stupid human tricks · Uncategorized

The Wrong Horse

A recent post on the Trafalgar Square Books Blog by Denny Emerson hit me right in the feels: Is Your Horse the Love of Your Life, but Completely Wrong for You?

To which I can only answer: yes. Without question, yes.

Almost ten years ago, when I moved down from Vermont to take a new job in Boston, I went through a rough patch with Tristan. He didn’t adjust well to the two new barns I had him at. He colicked badly at the first barn, and then at the second things just were not clicking. He was never not sound, but he was just NQR. Combine that with a bad atmosphere in the barn, and I sent him back to Vermont to live at a friend’s farm for about nine months.

58-0013first dressage show

Before he went out to a field, I put him in training for a week with the trainer I’d previously had in Vermont. What was going wrong? I wanted to know. She worked with him for a week and told me a couple of things: he was completely burned out, he was profoundly unhappy, and he was the wrong horse for me and I needed to sell him and get the horse I “deserved.”

I got off the phone and cried until I threw up. I couldn’t process what she was telling me. She’d known me for four years, and had helped me start Tristan. How had I screwed everything up so badly in less than a year? I only knew that I loved him with all of my heart, I had made incredible sacrifices and worked insanely hard to keep him and keep him happy, and I was being told that it was all wrong.

DSCN0979so young, so skinny

Obviously, I kept him. I couldn’t bear to lose him. There may have been some truth to what my trainer was saying: he would never be – and has never been – an easy ride. We’ve worked hard but we still fight a lot. My life and my riding skills would be dramatically different today if I’d found an ammy-friendly horse with some eventing mileage and a higher work drive, instead of a very green-broke mustang who still viewed humans and work with deep suspicion.

My relationship with that trainer was never the same, because I couldn’t believe what she was telling me – and more importantly, how she was telling it to me. I thought long and hard about everything, and I decided that I loved Tristan. I loved him more than I loved eventing, or competing, or winning. It’s totally okay to choose differently; lots of people do just what Denny advocates in his article, make difficult decisions in pursuit of their own goals. But it wasn’t a choice I could make.

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So I kept him. I worked hard to meet him more than halfway. I made my first priority and my first goal in all situations to make him happy and healthy. I learned to ease off goal-setting and hard-driving, because I would just hit a wall, every time. I had to take things as they came. I’m not naturally that person by any stretch of the imagination, but Tristan has forced me into that.

In return, he’s done more than that trainer ever imagined. He won at Beginner Novice. He is still cranky and not thrilled about dressage but sometimes a light comes on and he applies all that stubborn energy to figuring out the problem, and when he releases he is downright fancy. He’s the horse that everyone in the barn loves, the horse that I don’t have any hesitation giving toddler pony rides on, the horse that whickers for me when he sees me coming down the aisle. My heart still leaps when I see his face sticking out his stall, every single time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcelebrating three months together, 2006

So: yes, he was and probably still is completely the wrong horse for me, and I love him more than anything, and I have no regrets.

stupid human tricks · Uncategorized

On Release

I could have written this blog post a dozen times over the last twenty or so years of my riding life.

I am bad at letting go. It can be a great quality – it makes me a good historian – but it can also be a bad quality.

I’m sure you can guess the horse-related circumstances in which it’s a very bad quality.

In my lessons lately, I’ve been working very hard on releasing.

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See, Tris is just as stubborn as I am. Maybe even more so. He wants what he wants. He meets resistance and doubles down.

Previous trainers had me bending or flexing him all the time. Every second. The whole ride. He was not to be ridden straight; that would exacerbate his already stuck tendencies.

Like many before me and many after me, I developed the bad habit of hanging on the inside rein. Especially the left. I could get some softness right, but never left.

A lot of people talk about horses as a partnership. A true sense of that has always evaded me with Tristan. I adore him, and I have no doubt that he trusts and relies on me, but more often our rides are an uneasy conversation. It’s not easy – emotionally or physically.

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I need to let go. I need to offer him up things – the inside rein, a chance to carry the rhythm, my pursuit of the perfect trot at the end of a lesson. I need to trust him to take it from me and hold up his half of the bargain.

He hasn’t always. I know we are never supposed to blame horses for anything, but I don’t think I can overstate how strong Tristan’s personality is. I have only just now been his human for as long as he has lived unable to trust humans. He didn’t see any need to take his half.

But he’s getting there. I’m getting there. I’ve been giving away the inside rein in big, exaggerated loops. I’ve been physically lifting my legs off his sides entirely after asking for more. I’ve been choosing to end on that last good transition.

It’s hard. It does not come naturally. I still suck at it, and am still exponentially worse in every area of my life.

But this is why we keep coming back to horses, isn’t it? All the answers are in there, somewhere. It’s an exhausting, painful, financially ruinous, heartbreaking way to find the answers, but they are there.

stupid human tricks · Uncategorized

No Excuses November

I’ve been thinking a lot about my riding goals.

Earlier this year, I wanted badly to bring Tristan out at First Level in the fall. I worked hard all winter and spring. We made some great progress. Then – a full summer of disaster. The heel grab, the new shoes, the colic, the new heel grab. My own motivation and drive suffered badly. I re-focused on other things in my life that I could push forward.

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He thinks being back in work is dumb.

Tristan has been back in work now for most of October. In the last week or so, I’ve started turning the screws a bit on his training – stepping up the intensity of his conditioning ride. Asking for better work earlier in the ride. He’s responded really well. I’m still more cautious than I should be, but moving more and more toward expecting him to come out and put in good work than hoping today would be a good day.

I thought about doing a no stirrup challenge for November, because I am badly in need of that kind of work myself, but ultimately decided it wasn’t in either of our best interests to do that. He really needs his back warmed up before I do any sitting work.

Photo Jun 05, 9 10 06 AMIf his back never warms up you get this gross ball of tension.

I’ve decided on what I’m calling “No Excuses November.”

No more, “but it’s cold and I’m tiiiiiiired.” If he has scheduled work, then I get my ass to the barn and do the work.

No more, “I’ll just let myself have this break.” Either I make a choice to give my brain and body a rest, and truly pursue that rest, or I suck it up.

No more, “Well, I can do it tomorrow, it’s fine.” I get the things done that need to be done. I re-evaluate a schedule if I have to, but I don’t put off because I’d rather whine instead.

To be clear, I’m already a pretty driven person. I already juggle a lot of things. But I fall too constantly into the DO ALL THE THINGS / DO NOTHING cycle, and the whiplash is bad news for future me. It tips the whole thing off balance, not that it’s really balanced to begin with.

So, tomorrow. No more excuses. Not for the whole month. Then I re-evaluate in December, and see where I’ve gotten.

stupid human tricks · Uncategorized

Bad Habit Theater: Rolling Feet in Stirrups

I got new tall boots for my birthday, and I’ve been riding in them consistently for about a month now. (Tredstep Medicis, for the curious; I’ll do a review after some further breaking-in.) They are generally pretty great, but they have highlighted one huge flaw in my riding position.

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Can you see it?

Apparently, I roll my feet to the outside in the stirrups. Something about the way these boots are holding my leg and ankle more stable means that rolling my foot to the outside compresses my little toe against the outside of the stirrup and after just a few minutes, starts to hurt like hell.

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It’s pretty subtle, but you can see it more clearly in my left leg here.

I think it’s a combination of a couple of things. I am generally on the tall side for Tristan, and I’ve ridden him in spurs for a long time, which means I’ve developed the bad habit of curling my leg up and in to cue driving aids. The way I’ve apparently accomplished that is to weight the outside of my foot, which causes my foot to slide to the outside of the stirrup, which means that posting puts pressure down in the bottom outside corner of the stirrup.

I’m also, admittedly, not as secure in the stirrup as I should be – really weighting my leg down into a dressage length of stirrup. Getting better at that would mean the stirrups move around less, and have less chance to move into that awkward position. There may also be some pinching with the knee mixed up in this whole thing, and I know that rolling my foot like this was also an old flaw with my jumping position – it felt more secure cross-country.

It doesn’t help that my stirrup treads were shot years ago, and are basically providing no grip to speak of.

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I’m a bit stumped on how to fix it. I have a few ideas, but would appreciate additional suggestions!

So far I’ve been trying:

  • Consciously working not to curl my leg and foot, which is hard, because it wasn’t something I realized I was doing in the first place. I’m trying to think about weighting the ball of my foot more, aligning my posting through the big toe instead of the little toe. I’m not at all sure that’s the right way to visualize it, though.
  • Looking into replacing my stirrup treads. Right now, I just have basic Fillis irons with rubber inserts that are basically flat. It looks like I can replace them with the same, or “upgrade” to something like this. I don’t love the idea of it, but I also reallllly don’t want to buy new stirrups. (Though, if buying new stirrups would substantially improve my life, try to convince me.)

  • Riding without stirrups. Which, okay, isn’t the worst temporary solution, but it’s not an actual fix for the problem.

Any ideas? Anyone else have this problem?

book review · stupid human tricks · Uncategorized

Brain Training for Riders: Interview with Andrea Monsarrat Waldo

Previously, I reviewed Andrea’s terrific book, Brain Training for Riders: Unlock Your Riding Potential with StressLess Techniques for Conquering Fear, Improving Performance, and Finding Focused Calm. In Part II of this three-part series, I asked Andrea a number of interview questions about her book and about some things I was curious about that she didn’t address in the book. (In Part III, coming on Friday, Andrea will answer questions from blog readers as long as they’re posted as comments or emailed to me by midnight on Monday, February 12.)

Remember: you can enter to win a copy of the original book! Just check out the original review post for the entry instructions.

Interview with Andrea Monsarrat Waldo

Q: A lot of the situations and emotions you describe are ephemeral or inside one person’s head. How did you find the process of getting all those thoughts out into written form? Was it difficult, or did it just flow?

Many of those things came from inside my own head, so those were easy!! Others were from my students, and I’m used to getting people to describe their emotions in detail, so it flowed pretty naturally for me–it’s the language I use all the time.

Q: You write very honestly and thoughtfully about your own struggles with Lizard Brain and getting over a bad fall. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what drives people to keep doing risky things even when they get nervous about them. Really, all equestrian disciplines have inherent risk, but you’re an eventer – a sport that arguably has higher risk than most. Do you have any thoughts on what keeps driving us to do these things even when our brains are screaming no?

I heard someone say once, “Anxiety is excitement without breath.” Those two emotions are two sides of the same coin. Human beings seem to have an inherent need to challenge ourselves; the quest for growth and learning appears to be built right into our DNA. Some people have this drive more than others, and for those of us like this, the reward of the thrill overrides the power of the fear.

Q: You’ve taught a lot of clinics, both on riding and on your StressLess program. What would you say the most common fear that people have is?

There are two biggies: death and embarrassment/rejection. Often these are divided by age: people under 30 tend to fear looking foolish, while people over 30 more often fear serious injury. When you’re younger, you haven’t lost the invincible feelings of adolescence, or the self-consciousness of that phase, so you are less concerned about the physical risk. As we get older, we have more experience with the consequences of danger, both our own and other people’s; we also have more responsibility, so we worry about things like how to pay the mortgage if we are injured badly enough to be out of work. Having children is a significant game-changer too: many women tell me that they became much more cautious once they had kids of their own. Fear of embarrassment or failure is still there as we age, but it’s usually less powerful.

Q: A lot of the challenges you describe are problems of action: you can act to change them, or at differently, or apply work to get through them. What advice would you give for riders facing problems of inaction? In other words, what the brain gets up to when the best solution is to do absolutely nothing. I know I’m not the only one who has turned around halfway home from the barn to go and make absolutely sure I latched the grain room door securely, or turned off the lights, or gotten the blanket changes right, or other, similar weaselly thoughts. How do you recommend easing the brain through those kinds of anxiety moments?
 At that point, it’s practicing anxiety tolerance, or getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. You have to do nothing, then discover that everything turned out ok, before your brain will allow you to do nothing without the intense anxiety. This SUCKS, btw!! To make it a tiny bit easier, it helps to give your brain some crutches, or something else to focus on. You could write yourself a note when you close the grain bin: “Hey, I closed the grain bin today, Jan. 28th. You don’t have to check again.” While you’re riding it out, give yourself something else to focus on–practice leg-yielding while you’re hacking, keep your horse on the bit, talk to yourself about your goals for the year–anything to keep yourself occupied while you wait to see that everything turns out okay. Getting past any anxiety, though, is all about learning to sit with the discomfort and realize “I’m anxious, it feels awful, and I’m still okay. I hate this feeling, and I’m still okay–it’s just a feeling, and it will pass.” Our Lizard Brain needs to recognize that every anxious thought isn’t true, and that anxiety isn’t fatal. It doesn’t know this on its own; we have to train it to listen to our Rational Brain.
Q: I personally tend not to worry about my own skin. I guess I’m lucky in that. I figure if something bad happens to me I made my choices, and I have pretty high pain and embarrassment tolerances. But I do worry about causing harm to my horse. If he bolts outside, the panic in my brain is not “what if I fall off and die?” it’s “what if he keeps running and never comes home and gets trapped in the woods and colics and dies or gets hit by a car or…?” Yells of “loose horse” at a show scare me almost more than the ambulance does. Any thoughts on overcoming that niche fear?
I think this must be what parents deal with on a regular basis when they send their kids out the door every day. The fear of loss is the flip side of love. To a certain extent, we have to do the same thing we do with the danger of riding: accept that there is inherent risk in dealing with flight animals, and that sometimes they make bad/downright stupid decisions, and that we can’t control every single thing that happens. In the moment, though, what we need is action: never mind what *could* happen, the question is, what do you need to *do* right now to prevent those things from happening? He’s loose-grab a halter and grain. Also, remember what you know: “What if he never comes home?” Remember that horses are herd animals, if he gets lost, he’ll do his best to find buddies–so put the word out that he’s lost. And remember that you’re not alone–horse people come together in crises. We look for lost horses, we hook up a trailer as fast as we can to get someone’s horse to the surgery clinic when they’re colicking. We can’t 100% rid ourselves of the anxiety, but we wouldn’t want to–it’s the thing that reminds us to buckle throat latches on halters, to do night check when we don’t feel like it, to notice when a step sounds a little bit off when they’re walking next to us.
Q: Horse people are not always the easiest to get along with. There’s a reason we chose a sport in which we relate to one-ton animals instead of other humans. Are there any StressLess techniques you’ve found useful in applying to barn drama?
Haha I think you just handed me my next book subject! First, we have to be brutally honest with ourselves: what role do we play? No one thinks that they create drama! Notice whether you join in group bitching sessions, or get worked up when that person does the annoying thing she always does (my biggest habit–why am I surprised when people are who they have always been?), or roll our eyes behind someone’s back. Second, I live by the saying, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” If it’s not my problem, I try to find something better to do.  If it *is* my circus–it’s happening in my barn–that doesn’t mean they’re my monkeys–it’s not necessarily my job to solve it or get involved. If they are, in fact, my monkeys–two of my students are sniping at each other, or I’m pissed off at one of my business partners for something–then it’s time for me to deal with it, and deal with it directly, not by complaining to someone else to let off steam and then not do anything to change the situation. Like I said, I could write a whole second book on this one!
Q: Your section on how to transition people on from a horse that’s not a good fit for them was fantastic. I’m starting to think about retiring my partner of over a decade. I was in the same position as the young rider you described – I chose him over a specific discipline or specific goals. I hope my next horse will be a bit more competitive and ready to event, though. Any advice on transitioning from a longtime, beloved-but-not-easy partner to a new horse?
It’s a bit like dating someone new after you got out of a difficult but meaningful relationship. You have to let yourself grieve for the old one, no matter how right the decision to move on is. Next, be sure you’re not getting the old guy in a different package–we all have a type we gravitate towards! Bring along a friend who is willing to say, “Stop picking the bad boys in leather jackets!”  I can’t emphasize this one enough, because we’re comfortable with what’s familiar, and we gravitate toward it. I’ve always had challenging horses; when I was shopping for Chauncy, I tried a horse down at Sue Berrill’s. She told me to stop picking at him and just soften the rein on the way to the jump. I did, and he sailed over it. I looked at her and said, “I could be a monkey up here and he’d jump.” She just said, “Yup.” I said, “But it doesn’t count unless you suffer for it!” She just about fell off the jump she was sitting on, she was laughing so hard!
Once you find a new horse, then you have to be aware of the baggage you’re bringing to the new relationship. When you get into familiar scenarios with the new guy–you’re working on going through water, and your last horse was allergic to getting wet–it’s really important to remind yourself to ride the horse you have now, not the one you used to have. And you have to give yourself the same patience that you give your new horse: it takes time to get used to a new horse, even when the last one was easy, and getting over “baggage” always takes longer. You’re going to make mistakes, but you’d be making mistakes anyway, right? A good trainer or any good set of eyes on the ground is really helpful at this point. After I sold my ditch-phobic Dutch mare, my business partner Mary came to the start box with me at every event and said, “Remember, ride Sizzle out there–don’t ride Lizzy.” The first time I jumped a ditch on Sizzle, I separated the poor girl’s ribs with my spurs. She was like, “WHAT?!? I’m going already! What’s your problem?” Fortunately she jumped it, instead of bucking me off, which was what I really deserved!
Thanks SO much to Andrea for taking the time to answer these questions – I think you can all see through her interview answers that she’s just as terrific as she comes across in her book!
Now: make sure to enter the giveaway to get your own copy, and comment here (or email me, beljoeor[at]gmail[dot]com) with your questions for Andrea by midnight on Monday, February 12 and look for Part III with Andrea’s answers on Friday!

 

book review · stupid human tricks · Uncategorized

Book Review: Brain Training for Riders by Andrea Monsarrat Waldo

51892rNSrWL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Brain Training for Riders: Unlock Your Riding Potential with StressLess Techniqus for Conquering Fear, Improving Performance, and Finding Focused Calm by Andrea Monsarrat Waldo
$12.88 on Amazon

I think it’s nearly impossible to be an equestrian and never to have experienced a moment of fear, or worry, or self-doubt. In fact, I might argue that if you sail through all horse-related endeavors with perfect confidence and ease, you’re doing something wrong.

Andrea Waldo is an eventer and trainer based out of Charlotte, Vermont. (Full disclaimer: I’ve known her for years and did an eventing clinic with her many years ago. She’s just as terrific in real life as she comes across on the page!) She was also a practicing psychotherapist for nearly two decades, and holds an MA in Counseling. So she is uniquely positioned to write a book about the brain demons involved in horse sports.

Andrea has also graciously agreed to be part of this three-part review of her book. In this part, today, I’ll summarize and review the book itself. In part 2 (next Monday), I’ll do an interview with her, and then in part 3 (next Friday), she’ll answer your questions.

I’m also hosting a giveaway for a copy of the book. SO. At the end of this post, ask any questions you might have for Andrea – and be sure to enter the giveaway widget when you do so!

The book has five major sections, and I’ll go through each.

Introduction

Sometimes, book introductions aren’t terribly useful, but this introduction actually sets the tone of the whole book. Andrea is really aiming for a full system in this book, and so she starts by laying out a few of her baseline assumptions and theories, as well as what she’s trying to do as a progression through the rest of the book. She also confesses to her own stress and anxiety issues to show that no one is immune.

The most useful takeaway for me from the introduction was her firm argument that relaxation is not the “ideal performance state for riding.” Such a simple and overlooked idea! Trainers so often talk about being “relaxed” like your mental and physical states should be the same whether you’re sipping fruity drinks on a beach or galloping toward a cross country fence. Andrea blows that myth up right away, and the book is immediately better for it.

Equestrian GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Brain Training

The progression for the book is to start by laying out some concepts and exercises to get you in the habit of using simple techniques, then to apply those techniques to everyday riding situations, then really difficult riding situations, then show a variation on them that can be useful to trainers, rather than just riders.

In this first chapter of the book, she introduces the idea of the Lizard Brain: that primordial part of our brains that is responsible for self-preservation and stress responses. She points out that the Lizard Brain does not distinguish between an actual tiger and an imagined tiger: it floods the system in response to both. In understanding that, we can start to take a step back and simply acknowledge the feelings flooding through us without getting towed under by them.

Jumping GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

She writes a lot about negative self-talk and how to work through it, the differences between bragging and assertion of competence, and advises us to “make a habit of noticing when things go well.” The best thing about her discussion of these things is that she actually lays out a compassionate, straightforward, well-written and well-argued way to go about it. She’s not talking down to her reader: she’s taking the reader’s hand and actually coaching them.

The entire book is chock full of exercises that serve as building blocks for working things through – hence the “training” part of the book’s promise. There are a lot of them, and even if you don’t have the time to physically write out your answers, I found just closing my eyes and thinking them through to be enormously helpful. They complement and add to each other as you go through.

I found one directive from this chapter particularly useful: “If you need to air your anxiety to relieve some stress, make sure you also talk about what you are going to do to address it.”

Horse Trials GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Focus, Confidence, and StressLess Performance

Once you’ve internalized the training lessons of the first section, Andrea starts to put them into practice in achieving good mental states while riding and competing.

There are a lot of different things you can do to help; the first is to establish a good sense of focus. If you’re totally in the moment, you’re responsive and not worried. I love that she pointed out that focus is not some magical personality trait – it’s a learned, repeatable behavior. I also loved that she suggested an exercise for practicing how to transition your body and mind from tense to calm.

Horse Trials GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Practice is also highlighted: what quality practice looks like, how to manage the mistakes you’re going to make, and how to start to ramp up the outside stressors. She writes about how to give yourself intentional exposure to mental and emotional risks, and shares the story of a student who had a bad fall and then wrote out a multi-step program for how to move herself past it.

Plans are really important – and setting good goals is a cornerstone of making a good plan. If you don’t know what a successful show season or ride looks like, then you’re always going to feel like you’ve come up short. It’s important to be clear and honest with yourself – Andrea writes that “luck favors the prepared.”

One of my double-underlined notes from this chapter was a summation phrase that really hit me: “you don’t have to feel okay to be okay.” Your Lizard Brain lies, and you need to recognize and work with that.

Horse S Cross Country Jumping GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Battling the Big Demons

We’ve all had at least one really Big One – a fall, a failure, an injury, something that has taken over our brain to an outsized degree. This section moves all the techniques of the previous chapters past the everyday worries and into tackling problems that take up residence in your brain and just. won’t. let. go.

One of the best things about this chapter, for me, was how Andrea balanced things you can do yourself with when to know you need more help – from a trainer, from other people in your life, from a therapist. Books can’t do everything!

Horse Trials GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

There are some things you can do on your own, though. First, it’s important to think about psychological injuries in the same way we would a physical one. She points out that we would never put our horses back in work right after a bad injury, and we shouldn’t tough out a brain injury either. Acknowledging the emotions that come up is important, and letting yourself feel it all is the way through.

I’m sure we’ve all had people in our lives ask us why we keep doing these crazy things, and Andrea has a bit about how to work with your family and friends who ask all the frustrating questions you can imagine. I admit, I’ve fallen into the trap of getting snippy and angry right off the bat with people who ask me those things, because I have people in my life who are assholes about it, but Andrea’s methods here are much better!

Horse Trials GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

StressLess Techniques for Trainers

Technically this section is for trainers, but trust me, it’s useful for riders too. Basically, Andrea works through different types of challenges that students might present, and how to teach them. I particularly liked her statement that “every emotional, relational, and social issue in a rider’s life eventually shows up in the riding arena.” I thought “how true!” and then “yikes, my poor trainers.”

Now that you’ve read the summary of the book, I’m sure you want a copy of your own! Check out the Rafflecopter giveaway below; I’ll be drawing the winner on Friday, February 16.

And if you have any questions you’d like to ask of Andrea, comment away or email me: beljoeor[at]gmail[dot]com. She’ll answer questions in Part III of this series, on February 16. You can comment with questions up to midnight on Monday, February 12.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

stupid human tricks · Uncategorized

Expectation v Reality

Me: I have my first lesson in months today! I’m going to get there an HOUR early, and put on all his Back on Track stuff, and maybe touch up his clip, and really groom him thoroughly, and give him a nice long walking warmup before the lesson even starts!

Also me: Shoot, I forgot the dog has to go out and all the pieces to the barrier that keeps her in the kitchen are in different parts of the house and how are my winter breeches missing??? It’s ok, I still have time for a few more emails while the dog is out, wait, WHAT, we got six more inches of snow and my car is covered in solid ice? I AM A TERRIBLE FAILURE AT LIFE.

sigh.

I got there 30 minutes early and was still on before the lesson started, and it was superb (recap on Thursday) but oh boy, my brain. Could it maybe just not?