There’s a puddle on the corner of the outdoor arena that I’ve been trying to get Max to walk through. He turns around it in circles. He stops at the edge. He puts his head down and swishes his top lip in the water. That’s me and riding. The unknown is terrifying. As I push myself closer to stepping into that puddle, I gain a little more trust.

I’ve been reveling in my newfound capability to trust Max. I’ve even been practicing my sitting trot while letting him just trot. He’s living up to my trust, giving me his gentle and honest best effort to stay steady while I bounce and slide around his back. I’m facing the truth that I don’t have to be in his face, telling him with my voice that it’s okay to go forward, while my hands yell at him that I actually want him to somehow give me the joy of movement while providing the security of being completely still.

I’m having a harder time trusting myself. The more closely I realize just how much I trust Max, the more I realize that my lack of self-trust is the actual problem. He’s a horse, a prey animal that lives in a reactive mindset. I’m a human, and my brain is an overthought and tangled web of what if’s.

I’ve been working on trotting Max over poles. I point him at a pole and immediately start over-reacting in anticipation of the possibility that he might over-react. What if he doesn’t just step over the pole? What if he jumps over the pole? What if he darts off to the side? What if he breaks into a canter, which turns into a gallop, which turns into me in the dirt?

He steps over the pole, and I praise him. Am I telling him that he is a good boy, or am I really patting myself on the back for having worked through my fear? Maybe both.

Besides working through my fear of what-ifs, what did I really learn from that exercise? Did I learn to anticipate that Max will more often than not just step over the pole? Did I come one pole closer to complacency?

Riding is an ever-evolving exercise in pushing boundaries. Trotting becomes cantering. Cantering becomes galloping. Poles become jumps. Arenas become open fields and winding trails. The training wheels come off and are replaced by jet packs.

I’m going to put us in situations where the odds swing against Max’s reaction being predictable. That’s the goal. I won’t do it because I want to be dangerous. I’ll do it because I want to grow as a human. I want him to grow as a horse.

How do I learn to compliment his reactive instinct? Say we go over a pole, but instead of stepping over it, he jumps and takes off running? What am I going to do? Will I be stunned and have no skills at the ready to be his rock that he can turn to for guidance and confidence? Right now, that’s where I see myself. That’s what I’m scared of. When he needs me, I’m going to let him down. I’m going to do what I’ve always done and bail out of the saddle while he is left to race around with flapping reins and figure out what to do on his own.

Because I’m a thinking person, I can only trust the skillset that I have developed. To trust me more, I need a higher skill set. I need more fitness. I need more experience. I need to expand my boundaries to include riding faster, jumping higher (at all), losing and regaining balance in the saddle, and accepting that I could fall off and have to get back on.

Ultimately, I’m learning that the feeling of trust is complicated. It takes experience and hard work to develop. I have to do things that I don’t trust to gain mastery that I can trust. I have to be uncomfortable until it’s comfortable. Even after all that, trust won’t guarantee safety.

I want to trust myself to be a rider that Max can trust. Breaking down that goal — I want to trust myself. I want Max to be able to trust me. When Max doesn’t just take an obstacle in stride, I want to trust myself to adjust and keep riding.

Now I just have to actually do all of that.

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