It won’t be the first time I’ve ridden of into the general direction of the sunset without an actual plan.


My Resume


The time has come for me to take things up a notch and write about something that most of you will find more important than dressage. I’ll save the dressage follow up as a recovery act for what follows here, to wit, a near rant about the job I am about to lose.

“So,” you ask, “what do you do?” The elevator version of my reply is a few mumbled phrases about  socio-cultural research and the Army in Afghanistan. “Really? How fascinating,” you reply, your curiosity piqued while you try to pigeon-hole me into whatever categories you find most helpful in organizing people in your life. “Well, what do you think about ________?” I usually reply that what I think is often irrelevant in whatever it is that I do.

Who says I have to stay inside the lines?

BIG FAT DISCLAIMER: The ranting below IN NO WAY represents the views or opinions of the Human Terrain System. They are MY IDEAS and MINE ALONE (unless some of you actually agree with me).

Many of us have read, and perhaps written, those sophomoric essays that begin “Webster defines ____________ as _______________.” They set us up for a debate in which the author is already committed to a definition when what is called for is intellectual engagement. Rather than resort to sources (which must be cited), I will make this up as I go, i.e. wing it on paper (I will also use the first person pronouns, something I normally eschew except while blogging). The goal is to arrive at a concept of Social Science that the reasonably prudent person (a legal standard, I know) can accept and employ- or at least talk about.

The degree of difficulty in organizing this discussion will be increased by the fact that not even academic institutions are able to agree upon a definition of Social Science and its practitioners. Some universities house their departments according to the degree to which its members apply quantitative methods to their research. Others need to balance distribution of credit hours and faculty lines, and so designate disciplines such as History to Liberal Arts or Humanities, or Social Science, depending on the need.[1] To my knowledge, no one gets a Ph.D. in Social Science.

So, what is a Social Scientist? I stated up front that I was going to provide a framework, not a definition, and my intention is to honor that. I do not wish to argue about it, though I suppose I must at some point. We have more definitions to guide us right now that we can possibly use. Some of these definitions support good Social Science and support our ability to provide operationally relevant research results to people who need it. Others confound us at every turn. By learning to live with contextually dependent definitions, we can, through the continued exchange of ideas, loosely describe (as opposed to define) ourselves and those portions of the world with which we come into contact.

Before being hired by Human Terrain System (HTS), I did not consider myself a Social Scientist. I am a Historian by training. I have also spent a considerable amount of time studying and practicing leadership, whatever that is. Maybe one day I’ll get it right. I usually enjoy doing what I do, and I am able to comfortably switch from staunch defender of the Liberal Arts and Humanities to proud practitioner of some Social Science methods in order to try to be of use in this world. I definitely prefer application to theory. Sadly, these days I find that neither a degree on a wall nor a patch on a uniform can be taken as evidence of ability to perform Social Science research in a combat zone.

Having a job in a certain field can be indicative of what one actually does. Those of us who have tried to explain HTS to the reasonably prudent person who has no military context upon which to draw will understand why I say ‘can’ in the previous sentence. I also find that, despite great strides in the educational field, those parts of the military with which I have had direct experience remain too concerned with the rigid categorization of people, places, and things. To be fair, we can also see such activity in some branches of the Social Sciences.

Despite the assertions of some branches of the Social Science tree, I maintain that the abilities to teach, do research, and learn are akin to the ability lead. These skills are not instantly found within certain disciplines. If I have no ability at all, then no amount of remedial education is going to bestow upon me the ability to do anything well. Putting me in a situation in which I must learn by doing would be equally dangerous because of the potential harm to those must attempt to learn with/from me. HTS tries to identify people who have some abilities already and equip them to go into a war zone to “do” good Social Science. Since I assume that a teacher is a subject matter expert (I’ll go so far as to say that a trainer should also be a SME), as opposed to someone who has read a lesson plan, I cling to the hope that HTS will come up with a way to engage real experienced teachers/trainers who will be able to provide some depth to the classroom experience that is now HTS Training. We will not find these people within the halls of TRADOC or schools of education. Rather, these SMEs will come to the HTS schoolhouse with a successful deployment and the ability to share that with others.

One way in which civilian and military institutions bolster their legitimacy is through publication of research in peer-reviewed formats. This gives tangible evidence to others that we do what we say we do. The more publications we have, the better we are… or so the line goes. Yet, in the age of globalization and democratization, we are all authors, and everybody knows everybody. As with resumés and rank, a long list of publications can signal many things to the reasonably prudent person. I recently had a conversation with a Social Scientist who claimed to be the “top producing Social Scientist in Afghanistan.” No mention of quality. This person is “good,” but the system has defined success in terms of how much we produce because we are afraid to make judgement calls.

HTS is in a position that many would find envious right now: the ability to set a few, hopefully flexible,  boundaries. In order to make the most of this situation, we must all be aware of as many layers of context as possible in order to make good decision. Social Scientists do not operate inside intellectual vacuums. Just listen to some of the conversations in which we engage. We would prefer to wrestle with intellectual issues rather than PowerPoint. This includes the best way to prepare others to go ply their form of Social Science downrange. We resent what we perceive as busy work that keeps us from being able to practice our form of our craft. We resent not being trusted to do our jobs (as we understand them?) in order to serve not only a greater good, but our own collective and individual curiosities, and yes, even our personal interests (more loosely defined concepts).

So what, inexactly, do Social Scientists do? We ask questions. We are curious to the point of skepticism; sarcastic to the point of irreverence; and respectful to the point of dogged devotion to people who are “good.” We continue to ask questions even if we are unable to provide answers. In whatever context we find ourselves, we are driven to identify, if not understand, the layers of meaning that constitute what may be called culture, life, ___________ (fill in the blank). We have extensive education and/or experience to help us form our questions, to strive for intellectually honest answers, and effectively present them to our audience. Our methods and talents are as varied as the topics we study.

I suppose that we must at least acknowledge that the title Social Scientist, as opposed to Social Investigator, or Social Theorist, does entitle people to some expectations. I would also like to address the expectations of those to whom we provide the results of our work. The reasonable person should be able to expect that we are able to ask “why?” and provide credible hypotheses (answers?).  HTTs may have the luxury of testing their own answers. More often, they will not. Others may, and in fact will, generalize from our localized findings. HTATs may try to do so as well, but in Afghanistan anyway, this approaches the bounds of futility.Over there, our “research” is mostly short term.

Social Science is a grand endeavor. To limit it to the village level limits its immense potential unless there is some larger goal, yet our current version of Social Science has hamstrung itself by promising “scientific” answers to local questions whose solutions may not be applicable beyond the local level to a customer who doesn’t understand that generalization beyond the local level is still a dangerous practice. Starting small is but one way to grab some turf in a debate. It works in Afghanistan, but we must also keep a big picture in mind. Who gets to draw that picture? You tell me.





[1] I can, of course, provide examples of these and other academic organizational structures.