Don’t Go on a Diet

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I recently read an article that advised readers not to diet. The piece argued that while most diets work in the short term, people who lose weight typically fail to keep it off for more than three years. The article cited studies that suggest gaining and losing weight is more harmful than just being overweight in the first place. The take-home message was to avoid dieting altogether.

This strikes me as good advice at the core, but horrible advice on the surface. And the problem is all in the way the word “diet” is treated. What’s funny is it’s impossible to be alive without being on a diet. The term is simply a blanket way of speaking about the things we eat, or don’t eat. The problem with the concept of “going on a diet” is the idea that the change is temporary. It’s mystifying to me that people somehow think they can do something for a few months, change their body, and then go back to their old ways and expect the change to stick.

I can’t help but think this way of believing in dieting is very similar to the way a lot of people think of training horses. So many people seem to separate “training” from “riding,” just in the way many people separate “dieting” from “eating.”

The reality is, it’s impossible for a temporary change to have a permanent impact. If a person wants to lose weight, it’s irrational to think a few months of suffering and counting calories will be followed by an effortless lifetime of enjoying a lean body. What is needed is a series of incremental steps that lead steadily to a sustainable, permanent lifestyle that will maintain the desired body type.

The same is true with horse behavior. Sure, if you’re having problems with your horse, you can send your horse to a trainer. Assuming it’s a good trainer, the horse will learn some new things and some undesirable behaviors will go away. But horse behavior doesn’t come about in a vacuum. A horse can’t randomly acquire bad habits any more than a human can wake up one morning 50 pounds heavier than they were the night before.

Most change is incremental. Weight goes on slowly. In the same way, horses learn bad behaviors from their handlers, one day at a time. You can do a three month fitness boot-camp and shed some pounds, but if you return to your old lifestyle afterwards, the weight is going to come right back. Someone else can fix the problems you created in your horse, but if you don’t change the way you handle that horse, those issues will reappear.

So I agree. A person who wants to lose weight shouldn’t go on a diet. He should change his lifestyle. Perhaps the first thing he does is stop drinking soda on Mondays. Once that’s easy, he can start skipping it on Tuesday too. He can change one thing at a time, bit by bit, until all his bad habits have been replaced with healthier ones. Then all he has to do is keep it up. Hopefully he’ll settle in and live that way for the rest of his life. A person who loses weight this way (and sticks to his revised lifestyle) has no risk of gaining it back.

The same is true with horses. Every time we handle a horse, we teach him something. It’s the little things that add up, from how we approach a horse in the pasture, how aware of his experience we are during grooming, to how smooth and fluid we are with the saddle and bridle. Maybe a person who wants to improve her horsemanship just starts by focusing on leading her horse with quality every time she goes somewhere with him. Then maybe she builds on that, slowly learning to apply quality and feel to every aspect of being with her horse. A person who approaches horsemanship this way will eventually find a place where handling a horse with quality is so habitual, it becomes second-nature. And yes, this requires effort on the part of the handler. It requires persistence, consistency, and the pursuit of knowledge. But the result is even better than a six-pack.

Good horsemanship isn’t a band-aide or a boot-camp. It’s a lifestyle.

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