May 12, 2014

The Pony Principle

About 40 years ago, I was sitting complaining to an old programmer about problems I was having with a program I was writing. I have no idea what the project was or what the problems were. This was, after all, 40 years ago.

The old programmer started into his theory about how a program was like a pony. (Really, I am not making this up.) As I listened I realized that I had heard this story before. It was about failing to look past the first level of details when making plans. I had lived this story vicariously through the little sister of my high school best friend. Her Mom let her buy a horse. I got to see what happened before and after she bought the horse.

Just a note on accuracy: The events I am describing happened more than 40 years ago while I was still a teenager and I do not claim that everything I am about to tell you is factually correct. It is as I remember it, the difference between memory and reality is well documented. Aso, I was very much an observer at a slight remove.

Many young ladies become fascinated with horses. Although I have my suspicions about why this happens I can't really claim to understand it. Little Sister (LS from here on) fell in love with horses. She had it bad. She was always talking about how beautiful they were, how great it was to ride a strong horse, and well you get the idea. She loved the the idea of owning a horse. I do believe she hoped to keep a horse in the backyard and ride it to school.

I overheard many conversations between LS and her mother about getting a horse. LS wanted a horse, and she wanted her mother to buy it for her. Her mother was having none of that. The simple truth was that the family could not afford a horse even if they could keep it in the backyard. But, undeterred LS kept up the discussion. Finally her mother gave her permission to buy a horse on the condition that LS bought it on her own and paid all the costs of maintaining the horse. LS was overjoyed. At least she was until she found out how much even an old, well used, nothing special horse cost.

LS was (I hope still is) a creative, honest, and very hardworking person. She tried to get a job. Trouble is that the child labor laws in Utah, where we lived at the time, do not allow teenagers to work in most jobs. Pretty much the only thing she was legally allowed to do was babysit. So, she babysat. She started by telling everyone she knew that she was available to babysit. Then, when she had the money she took out ads in the paper. She did a good job and pretty soon she was spending every spare minute babysitting. The demand for babysitters in Salt Lake City during the waning years of the baby boom was unlimited. She made pretty good money for a young teenager and saved every penny she could. It didn't take that long to earn the price of a horse.

She went looking for a horse and had to face the question of where she was going to put the horse. Funny thing, before you can buy a horse you need a place to keep it and a way to get it there. That meant she had to find a stable and rent a stall along with access to an exercise area, some place to ride the horse. She found the most ramshackle excuse for a stable I have ever seen, the walls were nearly falling down, the roof mostly leaked, but it had a gate that locked, it was in a pasture that she could ride in, and that was enough during the summer.

She found a horse, paid for it, and paid a little extra to have it delivered to the stall she was renting. Joy oh joy! She was ready to start riding all day everyday! Except she needed a saddle and all the rest of the tack that is needed to ride and care for a horse. OK, she was not stupid, she had budgeted for those things and she bought a cheap saddle, bridle, rope, enough stuff to get by for a while.

Now she faced a problem she had not really thought about. Oh, she had thought about it, but thinking about it is not the same as understanding it. She had to visit the horse every day. The horse had to be fed, watered, and exercised every day. Sort of like having a baby, you have to feed it and change its diapers on a regular basis, not just when you want to. Trouble is that she did not have a car. She was too young to have a driver's license. The family owned one car, a nice VW bug. Mom was working and going to school and needed the car. There was no bus service to anywhere near where she kept the horse. So, she had to rely on friends and relatives to drive her out to see the horse. I drove her to and from her horse several times.

Understand the difference between the normal case of catching a ride and the situation she was in. She had to catch a ride every day. EVERY DAY. The person giving her the ride could not just drop her off and leave. You had to stick around during the full time she was there and then take her home again. This was sometimes a several hour commitment. You had to carry food for the horse and her tack because she couldn't leave it in the stall for fear of it being stolen. Those of us who had cars got tired of taking her to see the horse fairly quickly. One friend stopped driving his car over, he just rode his motorcycle. You can't carry a saddle on a motorcycle. Getting to and from the horse was a problem all the time she owned the horse.

Then there was the problem of “muck”. Young ladies who are in love with horse rarely seem to think about the back end of the horse. You feed a horse, you water it, and the back of the stall quickly fills with a mixture of straw, urine, manure that is politely referred to as “muck”. You have to muck out the stall every day. Yes, EVERY DAY. Not a problem she had planned for.

Mucking out a stall requires a strong back, a shovel, a place to put the muck, and straw to spread around on the floor of the stall. The straw helps the muck dry and stick together and keeps the back of the stall from turning into a pit as you slowly take the floor out with the muck. The need to buy straw and pay to have it delivered was another unforeseen expense.

The key thing about muck is that it is unpleasant. It was amazing the first time I watched LS grab her shovel (something she had not budgeted for) and clean out that stall. (Yes, I offered to do it once, she declined the offer.) She transferred the muck from the stall to a pile well away from the stall one shovel full at a time. She did not have a wheelbarrow. No budget for that.

It seems she had tried to dump the muck in a ditch behind the stall. Makes sense, we dump human muck in water and flush it away. She figured the water in the ditch would do the same with horse muck. Nope, it plugged the ditch, not to mention that people didn't like the idea of getting horse muck with their ditch water. So, she had to clean out the ditch.

She would go out to the stall every day, catching a ride anyway she could, ride the horse briefly, comb it and brush it, feed it and water it, clean out the muck, spread fresh straw, and then go home. Every single day. Of course, some days she had to visit the feed store too.

The killer was that the time she spent taking care of the horse was time she could not work. So, owning the horse not only had a rather large (to her) fixed cost but it reduced her income. It got to where all she was doing was working, and taking care of the horse.

She kept it up through most of the summer. One day near the end of summer I offered to drive her out to her horse. She said “oh, I sold it.” I asked her why and she said that with school starting she wouldn't be able to work enough to afford the horse. It seems that that owner of the stall had informed her that she couldn't keep the horse there in the fall or winter because it would freeze to death. The cost of a winter stall was more than she could make working full time as a babysitter. She sold the horse back to the person she bought it from, to the person who owned the stall, the same person who sold her a used saddle. She got to ride the horse everyday for a couple of months. I never heard her say another word about horse for all the years I knew her.

I always figured the guy who sold her the horse laughed all the way to the bank. She did all the chores involved in maintaining the horse. She paid for all the food for the horse for a couple of months. And then she sold it all back to him at a loss. So he actually made a profit off the deal and still had the horse.

The point though, is that she only looked at the front end of the project. How to get the money and find the horse. Trying to buy a horse forced her to look at the cost of maintaining the horse, but she never consider how owning a horse would reduce her ability to own one. Then there was all the muck. She never considered that if you feed a horse it will produce muck. That is, she never considered the on going costs or the back end of the project.

Lets all admit that we have made the same mistakes when planning a project.

How do we avoid problems like this? A long time ago I ran into a quotation that was attributed to Harry Houdini, I have not been able to find it since and so I can not claim that it is in fact from the great Houdini. The quotation goes something like this “To understand a magic trick, look at if from underneath.” The example was a case where Houdini appeared to pass through a brick wall built on stage at a theater. The trick is that the wall was built on a carpet, to protect the stage floor, that just happened to cover the trap door in the middle of the stage. The wall ran right over the trap door. Once the trap door was lowered the carpet sagged enough for someone to crawl under the wall. Then, when the trap door was raised, there was not sign of what had happened.

The trick was totally mystifying if looked at from the point of view of the audience. But, it was easily understood if looked at from underneath.

In the same way, if you want to get a better understanding of what it takes to take care of a horse, you have to look at it from the rear. You have to follow it around for a while. A rider sits on top of the horse and only looks forward and really never sees what is happening on the other end.

When planning something you have to look at it from the front, middle, back, side, and if you are lucky from a couple of other angles as well.