Lately, our trainer has been trying to hold horses for us to ride in our lessons. When we get to the barn at 1 pm on a Saturday, it’s pretty hectic and our usual mounts have often already had their quota of rides for the day, leaving us with few options. After a difficult lesson a few weeks ago before Thanksgiving, this week she tried to get a horse for me that I love and feel comfortable on–either Jasper or Summer–to make sure I’d have a better and more confidence-boosting ride this time.
Jasper was already being ridden and Summer would be used in a horse show at the barn the next day, so that left me with only the more challenging options–basically, the two ex-racehorse mares, Sparkling Gal and Misfit, and another mare named Star that we’d never seen before. Riding Buddy, being the more adventurous of us lately, chose to try out Star, who was a tall, lovely chestnut with a big jump. Deciding between the more mental/emotional difficulty of keeping skittish Sparkle calm in a crowded ring, or the more physical challenge of slowing the calmer but still strong Misfit in the same environment, I chose the latter. I was slightly rattled, having expected an easier mount. Sitting there, hemming and hawing over what seemed like all bad options, I was annoyed at myself. There was a time when I’d ride anything in the barn. I don’t like to think of myself as a tentative rider.
When we started the lesson, I remembered how much I liked Misfit the one time I’ve ridden her previously. She’s quite sane for a Thoroughbred mare, sensible and comfortable to ride. She wasn’t fazed by the crowded ring and didn’t seem interested in charging around.
Misfit’s biggest challenge is getting the correct lead on her right lead canter. In contrast to the last time I rode her, she and I both seem to have strengthened our muscles a great deal. The last time I rode her, back in July, my body was totally different. I was ten pounds heavier then, had no muscle tone, and as a result my muscles were very tight and cramped. That made it difficult for me to sit up and marshal her through the tight circle we canter on to keep her from switching to her more-comfortable left lead. But this time I had so much more strength and control. Last time felt like a sloppy mess; this time I felt like a rider, like I was working hard to get something done but I actually had proper form doing it as well. As for Misfit, I could definitely feel the difference in her as well. They have been working with her a lot more recently at the barn to strengthen her right lead and the results are apparent. Her balance is improved, her bend is more flexible. She didn’t break once in the canter and didn’t once get flustered and switch to her other lead. I was very proud of us both.
After the difficult right lead, it’s a reward to get to canter her on her left. Her canter is smooth and comfortable and propulsive without being manic.
As we prepared to jump, I found myself with those little prickles of doubt and worry creeping up on me. I know that Misfit can get a little fast on the approach and take a big jump and that made me a bit nervous. The important part of that sentence is that I said I felt nervous, and not anxious. I realized the distinction on the drive home from our lesson. When I say that I felt nervous this time around, the difference from the anxiety I’ve felt before was that it was more easily dispelled. The nervousness was a state I was in relating to a specific thing; I was nervous to take the jump because sometimes Misfit gets fast. The anxiety I’ve felt before has been, I think, triggered by situations such as this that might normally cause nervousness, but the feeling has grown out of proportion and has expanded to encompass larger, more global fears about myself and about life and because of that it has taken over and shut me down. Nervousness doesn’t shut me down. I just say to myself, “What’s the worst that will happen? She’ll get fast. You’ll slow her down.”
Nervousness is in my mind; it is a thought that can be dealt with rationally. Anxiety is everywhere, a fear that I feel throughout my entire body. Horses are very sensitive to this; they can feel agitation in the rider and that agitates them in turn. Because I didn’t have that bodily response, I didn’t infect Misfit with it. As a result, she didn’t even get fast over the jumps. She took them beautifully. And because she was taking them beautifully, so did I. My trainer said my equitation–something I’ve felt I’ve always struggled with because I’m generally more focused on getting the job done than looking pretty while I do it–was perfect. She keeps telling me that when I don’t put up these mental blocks, that when I get out of my own way, I’m a great rider. It’s been hard for me to feel that for a long time, but today I felt it.