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Learning from the Horse - February 19 - Control

I have always described myself as an average rider. And I have always been comfortable with that. Zero finesse, not going to win any ribbons, but not terrible – just average.

And then, came the day when I was terrible.

I had backed my own horse myself. We took it steady, we are not perfect, but we work well together and we have fun. When that same horse had a serious accident, one year ago this month, my desire to ride diminished overnight. His care and recovery became my sole focus. My other horse was 6 and ready to be backed, but beyond sitting on him around the yard and getting him used to my weight, time constraints and wanting to take things slowly stopped us progressing much beyond that over the summer.

Just before Christmas, when I started to think about Spring, longer days, and the chance to continue working with my youngster, I realised I was decidedly out of practice.

In my job I spend all day with horses, asking them for trust, and trusting in them, working with their feet - my own feet firmly on the ground. I decided some riding lessons would be a good way to get me back into the swing of things. A kind client and friend offered me the use of her 16hh welsh gelding and introduced me to her instructor.

My first lesson was uneventful. After a brief period where I wondered if I could actually still get on, I found myself at home in the saddle. We went through some basics, walk, trot, and the instructor was very kind and patient, as was the horse, Bazzle.

The second time I rode Bazzle I felt altogether more confident getting on. Barry the instructor had warned me that he had been getting a little more forward, and that he was apt to break his gait into canter when trotting. I thought to myself, I have the opposite of a “hot ass” – I should be fine.

Famous last words.

After some variated walking speeds and half halts, suppling up my stiff old legs, Barry asked me to prepare to trot. I gathered up a little rein and found Bazzle lighter off the leg than expected. I was desperately trying to make sure I rose on the right diagonal, wanting to show Barry I had learned from the last lesson, so I sat for a few strides. By the time I was ready to rise Bazzle had sped up into a choppy trot. I rose quickly to keep rhythm with him. I can remember Barry shouting at me to slow my rise, and thinking “I can’t”!

Bazzle leapt into what felt at the time like the biggest fastest canter any horse had ever done. It completely unseated me and I found myself with my hands up around my ears, desperately trying to pull him up and regain some balance to prevent myself hitting the deck. Bazzle responded by speeding up further because my hands were so high and my panic fuelled his. After one lap of the arena at 100 miles an hour I resorted to begging.

“Bazzle Slow Down”

I bellowed. Of all the things I could have said to Bazzle, things that he might have understood like “whoa, steady, walk” – I instead used the most ridiculous vocal command possible.

Barry was calling to me to stay above him, and to lower my hands. When I finally got my sh!t together after a brief moment of wondering whether I could just bail out with a flying dismount, but deciding Bazzle was too big, I brought my hands down, circled him tightly and managed to get him back to a walk.

Embarrassment over?

Nope. I rode Bazzle directly at Barry shouting “Grab him!”

Barry kindly took hold of Bazzle’s rein and asked him to stand.

“I want to get off”

As any good instructor would, Barry gently told me no.

“No you don’t understand, I really want to get off.”

My legs were like jelly, I was dizzy, I felt sure if Bazzle went again I would not stay on board, god knows how I had stayed on the first time.

Barry patiently explained why I wouldn’t be getting off.

We compromised and Barry led Bazzle so that I could regain some composure.

I told Barry he could let go after about 10 minutes, during which time it had hailed, very hard, soaking the three of us to the skin and causing Bazzle to hump his back lay his ears flat in disgust. By the time I was allowed to get off my knees had braced so badly I wasn’t sure I could. My wet jeans stuck to the wet saddle resulting in what was possibly the most ungainly dismount in history.

A fleeting thought passed through my head. I am Never getting on This Horse Again.

In that moment Bazzle turned his head around and looked me squarely and pointedly in the eye. As clearly as if he had used the words, Bazzle said “You Dick”.

And as I led the saturated gelding back to the barn, through the pouring rain, I realised that it was not Bazzle who was out of control. It was me.

I had unsettled and unbalanced him, I had gripped too hard with my legs, and I had hauled far too hard on his poor delicate mouth. All the justifications weren’t going to change that. Justifications like “I’ve ridden bitless for the last 10 years and I am not used to a bitted horse” and “I haven’t ridden for a year” and “his saddle was slightly too tight” which we found out a few days later was when a fitter came. None of those things changed the fact that if I hadn’t panicked, it wouldn’t have happened.

I knew in my heart I needed to get right back on with it. If I had a hope in hell of continuing to back my sensitive youngster, I must at least be able to ride a dear sweet schoolmaster in a safe arena. Gracious Andrea agreed to let me ride him again, and Barry agreed to carry on teaching me.

I booked in another two lessons that day. I tried not to allow the fear to race my heart when I thought about actually having them.  It’s a few weeks away, let’s not think about it.

I dreamed about it plenty. Those moments in the ring where the horse and I were not one, where there was no effective communication, where I had lost control of my own body due to the surge of fear which had removed my ability to use my limbs properly.

In the days leading up to the next lesson I found myself reliving those moments. I tried instead to replace them with images of us in harmony, me riding with my seat, Bazzle comfortably accepting my gentle cues. I could control my imagination, but could I control myself in real life?  What if he went again? What would I do?

I know that the best way to approach a horse I have been warned might kick me when I am trimming is to go gently, quietly and not give them a reason to kick. Only with control of my fear, can I do the job I do. So why the discord when I mount up? Although not related to riding, did my own horse’s accident and the lack of control I felt when it happened to him, somehow contribute to this present situation?

I woke up the day of the next lesson with my heart already racing. When I arrived I groomed Bazzle a little and spoke softly to him, worried that he might see me as the enemy after last time, but as horses almost always are, he was gracious and forgiving.

As I went to mount Bazzle moved away from the mounting block slightly. The gap between the step and the saddle yawned open and the ground swam and for a moment I thought about stepping off the block and taking up Barry’s offer to ride him in for me. But my foot found the stirrup, as it had been, on and off, since I was 9, almost automatically.

Barry asked me to ride a slow 20m square around him, encouraging me to ride straight and focus on correct turns. I must have looked pretty terrified because Barry asked very little of me and we chatted as I sat perched and tense. I slowly started to relax a little, and more I regained my connection to his stride the better he went. I was just starting to feel a little bit pleased with myself, when Barry asked me to extend my use of the school and ride in a larger area.

As I rode the long side of the school I prayed that no birds would fly up and startle Bazzle, that no loud noise would travel up the valley and cause his flight instinct to engage. In those short moments as Bazzle walked to the far end of the school I felt the enormity of the scariness of the human world through a horse’s eyes, and wondered how anyone ever felt safe on a horse.

And then I remembered a gem of wisdom from the personal effectiveness section of my Equine Podiatry training course. Don’t make promises to yourself you can’t keep.

I couldn’t promise Bazzle nothing scary would happen to him. I couldn’t promise myself I wouldn’t fall off. I couldn’t promise it wouldn’t all go horribly wrong.

So what could I promise – what could I control about the situation?

In a split second I made the realisation that saw the lesson ending well.

I couldn’t actually control anything but myself. All I could do was my best. If something scared Bazzle I could do my best to reassure him, if I got scared I could do my best not to let it affect Bazzle. If I fell off I fell off, worrying about actually only served to make it more likely – did I really want to be the victim of my own self fulfilling prophecy? Or did I want to take the chance for the opportunity to enjoy the joyous and wondrous experience that horse’s afford you when they allow you to climb on their backs?

Bazzle needed me to make the promise to him that I wouldn’t hurt him. And that was a promise I could make myself keep, I want to protect him, I want him to enjoy being ridden by me.

As if he read my mind Barry said “Good Riding isn’t so much about skill, it’s about being a good actor. Behave like you can do it.”

Towards the end of the lesson Barry asked me to play a game. He said a word and I had to use the letters that marked the points around the school to spell them by riding to them in the right order. Some of the letters had fallen off and not being well versed in schooling I had no idea where they were. I ended up in hysterics as I repeatedly spelled the words wrongly, and Barry made me go back and do it properly, commenting that the children he taught were better at the game than I was.

The more I relaxed, the more I laughed, the more I focused on the goal, the more Bazzle responded. He allowed me to direct him easily, and got a spring in his step as I focused on the letter we were riding to, giving us direction and purpose. Although all we had done was walked around a school for an hour, it felt like a huge achievement and the 9 year old girl was back as I threw my arms around the slightly bored gelding’s neck.

Another two weeks passed in the usual whirlwind of appointments and chores. I was far less worried about the second post issue lesson. I arrived smiling and Bazzle seemed a lot happier too. In addition to his new saddle, Andrea was trialling a softer bit and even as I slipped it between his big rubbery welsh lips, I felt his eye was softer, perhaps because I was giving off less tension.

He stayed still as I mounted and I scratched his neck while Barry checked the girth, and I felt a blossom of proper love for the horse beneath me. As we worked on tight circles, turns on the forehand and some basic leg yielding, I started to feel the one-ness with the horse that takes riding from being a fun hobby, to something you crave.

When Barry asked me to trot I felt the fear rising, but I knew I had to do right by this lovely generous horse, and myself.  When his trot sped up and his back went hollow, and everything in my body wanted to clench and my hands threatened a vicelike grip again, I instead let go of the tension and relaxed. And in doing so, I found control.  Bazzle rewarded me by slowing to a walk. I told Bazzle he was such a good boy and patted his neck with a big grin on my face. The more I smiled, the better he went, and the better he went, the better I felt.

And perhaps if I hadn’t had the experience of a loss of control, it wouldn’t have meant so much.

By the time I dismounted I felt sure I was average again.