Notes on Riding Tessie and Fear (Ugh)

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December 2015

I’ve been riding Tessie through her bucks and bolting for the last month’s worth of lessons. She’s telling me something but I’m not sure what, though yesterday when she shied away from the mirror and then bucked, my trainer thought maybe we should see what she does on the lunge line. I cussed her out, stopped her and then went back to a trot to see if I could relax her.

But I could feel her tension rising even before we cantered, and my trainer was asking us to do canter to trot transitions to keep her from developing a full head of steam, but the exercise had the opposite effect. She became more tense, picked up the wrong lead, threw a buck and a shy that seemed down right dirty.

Up until now my trainer has said that I shouldn’t stop her, that I’m rewarding her by stopping, but when she’s amped up like this, she’s too much. No one learns when they are tense. And I could get hurt, but what is suprising is that I am riding her through this, staying up right, cussing her out. (Mark Russell says to say quiet, to simply regard it as the horse’s reaction, though I wonder if scolding her would tell her this is not good because she knows my voice.) And she comes back to me.

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This is Morgen on the lunge line.

On the lunge line Tessie showed quickly how unbalanced she is at the canter, in that she bolted and bowed out to the outside, trying to drag my trainer with her. She’s had EPM, she has straight stifles, and I am seeing her gaits. I also saw her throwing herself to face my trainer, because she wanted to change direction. Working along that side had to be extremely difficult for her. I’ve seen her do this at free lunging too, switching directions and I block her with my body language. I was impressed with how quiet my trainer was with Tessie’s bolting. She quietly followed her, asked her to work again.

Later I talked to Amy’s farrier when I was warming up in the viewing room. He said that loping is the best way to condition a horse, to make them come round. He also said that deep footing could help her use her legs properly and strengthen them. He explained how she should move her hindlegs up and around like a bicyclist but often horses skew them out away from their bodies. He suggested light chains like they use for Tennessee walkers to encourage her to pick up her legs. I won’t use light chains.

I wonder if we should back way up  even from lunging until she gets in better condition. My trainer said that free lunging is worthless, but I’m not so sure because it would give Tessie a larger area to find her balance without the line on her halter. It would save my shoulders, if Tessie sets her neck and bolts. It teaches me how to use my energy and body language and words to connect with Tessie, to suggest what I want her to do.

Tessie is definitely stiff in the hindquarters, not drawing her legs under her belly. She bunny hops.

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But her behavior was deteriorating. I asked was it the saddle? But my trainer said no, though this started when I added this saddle and used a girth that is wide under her barrel. It sucked that this was the final lesson of the year, that I was left with the question what is she trying to tell me and the possibility of fear finding his way back because I had all winter to think about it.

Most horse people think I’m a little daffy asking what Tessie is trying to tell me. But even the natural horsemen types say it is in a horse’s nature to get along. It was a heck of a way to finish my season.

January

My trainer returned to Florida and said we need to block our fears with thoughts about the beach. I picked a swimming hole with a wide rock to sun on and little water falls that pushed against you if you let them roll over your shoulders. Because there was an EHV report in the area I rode her school horse, that later, scared me so badly I dismounted. He wouldn’t stop. He was big. Fear was free floating and in my throat. I believe it’s your friendship with your horse that ups the odds of staying safe and Pal was not my friend. 

July

Well, when spring/summer came, I changed saddles and backed off from working Tessie past her wind. I didn’t think it was fair to make her pant that hard when she was out of shape. Mark Russell said that if you push them too hard, they lose oxygen to their muscles and can be injured.

The saddle fitter urged me not to cinch the girth as tight as I could, which I’d done because I had been afraid the saddle would slip. . She said to leave the first billet looser so her shoulders can move and a well fitted saddle will stay put. No one had ever told me that. The Tessie I knew when I bought her, quiet, confident, came back.

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But sometimes the fear returns. I tried my expensive leather girth covered with an expensive fleece pad. And cinched it up tight, despite the saddle fitter’s reassurances that the saddle would stay on, that I didn’t need to make it as tight as possible. Twice in two days she did a dirty. The first time we were trotting a straight line and she ducked and bucked, an all four feet off the ground, buck. The second time we were just walking, warming up, and she shied a one eighty, bolting the other way. Both times I kept working her, but felt rattled. I gain my confidence and then it gets blown. I gain it and then lose it.

Then I glanced at a Facebook ad that talks about how horses’ respiration and let my girth back out. I went back to my Professional Choice girth and Tessie settled back down. (She has these bumps the vet says come from insects irritating her skin. Several were marble sized before I had the vet cut them off. Her girth area has been quiet but another one sprouted this spring. When it got raw, I switched to a softer girth.)

Both days my mind was full of videos about The Pony Cup. I’d watched friends ride tests that I could ride some day. Some riders were beautiful. Some were

I have been so discouraged I have wondered if Tessie were the problem, that maybe I should sell her and buy a gelding that rides and drives, that I can hitch to Morgen, that might lend her his confidence, especially around cattle. It stops being fun when I have to clamber through fear like so many rocks. Morgen stands at the gate calling for me to ride her and if I had the confidence I’d get on her, but I don’t and I don’t want my fear to mess her up. I forget that I can drive her, that that is the conversation we can have.

Heat and humidity came up. Bruce was home and I took time away from riding because I have felt compelled to bring order to my house. He kept nudging me to ride and I shook my head no. I got on Tessie for a few days of cool weather. And pushed against the most awful feeing of fear that I could not breathe through. Tessie stayed steady enough, though she voiced her opinion that she preferred not to trot or turn right away from the gate. I quit after a half hour. A couple days later the weather was lovely, Bruce was nudging me to ride Tessie and to drive Morgen. But the thought of getting on her felt like too much work so I decided that no, I wasn’t going to ride.

Tessie hasn’t been the easiest horse but not the hardest either. But she has given me several gifts–facing my fears, learning how to breathe through them, and also how to feel my body, how to feel her. I can tell before she’s going to bow through the left shoulder and if I catch her soon enough I can keep her going on my path. If I lose focus, she will let me know and focus is something I need to have, focus that is settled in my body. My brain comes back after a ride.

Early in the season Morgen stopped before the cows were even in sight. Bruce was so disgusted I stopped driving her. But he pushed me to get back, and she pushed me, standing at the gate waiting, and sometimes calling. So we hitched her and I tried the trick of taking her to her stopping point, getting her to relax for a few steps and then turning her around to go home. I drove her in the field and learned more about speed and my voice and how connected we are.

September

Lately Tessie has been very clear that she does not want me to ride her. I can feel waves of boredom coming up from her because we have not left the south pasture all summer. It’s where I feel safe. Or maybe the boredom is seeping down from me because I’m tired of the same old resistance—her sliding to the outside when I want her to go straight or towards the inside or ask her to trot. (In riding we call the outside, the side of the horse that is away from the center and the inside the side of the horse that is close to the center.) All this avoidance has worn me down. We are in the same place we were when we began. When Morgen stands in the paddock watching, Tessie wants to show us both that she’s the lead partner.

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If I don’t feel her thoughts to step to the outside, especially early in the ride, she’s running away with me in slow motion. I apply my outside leg and drop my weight into the inside stirrup, but sometimes I have to swing her around. She does the same when I ask her to trot. She has now started to ignore the request. Yes. I know. This makes me a better rider, especially learning to feel Tessie’s intent.

When I wrote a blog a few weeks ago it slipped out that Tessie didn’t want to be out there any more than I did. Well that’s true. Trot walk. Feel my seat, my hands, sit up straight, not forward. Relax my wrists. Relax my shoulders. Let my hips move with her motion. Feel her legs walking, one, two, three, four because I’ll need to know those things when you ask for the canter, for lead changes. It is draining to focus with the kind of focus that drops into your body, that leaves the drunk of being in my head behind. It’s so easy to move your hand wrong, to shift your weight forward instead of over the horse’s center of gravity.

Ever since she ran away with me, years ago, I have been afraid of speed. I was so out of control, so crooked in the saddle as she ran full out, bucking, that fear rises. She was pissed. She wanted me off. I have felt her being out of balance at the canter. Wise trainers have said that an out of balance horse can create a buck or bolt and sure enough Tessie has bolted and she has bucked. And the fear returns. Though eases ride after quiet ride.

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Morgen getting her teeth floated.

My vet says she has points on her teeth which make her mouth sore. And in a thread on Facebook about horses and teeth, someone shared their horse did the same kind of avoidance when their teeth needed to be floated. (The points filed down.) My hope rises that maybe riding will be fun again.

Anna Blake says Tessie has a say. But what does that look like? She needs the exercise. The people I trail ride with aren’t going out much because they are between horses or busy with family. I have stepped away from the saddle and started free lunging her for exercise. She works harder than she does when I ride because I ask her to step into the canter, to work those muscles and that balance. It is more fun watching her step under herself, being connected, than it is riding. I am thinking of training her to drive because it’s an efficient way to exercise her and Bruce and I both enjoy going out.

Anna Marciniak says our tension blocks the horse’s energy. She says, “The first step on this path is to understand how your tensions, fear and anxiety, connected with wanting your horse to move is in fact actually BLOCKING any possibility of forward movement of the horse.” (http://onehorselife.com/horses-stay-behind-labelled-lazy/#comments)

I have felt Tessie’s power as I lead her into a barn. I have felt it at the beginning of our trail rides. Once she scared me because we were in line going down a hill, with roots on the trail. The whole group stopped so we could gather ourselves. We put Tessie next to her friend Ginger and I let her eat grass because eating can be calming. Others have looked at her neck and thought, “Run away”. When Tessie has bolted, other than the first time, she has come back to me quickly. My main fear is her stumbling, falling end over end. I am afraid of that power. I see people cantering their horses down a lane, steady enough to video themselves, the two track in front of them. I am afraid of speed. Fear of flying.

I have breathed through my recent fear. I have realized that too much caffeine and not enough sleep can mimic fear and I can’t get around it. Gotten more comfortable with riding her in our field, but she and I are both bored. And that boredom sets up like a wall.

But Marciniak says this is a hopeful sign. “This feeling of tiredness and heaviness is a very good sign. If you are really observant it can give you a clue leading to the source of the problem that hides in you.”

Even as a young girl, wanting to excel at riding, I was stiff as a board. In fact I was so stiff the small of my back would ache like two fists clenched for several days after my jumping lesson. Now the tension is easing. But there is tightness at the core of who I am, old scars, I’m not sure I want to heal, because I fear the darkness, even for Tessie. My religion taught me again and again, when I was a little girl, my place, down there, was an opportunity to betray Jesus. Wisdom showed up in my inner most parts and my body refused the one night stands. But stayed as tension.

Right after the mass shooting at NIU, a counselor talked to us helpers and said that biggest gift we can give someone is to listen completely relaxed, relaxed in our core, our pelvic floor. Healing takes place. There have been times when a person’s listening has been so complete, so understanding, the pain has been sopped up.

During one ride, I caught myself with the tense legs, the tension in my back, and thought I’ve got to go lighter. These clamped legs are making her stop, not asking for forward. I’ve got to practice imagining a lovely trot transition, full of energy and spring. I’ve got to imagine her following my lead, turning away from the open gate, to round the corner.

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One of the things driving Morgen has taught me is the delight of speed—her trotting lickety split down the road, turning a corner, or hauling ass up our field, the wind in our hair, the wheels of the carriage sliding along the contours of the ground. She listens to my fingers twittering on the reins, to my voice and to her own tiredness.

For Tessie I must remember how I used to canter my horse along the fields the wind in my hair, the joy of movement surging up from my childhood horse. I must drop into my body and lean into my imagination both, breathing in between. And breathe through the fear because as I read this morning in Brevity, fear shows up with creativity. “Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome,” writes Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. “This is all totally natural and human. It’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. It is, however, something that very much needs to be dealt with.” After all the winged horse is an image for the muse and a rather terrifying thing, if a horse really could leap into the sky.  

Fear may follow me, off and on for awhile. But there’s an old saying, “Perfect love casts out fear” that reminds me to  focus on the love part, the fact this horse is my friend, that I’m the one she has turned to when she’s been sick, that she has taken care of me when the fear burned like acid. And that our time might be shorter than I think.

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2 Comments

  • I always love to watch an artist at work–whether it is Picasso or Yehudi Menuhin or a finish carpenter–or a writer who is so steeped in her subject, so intuitive in her knowledge and understanding of her horses, so good at what she does–that the “art” seems to grow on its own, organically. This is a beautiful post, Katie, and the detail not only about Tessie, but about your relationship with her, and about your own mind and heart as they weave around the obstacle course of that relationship, is just overwhelmingly wonderful.

    This blog makes it clear that you are an artist painting the canvas of your life. I am very honored to know you.

    • katiewilda says:

      Thank you so very much. Thank you for “getting” what I’m trying to do with this piece. My goals for my work with Tessie and Morgen are that relationship with them–with my body, with relaxation, and thinking good thoughts as opposed to bad ones. I really need to get about this memoir.

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