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.