Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Reflections, part 1

As 2014 winds to an end, I think it's time that I shared the story of how Nimo and I came to the world of endurance.  I think I can pinpoint the beginning of our journey to the time that I almost attacked my dressage trainer with a whip.  It was many years ago - maybe October of 2010.  I had been riding with the same trainer since just before I had gotten Nimo in the summer/fall of 2003, and while things had gone well for the first couple of years, over time I noticed that our lessons kept getting more and more micro-focused.  We went from working on leg-yielding, shoulder-in, haunches-in, and lots of patterns in the arena to mostly trotting circles and transitions between the walk and trot (we almost never cantered).  My trainer's justification for this focus was that we shouldn't be doing anything more advanced until we had mastered trotting circles (he even said I shouldn't be riding outside the arena because Nimo wasn't balanced enough to be able to walk up a hill).

To this day, I'm still not sure if what my trainer did was on purpose to see how long it was until I couldn't take it anymore (as some kind of sick psychological experiment) or if it was just that as the trainer got older, he got lazy about teaching.  It is one of my few regrets that I didn't see what was happening much sooner.  But I think it was a case of something that Temple Grandin calls "bad becoming normal."  The negatives incrementally crept into our work, and we moved away from progressing to regressing.  My trainer blamed it on my poor riding.  He called me names, which I brushed off, thinking it was just his way of communicating.  I felt lucky to be able to work with someone so accomplished in dressage and so I took what amounted to mental abuse because I thought it was the price I had to pay to learn and get better.  I saw so many other trainers who did nothing for their students, and I felt privileged to have avoided the plight of their students.

But what was happening to those students was the same thing that was happening to me.  I was the victim of a trainer's ego and much like a frog put in cold water, I couldn't tell that the water was gradually getting warmer until I was in danger of boiling to death.  Until the fall of 2010.  I had become increasingly frustrated with all the trot circles we were doing.  It felt like 30 minutes each week of endless circling while I could not figure out how to ride my horse.  Riding had become torture, and I was actually considering selling Nimo because I felt so awful about my riding skills. 

Work was also not going well.  In 2008, I had finally reached my breaking point for my job with the Federal Government managing a popular and politically-controversial grant program.  My health was poor - I was sick all the time, I had 3-4 migraines a month, I had panic attacks, and I couldn't sleep.  Almost eight years of working on that program was killing me just like it had almost killed a co-worker of mine (who became an alcoholic until he got a new job).  So, I found out about a detail opportunity and took it.  The detail meant much lower levels of stress, but after 8 months it ended, and I was thrown back into a highly stressful environment as I attempted to clean up a mess years in the making.  The stress at work and the inability of being able to use riding as a stress relief valve was making me more and more miserable.

And so it was that as my trainer kept hounding me about my position for the 100th circle that day, something inside me shattered.  I felt this rage inside me like nothing I'd ever felt before.  And I turned Nimo to the center of the circle, raised my whip, and rode at my trainer with every intent of hurting him.  Luckily, somehow I was able to catch myself and I stopped Nimo just short of my trainer.  I'm sure there was no mistaking my intent, but my trainer very gently told me that maybe we needed to wrap up for the day.  I agreed and got out of the arena as fast as I could, feeling a little embarrassed and a little shocked at my behavior.

But I knew I could never ride with that trainer again.  I finally woke up and recognized the boiling water around me.  I immediately went searching for a new barn and a new trainer.  I found both fairly quickly and by mid-December, I had moved Nimo and was starting lessons with a new trainer.  The other thing that I did was to buy Jane Savoie's Happy Horse program, which provided a lot of tools for me to use when schooling on my own.  Those tools helped convince me that maybe I wasn't such a bad rider after all, and all of a sudden, riding was fun again.  I was still very much a "dressage queen," but the barn I'd moved to had a couple of fields to ride in as well as a neighborhood that was safe to ride around, and I began incorporating small amounts of work with Nimo outside the arena.  It was pretty scary at first, though.  Nimo was not reliable either inside or outside the arena - he spooked at everything and it wasn't uncommon for him to spin and bolt.

Over time, though, my confidence increased, and Nimo got better - not great, but better.  In fact, he improved enough that I decided to take him to his first real trail ride.  I e-mailed the organizer to explain that it would be our first trail ride and to ask if the ride would be appropriate.  She said it would be, so I happily loaded Nimo in a trailer borrowed from a friend and hauled him to the ride.  After missing a turn and learning that it is possible to turn around with a loaded horse trailer on a narrow mountain road without taking out anyone's mailbox, I finally arrived at the location, only to find out that the ride was actually the next day (I guess the date was misprinted on the website and everyone figured that out but me...).

So, the next day I took Nimo to the ride location again and met up with 4 crazy ladies.  They were hard-core trail riders and fox-hunters on thoroughbreds or other well-conditioned horses.  And Nimo and I spent the next 2 hours trying to keep up with them (the ride was not appropriate for a first trail ride at all...).  Nimo actually did a great job - even launching himself over a 6-foot vertical embankment into a 4-foot deep river and impressing the hell out of the other ladies because their horses had gone an easier route.  Of course, then because it was a hot and muggy August day and Nimo had been working really hard, he laid down in the river.  To be honest, I didn't really begrudge him the dunking.  He'd outperformed my highest expectations and he deserved a cool-down however he wanted it.  Looking back on that day, I wish I hadn't let him work quite so hard, but he did recover OK.

And the seed for trail riding was sown.  I'd done quite a bit of trail riding when I was growing up, including an annual 2-day "wagon train" ride through the Badlands and other North Dakota wilderness for a few years, and I'd always loved it.  But when I moved to Virginia, the opportunities just weren't there, so I ended up leaving my western roots and converting to dressage.  But this ride reminded me how much I loved riding on the trails and missed it.  And apparently, my horse wasn't as defective outside of the arena as I thought he was, especially if he had company.

So, I continued to ride a lot and went on a couple more trail rides with one of the ladies I met at this ride.  But then she moved away.  And then I got pregnant...


  1. You poor things - I'm sure you were *both* going crazy doing nothing but w/t circles.

    Did I ever mention that we missed the scheduled hospital tour because I wrote it on the calendar for the wrong day? I totally feel your pain. At least you showed up a day early - we showed up a day late (and never bothered to reschedule, I'll just go storm around the hospital irritably having contractions and give myself a tour.)

    Anyway. Looking forward to part 2!

    1. Looking back on it, I can't fathom why I put up with the nightmare as long as I did. And Nimo was just as miserable as I was. At least we did eventually escape. As for the wrong date, I think you did mention it and it's totally fine that you missed the tour. It's likely you'll either be in labor long enough to get your bearings or the baby will come fast enough that you can just send your husband for whatever you need:) I'll cross my fingers for the latter!:)

  2. Love this!! Also finding myself wishing we lived closer because you have what sounds to be an outstanding library considering you've mentioned book after book after book and dvd and other supplemental material these past many posts! The Library of Gail. I want to be a member lol

    1. I do have a lot of horse books and DVDs - I can't seem to help myself! And I wish we lived closer so you could take me on all your training rides:)

  3. Company would be so very welcome and enjoyed for training rides. =)