Chasin’ Cows

Last night we went out to Cryin’ Coyote Ranch for team sorting practice and chased some cows.

At no point in my entire riding history (or life) would I have ever imagined that this is something I would one day do.

There are cows, numbered 0–9, in two small round pens that are connected with a pretty wide opening between them. The cows are all herded into one of the round pens, and two riders are in the empty one. As the first rider enters the pen with the cows, a number is called out, say “5”. The rider must separate cow #5 from the herd and put him in the empty pen. Her partner guards the opening to ensure that only cow #5 goes in there, and that he doesn’t come back out. Then the riders switch off cutting and guarding the cows in order — in this case, #6, 7, 8, 9, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 — until all the cows are in the second pen, or until time runs out. You only have a minute to achieve this.

In none of my five or so turns did my partner and I get all the cows; I think our record was four of them. The major achievement of the first turn was not getting bucked off by Dunnie, who despite being a finished reined cow horse, gets so excited about the cows that he doesn’t know what to do with himself, gets frustrated by it, and then prances and jumps around while the cows ignore him. The second time around, I was able to get him to go after the cows, but we spent the entire minute chasing cow #5 while he ran us in circles around the ring ensconced in the security of his herd (at times with his head literally under the back legs of the cow in front of him) and I laughed my head off.  But the third time! Let me tell you, getting that first cow in the pen was a thrill. I imagine it’s what hockey players feel like when they score their first NHL goal.

After that, I realized that making Dunnie wait in the line for our turn was ratcheting him up, and that if I cantered him around the warm-up ring in between, it’d give him something to think about and he’d cool himself off. I also had him doing spins, and with his elevated energy levels, we did some of the best ones we’ve ever done.

Waiting our turn.

Our next couple turns after that were much more productive. Every time I either got a cow in the other pen or successfully blocked one that wasn’t supposed to come in I felt like pumping my fist in the air and cheering (I mostly restrained myself, but I’m told my face was lit up like the sun).

So the upshot is, now I’m addicted to this. Once he gets past the silliness, Dunnie is actually a pro. And as I’m gaining confidence, I can be more aggressive chasing those cows down. It’s quite exhilarating to ride right into a herd of cows and then be able to control them. It makes me feel pretty powerful to be able to push around cows, even though they’re little cows. The  level of partnership and communication between horse and rider required for this is more than anything I’ve ever experienced. It means moving together as one toward the same purpose. As always, the tangible is more compelling to me than the abstract. I can certainly get behind working hard to get good at doing stuff in the ring and then winning competitions. But this is about as far from abstract as you can get. Horses are real. Cows are real. They are both big, and very vividly alive underneath and surrounding me.

The more I delve into all the different disciplines of riding, the more I see how there are so many ways to challenge myself and my horse. It’s like when I was taking English lessons, I saw some shiny stuff on the ground — and then when I started riding Western, I dug into this mother lode of possibility, where the deeper I dig, the richer it becomes.

The team.

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Cross-training

Over the last year, Dunnie has been a great teacher, helping me learn all the new tricks I’ve picked up as a Western rider. I thought it was about time that I returned the favor, and last Friday I decided to put an English saddle on him.

English Dunnie.

I’ve only ridden English twice in the last year, both times on horses that were not Dunnie, and both times I was struck by how much more work it is than Western. There’s so much less saddle to hold you on your horse, and the stirrups are less attached to the saddle, providing much more opportunity for your leg to swing all over the place. So in addition to not knowing how Dunnie would react to the different saddle and style of riding, I really didn’t know how my own body would react to it. I predicted that I’d be pretty sloppy.

Amazingly, that wasn’t the case. First, Dunnie is the best. He reacted so well to the change, even naturally adjusting his stride and movement to my different style of riding (posting at the trot much more, a little more forward center of gravity/arch in the back, etc.). I have to imagine that the significantly reduced weight of the English saddle was like a vacation to him after the serious heft of the Western saddle I ride in, but even so I was so pleased at how quickly he adjusted.

As for me, I was very pleasantly surprised by the strength and stability of my legs. Riding Western, I don’t grip as much with my upper calf as I do in an English saddle — it’s just not possible with the way the stirrups are — but I do use my legs a ton to tell Dunnie where to go and to move him laterally. I’ve also been making a serious point of adding exercise into my rides; I’ve been forcing myself to do a lot of two-point at the trot, posting with no stirrups, and a two-beat posting exercise that means you stand up for two beats, sit for two beats (up-up, down-down),  which is a lot more difficult than it sounds. I was able to see the results of all this work in the English saddle, where even at the canter, my leg was rock solid. It just goes to show that constantly going back to the basics in riding is important, no matter what level you’re riding at. I’m constantly reminding myself of fundamentals to work on in my own riding, now that I’m teaching and correcting the kids on these basics over and over.

I think now that I know he’s all right with it, I’m going to add to that exercise regimen one biweekly English ride to provide cross-training to both myself and Dunnie. Now that we’re making some real breakthroughs in our Western riding, including getting him to carry his head much lower than before and finally finally getting some good turnarounds, I’m motivated to keep pushing him, to see what else he can do. While Western is still our main focus, throwing in a little English now and again will be good for both of us just to keep it interesting — a bored Dunnie is a troublemaker Dunnie — and who knows? We might just try out some English classes in addition to the Western ones at our next show.

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Reading

The other thing taking up time that I could spend writing this blog is that I’ve been reading every book on training I can get my hands onto. Not only am trying to become the best rider I can be, but also Dunnie is so damn smart that if I don’t keep him interested with new drills and challenges all the time, he gets really annoyed.

To that end, I’ve decided to start a new “book reviews” category.

The first book I got about a year ago when I started riding Western was Reining by Al Dunning, which is put out by Western Horseman.

Here’s my goodreads review:

I’ve had this listed as “reading” for a long time now, but truthfully I’ve read through the entire thing. I just keep going back to it for ideas on new training exercises, or for help with fixing problems and sharpening up skills.

This is a great resource that spans levels of training from green to finished. As a rider that’s new to reining on a horse that’s finished (but who has had a lot of time away from being asked to work and therefore needs sharpening up), I’ve found this book extremely helpful in understanding the fundamentals of reining and learning how to build on those fundamentals to refine my skills in each area of the discipline.

 

Especially helpful are all the pictures that show what the horse should be doing and what that looks like at each step or the drills and the diagrams of how to perform all of them. My favorite chapters are “Body Control and Suppling” and “Turn-Arounds,” both of which have been extremely helpful in working with Dunnie. It’s a pretty great feeling when you read something, decide to try it, and it has immediate results that tell you it’s working.

Next up for review: Storey’s Guide to Training Horses.

You can also see my “horses” Goodreads shelf here for reviews on all kinds of horse books (not just training-related).

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Talking to Horses

In addition to riding three or four days, I’m now also working at the barn two evenings a week. I say that partially as an explanation for why I am updating this blog so infrequently. But it also represents a huge turning point for me: I’m now actually getting paid to do what I love.

Obviously teaching horseback riding to children two nights a week isn’t allowing me to quit my day job. But it’s a start on the path that hopefully one day leads to horse work being my life’s work. And it makes me think of the thousands of times I’d be stuck at my desk, consumed with depression because I never thought I’d find a way out, positive that there was no way I’d ever have the opportunity to do work that was meaningful to me.

Coworkers.
Coworkers.

I was fond of saying, when particularly drained from the utter pointlessness and repetitiveness of the busywork I did all day at my last job, that I would rather be mucking stalls. At least then I’d be using my body instead of deteriorating in front of a computer. I don’t have to muck stalls at this job, but I certainly do use my body. I’m in constant movement: getting the horses from their stalls, grooming them and picking their hooves and tacking them up and untacking them and putting the equipment away and turning them out, cleaning up the barn and the tack room and the arena. And that’s not even taking into account the work in the ring with my students: lugging the mounting block around, helping them mount, walking (or running) alongside them to help them control their horses or understand new concepts, moving around poles and jump standards…I downloaded a step counter for my phone, and in the approximately 3 1/2 hours I work in an evening, I easily get in 8,000–10,000 steps. And that’s after doing all those things with Dunnie and then riding him. The first week I worked, I was utterly wrecked.

But I also slept amazingly. And I can already feel my legs getting stronger and tighter, and my posture improving, and even my pants fitting a little less tightly.

The work isn’t just physical, either. It’s totally mentally engaging. It has to be. When you’re dealing with large animals and small children, safety is the utmost concern. So there’s the running mental checklist and potential-disaster-scanner part of your mind that’s always going. On top of that, teaching riding is all about problem solving. You tell the children what to do. Since they’re not only new at this, but it’s also an activity that takes body awareness, coordination, sensitivity, cooperation, and muscles that few other activities or circumstances provide the opportunity to exercise, it takes quite a while for them to learn how to do what you’re telling them to do. The indicators of whether they’re doing it right are large, obvious behavioral outcomes — like whether they are able to get the thousand-pound animal underneath them to trot, for example — but all of the factors that may contribute to or prevent success in reaching that outcome are extremely subtle and involve an intuitive alchemy that’s not always easy to articulate. So much of what goes on when teaching riding is looking at the horse to see if it’s moving in the way that you’d expect it to based on the instructions you gave the rider. Then if it’s not, you have to analyze the many potential cues the rider is giving the horse to confuse it. Sometimes it’s obvious, like the rider is telling the horse “go!” with her legs, but also pulling back on the reins, which tells the horse “stop!”. But other times, there are signals sent through the body that aren’t even visible. So you go through the catalog of your own riding experience, thinking about horses you’ve ridden that are similar to this one and how you solved the problems then. You ask your student creative questions about what she’s feeling from the horse that allow you to project yourself onto the horse’s back with her so you can understand what’s going on.

Ultimately, more than teaching just a sport or a physical skill, what you’re teaching when you teach riding is a language. You’re instructing someone how to communicate with an entirely different species. To convince a creature way, way bigger than them to accept that they have the authority to decide where to go and how fast to get there. It requires instilling an understanding that they must talk with the animal through their hands and legs and seat, using the symbols that the horse has been trained to understand the meaning of in terms of actions. One of the biggest things to overcome there is to make people understand that even though the horse has been trained to respond to these cues, they aren’t machines that will react as though we’ve pushed a button — especially because so much of our lives are infused with technology that works in exactly that way — and that instead they are living things with whom you must take into account personality, preference, mood. So many of the questions students ask me center around trying to come to grips with that. They ask, “Why is she doing that?” “Does he always act like this?” “Do the horses like each other?”, and many others that reveal their attempts to piece together an understanding of the horse’s mental life. I love trying to answer those questions more than any others, because it feels like I’m handing someone missing puzzle pieces that they’re fitting in to get a picture of something elusive and beautiful.

Starting to teach has also prompted me to step up my already pretty intense desire to learn, and ever since Dunnie and I got back to work after the holidays and his short stint of lameness, we’ve been reaching some new levels of refinement. I’ve been working a lot on trying to make his responses to my cues crisper; asking him to react more quickly and strongly to ever-decreasing amounts of pressure from my leg and hands. It’s been going pretty well in most areas. We canter all around the ring now and I ask him for lead changes at random times and in random places. The changes are smoother and more accurate, and since I’m keeping him on his toes now, he doesn’t have the opportunity to anticipate when he thinks he should change the lead. So when we canter circles and I don’t ask him, he’s not constantly switching around the turns like he was before. I also realized that by using more leg pressure to turn when I am planning to ask him for a lead change — speaking more loudly with my outside leg, as it were — then the cue to change is clearer to him when I take that leg away and give pressure with the other to ask him to switch (which means I can speak softer with that leg). The constant refinement of our communication is a really interesting process to me. It’s kind of like the longer you’re in a relationship or a friendship with someone, your communication flows more easily through the way you use shorthand or inside jokes to refer to something you both know together. I feel that happening with Dunnie now, like we are really connecting.

 

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Back to Work

A couple of things have recently somewhat derailed any efforts at training: 1) the insanely demanding, all-consuming juggernaut of the holidays and 2) some soreness/lameness for Dunnie.

The holidays had their nice moments, of course, and I enjoyed spending time with family. But the “holiday season” seems to keep getting longer every year, and it’s gotten completely out of hand. It really feels like it starts in September now, when everyone starts freaking out about pumpkin spice. And then the month-long marathon of Christmas music on the radio begins the second after Thanksgiving and it’s just a countdown until I can have my life and my 80s music back.

The other thing I’ve recently gotten back is Dunnie. Starting a week or two before Christmas, he started acting strangely. We had noticed that there were potentially some pressure points from the saddle I was using, although he was acting fine, and decided to try a different one. That went poorly. I tried three other saddles, all of which seem to make him PISSED, and then went back to the old one only to find that he was still not himself.

At first there was no obvious lameness. He was certainly stiff, particularly when tracking right, and especially on circles. He was usually just fine at the trot, but ask him to pick up a canter and he would kick out on the left, and wouldn’t be able to smoothly pick up the transition, sort of rearing back a tiny bit with his head high to lope off. Then at the canter, he was constantly switching leads in back. And ornery. He was uncharacteristically ornery about all of that, which is what tipped me off to that fact that he was in pain and not all of a sudden acting out just for fun.

Then at my lesson on the Thursday before Christmas, he finally turned up lame. His back left was really stiff and it was apparent after trotting him just a few steps. I ended up riding a different horse that night in my lesson — a big, sweet, calm ex-racehorse named Chrome — and riding English for only the second time in a really long time. It was fun, but strange; it’s amazing how much less secure an English saddle feels. And I’d forgotten how much work it is! I think I just assumed that riding so often has gotten me in much better shape, but nope. Western is just way, way easier.

Anyway, I ended up giving Dunnie some rest over the holidays, and then my trainer contacted a Pulsed Electromagnetic Field (PEMF) therapist . There’s a good description of what this is on their Facebook page, but essentially it is a machine that pulses a magnetic field through the body, stimulating cells and increasing oxygenation, reducing inflammation and promoting faster healing. I was there when they came to work on a bunch of the school horses, and the therapist (who also treats human clients), put the machine — which looks like a vacuum hose bent into an oval shape — on my back to see what it feels like. I could feel it all the way through my stomach. It was kind of intense, not altogether pleasant or unpleasant. In the places where there is particular pain and inflammation, the muscles sort of twitch in little spasms. This is very clear on the horses, whose muscle groups are large and easy to see.

When she treated Dunnie, I wasn’t around, but when I spoke to her after she said that he’d had a lot of soreness all over his body, and particularly on the left side, which jived with what I’d been experiencing. I’m not really sure what made him like that. One theory was that removing his back shoes put him out of whack (the farrier came right after Christmas and put them back on, and that seemed to help a bit).  Another was that he’d pulled something when we tried to work on slides. Yet another was that the cold temperatures were bothering him, making arthritis that we didn’t know about in the warm months act up. We just didn’t know. While Dunnie could communicate to me very effectively that he was in pain, he couldn’t tell me why.

Luckily, the PEMF seems to have worked like a charm. Since he had the treatment about two weeks ago, it feels like I have my old Dunnie back. He’s moving much better, doesn’t display the same stiffness, and is visibly happier. I’m so relieved that it doesn’t seem to be a bigger issue or serious injury, and that he’s clearly feeling much better. It’s a terrible feeling to think that your horse is hurting and that it might be because of something you asked him to do. Especially because Dunnie, champ that he is, would do it anyway. When I first noticed something was amiss and I was putting him through his paces to try to identify the problem area, he’d tell me “that hurts!” — but he would still do what I asked of him.

Now, with all that distraction out of the way, it’s time for us to get back to the work of training. We’re working on a new pattern that incorporates pretty much all of the skills we need to use for anything we want to do. It has side-passing, lead changes, circles, backing, spinning — you name it. It feels good to be focusing again, and working toward getting better at things we’ll use at a show. Dunnie is at his best when he’s mentally engaged in what we’re doing, and so am I, so we’re about to start having lots of fun together again.

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New Views and a New Look!

deam-wilderness-horseback-riding-indiana

As promised a couple of weeks ago, Urban Equestrian now has a new look! The blog just turned four years old this November (which also marks four years back in the saddle for me), and I thought it was about time for an updated design.

Last weekend, Dunnie and I also got a new look at the world as we went on our first trail ride together. My trainer brought us, along with six other girls that I ride with and their horses, out to 7IL Ranch to practice riding on trail and see if we’re interested in doing some competitive trail riding.

A new view between the ears as Dunnie and I head out to the trails at 7IL Ranch.
A new view between the ears as Dunnie and I head out to the trails at 7IL Ranch.

Dunnie and I did a trail class at the SHOT show we went to in September, but that was different; it was trail obstacles laid out in a ring. Back in college, I did one competitive trail ride that was actually on outdoor trails on a lark (in an English saddle) and really enjoyed it, so I’m interested in doing it again.

Competitive trail riding is a set of obstacles spread out along trails, maybe about a mile apart. They can include elements such as riding over a bridge or through a stream; opening, going through, and closing a gate; riding up to a mailbox and taking something out or putting something in; or riding up a hill without letting your horse break into a faster gait than a walk. The competitors ride through the trails and are judged at each obstacle; there are three levels of difficulty available at each stop, with more points awarded for the higher difficulty skills.

This weekend on the ride, we didn’t encounter any man-made obstacles, but we did find some of the ones that crop up naturally on trails: fallen trees to jump over, ditches that make the trail narrow and steep, branches to avoid (or to barrel through, oblivious to the fact that you have a rider on top of you, whichever).

I was interested to see how Dunnie would react to being out in the open. During the SHOT show, he had reacted poorly to the trail class and the ranch pleasure class being outside near a wooded area, but I had to chalk some of his being so keyed up to all the excitement of being at a show as well as my own contribution in the form of performance anxiety. I predicted that he would be excited to be out on the trails and might be a bit alert, but I also knew that since I had no goals other than to relax and enjoy the ride, I was confident I could keep him calm enough for that.

Right off the bat when we got the horses out of the trailer on the open field in the picture above, he was super alert — but that was because next to that field was a pasture full of his favorite thing in the world, cows. As I trotted him around trying to get a feel of how the open space would affect him, he kept craning his head back around to look at them like a dog that wants to chase a squirrel. He cracks me up.

Once we got away from the cows and out onto the trails, he was able to focus a bit more. At first, all the tall grass along the side of the trail was a potential threat that required his complete vigilance. Aware that when he does shy away from scary things, it’s a lightening-fast move where he drops his shoulder — the speed and the sudden imbalance being a tricky combination to stick with as a rider — I had to consciously work to remove anticipatory tension from my body. Once we left the more open trails for the narrower, wooded ones, he relaxed a bit of that vigilance. I think that was mostly because there he had something to think about, being forced to negotiate the footing more attentively.

treecrossing

His main concern for the rest of the ride was whether the lead horses in front of us were getting too far ahead for his liking. My tendency in a trail ride is to want to be in either the front or the back. If my horse isn’t a leader, I like to ride all the way at the back so I can keep track of everyone (this is probably a holdover from hiking with a bunch of kids in my camp counselor days). Dunnie would certainly have enjoyed being the leader, but would have quickly gotten out of hand had I let him. He would not tolerate being towards the back, and even when he was comfortable in the middle of the pack, we had to be cognizant of train getting too spread out or he’d start to get charged up.

Overall, we spent pretty much the whole six-mile ride in an energized, but contained, trot. At first I kept trying to bring him down to a walk, but I quickly realized that this small release of energy would keep him happy, whereas trying to tamp it down completely might result in an explosion later on. Luckily, his trot is very easy to sit. And even more luckily, he was willing to communicate with me.

Often when we start our ride in the ring, I have to take a few minutes to get his attention. He’s excited or distracted by other horses, by the wind, or some birds, and I need to say, “Hey, listen to me now. We’re gonna do stuff.” Since we’re in a ring and in familiar surroundings, the distracting things quickly recede and after a few minutes, he’s ready to give me his attention and get to work.

The big question for me in taking him out on this trail ride was whether I’d be able to get his attention in a more chaotic, more interesting, potentially scary out-in-the-open situation. I remembered the helplessness I felt at the SHOT show when it seemed that I just couldn’t get through to him. Ultimately, he came back to me for the afternoon classes, but those had been back inside the arena, not outdoors like the morning ones. But since then I’ve continued to develop as a rider and every day I feel more confidence. And so much of the detailed work we’ve been doing — especially on flexion — has focused and refined our communication. I was extremely pleased to see that even though he clearly just wanted to run amok through those trails — to charge ahead of everyone else, freak out about figmentary predators in the grass, and probably charge back to the trailhead as quickly as possible to bite some cows on his way out — that he was willing to listen to me when I said that we weren’t going to do any of those things.

I was excited to go on that trail ride because being out in nature is restorative and calming for me. I love hiking and it can only be made better by being on horseback. I didn’t exactly get the relaxing ramble I was hoping for, but what I got was much, much better. I got to see that Dunnie trusts me and that I can trust him.

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New Tools

I am what one might call a “minimalist” rider, in that I like to ride with as little tack and as few extra tools as possible. It annoys me to carry a crop. I do not want to deal with an extra set of reins. I won’t ride with a martingale unless I absolutely have to. And for pretty much my whole life, I’ve managed to avoid spurs.

Much of this preference stems from just liking to keep things simple. Why add stuff on that you don’t need? But there was also an underlying feeling that if I couldn’t get the horse to do what I wanted on my own, using only the aides that come from my  body, then I didn’t deserve to call myself a real rider.

I realize now that this is dumb. It’s the same self-bullying nonsense that I was putting on myself when I came back to riding four years ago in Brooklyn, when I was fighting the anxiety of riding a horse through a traffic circle and into a city park and I thought that dismounting when I felt unsafe was admitting weakness that meant I’d never be strong enough to succeed.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working with Dunnie on some more subtle challenges — getting some more vertical and lateral flexion (making his head carriage more supple and soft), and making distinctions between responding to my leg asking him to move different parts of his body (his shoulder for a spin; his side for a side-pass; and his hip for loping off on the correct lead and getting flying changes). I’ve also been working on slowing him down at the lope so that we can really make a marked change between our big fast and our small slow circles.

One of the biggest challenges in the head carriage and the speed control endeavors has been that it requires me to use a lot more rein than I usually do. In keeping with my minimalist riding sensibilities, I also typically aim for using as little hand as possible. But that’s just not effective here. And unfortunately, when using enough rein to get Dunnie to do what I want him to do (hold his head correctly, or slow down at the lope), the side effect is that he breaks gait, or if we’re walking, just stops entirely. At the lope, that has required a tremendous amount of leg effort to keep him going, and finding the balance where we aren’t stop-and-go has been mostly elusive.

My trainer suggested spurs a while ago. I wasn’t as closed off to the idea as I would have been before, but I didn’t have the right kind.

Spur with rowel.
Spur with rowel.

When I started riding here my first trainer suggested that I get a pair — but the kind I got, while pretty minimal, still had a rowel, which is the spiky, revolving disk at the end that you see in all the cowboy movies. Mine had a dull edge, but nonetheless, the couple of times I’ve tried riding with them, Dunnie got pretty agitated. I didn’t feel comfortable with them.

But this week I finally got myself a different kind — a ball spur, without the rowel.

Ball spur.
Ball spur.

These have a rounded, dull end that is much gentler. It feels more like a thumb pushing into your side and doesn’t have the pinch potential that even the dull-edge rowels have.

Last night I rode with my new spurs for the first time. They take some getting used to. You don’t want to use the spur every time you put your leg on the horse, so I’m having to learn to feel where the spurs end in relation to my bootheel. I’m also really conscious of trying to use them as subtly as I can so Dunnie doesn’t become inured to the sensation.

But using this new tool led to a really great breakthrough. Before, using my reins effectively to get the right head set meant that my natural leg aides (my legs) were not enough of a counterbalance. Now, with a very very slight touch of the spur, I can tell Dunnie that even though I’m pulling on the reins, I don’t want him to stop — I just want him to round his back and push off with his back legs to keep going.

When you’ve been trying and trying and just not getting something right, it can certainly be frustrating. I’ve learned a lot of patience since starting this new discipline, realizing that the horse isn’t going to do something perfectly the first time you ask for it, just like it takes people a lot of practice to master a skill. So I don’t get wound up or upset about it being difficult, or taking longer than I expect it to. But I have to say, that moment when all of sudden you do the tiniest thing differently and it all magically comes together — where you get it, and you also can tell that your horse gets it — in that moment, all the work and all the frustration is completely worth it.