Saturday, June 8, 2019

Fear and Riding

It was just a blue bag, thin and plastic, like the kind you get from a grocery store.  It was half-buried in the field and basically not doing anything except laying there.  But the second Nimo saw it, he stepped about 6 feet sideways and had to slow down to a walk to recover from the shock of seeing it where it clearly should not be.  In fact, Nimo's opinion of plastic bags is that they should never be seen nor heard.  They belong in another world, far, far away from him.

I counted my blessings that Nimo's reaction had been so understated.  About five or six years ago, the sight of that blue bag would have resulted in a terrible spin and bolt, likely accompanied by bucking.  And that's what I spent the next few minutes dwelling on.  How bad the spook could have been instead of what it actually was, which was completely rideable and not that big of a deal.  I even imagined in my head what could have happened, and I remembered all the times that Nimo had bolted and how terrifying it was.

The incident reminded me of something that has been on my mind a lot lately - fear and riding.  I have a close friend who, until recently when the horse passed away, had what I consider to be one of the safest horses to ever be saddled.  I have ridden this horse many, many times over the years, and I even trusted her with my daughter.  She was remarkably easy to ride and tolerant of a whole host of rider errors.  The worst that she might have done was to slowly wander around a field eating grass if you weren't paying attention.  Yet, my friend is one of the most timid riders I know.  She constantly worries and was so plagued by anxiety that she hardly rode this horse for many years (even though a lot of other people rode her).

She recently called me to tell me about a trail ride she went on.  She rode a horse she'd never ridden before, and I know she was quite anxious about even going on the ride in the first place.  But after the ride was over, she couldn't stop gushing with excitement about what a wonderful time she had.  The horse was very steady and even when a squirrel fell off of a tree right in front of them, he remained unphased.  I was so happy for her, and I hope it means that she will keep riding and maybe even get another horse someday.  But I worry that her fear will keep her from doing what she so clearly loves.

Another friend recently got in touch about some issues that she had with her horse that really shook her confidence.  They would have shaken me too, and I think her reaction was completely normal and rational.  Riding horses that are reactive is a very tough thing to do.  I'm not sure I was particularly helpful when I responded to this friend, because I have to admit that comforting people and helping them feel better about a bad situation is not a skill I have, despite many years to trying to improve in that area.  But it did make me think a lot about me and Nimo and about all the horses I used to ride before him.

It most reminded me of the little grey Arab mare I had for about 15 years.  I got her when I was 13, and I rode her everywhere.  I competed in pretty much every 4-H event possible, from halter classes to western pleasure to trail to reining to barrel racing to jumping.  We even did a couple of multi-day trail rides in remote parts of North Dakota.  I hauled her with me when I went to college and when I moved from Iowa to Virginia.  She was athletic and motivated and wanted to do everything, mostly at a canter or a gallop.  I think her walk was about 5 or 6 miles an hour and she hated being behind anyone.  We often rode 10-12 miles at a time several days a week when I was younger.  And the more rugged the terrain, the happier I was.  I used to gallop her over ditches and my favorite thing was to go as fast as possible over people's driveway entrances.  The ditch was often much lower than the driveway, so there would be a sudden, steep climb up to the driveway and then a drop-off on the other side.  I think we both loved it.  Even the thought of doing that now almost makes my heart stop.

As much as I can remember she never balked at going over any terrain.  Although she did have a bad habit of jumping two-foot jumps as if they were four feet, which often resulted in me falling off (there were no helmets in those days, but I was young and invincible).  And sometimes, if I didn't prepare her properly for a jump (which was common because I had zero instruction in jumping and had no idea what I was doing), she would run out.  But I'm sure that was a rider error and not anything to do with her ability.

I tell you this because it was a time when I rode without fear.  Part of the reason was that I simply did not understand mortality to the degree that I do now that I am older.  Part of it was because I had such a willing partner.  She didn't spook or bolt or buck or behave unpredictably.  In the show ring, she knew her job and did it, and on the trail, we just went as fast as possible, so she was happy.

While I still had this lovely mare, I procured a young horse who had been abused.  And it was the first time that worry started to creep into my head.  He was a pretty solid character, and I adored him more than life itself, but he did buck sometimes and he wasn't quite as fearless as my Arab mare.  In hindsight, I know why he was bucking and if I owned him now, I don't think it would be an issue, but he had to be put down after a terrible pasture accident left one of his hocks shattered and irreparable.

I bought Nimo a couple of months later, and I started taking dressage lessons pretty regularly on a friend's horse (the same one I mentioned above) while Nimo was too young to ride.  I also rode another friend's small, grey Arab mare while she was pregnant.  So I got lots of good saddle time and supposedly good instruction on how to ride.

Looking back, I can see that those dressage lessons were probably about the worst thing to ever happen to me.  You see, I already knew how to ride.  (I remember my parents asking me why I was taking riding lessons when I already knew how to ride, and I remember telling them it was because I was learning to ride better.  It is laughable to think back on what I used to be able to do compared to my limitations now.)  What happened is that all of my confidence in my abilities was eroded by an instructor who forced me to ride in a way that wasn't comfortable for me or the horse.

No one can sit an unbalanced, quick trot on any horse, I don't care how good you are.  Yet, this is common for dressage instruction as are many other harmful practices.  And I think it ruins more riders and horses than can be counted.  Because it makes us afraid.  We are afraid that we will ruin our horses if we don't use our aids properly.  We are afraid we will look stupid in front of our instructor and our friends or maybe a judge.  We are told 100 times during every lesson about all the things we are doing wrong, and if we are lucky, we will hear 1 or 2 times about something we did right.

And so when we ride by ourselves, all we hear is this voice in our heads telling us that our hands aren't still enough, our legs aren't strong enough, our seat isn't stable enough.  We become convinced that we don't have any skills because our horse doesn't move correctly and we get calf cramps from trying so hard.  We start to black out from lack of oxygen from the exertion of trying to force our body into contortions.

And then if we happen to be starting a young horse under saddle who is flighty or spooky or just inexperienced, it all multiplies.  Because now we start falling off when said horse bucks or spooks.  And every time we fall off, it confirms what we know in our hearts.  We are bad riders.  We need more instruction because we can't be trusted to ride by ourselves.  Maybe we need a different horse.  Or a different saddle.  Or a different bit.  Or sharper spurs.  The list goes on and on as we troubleshoot our problems and lament about our issues to other like-minded riders.  If only full-seat breeches came with actual glue on them or we could seat belt ourselves in the saddle, maybe then we could actually sit that trot.

Maybe we even figure out that we need a new trainer because we aren't getting better with the current one.  But the new trainer still uses the same basic premise to instruct us.  Horses must be obedient to our aids, which are prescribed to us by The Masters.  If we only learn to apply the aids properly and beat our horses into submission, then we will be good riders.

In the meantime, we are too afraid to even take our horses out of the arena, because we know the horses will spook and bolt and misbehave and even unseat us.  We will get hurt because we aren't as young as we used to be.  And what if our loose horses run into the road and get hit by a car?  So we stay safe, and our comfort zone becomes smaller and smaller.  Until soon, all we feel comfortable doing is walking around an arena if someone else is with us.

That was about the point I was at many years ago.  I was absolutely terrified to ride Nimo.  Any time I took him out of the arena, it ended badly.  Most of the time I managed to stay on, but the few times I didn't convinced me that I didn't have too many more falls left in me.  I reached a point where I had two choices:  sell Nimo and stop riding forever or get help.

I finally managed to be brave enough to get help.  I got it from Jane Savoie's Happy Horse DVD set.  While I don't agree with much of her philosophy anymore (simply because it is still based on obedience to a certain set of aids, not because I find her personally objectionable), it was enough of a difference to motivate me to seek a new path.  It took a while and that path led me down the road of endurance and finally to Science of Motion.

I wish I could tell you that I resolved my fear, but as you know from the opening of this post, I haven't.  I'm still in some stage of anxiety most of the time when I ride.  I don't know if there really is a way out of it once you have experienced it.  At best, I hope to learn skills that help me minimize my fear.  For example, when I was having my ride out lesson with my instructor a couple of weeks ago, both horses spooked when we flushed a deer in the woods.  The spooks weren't bad, just a few feet sideways.  My balance was really good even at that unexpected moment, because what I'm learning with SOM is that I need to keep my body engaged 100% of the time.  That constant engagement offers a lot of protection against an unpredictable spook or buck or misstep by the horse. And every time I survive a spook or something else that might normally have given me trouble, it builds my confidence.  Maybe I'm not such a terrible rider.  Maybe Nimo isn't such a bad horse.

But there are enough moments like the incident with the blue bag to remind me that Nimo is probably never going to be 100% spook free.  I will need to always work on it with him and with myself.  I will need to make a conscious effort to overcome my worry every time I ride.

And so that is what I've been doing.  When I rode yesterday, Nimo was a piece of work.  He and his herd had been moved to a new paddock for the first time in probably 2 or 3 years.  I wasn't there, but several people told me that Nimo was a complete nutter.  Apparently, he ran around the new paddock until he completely lathered himself up and finally settled.  Unfortunately for me, all that running around didn't tire him out a bit (I guess he is fitter than I thought!).  So when I got on, there was still quite a bit of adrenaline in his system, and I immediately felt his back bunch up and he started crow-hopping every few strides.  It wasn't difficult to sit, but I knew from past experience that if I didn't manage his energy, I could have a major blow up on my hands.

The old me would have done one of two things.  I either would have gotten off and lunged him to see if that would help or I would have stayed in the arena and wrestled with him to make him walk because I wouldn't have felt comfortable dealing with anything more powerful.  The new me opted for a third choice.  We were going to do a regular conditioning ride out around the farm.  I've written before about how Nimo can act when I ride him around the farm, which is difficult and frustrating and terrifying.  But I resolved to do it anyway.

I double-checked my helmet strap and rode him down the driveway. He settled a bit because he always walks pretty slowly on that section.  That gave me a chance to firmly get my brain under control and plan my ride.  When we got to the end of the half-mile driveway, I turned him so we could ride around the perimeter of one of the hay fields.  I've ridden him around that field a couple of times, but not for weeks, and I knew he would be energetic.  I asked for Pignot jog and Nimo barely consented.  He wanted to really move out, but I was trying to convey that he had to trot properly.  And I'll give him credit.  He trotted the length of the field without breaking and without exploding.  We continued around the field, crossed the driveway, and started trotting the perimeter of the next field.  He kept trotting.  We swung around the edge of a paddock and kept going, finally slowing as we approached the barn.

I could tell that little jaunt had made zero impact on his energy level (it was probably about a mile and a half), so we circled around to do it again.  Nimo was really fussing at me about heading away from the barn, so I just asked him to walk very slowly and worked on my position.  Then I turned him into the field to ask him to Pignot jog the opposite direction around it.  We'd be trotting away from the barn instead of toward it.  I could tell he was feeling irritated about that, and as we turned the corner to head down the long side of the field, I asked him to really bend, thinking that it would help him focus on his balance instead of how much he wanted to trot.  That provoked a canter and then almost a buck, followed by an unnecessary spook.  I just kept asking for trot and we went down the long side of the field.  Then I asked him to keep trotting as we connected with the driveway and headed back toward the barn.  But I also insisted on correct movement.

Unfortunately, it became clear that Nimo was getting more worked up and not less and as he got lathered up (the day was warm and the humidity was about 207%), my reins got so slick, I was having trouble holding on to them.  (Note to self: start riding with gloves again now that it's so warm.)  But we kept trotting until Nimo spotted the blue bag.  Then I could tell my efforts to get his brain out in the field were done.  So we walked back to the arena, and went in for more work.

I'll be the first to admit that our arena work was not a thing of beauty.  It was purely utilitarian as I worked to engage Nimo's body and get him paying attention to his balance and coordination.  After about 15 minutes of mostly walk with a lot of small circles and changes of direction, he finally decided that he could collect himself.  And I called it a day.

I tell this story of our ride not to show you how successful it was in dealing with Nimo's nutcase self; in fact, I'm pretty sure it wasn't.  Instead, I shared it to show how I'm dealing with my fear.  It is true that sometimes fear is a healthy reaction to a bad situation, and it should be paid attention to.  But with Nimo, fear has become such a habit that I must constantly work to address it.  If I'm scared and then don't ride or play it safe every time, I will just get more scared and soon I will be back to riding in the arena only with supervision.  I don't ever want to go back to that place again, so I actively work on dealing with it.

And tonight when I go out to ride, I'm going to ride the same fields and do the same thing I did last night.  And I will keep doing it until both Nimo and I are comfortable with it.  And then we might try that jumping thing again...:)

1 comment:

  1. It's called cognitive dissonance. I want more than anything else to ride, but fear is my constant companion. My passion is denied, every day. When I ride, it's more about surviving, not exhileration. You've read my blog, I don't have to go on.

    Thank you for this post. I had no idea you had "Kopf-Kino" too, as the Germans say. "Brain Theater" - wild imaginings of things that have gone wrong that can turn into new things going wrong.

    I don't know what to do about it.