Adventures of a re-rider: breaking through the fear
I was born loving horses. My parents caved and let me buy a pony when I was 11. After he was dropped off, my parents and I spent over an hour trying to figure out how to put the bridle on before we gave up and drove to the seller's house to ask him which end was up.
Bandit, the world's best pony. ~1980 - 07/05/2006 I'll never forget you, buddy.
I liked to think I learned most all there is to know by reading books and picking up scraps of info here and there. I mostly taught myself, and was "training" horses by the time I was 16. I bought a green QH gelding when the pony was outgrown (Dad let me keep the pony, too!). I guess you could say it was a bit of a "trial by fire."
Pecos Cody, aka "Cody" foaled 04/01/1989. The best teacher a horse crazy girl could have, now enjoying well deserved retirement!
I've never been what you would call a fearless rider, but I remember doing things as a kid that I'd never do now: galloping a green horse through the open field, attempting jumps with no training whatsoever, etc.
I had a few incidents, but it seems that anyone involved with horses for any length of time has their share of spills and thrills. My QH was a bit of a runaway, which led to a concussion from fall on a blacktop road during my pre-helmet days. A big gelding I was "training" for a friend dropped to the ground when we were attacked by ground bees and I ended up breaking my tailbone trying to dismount (the gelding "helped" by jumping up and taking off bucking, leaving me in a pile of large, sharp rocks. This time at least I was wearing a helmet... so the helmet cracked instead of my head).
After I moved away for college I'd still get home a time or two to ride. A friend gifted me a 17 year old recently gelded Arab that had never been ridden and somehow, someway I gained his trust and was soon riding through the fields, reliving my childhood.
SB Royale Heir, aka "Royal" 05/09/1983 - 03/06/13. My heart horse... my soul still aches from the loss...
Life got busy, as it tends to do, and I decided to retire my two remaining horses (the Arab and the QH). For a time I tried to get back into the swing of things. I was asked to train by a woman who I'd met by giving advice in the local tack store. That ended badly (after all, I was in no way qualified to train professionally) but during that process I ended up rescuing a straight Egyptian Arabian gelding who had sold for $50K as a yearling (my purchase price was $250 bucks).
The Desert Splash, aka "Mirage." 1990 - 01/03/2007. For such a short time you touched my life, but you left a lasting legacy.
Five or so years passed with my butt never seeing a saddle. Every year I would attend one County Fair show per year on Labor Day Weekend and spend the rest of the fall searching online for that perfect horse I was going to buy to make my entry back into the horse world.
On September 29, 2013, I bought a 7-year-old, greener than green, pinto gelding of uncertain heritage. He is big, beautiful and, to put it mildly, a whole lotta horse.
Oskar Blues, aka "Oz" foaled ~2006. Our journey is just beginning.
When I began to take lessons for the first time in my life, even though I'd been riding for over 20 years I still anticipated that there would be a lot to learn.
I knew Oz was green but I guess I was fooling myself as to just HOW green he was. It hit me the first time we put a saddle on last fall... he rodeo bucked twice around the round pen before he even thought of slowing.
My heart just sank.
When I was younger a show like that still would've given me pause, but as an adult re-rider, my first thought was, "What have I done, and how can I UN-do it?"
My pride wouldn't let me contact the seller to find out if she'd buy him back, though I seriously considered it. I weighed my options and decided to put him in professional training. I had an honest conversation with my trainer about how I was feeling and told her I was in no hurry to get on him until she'd put plenty of miles on and felt I was ready.
Prior to purchasing Oz, I'd had a grand total of two lessons. Both were on a steady eddy school mare whose reaction to a bad rider was to calmly stop moving. I'd discovered that just about all I knew was wrong from the position of my feet (heels waaaay down and toes pointed up and out) to my reaction to a horse spooking (tense up and grab on for the wild ride that's sure to come!).
I started taking group lessons on school horses and got to be involved in the early stages of Oz's training. I learned how to properly start a horse. I learned how to properly RIDE a horse.
(The first thing I did when I went to my parents' place to visit was to go out in the pasture and apologize to my retired horses. How they'd put up with me, I'll never know).
In January Oz decided to walk through a fence and cut his hock. Once he healed up, it was back into training. My trainer had been riding him by then and he was progressing nicely, though he and I were still nowhere near ready to become a team.
I finally figured out position, posting and how to direct a horse with more than just jerks on the reins. I graduated to an intermediate level school horse. I was ready to ride my horse.
In June Oz again decided to go through the fence. He cut the same spot on his hock, this time quite badly. It took longer to heal.... meaning I wouldn't be able to ride him and his training was set back.
By then my life had gone crazy with a new job with long hours. I was barely able to find time to visit the stable, let alone take lessons. So, we were both out of commission for awhile.
He was put back into training in August. On September 7, I was to ride him for the first time.
We lunged him in the round pen first and then my trainer got on. He gave a few halfhearted bucks, something he hadn't done since the early days of training. My trainer was somewhat disappointed. I was devastated.
I had been afraid to get on before that moment but now I was terrified. Where had this fear come from? I had always been a confident rider but suddenly I would've rather been anywhere, doing anything other than what had once been my favorite activity in the world.
I think the sudden realization that I was mortal and about to climb on a horse that had bucked a few moments earlier had something to do with becoming a mom. There's this sweet little boy who holds the universe in his smile that depends on me. How can I put myself at risk? He would never understand if mommy just didn't come home one day.
Of course, another part of me realized that while I might've bounced up from falls as a teen, I'd most likely "splat" (or break!) as an adult.
Getting down to the heart of things, I'd spent my riding career thinking I was a good rider only to find out that most of the things I'd been doing only encouraged a horse to spook, buck, or become a runaway.
Now I own this horse, with plenty of paychecks worth of pro training put into him, that has beautiful movement, plenty of power, and amazing sensitivity to aids/cues. Exactly what I'd wanted, right?
Had my trainer given me the chance to back out of that first ride I absolutely would have. Instead, she calmed him down, got him relaxed, got off and told me "Your turn!"
Getting on was the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to bolt out of that round pen. I wanted to find a place to hide. I wanted to assume the fetal position and cry.
Instead, I took a deep breath and climbed into the saddle.
I could feel Oz tense up as I settled quietly into the saddle. My trainer had told me to concentrate on being nice and quiet and let him settle in before asking him to move off, and then to maintain that quietness for the first few strides until I felt him relax.
Well, I was concentrating so hard on being quiet that I didn't tell him which way to turn when he reached the rail. When I finally gave him the cue, he didn't have enough room to make the turn so my leg hit the fence. He spooked slightly and started trotting, but I managed to remember not to assume the "death grip" pose and just asked him to slow. He settled in after that (well... we both settled in, I should say) and we walked, trotted, and made a few turns.
I still felt very conflicted after that ride. My trainer said that his tendency to tense up in the beginning may just be his MO. She doesn't feel he's in pain (he's been vet checked by the regular vet, the chiro and the massage therapist as well as regular farrier work). Instead, she thinks its more of a "muscle memory" thing. At some point in time, something happened to cause him to expect bad things when a rider gets on. Once he realizes it's a-okay, he settles in nicely.
I had a serious conversation with my trainer about my options. After that first ride, I was seriously considering selling him. On the one hand, things went really well after the initial lazy buck with the trainer. I'd made a mistake and it turned out to be no big deal. On the other hand, I couldn't shake this sense of fear that settled in the pit of my stomach whenever I even thought of riding him.
My trainer told me that I am a good, confident rider and I definitely can handle him, but she would support any decision I made. She said I was going about this decision the right way: understanding that I have options and being open to selling him if we don't "click."
I rode him for the second time this past Wednesday. This time, he didn't try to buck at all. He did tense up a bit when my trainer got on, but settled in nicely after a few strides. He did the same when I first mounted. I figured my nervousness would be better, considering I'd gotten that first ride out of the way.
If anything, I was more nervous. As I sat there, I came very close to dismounting and making the decision to sell him. The crazy thing was, he wasn't doing anything wrong. It was all me... I couldn't get over this mental block.
I relaxed a bit after a few turns around the round pen. He was spooking a bit at one of the stable dogs but it really was no big deal. His reaction to something "scary" is to stop, which is my preferred reaction in a horse. I gained a bit of confidence being able to handle those little pauses, but still was uncertain when it came time to dismount. This time, I only walked him.
I told my trainer I must not really be a confident rider.... I must just be good at faking it, because I was scared to death and almost got off a few minutes after I got on. She asked me if I felt this way when I was riding the school horses.
I told her, "No, just with Oz."
Just uttering that sentence made my feel more strongly then ever that I should sell him. The only horse I was afraid of is my own? Something about that just didn't seem right.
I had a lesson on Thursday. It was my second time on one of the more advanced school horses, Turner. I'd ridden him the previous week and really liked him. This time, we were working on turn on forehand and Turner was getting frustrated. He would sort of dance in place... backing up, going forward, "cheating" and moving his shoulders, etc. I felt a little of my nervousness, but managed to work through it.
Towards the end of the lesson, Turner spooked at the "scary corner" of the arena. I was happy that I didn't revert back to my death grip mentality, but as my trainer, Deb, was giving instructions on what to do in that situation I learned an entirely new (and much better) concept. Rather than just sit there and "ride it out" or try to pull him into the scary corner with the left rein, my trainer instructed me to "make a wall" with my right leg aid. She talked about how pulling with my left rein still left him able to shy away with his body.
"You have to calmly reassure him," Deb said. "And he has to believe you."
It made a lot of sense. Still, I was frustrated with myself. I knew that my reaction to unexpected situations had to be instinctive with Oz.
I rode Oz again yesterday. I almost called and said I couldn't make it, but decided to give it another shot.
Deb was teaching a lesson in the arena so I lunged Oz in the round pen by myself. The first step he took, he humped up his back like he was going to buck, but then moved off without any additional fuss. Once he'd gone both directions a few times and joined up, I walked him up to the arena to see if Deb was ready.
Deb had to run back to the barn to let the mares out. As I waited, I watched two of her more advanced Dressage riders work their horses in the arena. Seeing the partnership each of them had with their horse made me remember why I wanted to get involved in Dressage in the first place, and why I was excited about Oz being trained the right way, from the ground up with no shortcuts. Earlier on in his training, Deb had told me that he was doing great with her, but she was a professional and she needed to see how he would do with mistakes. I'd told her that rather than training him to accept a bad rider, I wanted to become a good one.
I almost got on then and there, without my trainer working out those first few tense moments for me. The only thing that stopped me was that initial reaction he had when I'd started to round pen him.
The craziest thing about this whole journey has been how I second guess myself. I often find myself experiencing that same feeling I had when I stood there with my very first pony, trying to figure out which way to put the bridle on.
What if I'd put the saddle to far forward? What if my body language in the round pen was setting him off?
So, I waited for Deb to get back. Since I hadn't felt up to trotting in the last ride, she gave him a longer workout before I got on. As before, the first few steps were tense, then he settled in. It was amazing to watch him in the ring with the two Dressage trained mares. His movement was just as nice as theirs, and I got to see what Deb had been telling me about him being the horse to get me good scores in the ring, if that was my goal.
Soon, it was my turn. As I was riding, I found myself being tentative with him, just as I'd been with Turner when working on the turn on forehand. When Turner didn't listen, I gave halfhearted commands rather than firmly telling him what I wanted.
With Oz, I was afraid if I gave too firm of a command, he'd explode.
Deb told me, "You can be prepared for something to happen, but you can't expect it. Ride him like he's a school horse."
I realized I'd been treating Oz like some sort of ticking time bomb. I had just watched Deb work with him, getting him out of his comfort zone. He hadn't panicked when he didn't quite understand a cue. Instead, he worked at figuring out what she wanted.
I took a deep breath and really started to ride. And, you know what?
For the first time since starting to ride O.B. I wasn't nervous driving out to the barn.
Yep, I said "O.B.", not Oz.
I've been calling him "Oz" since I decided against renaming him "Eclipse." The person I bought him for had named him Oskar Blues. I liked that name as a show name, but didn't really care for Oskar or Blue as a barn name. My trainer called him O.B. Because she really disliked the name Eclipse (she said it was something a little girl would name her first horse... and I had to agree LOL) and I hadn't come up with anything better.
After a suggestion on this forum I started calling him Oz. I really do like that name, but it just doesn't fit him.
A couple of things come to mind when I hear the name Oz. One is the Wizard of Oz and, I really have to face facts, my horse is certainly NO wizard.
And then there's Ozzy Ozborne... and he's a bit scary. I'm already somewhat afraid of my horse... I don't need a name to encourage me.
My horse is more of a lovable goof, so O.B. Fits him well.
Anyway, I was feeling pretty good as I pulled up to the barn. O.B. Was a bit spooky because one of the neighbors was using a nail gun on his roof, but nothing major. When I round penned him, he gave a few bucks but then settled in.
It had started to get dark by the time we made our way to the arena. Tense again at the start, with a few back humps, but my trainer put him in order straight away. I brought my video camera but unfortunately there just wasn't enough light. It's really too bad... his movement was AMAZING.
By the time it was my turn, it was nearly full dark. I started to feel those unwelcome butterflies again. I told Deb that perhaps I shouldn't ride, considering how dark it was.
She didn't buy it.
He took less time to relax this time once I'd gotten in the saddle. We just walked, considering the darkness, but it was another good ride.
I'm riding him next on Friday, and then I MIGHT brave the playdate (gymkhana games, but I'd only do them at a walk/trot) on Sunday.
The playdate got canceled due to weather, which I'm not altogether unhappy about. It's been reset for the end of the month, and I think Obie and I will be more ready by then.
I rode him today. First, I got a trotting video of him with my trainer riding (currently uploading).
I got on and decided to immediately pick up my stirrup, which was a mistake. I should've just sat quiet like I normally do. Obie got tense, and I panicked slightly. I kept trying to pick up that **** stirrup, because I felt awkward and off balance. As a result, I was gripping him too tightly. He danced around a bit, and then gave a small buck.
Y'know what? I was just fine.
I made him do a few circles and he settled in. I managed to pick up my stirrup and we moved on.
He was a bit spooky and my trainer was purposefully doing small things (she was sitting on a barrel and she would lightly kick her legs against the barrel). He was a bit uncertain but again, no big deal.
I really got to experience how he takes his cues from his rider. If I was confident, so was he.
He was nervous about her shadow (silly boy!) and the first time we went by, I looked at the shadow, too. He sort of danced by, not exactly ignoring my leg but not necessarily listening, either. The next time by, my trainer stressed the importance of looking up and forward, and I got him by with little fuss. Just that small act of me looking at what he was afraid of rather than where we were supposed to be going reinforced his fear.
Did I mentioned he's a sensitive horse?
Sensitive can be a good thing, though. We just have to figure it out together.
After my last ride I felt fairly certain things were going to work out and I was going to keep Obie. Then he got sick, and had two weeks off.
He ended up getting over his cold just in time for the semi annual play day at my barn. I had a training session the day before to determine whether we were ready to ride for the playday (just walk/trot).
He was great getting tacked up and while I was lunging him. The indoor arena was quite busy, and he was unfazed by the activity. I nearly was brave enough to get on without my trainer trying him first, but the fact that he's so tall stopped me. I would have to go in the corner to use the mounting block and wasn't sure how he'd be.
My trainer arrived around the same time as a couple more horses. One of the horses shares a pasture with Obie and is one of his buddies. My trainer told everyone they were welcome to ride in the outdoor (everyone thought she didn't want it ridden in because there were a few wet spots). Four horses ended up leaving, including Obie's buddy.
He started getting a bit antsy as his buddy left. When my trainer went to get on, he danced and bucked a bit. She worked him from the ground until he would stand quiet for mounting.
After that, things were still rocky. As usual, he was tense for the first few steps, and threatened to buck a few other times in the beginning of the ride. By the time he'd quieted down, I had nearly reached a decision.
He's too much horse for me. My only choice is to sell him.
That realization, along with the fear of getting on him after seeing how he'd acted, made me have a bit of a "mini meltdown." My trainer wanted me to get on but when she saw how afraid/upset I was, she didn't force the issue.
I feel like such a failure for not getting on.
My trainer recommended listing him for sale but continuing to work with him. It will take awhile to sell him, because despite the fact that he's got awesome movement, flashy color, a willingness to work and a sweet demeanor, it's going to take just the right person to be able to deal with the tenseness on mounting.
It's unbelievable that 5-10 minutes of attitude is essentially keeping me from my dream horse.
If he doesn't sell, maybe we get past the tenseness with mounting and the first few steps. Maybe I get to keep him, after all.
Until then, an apprentice trainer at my barn will be riding him. And maybe... just maybe... someday I'll get the nerve to get back on.