On Fear, Falling, and Horses

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sticky moments along the way

I came across a really good post a few weeks ago on Facebook, shared by a page I follow, on fear and how it relates to horsemanship. The gist was fear can be a big obstacle…but it’s also an important emotion to recognize as it relates to self-preservation and keeping a modicum of common sense about us.

I’ve always been more of a “scared” rider. Maybe some of that is my own personality as a whole — I tend to be a somewhat cautious, careful person in pretty much all aspects of life. I play things safe, I’m not a huge risk-taker, and I don’t like to get hurt, physically or emotionally.

How am I possibly drawn to horses, and an extreme sport such as endurance riding?

Probably because as much as it scares me sometimes, it also pushes me out of my comfort zone, reminds me that life is meant to be lived, teaches me things can and will go wrong without it being the end of the world (thus far, at least), gets me outside of myself, and, if I play my cards right, rewards finding the balance between caution and bravery.

Granted, I’ve come a long ways. There was a time that, to get me to actually ride outsidet the safe confines of the area, my old trainer would have to clip a leadrope on Mimi and head out the gate, leaving me little choice but to clutch the saddle horn and whimper in futile protest.

Was my pony that “bad” outside the arena? No. On the contrary, she was actually super bold and liked to “trail ride” on the streets and canal banks near the barn. But she was “looky” and had a very fast reaction time.

And I have a very hard time forgetting or letting things go, so after the one fast spook-spin-bolt that resulted in a parting-of-the-ways, Ashley-getting-lawn-darted-onto-pavement incident, I’ve had a hard time relaxing in an “urban riding” environment…never mind that happened like 17 or 18 years ago.

Ummm…let it go much? Maybe???

Upon actually writing that out, even I have to shake my head a bit at myself. I mean, I wish there was some “sprinkle pixie dust, wave a magic wand, and poof, Instant Brave Rider” secret I could tap into and make all of those fears and self-doubts go away.

But there isn’t. At least, not the last time I checked.

But there is experience, a bit of “grit your teeth and do it,” and the positive affirmation of post-adventure survival. Sitting and being all cogitative and academic and thinking about all of the “what ifs” almost makes it worse — way too much dwell time. Getting out and doing something tends to produce a more positive mental outlook.

A couple months ago, I got lawn-darted. A complete accident on both the horse’s part and mine, but for the first time ever, I actually had a horse go completely down with me. I’ve had incidents of horses tripping and taking a knee, and even my own Mimi has always had a tendency to catch a toe on an underlying rock, a by-product of her daisy-clipping ways (and not always paying 100% attention to her footwork, especially in “easy” areas). So I tend to “ride aware” with good contact, always ready to catch/stabilize as much as I can. It didn’t help in this case. One second, we were trotting along on a slight downgrade, and the next second, I was skidding on the dirt.

If you’ve got to have a horse fall with you, this was seriously the way to do it. Physics worked in my favor and I got ejected clear of the saddle and ahead of the horse, and didn’t get fallen on or rolled on. My shoulder and arm took the worst of the impact, and then my hip and my head. (Yes, I was wearing a helmet. Yes, it has been replaced.) Given the fact I went skidding down a single-track trail comprised mostly of decomposed granite, I’m shocked and pleased my tights didn’t even suffer any rips. (Shout-out for the Irideon Synergy tights.)

Horse was fine, saddle was fine, I got a few bruises, but was fine. And, shockingly, not even particularly mentally shaken up, which is most unusual for me. Hmmm. Signs of bravery and acceptance of “you may get hurt along the way, but there’s an even better chance you probably won’t” possibly making an appearance?

I still don’t know what caused it — whether he was getting tired, maybe a bit footsore, or just caught the right rock or dip in the trail at the wrong time? But up to that point, we had a fabulous ride — covering some really beautiful, fun trail at a really good clip. It was the kind of ride that had really served to give me a good confidence booster and validation of my ability to ride, so maybe that’s why I was able to be more circumspect about the whole fall thing?

Of course, it didn’t exactly help that the next time I rode, the horse (a different one) I was riding did a very nice stumble on a downhill, but at least she caught herself. Twice in a row would have just been too much.

But it also got me thinking, and generated this subsequent blog post contemplating my own riding and being a possible contributing factor to these incidents.

For what it’s worth, I would also like to get back to taking some lessons in the future, especially with a new horse…I benefit from someone else’s eyes on me, and if I’m listening to someone else’s directives, I’m less likely to wuss out and “overthink” and more apt to just “go with it.” And I know I’ve developed some very bad “lazy rider” habits over the year that are going to take some work to correct.

I’ve been riding now for over 20 years…and there’s still so much I’m improving on and learning. Fortunately horses (the good ones) are a remarkably forgiving journey.

Got Game?

As a friend recently put, “[She] is a testament to why I love mares. They’re just so GAME.”

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the epitome of game face/war ware face

Really couldn’t put it better, or more succinctly, myself. I’ve touched on it here and there in other posts, but never directly addressed it, but I’ll come right out and say it: I prefer mares.

I won’t get into the mare versus gelding debate, and my opinion on geldings isn’t a disparaging one — I certainly like a good gelding, and if the right one crossed my path, I wouldn’t turn him down. But I have a soft spot for the girls, and given two otherwise equal horses, I would be more likely to give the nod to the mare.

“Oh, good, you can have them!” seems to be the more common refrain, especially among endurance riders, and indeed, I have a handful of friends who flat-out refuse to own mares. (In a field of 198 starters this year at Tevis, there were only 46 mares.)

a little more “goofball” than “game face” at this stage….

I really don’t know why mares have such a soft spot for me…I mean, the first lesson horse I habitually rode was a nasty witch of a mare who thought her job in life was serving riders with eviction notices, and the next two “nice” confidence-building horses were geldings.

And then there was Mimi.

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Funny thing is, she actually caught my Dad’s attention first — I was hung up on a spotty, experienced — and unfortunately lame — gelding when we went pony-searching at the POA International Sale, and it was at his urging that I shelved my disappointment over the gelding and climbed on Mimi for a test ride.

We haven’t looked back since.

It didn’t hurt that she was — and still is — one of the prettiest POAs I’ve ever seen (nope, not biased at all…;)) and basically the epitome of “little white princess pony,” who can be just as sweet and charming as anything when she wants something.

And then there’s the side of her that kicks her stall, bites you when you wake her up at o-dark-thirty in the morning, nickers and squeals at fenceposts in the spring, and pulls the nastiest faces — all the things that make you say, “Oh. Ah, yes. Mare.”

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Yep, still love my mares.

I can’t speak from the perspective of actual ownership of a gelding — just peripheral experience of riding with Dad and Beamer, and then the handful of other people’s horses I’ve ridden — so I don’t know exactly how much of this is “long-time bond that comes with working for a horse for a long time” versus “brand new horse I’m crawling aboard and asking them to work with me.” But the geldings have worked for me…the mares have poured their hearts out for me.

Of course, with Mimi, that’s definitely a long-time bond and partnership at work. But Liberty? I feel like she’s really trying, even with the limited time and rides I’ve had on her.

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showing potential for a professional game face
photo by Susan Kordish

It’s ironic, given the fact that I myself tend to be overly dramatic, more emotional, and not exactly long on patience…that I would gravitate to mares versus steady-eddy, worker-bee geldings. And especially given my worrywort tendencies, you would think I would gravitate to the ones who won’t let themselves be pushed too hard, versus the overachieving mares. (Although to be fair, it’s a 50/50 thing on the overachievers. One [Mimi], I’ve always been afraid she’ll go until she drops. The other [Libby] has already displayed self-preserving tendencies.)

So it’s not something I can really put my finger on, exactly, other than overwhelmingly positive experiences with very “game” mares. And hopefully many more still to come.

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Do What Works

payson 9-16 012Treed vs Treeless.
Barefoot vs Booted vs Shod.
Brand X vs Brand Y.
Bitted vs Bitless.
Minimalist vs Maximalist.
Training programs.
Diet choices.

Did I manage to hit just about every major hot topic button out there liable to start online riots?

Most of us probably have some sort of an opinion on any of the above topics. And since it is our opinion, there’s a good chance we’re probably pretty convinced that we’re right. (No one likes to have a wrong opinion, right?)

But when it comes down to it, who’s to say what is right or wrong? Obviously there are some hard and fast rules of the world — like I’m pretty sure running a red light is illegal in all 50 states, no matter your opinion on whether stopping for other traffic is stupid or not. But there are a wide range of subjects in which “Your Mileage May Vary” and one size definitely does not fit all.

Especially on those topics that we feel very passionate about, we (myself included!) can get somewhat…ardent in our beliefs. And that passion and enthusiasm is awesome, and usually contagious. It’s the reason for the success of word-of-mouth referrals — you’re going to be more apt to consider something that you received direct information and/or feedback about from a personal, reliable source, versus just a shiny marketing ad.

Where I begin to have a problem is the black-and-white extremism that says “This is the only way to do something and everything else is just wrong” and doesn’t consider that maybe what works for them won’t work for someone else. Very few things in this world are absolute, and while there are times that “If it’s not working, you’re doing it wrong” are applicable…more often than not, it’s better to keep an open mind, be flexible, and willing to do what works.

Naturally, me being me, of course I have an opinion on all of the above topics. ;) However, just to keep life interesting, I’ve had to re-visit some of these opinions depending on the horse in question, and learn to be very flexible.

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At the last ride, Liberty tended to get behind the vertical with her s-hack, which tells me she isn’t ready for that many points of pressure and contact; back to more snaffle-basics for her. I prefer the s-hack for ease of eating/drinking/not removing headstalls…but when the training occasion calls for a bit, that is what I will use.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of treeless saddles…for me. I recognize that they work really well for a lot of people, but my experiments with them have been mostly underwhelming. I also admittedly ride off my stirrups probably a little more than I should, so pressure dissipation on a treeless has the potential to be an issue with me. After sitting in several models of them, I would dearly love to try a ReactorPanel at some point, as their specific flex-panel technology intrigues me. And in the meantime, my old faithful Duett still continues to do the job.

The barefoot vs booted vs shod debate could probably take up a post all on its own. Suffice today: I have barefoot, booted performance horses. I want them barefoot and moving around as much as possible when they’re not working; but the majority of the time when they’re being ridden, I use boots. My personal stance on that is that under saddle, I’m asking them to do things that are unnatural, such as carry and balance weight, and move at speeds that may be faster than the terrain would ideally dictate, especially in a competition setting where we’re racing against the clock and may not have the luxury of slowing down for every questionable section.

As a caveat to that, I will say that training barefoot on a young horse can be a handy training tool. Not only does it teach them to pay attention to their feet — and that landing on rocks is a bad idea — it can also help curb excessive enthusiasm on a more forward horse after they clatter through a few rock piles and realize that might not have been the best idea.

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Sometimes Arizona footing can be barefoot friendly. And then sometimes it’s really not.

And it’s not going to be for everyone. It can take a lot of time, dedication, and the right set of circumstances to have a successful barefoot performance horse. And if it’s hurting the horse, it’s not worth clinging to an ideal…do what your horse needs not what you want.

Oh, and FWIW, on the running front of happy debate topics, I haven’t been able to successfully use minimalist or maximalist shoes. So there. ;) Actually, the challenge of finding appropriate running shoes for myself has been even harder than it was finding boots that worked on Mimi.

Bottom line: Do research, take a moment to think about the arguments being made for or against something, try something, and don’t be afraid to say if something doesn’t work.

Blog Hop: Why Did You Start?

Mel linked to an article of “Why the Heck Some Good Runners Started Running in the First Place“. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a good read — and some of the reasons are definitely not what you would expect!

The blog hop question is simple: Why did you start riding and/or running in the first place?

Riding: I think horses have always been in my blood, plain and simple. My great-grandfather was an officer in the Polish cavalry, so blame a throwback in genetics. I have photos of me in a baby stroller, no more than a year old, staring fixedly at the ponies in the corral at the petting zoo. Forget the goats, the sheep, the chickens. I wanted the ponies. (Not that I remember this.)
And when I was young, I went through a litany of activities, like all young girls do, trying to find their place. My parents only stipulation was that I do one activity at a time, and that if I decided I didn’t like something, I had to at least finish out the season/lesson course/whatever measure of timing is used to determine little kids’ activities. Ballet, gymnastics, t-ball, Girl Scouts…and horseback riding.
Throw enough mud at a wall and something eventually sticks…horses stuck. I honestly don’t know why. I had such a rough start to the whole horse experience that I probably should have been scared off of them for life. I guess if something’s meant to be, that’s the way it goes.
Running: I’ve dabbled in running off and on for years, usually forced through gym class requirements, and occasionally a wild hair when I would get tired of my pony being fitter than me. This time around, I was initially motivated by getting Artemis. Once she hit 6 months old back in the spring, I knew I needed to start doing more than just walks to burn off some of her energy — I only have so much time to be out walking before I have to be back home for work, so a 10-mile walk in the morning wasn’t going to happen. Since she was still young, we started off very slow, very short distances…but it was more intensity than just walking. As she got older, and fitter, we increased distance. And because I was giving her such a slow legging up, I wasn’t subjecting myself to my usual over-ambitious, under-conditioned running attempts that made it so miserable in the past.
I hit the running path hard at the beginning of the summer after the break-up of what I thought had been a good, pretty serious relationship. Perhaps a questionable motivation…but I discovered how much of an escape running is for me. It’s something that is between me, my body, and the ground. I can control what happens, insomuch as anything in life can be controlled. My success is tied in to me and whatever effort I put into it, with some pretty direct and immediate feedback. It’s head-space time for me, whether it’s to think, or try to clear my head.
Horses are my passion, but I’m liking how well running (especially trail running) seems like it’ll be able to co-exist with it.

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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.