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.

First Cold

Today was the first really cold day I’ve had for a lesson. I’ve lucked out with sunny days in the mid-to-upper 50s thus far. Today the sun is occasionally obscured by a gust-fueled bank of clouds and it’ll only top out in the low-to-mid 40s. Although yesterday was pretty similar weather, it always takes a couple days for the horses to adjust to a new season.  My guess is that we’ll keep riding outside for as long as possible; the stables have an indoor ring but it seems barely useable. It is a tiny area inside the barn that probably shouldn’t have more than two small horses in it at a time, if that.

So today was kind of harrowing. One of the strange things about the barn I ride at is that they don’t really seem to give private lessons. You show up and never really know who you’re going to be sharing the lesson with. It bothered me at first, but a) what choice do I have at the moment? and b) it can have its advantages. My trainer is pretty hands-off with me in general, trusting me to figure out what I need to do and then imparting helpful observations about my position or interaction with the horse. When I ride with someone else and her attention is turned to them for a bit, I get to basically instruct myself. I get to remember the things I learned years ago and put them to use again. I have time to adjust to and negotiate with my horse using my own instincts, and then implement suggestions my trainer has offered without having to incorporate new information right away.

Today, though, the number of cold-weather-giddy horses in the ring was unsustainable. We had three in our lesson, and another single lesson going on beside us. The ride out there was marked by conflict: my trainer’s horse crow-hopping and rearing at the cold wind and the construction equipment and my horse coming on too strong, getting up in the grill of the mare in our group, causing both of them to wheel and kick.

That’s really the one big fear I’ve always had around horses. It can be scary if they hop, or shy, or bolt, sure, but I know I can handle that. It’s when they start backing up into each other and the hooves start flying that I begin to panic. It doesn’t feel like there’s much I can do. The first impulse that comes to mind when your horse is moving and you don’t want him to is to pull back on the reins. That doesn’t work here, since in this case that just makes him back up futher. So then I overcompensate by giving him slack on the reins and try to squeeze him forward, but that only gives him room to wheel, giving him leeway to kick and bite. And that’s pretty much how the rest of the lesson went.

We all tried to maneuver around the ring, giving each other enough space to deal with our respective mount’s issues. The biggest and most forward horse circled on the oval in the bottom of the ring, while the pokey mare shared the rail with the somehow normal-acting school horse from the other lesson. That left no place for my gelding, who continued to back up and buck every time I asked him for anything. He was the loosest of the cannons in the bunch. I don’t even think he has that much of a problem with other horses, that was simply his excuse today for not wanting to work.

Since I’ve never ridden this horse before, I didn’t know what to expect. I was shaken by the earlier conflicts and my confidence was low. Eventually, my trainer orchestrated a game of musical chairs in which I ended up on the little mare, who I have ridden before and get along with. She, too, had been backing up and pawing when her rider asked her for a trot, probably having watched how successful my gelding was with that gambit.  But that didn’t work with me. I knew her and I knew her limits (as I didn’t for the gelding) and she wasn’t able to bully me the way he was. It helped that she’s smaller too, but most of it was just that I knew how far I could trust her. She’ll throw some bucks in protest but I doubted she’d truly try to dump me. After some more buck-filled theatrics, I had her moving at a nice trot on the rail. The more experienced of the other two girls had a go at my gelding without much success–horses just have bad days too, sometimes–and I was able to avoid conflict with him for the most part. Once going forward, my confidence returned and I got quickly in sync with my more responsive mount. After all that, my canters today were the best I’ve had since getting back to riding. My lower leg felt snug and the canter was very collected; it felt great and I know it looked great, too.

All in all, I got to ride less time than normal, but it was valuable experience nonetheless, dealing with the antics and interpersonal issues. I’m sure it’ll get real interesting when it finally gets cold enough to move into the tiny indoor ring. (Yikes.)