Friday, February 15, 2013

Fear and Resolve

People often ask me, upon hearing my admittance of an insurmountable fear of heights, how I manage to ride a horse. I answer that it doesn’t seem that high up in the saddle – it’s a different kind of height, I try to explain. What I don’t attempt to convey is my feeling that, once in the saddle, I become part of the horse. It’s not just me perched up on high, I just become a little taller. My non-horsey friends (possibly conjuring up an image of Cleo the Centaur) just don't seem to understand. I’ve never managed to attain that feeling perched on a ladder or standing in a hayloft, though, on the plus side, I’ve never been bucked off either of the latter. Actually, I take that back; I was once on one of those handy-dandy collapsible ladders… need I say more?.

Fear is natural and self-preserving. However, there are times when you want or must do things that involve facing and overcoming some of those fears, within reason. I certainly don’t recommend attempting to conquer one’s fear of grizzly bear attacks! Respecting the danger of the potentially risky situation and taking all possible precautions against injury are key to balancing the accomplishment of your goals with a long and healthy life.

No, really, I'm harmless! I come bearing gifts!

Riding and handling horses is fraught with risk. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have been trampled (twice now, to date) and have been the victim of multiple kicks and bites. Then there are the falls. I used to tell all my students at Equutopia that, if you’re going to ride, you’re eventually going to fall off – everyone has a spill eventually and there’s no getting around it. You have to make peace with that idea. If you're afraid to fall off, you'd better not get on to begin with. Fortunately, the falls I have personally experienced and seen my students perform seldom caused more than a bruised ego.

I remember vividly the great quandary of my childhood; I was addicted to horses and riding, and my parents diligently took me to riding lessons, but my stomach was always cramped up in fear on the drive to the stable. My body was desperately trying to force me to quit but my heart wouldn’t let me do so. I think I can attribute most of this seemingly disproportionate fear to the “talents” of my first riding instructor.

The frightful Eddie, as I remember him...

Eddie was a tall, athletic young man (from the perspective of a 7 year old, anyway). He was a hotshot who certainly could stick on a horse but lacked patience with his young pupils. I have two strong memories of him: the first is of him screaming at me to get back on and canter my horse after falling off at my first attempt – he actually threatened to chase us with a whip! The second memory is of him jumping on a young, green horse bareback and galloping down the highway in pursuit of a loose horse. This happened one day right after a lesson. As we were driving home, we passed him riding back to the barn, leading the escapee, mission accomplished. He was the urban cowboy. I was in awe, but I feared and somewhat loathed him, too.

My later instructors had much better people skills and I slowly started rebuilding my confidence. I have a particular fondness for an instructor named Dale and a big, flashy Thoroughbred named Banjo – he used to pull me around the ring and she would admonish me to sit back and, for goodness’ sake, please start eating more pizza and sundaes! I should explain that I was about 80 pounds at the time – I didn’t get over 100 pounds until I was almost out of high school.

No, no, no, no, no! Pizza and sundaes!

Ironically, perhaps, a big turning point in gaining back the confidence Eddie so ably destroyed was when I  survived my first really scary spill. I was competing in a hunter pace event on a frisky gray gelding. My partner (it was a pairs competition) sailed over a large obstacle, and I chose to go around. The gelding I was riding did not appreciate this decision, punctuating his displeasure by dropping his head and bucking hard. I sailed over his head and landed some distance in front of him, face down, in his path. He jumped over me, but grazed the back of my hand with one of his hooves, causing several lacerations. I still have the scars. We returned to the barn, I received basic first aid, and went back out on a quieter horse. From that point on, I lost a lot of my fear. In retrospect, I think I felt that I’d experienced about as bad a spill as possible (I was na├»ve, I know) and survived, and if that was as bad as it was going to get, well, I could live with that.

I did discover, later in life, that I am unable to overcome my fear of riding at very high speeds. I love Thoroughbreds, and have tried twice in the past to exercise racehorses. Unfortunately, I am also a bit of a control freak, and I really didn't like the feeling of being run away with. I enjoyed working with the young horses, but once they got a taste for speed, forget it... someone else could fly around the track with them. One of my greatest joys has been working with former racehorses and retraining them to move about at a more reasonable rate of speed, turning and bending, and accepting soft contact instead of just pulling against it.

No way.

In teaching my own students, I tried to remind myself of these times, of how it feels to be too afraid to try something, of Eddie and the damage of which a poor, impatient instructor is capable. The biggest challenge was dealing with fears associated with learning to ride over jumps. As anyone who has been through this knows, if you’re nervous and stiff approaching the jump, you tend to get popped up out of the saddle by your horse’s jumping effort. This, of course, is scary, though normally you land right back in the saddle. I constantly reminded my students to relax their backs, sink their weight into their heels, and fold forward from the waist. This is easier said than done when you’re worried about going airborne again.

Except that we don't have wings.

These days, my fears are mainly centered around surviving “airs above the ground” when leading or otherwise attempting to control a horse from the ground. A spirited horse can do a leap from a standstill to make Michael Jordan envious, simultaneously kicking out with any or all of its legs. Woe unto you if your head or any other body part is within range! I generally try to lead a horse from a position next to their shoulder, a more difficult spot for the horse to target. Unfortunately, that position is ideal for the head-swinging-face-slam – anyone that has experienced this knows what I’m talking about!

I don’t mean to imply that my horses are ill-behaved rogues! To the contrary, they are generally really easy to handle, even my one stallion, who is arguably the most docile of the bunch. Still, even these angels can be a handful when ill weather causes me to confine them to their stalls and they build up excess energy, or if it’s a particularly windy, brisk day. The rehabilitation cases are often the trickiest – I have had several horses that were on stall restriction for 3-4 months or more. You can imagine how much energy they build up and how happy they are once they regain even a little freedom! I always make use of the magic of pharmaceuticals to sedate them when they first start getting limited turnout, for their own safety and mine.

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