Relief

This morning before I went to riding, I was filled with dread carried over from last week. I just wanted to stay in my comfortable bed and not get up and make myself confront the overwhelming anxiety I had developed about riding.

But I got up anyway and I walked to the barn in just a t-shirt for the first time this year on this lovely spring day. On the way there, I made myself enjoy the sun, the light breeze, and the pretty flowers instead of dwelling on how many other people would want to take advantage of this weather and would therefore be in the park, posing a threat to my safety.

I got to the barn and watched as all of my usual mounts either came in from a lesson right before mine or went out with other riders as I stood there: Emma, Allie, and Lieutenant all crossed off the list of potential horses I would ride today. All the safe ones, the easier horses I had to admit to myself I’d hoped my trainer would put me back on today. Yet when she handed me Max’s reins, I felt a kind of relief. It might have been relief that she still thought I could handle him, but I think it was also relief that I wouldn’t be allowed to fall back, that even though I was nervous I would be forced to try to push myself.

As we rode out to the ring, Max was in the lead with Emma behind us and my trainer in the back. We always cater to the horses’ preferences for the order we walk in. Max likes to be in the lead. I do not. I prefer that someone goes in front of me to provide a sort of buffer for whatever might startle the horses. I mused about the matching of personalities between horse and rider and wondered if Max and I were just a little incompatible. But that didn’t quite sit right with me. It’s not really my personality to want someone else to lead; it was only my anxiety in this particular situation that caused me to want to defer responsibility.  Naturally, it’s my way to take the lead. Even if I don’t fully know what I’m doing, I trust my instincts enough to carry me and anyone else with me who’s willing to trust them through. So that’s what I decided to do with Max. I bluffed. I told him that I was in control. I pretended to be confident when I was not. And in general, that served me pretty well.

This lesson went a lot better than last time’s. The park, while lively, was full of way less mayhem than last week. Max was lazy and perhaps a bit less playful.  In my attempt to prove to him that I was in control, I clamped down a bit too hard. Of course I always have to overshoot my mark when attempting balance. It was most apparent in the canter, but throughout the whole lesson I was holding on just a little too tightly on Max’s mouth. Even though he was trotting very slowly, I was vigilant, expecting him to try to cut in or buck at every second. Because of this, I didn’t give him enough rein for him to be comfortable and he fought back, tossing his head and getting wound up. This of course made me more wound up and more tense, making it more difficult for me to give him rein and trust.

After several attempts, I was able to relax my hands a little more and we got in a good, collected canter for about half the ring. He has the most comfortable, smooth, easy-to-sit canter of any of the horses I’ve ridden at this barn and really all I want is to be able to enjoy it. It is frustrating to stop and go so much because we are out of sync, especially when I can see that it’s largely my own doing.

In my frustration, there were times when I started getting annoyed at how difficult Max can be. I started thinking that I just wanted to enjoy my ride and that I would prefer a less green, more trained horse. But then I thought to myself that if I ever want to train horses myself, as I believe I do, then that’s crap. I can’t just ride for the enjoyment of it. I have to push myself to learn how to deal with these things all over again. I have to get over my fears and remember how to deal with misbehaving horses like I used to. And I have to do it in an unforgiving environment. Because like Frank says about New York in general: if I can do this here, I can do it anywhere.

Advertisements

Spring Trauma

Today was harrowing. Like, I-don’t-know-if-I-can-keep-doing-this level of anxiety. I came home and sobbed on my cat just out of relief to be on the ground and back home.

My usual riding buddy was out of town this week so I was paired with two people who haven’t ever ridden at the barn before; a guy and a girl both just out of college who were clearly very experienced. The three of us rode out to the ring with me leading on Max, the horse I rode for the first time last week, the guy riding my friend’s usual mount, Bingo, and the girl on Allie.

It was last week that I finally admitted to myself just how much anxiety the ride through the traffic circle gives me. Every honk, every rev of an engine or squeal of breaks goes like a jolt through my nervous system and I tense up, preparing for my horse to run. Even if the horse ignores all that, the tension I am putting on the reins when pulling on his mouth in fear is going to infect him with my nervousness. It’s a terrible feedback loop.

Today going out to the ring I tried to be calm, feeling stable on Max and trusting him after he was pretty good about the traffic last week. However, when we got into the park we were greeted by an awful sight on the loop. An ambulance was parked on the bike lane and there was a group of people milling around. I think there was a biking accident, but there only appeared to be one injured person. The horses were alert and skittish as we neared the flashing lights, the crowd, and a woman pushing her stroller the bridle path to get around it. When asked to move off, she said she didn’t want her kid to see the accident, somehow oblivious to the danger she was putting herself, her child, and us in by getting in our way. Max started getting more agitated, pulling to the right and letting off some crow hops, and I immediately made the decision to get off and walk him past. I silently berate myself for not sticking it out when I do this, but the truth is I’d rather be safe than dead. As we walked past the accident, I heard the injured woman screaming, making horrific noises of pain or trauma or both as the paramedics attempted to move her.

I got back on and we rode to the ring without incident, despite the crowds of people running, yelling, throwing shit, playing loud music, clapping, etc, on the ballfields right next to the ring where the Little League had games today. The lesson itself wasn’t that terrible. Max is a bit of a handful. He’s a very sweet horse who is a pleasure to ride because of his very comfortable, smooth gaits. He has a great disposition; happy-go-lucky and friendly with the other horses. But he likes to play. He isn’t even that scared of everything going on around, but uses it as an excuse not to work and to mess around. Every time we got to the bottom of the ring, which is the part closest to the ball fields, he wriggled and cut in and tossed his head, threw a few bucks for good measure. I handled this all right, but we were very stop and go since I had to collect myself and reorganize us every time he did it.

Toward the end of the lesson his bucking became more exuberant and it was starting to wear me down. I was able to stay on just fine, the instincts of many years overriding any weakness in my legs, but the fear of getting bucked off was starting to gnaw at me, making me less sure in my seat. I have a tendency to lean forward when that happens which is exactly what you should not do when your horse is about to buck. My trainer decided it was time to intervene and she got on him and schooled him a bit at the canter. After that, she orchestrated some musical chairs so that the other girl got on Max and I got on Allie. She got a bit of a canter out of Max and was able to move him forward better than I had, with less antics. I had a lovely canter on Allie and felt happy to be able to do something right.

Part of me feels so bad about myself for not stepping up to the challenge that Max presents. He’s exactly the type of horse that I liked to ride ten years ago. He’s the type of horse that I think I would like to ride now and that I think I could learn a lot from, given the right atmosphere. If I was riding him in a quiet place, with a fence around the ring, it would be different. This situation is insane. I’m distracted and anxious almost the whole time I’m riding. The people around the ring, many of whom are children, have no awareness that their actions could scare the horses. Riding is a dangerous thing to do and that’s something I came to grips with a long time ago, but this is another level. This feels reckless. In this situation, I can only remain in my comfort zone, riding one or two horses like Allie and Emma that are small and easy. I’ll feel safer, but what’s the point? I won’t develop as a rider or ever get back to the level I used to ride at, which is incredibly frustrating since the physical level I’m at doesn’t match the mental level I’m at. Or, I can keep pushing myself on these more difficult horses. Which in a more stable environment would be my ideal, but which in this situation is massively stressful and seems like it will inevitably lead to me getting hurt.

This goes back to my earlier post about how my struggle with how much I should push myself. It’s a complex issue. I’m older now and I have more fear. That’s hard to admit to myself. I don’t want fear to limit me. But there’s a point at which as an experienced and responsible rider, I look at the situation and think: this is a disaster waiting to happen.

I was relieved to be on Allie for the ride back. Along the way, we encountered a large trail ride group full of total beginners. One of the riders was walking along side while one of the girls who works at the barn was trying to walk both her horse and the woman’s horse. It wasn’t going well, so my trainer took one of the horses from her. Max saw this mayhem and decided it was an opportunity; he wheeled and bolted off in a gallop in the other direction. I was impressed by how quickly and calmly the other girl brought him to a halt; as she turned him I actually heard his shoes skid across the asphalt. I think that was the last straw for me. Even though Allie is generally pretty chill about the traffic circle, my nerves were shot to hell. There were more than ten horses out there, and the more there are, the more one is likely to spook and scare all the others. Then the fire trucks came wailing through, their sirens screaming their approach. One of the trail horses took off for a few steps and the trail leaders scrambled to catch him. I was clamping down on Allie’s mouth, terrified that he’d bolt too. Telling myself to relax, hearing myself mutter soothingly, “it’s ooook, it’s ooook” to Allie but knowing I was really telling myself.  He started to prance a bit, speeding up and lifting his head. I knew it could be fine if I could make myself be calm, but I realized I just couldn’t. I hopped down and walked him the rest of the way. My instructor looked down at me from her horse and said that it was ok, that she understood my decision. I felt dumb anyway, but I also felt relieved. I walked next to Allie, who quieted down now, swinging his head low beside me and nuzzling me as I patted him. I pressed my cheek to his warm, shiny neck and took a deep breath.

I feel like I’m at an impasse. I don’t want to stop riding. I don’t ever want to stop again, not after I let so long go by without doing it. And I don’t have many options in the city. This barn is the only one I can really get to without a car. But days like this make me feel that this situation is not only unsatisfying, but also untenable and unsafe.