Cantering After a Bad Fall

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. 

Aspiring to Canter

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!

What’s to come!

I’ve been spending all of my time on No Zero pursuits. As a result, my list of blog posts that I need to write is piling up! Here’s a look ahead at what’s to come:

Equestrianism

Max and I have been making progress as a team.

Arena patterns have helped us so much. I need to write about a few of my favorites.

We’ve also been spending more time outside of the arena. There are many hills at our stable, and we’ve been climbing and descending them to practice for trails. I’ve also taken him on a mounted tour of his pasture, which is a trail ride itself!

Back in the arena, I’ve been remembering to focus on keeping him between my hands and legs and constantly check my balance/position. Of course, that’s something that every good rider just does automatically, but I’m still working on becoming a good rider.

I’ve been dreaming about cantering him at least three nights a week. That’s probably going to happen (finally!!!) this summer. I can’t wait to post a video!

Exercise

As if horseback riding wasn’t enough…

Spring is starting in East Tennessee, and that means spending time outside, preferably in the mountains! I’ve been throwing my family in the car and hitting up the many trails that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has to offer. Each trail is worth its own blog post. The ever-changing beauty along the way has us constantly stopping to take pictures.

When we aren’t hiking, we’re pedaling along our town’s miles of connected greenbelts and parks. I’ve had the same mountain bike that I bought with one of my first paychecks at the age of 15, and I’ve upgraded it over the years. Now it’s an electric bike with an attachment to hook a dog to, which was sorely needed for my German Shepherd!

Following a strict healthy diet has given us so much more energy to get out and enjoy exercising for fun. I’m not sure if I’ll write about healthy eating, but it deserves a shout out.

Since we aren’t going out to eat, which has been the go-to activity for our family for years, I will be exploring other ways to have fun! There are a ton of places to go and spend money around here, and I look forward to trying them all out and telling you about what a great time we had!

Music

I’ve been playing around on my digital piano. It’s incredibly daunting to learn how to play. There are so many resources to choose from. The big thing I need to work on with music is setting aside time to be consistent and practice. I’m so hyped to go out and enjoy the sunshine that I just don’t find myself sitting around and thinking about playing the piano. It’s still early in the year, specifically my first No Zero Year, and adjusting to a disciplined life proves to be a learning curve.

Writing Prompts

Seeing as most of my follower bursts happen right after a writing prompt, it’s only fair that I keep up with demand. I also want to start my novel idea as a serial novel online. It’s going to be such a vast world, and I could use the ongoing critiques and fresh eyes from the internet to help me along the way.

Looking Back…

The sunshine has flipped my focus from music and writing to horseback riding and exercising, but I don’t want to give up the momentum in the former or the latter. I’m enjoying making each day not just a No Zero Day but also a little bit of everything day! As I strive to find balance and discipline, I’m made more aware that I need to study the art of discipline just as much as my individual pursuits.

Expect to see a little of everything I mentioned in a blog post soon!