Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Fear

I imagine I'm like a lot of riders in that I went along happily for a while, then suffered a debilitating blow to my confidence and have been trying to get back to where I was before ever since.

For me the confidence-crushung incident happened around eight years ago, when a lesson horse took off with me and bucked down the entire length of the indoor arena. I'm not sure how I stayed on as long as I did; I only fell off when he reached the corner. I wasn't hurt, but I was very, very scared. I did get back on, but only for a few minutes at the walk because the horse was clearly not right, and my instructor at the time was not the type to push you past your comfort zone. I took a few lessons after that on another horse who was incredibly sweet and never did anything wrong, but I was completely paralyzed by fear. I wasn't enjoying myself, so I made the difficult decision to take some time off from riding.

After a year long hiatus, I started riding a friend's old QH gelding, first around her yard, and then I went on trail rides with her. Eventually I even cantered on him, but then the woman decided to sell him, and there were too many questions about his longterm soundness for us to want to buy him. So I started taking lessons again. Instructors with school horses were hard to find, and the woman we found was less than ideal. She didn't know much about "real" riding, and while she worked on my equitation, she didn't make me into an effective rider. Her horse was lazy, heavy on the forehand, incredibly dead-sided and occasionally spooky. He was not fun to ride, but I did gain confidence on him.

Then I found a dressage barn. It was two and a half hours away, but they had horses that were forward, and a trainer who knew what she was doing. I wound up taking lessons there for an entire summer and fall on a Dutch Warmblood/Saddlebred Fourth Level schoolmaster. I learned a lot. I learned how to actually ride, not be a passenger.

After that I leased and took lessons on a large pony gelding for two years. He was a trail horse, and knew nothing about bending or any other of that good dressage stuff. I really loved him, and I thought he would end up being my "forever horse", but instead he prepared me for when Sofie would come into my life.

Sofie has been a challenge for me at times. I bought her because she was sensitive and forward, and I had ridden so many horses that were anything but. I was thrilled to have found a horse with those qualities, but it was also a hard transition for me. Her natural desire to move forward and abundant energy, made almost frantic by her painful feet, was difficult for me to deal with. I wasn't used to having that much energy to work with, and I wasn't sure what to do with it. She didn't steer, and rarely relaxed. Fixing her feet and getting her body better balanced and in shape has made a huge difference in her, and I can ride her outside without fearing for my life. But she still has a lot of energy, and some days I have to stretch outside of my comfort zone if I want to ride her. And I do, because the alternative is giving up. I don't give up easily. Riding hasn't always been fun for me, but I never wanted to give up, because I thought it would get better. It has. I've ridden a lot of different horses, and gotten positive results from them. I don't ride so I can compete with and beat others. I ride to develop a relationship with my horse, and help her become the best she can be. I try to always be an empathetic and sensitive rider. I'm not perfect, but I try. That's all I can do. It's all anyone can do.

It's a very uncomfortable sensation, working through your fear. But when I do it, and succeed, I feel good. Like I'm getting somewhere. It's never fun when you're working through your fear, but it's even less fun to not work through it.

The last time I went out to ride, the day was glorious. The snow had melted down a bit, and the footing was decent. It was a perfect day to ride outside. But for some reason, Sofie's brain was MIA. Even after longeing she was spazzy and distractable. Sofie without brains is not all that fun. When I led her outside and started walking her toward the mounting block, she spotted another horse being led back to the barn, spooked and mini-bolted. Then she would not stand still at the mounting block, so I led her around, trying to get calm. I know that being nervous is not good when one is working with a horse (especially Sofie without brains) so when I get nervous, I tend to get even more nervous because I know it's bad to be nervous. Ah, vicious cycles. But I mounted up and started walking Sofie around. Sofie did not want to walk. She had lost her brains that day for some reason, and seeing another horse being led back to the barn had apparently wigged her out even more. Plus, someone's dog was yarking away, which normally doesn't bother her, but like I said, she had apparently left her brains back in her stall that morning.

I walked her around, making little turns, and correcting her when she trotted. I knew I needed to just let her trot, but I knew if I did that, she would start cantering sooner or later. And after her gallopy/kicking out incident that ejected me from the saddle last month, I didn't trust her. I didn't know what to do. My choices were to either let her expend some energy, or get off and take her into the indoor arena. I couldn't take her inside on such a nice day, and I couldn't let her go faster (or so I thought) so I started walking her through The Place Where We Like To Canter, bending her left, right, left, right, trying to keep her at a walk. Sofie said, "I don't know about you, but I feel like TROTTING already" and broke into a trot. Then one of the neighbors started banging away on something, and I knew she was going to canter. I started trying to slow her down, then realized it wasn't going to do any good, and it might just piss her off enough to make her Do Something. So I followed. I tried to relax, and made sure I was sitting up and my heels were down, and I let her canter. She never sped up, she never kicked. After a nice, long canter, she came back down to a trot when I asked. I was still really afraid, but starting to realize that everything might turn out all right.

After that I stayed away from The Place Where We Like To Canter for a while, and did some trotting in the front yard. I started to loosen up and have fun. She did a few strides of canter a couple more times (one of which I corrected her for because she veered off toward the pasture where her friends are), trotted willingly away from the barn and rated facing the barn. She does get anxious about leaving the front yard/barn area sometimes, but we'll just have to work on that. I'm also not sure what to do about The Place Where We Like To Canter...correcting her every time she speeds up on her own just does not work. She needs to open up and move out, not do a few strides here and there. I'm hoping to eventually break the association she has with that place, but she is such a creature of habit that I'm not sure how to do it.

All in all, I was very happy with the ride. I let her move out, and she was very good (well, mostly). Even though she was having a spazzy day, she hardly inverted and was on the bit for much of the ride. I just need to trust her, let her go, and enjoy the ride. It's good to have a horse that pushes me out of my comfort zone. It's also incredibly hard at times, but I know she's improving me, and helping me conquer The Fear.

1 comment:

  1. I can tell ya what I did with Indigo.
    She used to want to break into a trot randomly at places. It was her idea, not mine so it was a no deal. I don't want her taking off randomly when she feels like it and I am not ready. So once when she randomly broke into a canter I cantered her. Cantered her good and long and made her work. Once she tried to break into a trot (I think she got the "gee this is hard work!" idea) I cantered her longer. By the time I was done cantering her she was good and ready to walk but I trotted her instead just keeping one step ahead of her need to use speed. I did the same thing with her randomly taking off at a trot. Very quickly she learned that her trotting/cantering when she thought was a good time resulted in a lot more work. It may take a big gulp of courage but it does work very quickly if you can actively apply it every time they speed up a gait.