I feel lucky to ride my trainer's horses--she doesn't have a big lesson program at her farm, so I ride her horse, Clyde, and a sale horse we refer to as "Manly Stanley". They know more than I do, which on one hand is great, because I have a lot to learn. On the other hand, it puts a lot of pressure on because I'm convinced I will somehow ruin them or otherwise prove that I am not worthy to ride horses worth as much as a Lexus sedan. Plus, my trainer's horses are actually fit enough to do some damage, as I found out when I uh...dismounted from the most athletic buck I've felt since the Appaloosa I used to ride in high school, who was impossible to rate, but didn't take so kindly to a crop and would show his displeasure with a high-speed horsey balancing act on his front legs. Clyde had injured himself in the field, felt ouchy when I asked for the canter in a corner, and wanted me OFF (don't you just LOVE when they buck on a turn?). I understood, though, that it was a medical thing rather than a behavior thing, and it was impossible for us to have known since he wasn't acting lame or sore before that--but it really impressed upon me that I could get hurt at any given moment.
For me, fear when riding kind of ebbs and flows. I get hurt, or hit a wall with my progress that I feel I can't overcome, and I get discouraged. I lose faith in my abilities, which of course actually makes my riding worse since I'm tense, anticipating problems. I keep riding, realize that yes, I can actually get a good canter transition (or whatever the fear du jour is), and my confidence slowly comes back and turns into cockiness. Some other disaster happens and I'm feeling down again. You get the picture.
I remember the first time I was able to overcome one of those fears du jour--two years after the only really scary accident I've had.
Story Time!It happened when I was 14 years old. It was the final show of a spring series, and I was riding a Paint named Moon who hated to be petted, but loved when you blew your breath into his nostrils. We had just rocked our first division of the final show in a spring series, and we were waiting to be called for the jump class of the second--18 inches, a piece of cake.
Nervously waiting for our class at a previous show in the series. Oh, the days when my boots were that shiny...
My trainer led me to the side of the ring and asked me to recite the course to him.
"Outside verticals two times to the left, then an X on the diagonal."
"Good. Don't forget your circle."
It was time for my round, and my trainer opened the gate. I looked around the arena, led Moon to the corner, and picked up a trot. We circled, picked up the canter on the corner toward the first vertical--and something was wrong. Moon was really running--something I had never seen the lazy school horse do. We were almost at the first jump. I hoped for the best.
We popped over just fine. I made sure to sit up straight for the one, two, three, four terrifyingly fast strides, and we popped over the second. I looked around my corner towards the other pair of verticals on the straightaway, Moon stumbled, yanked the reins from my hands, and I was on the ground. His strong neck pinned me down, and he didn't seem to be in any hurry to get up. I wondered how long I was going to be stuck there. I figured it was fine to stay there indefinitely. This was probably really going to hurt soon.
I don't remember the exact moment Moon stood up, but I do remember a total stranger with a country drawl bending over me, asking me how many fingers he was holding up.
"Three." I said, wondering who he was and why he thought that was what people legitimately did outside of cartoons. My father arrived soon after.
"Hon, do you think you can get up?"
"I don't want to."
"Just try to get up."
I got up, no problem, and was surprised at the fact that I felt only a dull ache in my shoulder from the impact (it hurt a lot worse the day after, of course). But overall, things seemed fine and I was determined to do the flat classes of my next division. My father led me to my farm's shiny aluminum-sided trailer to get some water (and perhaps to discourage me from what he saw as a reckless plan). I saw myself in the trailer's reflection and burst into tears.
The brand-new, hundred-dollar show jacket I had bought myself, my precious velveteen helmet--caked in dirt. I unbuckled my helmet and rubbed at it furiously, which only spread the stain.
"Dad, my helmet is ruined."
"That's okay hon. It's just dirty; you can still use it." He didn't understand--I couldn't continue to show with my helmet in that condition.
"Daddy, can we pleeeease go to the tack shop on the way home to see if they have something to fix it?"
We did, and they did. And that is how my father became even more skeptical of my equine obsession, and how I learned the importance of being on the right lead, especially in corners on a five-year-old horse.
A little jolt of fear seized my body each time I asked for the canter in lessons after that. I became convinced that it would happen again whenever a horse lowered his head or tripped. So I was terrified when I began free-leasing Spur, an old Thoroughbred named not for his speed, but because he was so quiet and lazy that you needed spurs. He had picked up the habit of rooting and bucking immediately after a jump (or whenever he felt frisky).
"Nya nana nana na!" Spur said, mocking me cruelly.
I avoided cantering for too long or fast when I rode for practice, but in my lessons it was inevitable. I spent weeks with my instructor working out how to strengthen my leg and seat so he couldn't pull me off-balance, and finally, it paid off. I could ride Spur anytime, anywhere, and he was rooting a lot less now that he realized I wouldn't put up with it.
I decided to challenge myself (you see the cycle? I got cocky again...) to ride out in the field. Maybe one day I would even be able to jump the cross-country coops in the schoolies' field. I led Spur up the driveway and into the field, closed the gate, and mounted up from the fence. So far, so good. I warmed him up, pleased that I didn't really have to worry about diagonals or leads on the long straight stretches. Then it was time for the canter. I trotted up to the fence line, and pointed him to the opposite side.
"Caaan-TER," I said softly, and gave a nudge with one leg. He stepped out--a little forward, but nothing I couldn't handle. I followed his head--and-a-one-and-a-two, and-a-one-and-a-two. This was fun! I was outside with my horse! Most people at my hunter/jumper show barn rarely ventured outside!
At this moment, Spur was feeling as good as I was. He flung his head down and gave a little buck. I gave the wrong-answer buzzer, " Ehhh!" and held fast with my lower legs, using them as a lever (or fulcrum? whatever) to bring his head back up without losing the pace. No problem. He picked his head up, and took my added leg as a cue to go faster. He was really running.
"Fol-low, fol-low," I could practically hear my instructor's voice in my head. Spur and I were galloping--outside, for the fun of it! There was no jump I had to get to, no annoying little kid tailing me in the show ring, nothing. I had fixed the problem. Spur and I were a team.
Moral of the story: Hooray for free leases!