life lessons from the endurance trail

Endurance riding…and honestly, anything involving horses, ain’t for the feint of heart.

But you know what? Neither is life.

In general, horses and riding have not come easily for me. It’s my life passion, and I’ve yet to find anything I would give it up for…but I’ve had to fight for it every step of the way. Every goal, every achievement, every milestone.

My first introduction to lessons and riding was a rough start when I was persistently and maliciously dumped by one particular horse. I got to the point of being so scared that I would be nauseous and crying on the drive down to my weekly lesson. But I wanted to go…insisted, through the tears and shaking nerves, that I would go and I would ride. (There was also always a slim chance that I would get to ride one of the *good* horses, so I had to take that chance…I think there’s a life lesson about hope and optimism buried somewhere in there.) My parents didn’t force me. In fact, they offered me every out…but I refused to take them up on it.

After about of year of this, they moved me to a different instructor…one who employed reliable, kid-safe, caretaker lesson horses. Early impressions and imprinting are hard to overcome, though, and it would take several years, some patient instructors, and a couple of sainted equines (Deck and Snappy, I owe you everything) to help me piece my shattered confidence back together.

Even now, I’m not a brave rider.

I quit jumping after one wreck too many…I came back one final time a year after my worst incident to “conquer the fear,” which I did in a pretty stellar fashion (5 courses, including a timed jump-off and the highest I’ve ever jumped the pony — 3′) and I haven’t jumped since.

And while we’re on the subject of true confessions? I used to be scared to ride out of the arena. My trainer used to have to literally clip a leadrope on Mimi and pony/drag me off the property. I’m betting I’m the last person on this planet anyone would have ever bet money on becoming an endurance rider. And not just an endurance rider, but one with Tevis aspirations.

Do I still get scared?

All the time.

I hate hitting the dirt. When I part company with a horse, rarely is it the “gracefully slide/roll and stand back up again” variety. It usually involves some kind of story/drama/trauma, and subsequent splat in the dirt.

I don’t get along well with uptight, nervous horses who need lots of coddling and reassurance…or the kind who need a devil-may-care rider who laughs off spooks and misbehavior. I can be confident and guide an inexperienced horse along the trail, provided that horse is the kind of base personality that tends towards bold and doesn’t constantly second-guess me when I say “It’s okay, keep going forward, nothing’s gonna get you.”

And the biggest obstacle I face as an endurance rider is the fact I am paranoid and afraid of breaking my horse. I’ve had enough challenges and issues with Mimi over the years that it’s made me hyper-aware and overly cautious about pushing a horse, let along pushing them too hard. Again, the early imprinting of having to struggle through and hold my horse together to get those miles…every ride completion we have is a victory and a celebration that I don’t take for granted.

But doing endurance has forced me to recognize those issues, to face them, and attempt to deal with them. Last year was an excellent stepping stone for me. I rode lots of new horses. Some experienced, some brand-new greenies. Not just once, but several times, I climbed on a horse I’d never ridden until the morning of the ride, and proceeded to ride 25-50 miles on them. I toughed it out on horses who I didn’t completely mesh with…and really, really appreciated the ones I did.

And I learned to have more faith and confidence, not just in the innate ability of a conditioned, athletic endurance horse, but also in myself that I wasn’t going to break the horse and it wasn’t all going to go horribly wrong. Ever since Mimi’s unceremonious retirement halfway through our last 50 together, I’ve been beating myself up, wondering what I did wrong, what I could have changed, psycho-analyzing every minute detail, and generally feeling sorry for myself and my pony.

It’s taken me some time to get my head around this concept, but sometimes, stuff just happens. You can do everything right, and the stars just aren’t aligned on that day and time. This has been a hard thing for me to grasp. I tend to take it personally when things go wrong, and don’t shake things off easily. Yes, that can be a bit arrogant and self-indulgent…but we are who we are and we all feel, react, and cope differently to every situation. And outside circumstances at the time made it easier for me to just duck and cover, and temporarily go on hiatus from endurance. Even that couldn’t last too long, though, and friends with extra horses started coming out of the woodwork, giving me something to ride.

Yeah, the last couple of years haven’t been ideal, catch-riding and rig sharing/borrowing and generally relying on the good graces of other people when I’m by nature more of a self-reliant person…but it’s better than not riding. I accomplished a number of milestones under those less-than-ideal circumstances, including getting my first endurance and LD mileage patches, going to new rides I’d never been to, seeing friends I wouldn’t otherwise get to see, and facing down some of those above-mentioned personal demons.

Circling back around to where I started, this hasn’t been an easy ride for me. But endurance has been the best soul-searching, horizon-expanding, comfort-zone-shifting thing for me, pretty much ever. Life lessons, indeed. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that there are no easy answers…life doesn’t come with a handbook…you just have to live it.

18 thoughts on “life lessons from the endurance trail

  1. GREAT post. Love it.

    “I tend to take it personally when things go wrong, and don't shake things off easily.” That's me too, I understand.

    And so crazy about your first lessons, hitting the dirt, and your fears. I'd never have guessed! Bravo overcoming, being diligent, and pursuing everything as you've done. I love following your current journey and can't wait to follow along with your Tevis adventure one day. =)

  2. Thank you, thank you! I'm a self-admitted scaredey-cat who would just as soon play it safe and throw in the towel…left to my own devices, I would probably still be doing laps around the arena…but trails and endurance makes me feel too alive to ever be happy going back to safe little arena circles. :)

    And I will be excited to eventually give all of my readers a Tevis adventure to follow. :)

  3. I was already impressed with your devil-may-care ability to go catch ride anything, any time. And that was before I learned you are faking it just like me! You're awesome. Can't wait to hang out with you this year at Tevis. :)

  4. Great post! I would so love to be trotting down the endurance trail with you sometime in the future! If nothing else hope to see you in CA maybe around Tevis?

  5. For sure! I'm crewing for Lucy this year, and will be there from the Tuesday before through the Tuesday after. (Kaity is also crewing with me, and will be my mode of transportation…we may all be able to coordinate something?)

  6. Excellent post. As you know I struggle with similar issues and you hut the nail on tge head with every sentence. I cantwait Iuntil you are posting about your own tevis adventure some day. It will be a sweet sweet moment

  7. Loved this post, Ashley! So many things in common: my first summer riding camp, I fell off every other day. I broke the record for most falls that summer, more than any other kid in camp. More than any of the other kids put together! The horses themselves were what kept me coming back. It was because of that camp that my grandfather decided I was dedicated enough to deserve to have my own horse.

    “I tend to take it personally when things go wrong, and don't shake things off easily.” This is so, so me also. I've struggled with this for my entire life. It's gotten better with age, but it's still there.

    And…I used to get borderline panic attacks at the idea of riding on the trail. I loved it once I was out and survived it, but the initial preparation to just get out on the trail was a mental agony of thinking of everything that could possibly go wrong. I've never ridden as much on the trails as I do now in my entire life…I needed an entire year of good experiences on a horse I've come to trust to be able to leave the confines of the arena without thinking twice about it. I admired you tremendously for your ability to go out and catch ride on other people's endurance horses, but knowing that you used to have the same problem as me, I admire you even more!

    I hope all of your Tevis dreams come true and look forward to reading about them some day! :D

  8. Perfect words, each aspect I could relate to!

    Reading your previous catch riding stories, I thought about how crazy brave you were! Now I know you're even braver, because doing something when you're scared takes even more heart.

  9. Thank you, both for the comment and for sharing your own relate-able experiences! I've been so impressed with where you and Lily came from and how far you've gotten…your grandfather was right in his assessment of your dedication, even from an early age. :)

  10. Thanks! Overall, it's been a great experience. It helps that all the horses I've ridden have been part of a fairly close-knit circle of people I know, so I at least had a vague inkling of what I was getting into…didn't climb aboard any I knew to have major behavioral issues or would be likely to dump me in the middle of a cactus. It's still a bit unnerving, though…and I never, ever thought I would be *that* rider who climbs aboard a strange horse the morning of a ride.

  11. Thanks for sharing! I found that when I was young, I'd ride anything. I had my share of nasty falls, but they never really shook me much. As I got older, though, I started to realize exactly what kind of damage could happen to me. And I had to retire the mare I'd come to trust without reservation, and no horse after her has ever had the kind of sheer gumption on the trails that she had. So, I've been wrestling with insecurity for quite a few years now and I can relate to a lot of what you said in your post about being scared and doing it anyway.

    I think you're absolutely right that sometimes you can do everything right and still the outcome is messed up. On the flip side, I think even the most experienced, dedicated people can make a mistake and there can be consequences. I've certainly made my share of mistakes and I've come to realize that as long as I make choices based on what I know and think is right, that's the best I can do. I can't read minds and I can't see the future, and not doing anything because I'm afraid to make a mistake isn't a great way to live.

    So, kudos to you for living your life, continuing to enjoy your lovely pony, and pursuing your Tevis dream!:)

  12. “I can't read minds and I can't see the future, and not doing anything because I'm afraid to make a mistake isn't a great way to live.”

    THIS, a thousand times over. I feel like I need to print this out as a reminder and tape it above my computer…thank you. (BTW, send you a FB friend request. :))

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