Monday, February 10, 2014


This is Abbey, my 14-year-old BLM Mustang mare. She was my first horse, whom I bought 4 years ago for $500 because she "had some issues."  They weren't huge issues.  She didn't want to stand for mounting.  She "didn't like to canter" and she HATED jumping, which her teenaged owner was very into.  Her ground manners are impeccable and she loves people, and she wanted to be with me, which for me was the most important thing.

So I bought her and moved her to my friend's farm.  I learned about Parelli and also Clinton Anderson, and we played every day, and I was terribly patient with her "mounting problem", and I think we were getting somewhere.  We did pretty well, made some great progress, she is smarter than a whip and she learns at lightning speed, as long as she's on board with your crazy human ideas (doesn't usually take much convincing for most things, and as a Left Brain Introvert if there's a click and a treat involved, she'll go to the ends of the earth, preferably not fast).

I'm not in the best shape, and if I'm honest I haven't been incredibly confident since I got her.  I rode hunters as a teenager and laughed at a jump refusal that sent me over a horse's head, but I learned a few years ago that I don't bounce like I used to.  When I went to test ride Abbey before I bought her, I asked her to canter and she just trotted faster, and I gave up -- I never made her to canter at all.  The one time I asked, after I bought her, she cantered a few steps and bucked halfheartedly.

Anyway I went and played with her every day from August to January, and that's when I got Storm, because my non-horsey hubby fell so in love with her awesome personality that he told me he was stealing my horse and I'd need to get another one. 

We had her mounting problem pretty much solved.  One sunny day in March 2011 my hubby Russ and I went to the farm, and the plan was to put him up on her for the first time and give him a little lesson.  Abbey stood for him to get on, no problem, and she was responding well to his cues.  I got kind of excited and wanted to ride with him - this was a dream coming true here, to get to share my biggest crazy lifelong passion with my awesome hubby - so I tacked Storm up and started lunging her.  She spooked at something (the only time I have ever seen her spook) and started running around the little enclosed field.  Russ was sitting on Abbey not far away, and to her credit she stood as Storm tore by her twice.  The third time she decided maybe there WAS something to be concerned about, and she turned and ran, and Russ freaked, yelling, bouncing on her back.  I think she bucked.  Long story short, he hit the ground and broke his collarbone, lost a month and a half of work (which we couldn't afford), and to his credit, didn't decide he's never getting on horses again -- just not until he had some sick time built up again.

This was pretty devastating to my dream.  I know I'm not the first person to fall in love with the idea of horses -- the image of Alec Ramsay galloping down a beach on The Black's bare back is pretty persistent for a lot of us, right?  -- and then find our dream smashed because of the reality.  The the reality is, horses have a different dream.  And we didn't ask what it was.  Abbey's dream is a herd to boss around, and being outside 24/7, and a handful of carrots and the occasional peppermint.  Riding... that's not on her radar.  

I felt like this whole thing was my responsibility.  I should never have left Russ his first time on a horse (much less a horse with any issues whatsoever) to his own devices for any reason, or rushed anything at all, or... well, you get the shoulda coulda woulda picture, right?  Guilt can ruin a lot of things.

I still went to see the horses every day but I didn't try to ride for a month or two after that.  I took my sister-in-law, who rides, to see the horses.  She was going to try riding Abbey, and I was going to ride Storm.  Well, Ab started bucking the minute Lilly put her foot in the stirrup.  Not crazy bucking, protest bucking, and enough to put off a ride for someone who's not terribly confident.  She won that round, totally.  We left her alone and played with the other horses.  I haven't tried to ride her since.  

Some time in June of that same year I had an issue with my neck, and to make a very long story short, I was told by a neurologist that if I fell from a horse I could be permanently paralyzed.  Confidence took another huge hit.  I stopped riding entirely.  Last year I got a new doctor.  I told him about the horses, and told him that I wasn't really afraid of pain, or dying... I got scared with the neck injury that I wouldn't be able to do things... but the fear of that was preventing me from doing things!  He showed me a scar from his own broken collarbone, falling from a horse (he was jousting!), and told me "we break, but we heal."  He reviewed my MRI and told me that in his professional opinion I was no more likely to be paralyzed riding than anyone else.

That was a weight of a thousand pounds off my shoulders.  I had a green light to ride!  It changed everything.  Except that I am still lacking confidence.  I've ridden Storm about five times since then, at a walk with a few steps of trot here and there.  Winter happened, and that reduced my riding further, but I'm determined that this be the year I get my confidence back and fall back in love with riding.

Still, the confidence thing, and also the fact that I'm overweight and out of shape.  I bought a bareback pad this year and I am riding sans stirrups to try to find my seat again (this makes Russ really nervous, poor guy, but so far it's been fine).  Storm is a willing accomplice for the regaining of my confidence and I am taking it one step at a time, plus I am doing yoga/working out six days a week to try to get some level of fitness, balance and strength back, to make this process easier. 

So this blog is the story of regaining that confidence, and the horses who are teaching me.  If you've got a horse and some lost confidence, I'd really love to hear from you.  Maybe we can take the journey back together.

And if that's the case, I have a few things to say to you:
1)  It's okay to be afraid.  Myth #1 "leave your fear at the gate" is a load of bull.  Everyone who has any sense is a little bit afraid sometimes. 
2)  It's okay to stop and get off, or go away and take a time out.  Read my post about Storm and how to train an unconfident horse:  treat yourself with the same level of respect.  If you need a time out, or to back off, allow it.  Don't run off, though.  Stay with the horse at the level of safety that seems okay to you and wait for them to ask you back, and if you feel comfortable, push the envelope of comfort just a tiny bit at a time.
3)  You know that stuff they told you about "the horse senses your fear" (myth #2) and basically will take advantage of you?  It's a load of crap.  Does your horse sense your fear?  Heck yes.  Will they stomp you into the ground because of that?  Well, some horses might, but most I doubt it.  If you're REALLY afraid, definitely work with a qualified, compassionate instructor (screen them well!  ask questions! admit that you're afraid!)
Here's the thing.  Horses value congruence, not bravado.  Horses have a highly developed sort of sixth sense that tells them what's going on internally.  It seems almost telepathic sometimes.  Maybe it is or maybe it isn't, but the reality is that they are prey animals who are sensitive to the tiniest changes in your aura.  It's body language in large part, but it's also feel.  Did you ever walk into a room and know that there was an argument, or something was wrong, just from the feel in the air?  That's what I'm talking about.  They pick up on that with exquisite sensitivity.  They pick up on cues from fellow herd members, and they pick up on cues from other species (especially predatory species, which we are).  If you walk up to your horse, and you are devastated from a breakup, but you "left your feelings at the gate", march up to her and throw a saddle on, you better believe she knows the score.  

And, we humans tend to dissociate.  We put the brave face on (or the pleasant face, or any number of fakey facades -- we kind of need to do this in our society as a matter of course).  But this makes horses REALLY uneasy.  Think about it.  If they can read the actual emotion plain as day, and you're faking something, to them we come off as a slimy used car salesman trying to sell them something.  And they don't want it.  I definitely want to talk about this further in future blog posts, but I'm starting to ramble (sorry about that).

Anyway.  One day last year after I found out I could ride again I sat on the cart that is near the barn, and Abbey came over to me.  I loved on her.  I told her I was sorry about what happened with Russ, and I realized I resented her a little because of it.  I told her that, too.  I said I was sorry for that. I told her I wanted to start again, and figure out what we want to do together, something we both want to do.  I told her I loved her.

She started licking me the way a dam licks a foal, from my hands to my elbows and my knees.  I felt a pretty overwhelming love from her.  She stood after that, just standing near me with her forehead to mine. 

Oh yes, horses know when you're afraid.  And all the rest of it too. You can pretend you're not afraid, or resentful, or whatever, but you're only fooling one of you, and it's not the four-legged one. So I recommend this:  trust your horse with your feelings.  They'll help you figure them out.  And then your relationship with your horse grows by leaps and bounds, and you might even find that you don't really need a psychologist.

As for us, we are back on the road to recovery.  Storm and I ride, and Abbey seems interested in what we're doing, to the point of leading the whole rest of the herd into the woods with us to tag along (which is super cool since I have no riding buddies).  I've gone back to some mounting block work with her.  If winter will let up a bit I plan on spending some quality no agenda time with her (this is a crucial element, in any training program, in my opinion).  I'll keep you posted.

P.S. - if you want to read more about congruence and horses, you should check out Linda Kohanov's Tao of Equus.