Fear has been probably the one biggest challenge in my life. I've struggled with panic disorder since I was eight years old and on top of that my mom's fear that if I move or sneeze I will die carried over in my unconscious. So, it's become second nature for me to want to always push myself to do "scary things". Some things are just too much still - for instance I am afraid to travel across country by myself. Not because I don't know how to do it, I am one of the most organized travelers I know and can navigate any strange place I end up just by brazenly walking up to locals and chatting and endearing myself to them. But I have an irrational fear of traveling by myself. Probably a carry-over to the old days when I had agoraphobia and couldn't even walk my dog around the block without a paralyzing panic attack.
Anyway, fear is a big issue in the horse world. Some people don't have it all - literally to the point where I think they're crazy or just incredibly stupid. They hop on any horse without a helmet in shorts and flip flops and text and play games on their phone sitting up on the back of a giant animal with a mind of its own. People like that are just incredibly lucky they aren't dead or crippled yet, although I have heard of too many people like that who are now. But the average, sane person even when they wear a helmet and take precautions has a little bit of fear. Probably the only people I know who are sane and don't have fear on horses are people who have ridden their whole lives and ride practically every day. Grand Prix riders and trainers and some cowboys I've met who used to ride broncs in the rodeo. They've seen it all and been through it all and know how so handle just about everything. But the rest of us civilians, everyone I know seems to have a bit of fear on some sort of continuum.
I fall somewhere in the middle of that. Some of my fellow middle-aged riding friends have said they are surprised and don't believe I have fear because I love cantering and like to ride lots of different horses. But I actually consider myself one of those people who has an unusually high level fear. Even though I'm out riding, I'm also always thinking and preparing for the worst case scenario. But I keep riding and taking lessons because I believe what Buck Brannaman has said many times in clinics and in interviews - the answer to fear is knowledge. The more knowledge of how to handle a situation you have the less fear you feel.
A lot of my ability to ride horses without completely freaking out is not because I'm not a generally fearful person (which I am) but because I've been doing it since I was a kid. I was at my rider pilates class last week and we had to try a new exercise - kneeling on an exercise ball. It was really hard and I was trying to ease myself up on the ball on my knees and that wasn't working at all. My classmates told me you just have to "jump up" onto it on both knees and I was suddenly unable to even try because all I could envision was me flying off of it. I actually said out loud "It's a good thing the first time I got on a horse was when I was three years old or I would NEVER get on one!" If I was afraid to kneel on a rolling exercise ball in case I fall off, I would never get on a horse that's three to four times taller if I hadn't been doing it on and off since I was kid.
As it was I did end up trying to do it correctly and managed to kneel on the ball for about thirty seconds at a time. And one time I did go flying off and tumbled over and rolled across the room on accident. Which I thought was funny when it actually happened, but if five minutes before I'd known that would happen I wouldn't have tried it all.
Unfortunately, Dressage Today does not post its articles online but this month's issue has a really great article in the Transitions section called "Life on the Amateur Rail: This dressage rider figured out how to give fear the boot". I cut it out and am going to post it at my barn because I thought it was such a good article. But I do wish I could link to it here. It's all about basically continuing to do what you want despite being afraid, just be kind to yourself and take baby steps if you need to and fuck anyone who makes fun of you for not doing more or judges you.
I have two weeks away from ponies until the fall lesson session starts at pony camp and I'm done doing chores on the weekends. I'm actually grateful for that today because it's no fun doing pony chores when it's 80+ degrees outside like this weekend is supposed to be. But I'm going to miss those guys.
Last Saturday I was out there all by myself and nobody had been out all day because they were done with classes, so there was an extra amount of work because no teens had been there watering and picking the paddocks during the day. And the ponies had the whole day off so they were feeling especially full of it and acting silly. Bubba is the tiniest one - I think he's about 9 hh's and so incredibly cute. He's also a little alpha pony. He was in a paddock with Bugsy who is incredibly mellow in comparison to him (so they're a good match).
I went into their paddock to pick poo and closed the gate behind me, but didn't tie it up with the bungee cord because it wasn't windy so I knew the gate would stay shut and I wasn't going to be in there very long. I was picking poo for a few minutes and then Bubba looked up from his hay, looked at me, looked at the gate, then stomped right past with me with purpose, walked right up to the gate, nudged it open with his nose and stomped out into the outdoor arena. I grabbed the bungee chord, walked over to him in the outdoor arena, looped it around his neck like a little lasso and led him back to the paddock with him obediently trotting next to me. I said I applauded him on his ingenuity and shut the gate and attached the bungee cord on the gate. I went back to picking poo and within a moment Bubba looked at me, looked at the gate, marched past me with purpose, nudged the gate open with his nose as far as it would go with the bungee cord attached, then to my amazement squeezed his fat little body out between the gate and the fence. That made me laugh out loud. And I took the bungee cord, put is around his neck like a lasso and he obediently trotted next to me back into the paddock. I applauded him on his ingenuity and cockroach-like talents. Then I wrapped the bungee cord around the gate twice so it was tight. I went back to picking poo, Bubba looked at me, looked at the gate, marched over to the gate with purpose, tried to push the gate open with his nose and this time it wouldn't budge, so he stood there a moment, I swear he let out a frustrated sigh, then went back to his hay bag. I really like that little pony! He's the kind of pony you'd want to take home to live in your house since he's barely bigger than my pitbull.
I'm still freaking out about starting teaching lessons on my own in two weeks but the director of the school believes I can do it and has been helping me and my pilates teacher (who is also a riding instructor) and my trainer have all been encouraging me. The three of them are all giving me the same advice so that is helpful. I'm going to go in with my current knowledge and everything the three of them have been teaching me and hope for the best. I'm sure if I continue to teach for a long time I will look back on this beginning period of teaching and be amazed at how little I knew "back then" but hopefully I will still bring something positive to my students despite that.
I know it might sound a little silly to people who don't ride horses that I would be putting so much thought into teaching 9 and 10 year olds on super safe horses, a lot of people who don't ride seem to think "what's the big deal? They're just little kids on ponies". But to me it is a big deal. There's a fine balance of making it fun for the kids so they don't leave the world of horses thinking it's just hard work and drudgery (much like why my daughter quit ballet once it started to turn into "training" when she was 6 years old and it wasn't fun anymore), but at the same time I don't want to be responsible for bad habits that will be so hard to unlearn later in life if the kids decide to keep riding, or worse that they take into the show ring or the rodeo and put themselves and their horses in danger.
It's hard for me to watch shows, especially at the FEI upper levels, where a rider comes out and is in the show ring yanking on their horse's face and whipping them like crazy and basically not knowing how to ride, even though they know how to (kind of) give cues for upper level moves. (if they really knew how and the horse was well trained they wouldn't be yanking on their faces or whipping them like crazy). I was at a schooling show once and this woman was riding the Prix St George test and she actually said to the judge that her horse was being bad and that she might have to whip him a lot with the dressage whip during the test but it wasn't her fault, it was the horse's fault. I wanted to say something but it was completely inappropriate for me to say anything to her. Although I felt like saying, "Seriously? Just don't do the test then if you can't ride your fucking horse or he isn't trained to this level yet!" But I'm only at training level and no one is going to listen to me and it would just piss her off and she'd complain about me harassing her ... blah blah blah. So, that's part of why it's so important to me I do a good job with my young, beginner students. I want to be part of giving a future generation of riders a good solid foundation in horsemanship and learning how to safely and effectively handle their horses so if there is one less cowgirl, or hunter/jumper or FEI rider out there NOT whipping their horse needlessly and pulling on their face and using their spurs improperly, I will be happy. That stuff is hard to unlearn if you learn it when you're young and a beginner. That's why it's such a big deal to me that I do my job well.
Here you go - this is my attitude toward fear and I recommend anyone who is feeling scared watch this clip many times and really think about what he's saying: