Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Fear Factor: This is your brain. On a horse.

When I was 11 years old, I was fearless. I rode horses helmetless through fields, bareback as fast as the adults would let me. Occasionally I would take a spill, but I always got right back on as soon as I could catch the damn horse. My formal riding education was spotty. A couple summers being screamed at by an instructor at Cornell riding stables before I switched to trail riding. If there had been memes in those days, mine would have been keep calm and grab mane. I suppose I wasn't quite as cavalier as I remember. I was quite rattled by some of my high speed emergency dismounts. But they never led to a true crisis of confidence that lasted more than a few weeks.

Now, like many adult riders, I am a bundle of nerves much of the time. This is Not. Rational. My horse has never done anything bad like buck or bolt. He occasionally stops and stands stock still with no notice. This is his go to move when he's frightened of something. His main evasion is backing up. Annoying, but not dangerous. Twice he completely freaked out when we stepped on a bees nest, but the wonderful Colleen Campbell taught me how to do a one rein stop and made sure I had the muscle memory to keep myself out of trouble. So, if the shit really hits the fan, I have a toolkit that keeps me from flying into a tree. But still, I have to give myself a little "Everything's going to be fine!" pep talk before I put my foot in the stirrup.

I wasn't always like this. It started in my 20's. I used to have a beautiful gray trakhener horse that I mortgaged my soul to buy when he was 4 years old. He had been in professional training his whole life before I got him. Due to several blizzards that made the vetting take forever and his trainer going to Florida, he hadn't been ridden for a month by the time he came to me. He bucked me off the first time I got on him and it didn't go much better after that. My trainer left for Florida a couple weeks after he arrived at my barn and I was on my own. By the time spring rolled around I was afraid of him but too proud and too in debt to admit it.

I had never heard the term "overhorsed" before. It was 1996 and the Equine Internets were not a Thing yet. I was just a terrible rider and there was nothing to be done but spend my entire salary on training. Even with full training, I could not get the horse to trot in a circle without bolting on me. Looking back, it's a miracle I didn't get seriously injured. A lot of it was in my head. Part of the problem was the place I boarded him stopped turnout from about March-June so that the paddocks would keep their grass for the summer. So, I'd dread riding and my horse would become more nutty and a vicious cycle would ensue. To me now, the turnout situation is insane. If I had known then, what I know now, I never would have boarded there. I know that limited turnout is common for dressage horses in general. But I think it's part of what makes dressage horses so damn difficult to ride is that they're cooped up in stalls 20 hours a day. Carl Hestor turns his horses out. And he does OK, so I think there is something to be said for extended turnout for performance horses.

My horse lives out 24x7 with good shelter and buddies and if I can't get out there for a week, I'm riding the same horse I rode when I was last there; meaning he's not a dingbat. Other horses I've had needed to be ina 'program' otherwise they became unrideable if they had more than a day or two off. I believe it's partially his good brain, but it's also due to the fact that he can move, stretch, buck, fart and roll when he wants to.

But I digress. Back to my nerves. Finally in 1998 right around the time I met my husband I had made the decision to sell the beautiful gray trakhener. I took a big loss on him because I hadn't been able to do anything with him while I had him. He had no show experience and wasn't coming out a big name barn like the one I got him from. But eventually he sold to a hunter jumper barn in Connecticut and I got married and quit riding cold turkey. I didn't intend to. I was just burned out financially and emotionally. I had sunk all my resources into buying this dream and my sense of shame and isolation that it didn't work out was crippling. Now I know that this kind of thing happens CONSTANTLY. People buy a nice prospect that they just can't ride for one reason or another and at the end their confidence is shot. I just didn't know anybody at the time this had happened to.There are so many things I wish I could go back and tell my 26 year old self. "Don't buy that horse! You need a school master, not a prospect."

Nearly 20 years later I'm just clearing out the final cobwebs that situation left behind. Some of the holes in my confidence are just from being over 40 and knowing that when you fall (and you do, it's just something that can happen) you fall harder than you did when you were 11. And the thought of being laid up and not being able to take care of my kids is hideous. But I take deep breaths and trust my pony not to do anything stupid, and trust my muscle memory to get myself out of trouble and once I start to RIDE as opposed to anticipating the RIDING the anxiety goes away. Because when you are focusing on your ride, there is never any room in your brain for cobwebs or anything else.

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