I’ve been uploading my horse journal from when I first got Max. It’s been an emotional project. Without being at that particular stable, I’m not sure I would have bought Max, so for that I am grateful that I started my equestrian journey there. However, I was so young, trusting, and naive then that I was hurt a lot. So many of my entries are me blaming myself for my riding lessons leaving me in tears. I was begging to just be able to enjoy my horse and ride, and not realizing what was preventing me from doing that. It just wasn’t the right place for us. I held on for years when I could have just left at any time.
So, yesterday I just dedicated my trip to the stable to that starry eyed girl I’ve been re-reading. I fulfilled her dreams of just brushing her beautiful new horse, braiding his mane, feeding him way too many treats, and walking around with him at liberty. I followed him into the pasture and leaned against him while he grazed, burying my head in his back and getting lost in his horsey smell. I sat in the grass and giggled when the other horses came up and sniffed me.
I wish I could go back and and tell that girl I was, seven years ago, that it’s okay to do all of those things. Having a horse is just having a horse. There’s no end goal. You can make goals, and you should, but there’s not a finish line that you have to cross, “or else”. Being happy is enough.
All these years of experience later, my stable trip was much different than hers would have been, had she given herself permission. I know when Max is pushing his boundaries and when to react. I read one of my entries where he had played hard to get with his feet. Now, he’s got his hoof in the air by the time I bend down towards it. I remember days where I spent 20 minutes chasing him around in the pasture. Now, he comes to me. It might take him a minute to decide to leave his patch of grass, but he’ll do it. When we walk around at liberty in the arena, I know how to send him out in order to make him join up. Youtube helped me learn these things, but Max was my real teacher. His reactions to me trained me how to train him. When I did the right thing, he did the right thing. That knowledge and confidence I have handling him now came from all those days where he didn’t want to give me his hoof or come in from the pasture.
I spent so much time berating myself for “failing” when I was just learning. Learning means making mistakes and not getting the results you intended. I still do, and isn’t it funny that I haven’t learned from the futility of beating myself up? I’m looking forward to the day when I can just shrug off a bad day and keep going, because tomorrow, or the day after, or a couple months later, is going to be better. Maybe that can be today.
Four years ago, I had a horrible fall off of Max. The fall shattered my confidence as a rider. I almost sold Max because I thought that he was more horse than I would ever be able to handle, but the thought of sending my best friend into the unknown broke my heart. My only option was to keep working on being a better partner. I learned to listen to him and what he was so desperately trying to tell me. I realized that I needed to listen to and trust myself. Today, I finally cantered again!
The Fall that Broke my Confidence
My last fall off of Max was very traumatic for me. I’ve mentioned before that his teeth grow remarkably fast, and I wasn’t completely aware of how that affected his behavior until my last fall. Max is a sensitive horse, aka a Drama Queen, who tells me something is wrong by going on strike. The day of the fall, I rode Max after a few months off. He didn’t want to do anything other than walk on a loose rein. If I tried to ask for contact or a trot, he tossed his head and came to a standstill. My trainer of the time thought it was just him not wanting to come back to work. She had taught me to snatch his mouth when he was a brat. This time, however, his mouth was in pain because his teeth were cutting into his cheeks. He finally exploded out of pain and frustration, reared, bucked, and took off. I hit the sand hard and ended up with road rash all over my forearm and a nasty concussion. It took four months for me to heal from the concussion, and my forearm is still a web of scar tissue.
Learning to Listen to my Horse
In a way, he managed to bang some sense into my thick skull with that fall. I had suspected his teeth issue for a couple of years, but the stable’s vet didn’t thoroughly inspect his teeth during his bi-yearly shots and check-up. They said everything was ok. My trainer blamed his behavior on brattiness and him being hot and, big surprise, said he just needed more training. I finally recognized the pattern of his pain-avoidant behavior. I called a reputable equine dentist who sedated him and put a camera up by his molars before confirming my suspicions.
After more time off, both healing from my concussion and having to work a lot of overtime to save up for a new house, I moved Max to a new barn and started lightly riding again. The first time I recognized his teeth pain behavior starting back up, I got off him and called the dentist. Sure enough, his teeth were overgrown again. I’ve kept him on a strict floating schedule since. Neither of us has had to go through that painful experience again. Still, my confidence remained shattered, and it was up to me to pick up the pieces so that Max and I could move forward as a team.
Regaining my Confidence
Even though I knew Max had run off because of mouth pain and that it wouldn’t happen again, I still got in the saddle with the fear of him taking off because of something else. Sure, his teeth were fine, but there are a million other triggers, and just one of them could land me back in the ER.
I’ve come to accept that Max isn’t an easy horse to ride. I recently put my Mother in Law on him for just a few minutes and ended up driving her to the ER because he dumped her off and broke her sacrum. The only thing worse than ending up in the ER because of a bad fall is when you’re driving someone you love there because they had a bad fall on your horse!!!
I still don’t equate that to making me a good rider, and I scoff whenever someone compliments my riding. You know the saying “crazy people don’t think they are crazy?” I think good riders don’t think they are good. The more I learn about riding, the more I realize that I don’t know. Ever since I got Max, it seems like every other horse I get on is half asleep and eventually does what they are told. Max is a breath away from reacting and answers every other command with a “but why? Ok, well, why? Uhuh, and why?”
I’ve spent four months at the stable almost every day of the week. We started with him racing around the arena at a constant power trot, yanking my arms out. One trainer told me he looked lame, or the saddle didn’t fit, or he had arthritis. Another trainer said he would eventually get tired and slow down. In the end, I realized that I had to learn to listen to myself.
Learning to Listen to Myself
My current trainer, who I adore, was the first and only person who told me that Max always needs me to calm him down. I took her words to heart and realized that I couldn’t find the answer on YouTube. I had to be in the moment with him, hand over hoof, and guide him to a calmer frame of mind.
I stopped the cycle of fighting with the reins by choosing not to fight. Half halts weren’t working. Making him work his feet until he decided to stop being frenetic and slow down wasn’t working. I chose to use downward transitions. Whenever he started to run through my hands, I transitioned down to a walk, gave us a few moments to breathe, and asked for the trot again. In just a week, he completely transformed. I still pull the exercise back out every few rides.
I also realized that I had to put us both in separate canter training before we could do it together. I worked on my fitness and balance in the saddle. I put Max into training with an experienced rider. He hadn’t cantered under saddle without me falling off in the seven years I’ve owned him. He needed to relearn how to balance himself and carry a rider. They say green and green equals black and blue. I’m done tempting fate and getting black and blue instead of being patient and trusting my judgment.
Nurturing my Newfound Confidence… and Finally Cantering!
I asked for the calmest, shortest lesson horse that could carry me. One of the reasons I got Max was that I’m short and being on a tall horse kind of freaks me out. I don’t like being that far from the ground. I can do basic math in my head, and falling from an extra foot or two means more ouch!
Then, I committed to just sucking it up and cantering. When it came time for everyone in the group lesson to canter, I did it too. I didn’t let myself trot around until the time felt right. I had already put in the prep work in the months leading up to the lesson, and a few more minutes was only going to give my brain more time to get scared. I had to trust the decision I already made and take the leap.
It was euphoric to be in that moment, finally accomplishing something I had feared for so long. It felt like we were racing away from the past trauma and toward happiness and the future. The lesson kept getting better, as I was finally able to follow along with everyone else. I had spent weeks just trotting around while they cantered over poles and did courses. Being able to jump in and keep up with them was such a confidence booster. I’m not going to start going around and saying I’m a good rider, but after the lesson today, I won’t be going around and saying I’m a terrible rider, either.
I’m going to keep working on my cantering skills and enjoying seeing Max’s progress in his training. We are so close to finally cantering together, seven years after we started. I’ve learned so much from my heart horse. He’s taught me through blood, sweat, tears of both happiness and frustration to start to learn how to listen to both my inner voice and his body language.
Max and I have never cantered together on purpose. I mistakenly cued him to canter the first time, lost balance, and did everything you’re not supposed to do good enough that he ran off with me. The second time, he was trying to tell me that he was in pain, but I didn’t listen, and he had no choice but to buck, rear, and take off. There’s a cowboy’s saying, “If you get in the saddle, you had better be ready for the ride,” and Max is a ride. I need to be 100% balanced and confident for us both.
The last time I cantered, I bailed out of the saddle just in time to get road rash all over my forearm and a nasty concussion which took four months to heal. I spent enough time out of the saddle to become scared. That was four years ago.
Since I’ve rededicated myself to riding in 2021, I’ve been slowly gaining back my confidence in the saddle. I’ve taken a group lesson with Max once a week and ridden him 3-5 days between classes. We’ve worked on our strength, balance, and relaxation. We’ve come far enough that when everyone else picks up the canter during group, my coach tries to coax me into joining them.
For a few weeks, I dreaded her weekly words of encouragement. She would say, “Max is ready, and you’re ready!” while my face turned white and I envisioned ambulance lights. Gradually, I started to get bored of just trotting around while everyone else got to canter and jump.
When I almost did it one week, I knew it was time to start getting Max ready to canter.
I’ve had one of the trainers at the stable canter Max twice a week for a few weeks. He’s slowly remembering how to horse. The first few rides were him racing around like a ninny while she calmly balanced in the stirrups and stroked his neck. (I want to be her when I grow up!!!) Now I can see the joy in his face when she cues the canter, and he gets to stretch out and do what he loves. He’s begun to come to a point in our rides where his head pops up to give me a one-eyed look, his ear flicks back, his back tenses, and I can feel his silent question “Now? It’ll be fun! C’mon!”.
When I was riding all by myself and almost said “yes” to him, I knew it was time to start getting me ready to canter.
I’ve been riding 5 days a week, no excuses. I’ve been pushing myself to ride outside of the arena, trotting on a loose rein, up and down hills, over poles, with enough two-point to make my legs numb. If it’s just enough outside my comfort zone to make the base of my skull buzz, I’m doing it until it feels easy. I’ve been working myself up to the point where I feel ridiculous for not just cantering already. It still sounds scary, but I’m bored of the drama in my amygdala and just want to have it all be done with!!!
I was supposed to canter a lesson pony this morning. I woke up to a freak winter weather watch with 40 degrees of nope and a wind chill that sliced down to the bone. As much as I’ve worked myself up, making my first canter in four years be on a freshly clipped pony in freezing winter weather just wasn’t going to happen.
Horseback riding is my constant lesson in life on rebalancing and adjusting to whatever obstacles come up along the way. I didn’t want to wait another week to canter, but I’ll take the week and make the most out of it. I want to work on my two-point and general relaxation. I’ve been rehabbing from starting off as a dressage rider. I still try and sit Max’s expressive trot and get him to look like a dressage horse. It’s better for us both for me to just post with light contact while he stretches out his neck. Every ride I share with him on a long rein makes me a better horsewoman.
I’m looking forward to cantering the lesson pony next week as a better rider than I would have been if the weather had cooperated with my plan today.
I don’t know when Max and I will canter together, but I’m proud of the progress that both of us are making, and I know we will accomplish that milestone together and rock it when the time comes!
The amount of momentum I have gained in my personal life since starting this blog is impressive. At the end of 2020, I hadn’t seriously ridden my horse in 4 years. I was overweight and out of shape. I hadn’t written a short story or poem in a decade. I had never learned to play the guitar.
Since I’ve channeled my New Years’ commitment into a no zero year, I’ve consistently made strides in all of those areas with a blog for added accountability. Max and I ride 3-5 days a week. I’ve lost over 15lbs, three pant sizes, my stamina, strength, and biochemistry are all vastly improved. I’ve written several stories and poems that I am very proud of and am getting to the point where I actually believe I can start and finish a novel. I learned to play the guitar a little bit, got a piano, learned to play that a little bit, and feel like I’ve given music a good try.
With spring all around me, I’m feeling the urge to revisit and edit my goals going forward.
Horseback riding is what fuels me, and I’m going to rebrand my goals and my blog to reflect that passion. I’ll be setting music aside for the time being.
So far this year, I’ve checked off most of my no zero days by horseback riding. I’m getting to the point where I need to exercise daily outside of just riding my horse to become a better rider.
As a writer, I’ve dabbled in random prompts enough this year that I feel primed and ready to focus on purposeful writing. I’m looking forward to concentrating on horse fiction. I’ve always dreamed of writing novels, and I know I have a herd of horse novels in my brain, tossing their heads to be let out.
This blog has inspired me to explore my true passions of riding and writing. I’m excited to move forward on a more focused path. Keep tuned for my upcoming refresh — soon, there will be a new name, new look, and new content!
When my parents told me we were moving, I just shrugged, “Okay.” I didn’t have friends, anyway.
Our new place was in the boonies. My parents thought I started exploring the woods because I fell in love with nature, but I was just searching for a cell signal.
While I was hiking, I found a scrawny pug with no collar. I fed it jerky and tried to take a picture, but it ran away.
I kept bringing food and named him Fred. Whenever I tried to take a picture or pick him up, Fred ran away.
One night my parents came to my room to show me a video. I looked crazy, sitting in the woods, petting air for hours before leaving a pile of jerky.
I stopped visiting Fred.
A couple weeks later, I heard yipping outside. It was Fred, shivering in the cold. I took a blanket and sat with him until sunrise. He let me take a picture before he ran off. I never saw him again.
My parents think I photoshopped the picture. They got me a pug named Fred for Christmas, but I’ll always miss the real Fred because he was my first real friend.
Today’s lesson went amazing, and left me holding the reins.
My coach has been building us up to trot over ground poles at a steady pace. We nailed it over and over again. We trotted circles, patterns; we kept going until I ran out of breath. I caught my breath, and we went some more. Max and I have practiced so many times that we were practically falling asleep.
Our coach suggested we walk around in Max’s field. We had practiced in there a couple days ago, and Max walked all over it for me without hesitation. Today was different. My mother-in-law went along on her lesson horse, and the two horses formed an impromptu herd. They only wanted to go where the other horse went, which became a problem when neither wanted to go anywhere!
Once again, Max is stepping up into the role of Master Coach. I didn’t know what step would take us to the next development in our partnership, and he pointed it out. We can trot around the arena in a semi-mindless state, but riding outside the arena and out of sight of the barn ramps us both back up to where we started a couple months ago.
I was eventually able to annoy Max into going where I wanted. We even trotted about ten feet. I got worried when he started to feel rushed, so I pulled him back into a walk.
I’m looking forward to more pasture practice. I want to translate our progress in the arena to the uneven ground and hard to see past hills out there. Our partnership is a constantly evolving journey of trusting ourselves and each other. It’s kind of like the arena is level one, and the pasture is level two.
With my soul mate
on a candlelit date
not caring how late
of a perfect night we create.
Snuggled in bed
laptop glowing at my head
surrounded by art
furry snout snoring over my heart.
Perfect horse rides
under clear skies
Trailing alongside fireflies
Scaling mountain highs.