When my trainer Amy came back from Florida, she banned Tessie from coming to her barn. There’s been an EHV-1 outbreak in the area, so no horses come into a barn or go out. (EHV – 1 is a highly contagious disease that can cause abortions in mares and neurologic symptoms, often resulting in a horse being euthanized.) I’d been feeling uneasy about pulling Tessie out of her winter off, riding her hard for two days, and then putting her away. I don’t like trailering when our yard is iced over.
The last time I rode her, she shied and bucked both at once. Neither one of us likes the mirrors at the end of the ring. (She seems to do this when I ask for the canter and she gets it wrong and I ask again. One thing good about this is that Amy is coaching me through it, calmly saying to loosen up on the reins so Tessie doesn’t feel claustrophobic, to breathe, to keep her going forward, because forward is the safest place to be on a horse.) I am riding through these antics, not even losing my seat, but she’s done this enough for me to think hard about what she’s telling me. Does the new saddle fit worse than the old one? Am I pushing her too hard, asking for three different trots before we begin to canter? Is she out of balance? My last ride of the season left me wondering and not real eager to get back in the saddle.
So I wasn’t eager to get on her, and was relieved that Amy said, “No, don’t bring her” because I’d felt so deeply hesitant. Keeping Tessie home, keeps her safe as well.
But Amy invited me to come over and ride a school horse, something I’d thought about for the winter in order to keep fit and work out the postures that would help my horse best.
Her step daughter Alyssa reassured me that Pal was very sweet, that he would take care of me. “If something goes wrong, he’d stop. He’s taken care of other timid riders.”
But his mouth was pursed and tight as he stood in the crossties. I could almost hear the big bay’s thoughts. “Drat, another crappy rider. And this one’s on the bulky side. Drat.” I was full of acid unease, because the one thing that keeps me relatively safe with Tessie is that we are good friends. I have asked her to take care of me and she has. I know how her trot and canter feel. Even Amy has said, “She won’t hurt you” which rings true.
Paladin is a 16.3 bay Westphalian that advanced as far as Prix St. Georges in dressage. He knows a thing or two. Alyssa said they had a saddle made just for him because of his big withers and oddly shaped back. . When I got on him, his neck stuck way out. I mean way out–as far as a dock leans into a cold, deep lake. Alyssa had to walk with me because I was afraid. She said you first want to find out if he has brakes and an accelerator. So I settled my seat and he stopped. I opened my legs, he moved forward.
I missed Tessie terribly, like she’d died and I’d replaced her. It was the oddest feeling because as I said, I was hesitant, but it felt like grief not to be riding familiar Tessie, but instead to be riding this horse who was so high off the ground, I felt like I was sitting two stories up. He stepped carefully, amiably into his walk.
Before it was my time to ride, Amy took a few minutes to gather those of us at the barn to tell us what she’d been learning in Florida. I didn’t catch the name of the good looking Dane who told her group that horses are so sensitive that they will pick up on our emotions. If we are angry, or happy they will pick up on what we are feeling and mirror it back. She said that there are no mean horses, only horses who have responded to their humans or been taught to misbehave. When we are with our horses we need to be in our happy place. Her relationship with a fractious horse changed for the better when she started imagining a good ride.
Though I wonder about Linda Kohanov’s insight that horses don’t mind our emotions so much as they mind our lies. If we are dishonest with how we are feeling, they feel the disconnect. It’s as if we’ve gone blurry, or ghostlike. They don’t know what to expect. She says this is when they can be dangerous because they don’t know who they are dealing with. There have been times I’ve trail ridden, been afraid, and not lied to Tessie about it. I’ve startled at pheasants or geese flapping out of the river and she’s just kept walking, taking care of me. When she’s ramped up, I’ve breathed deeply, unlocked my back and kept my reins loose.
But this imagining a good ride, this focusing on the fun of being with Tessie and Morgen can be powerful. I think of the old saying, throw your heart over the fence and the horse will sure to follow. Anna Blake of Infinity farm talked about this in her blog, “How to Stop Feeling the Rub of Judgement.”We need to treat ourselves like puppies; instead of getting mad and holding a grudge, gently replace those negative thoughts with something better to chew on, and then reward yourself. Say Good Girl. If you believe in positive training for dogs and horses, use it on yourself, too.”
She continues by saying, “While you are tacking up, think about the positive things the two of you have conquered. Think of the past just long enough to acknowledge how far you’ve come. When the fleeting thoughts of how much your canter transitions suck, or how scared you are since your last fall, come into your mind, forgive yourself like a puppy. Take a breath. Yes, literally, take a conscious inhale, and gently replace those defeated thoughts with something tastier. Discipline yourself to kindness. Lay your palm flat on your horse’s neck and know you are both perfect. Good Girl.”
I asked Amy, “What do we do if we are angry and can’t get around it?”
Amy said, “Don’t go to the barn.”
Well, my horses might not get fed. But I’ve seen how my inconsistency reflected back in Morgen’s being snarky. I’ve learned the barn with my horses inside is not the place to vent my emotions.
My stirrups were too short. I didn’t know Paladin. As I we rode his ears stayed forward. Every time we passed the brush hog across the aisle, he’d point his head and ears at it, and I sucked in my breath. This horse and I were not connected. He moved under my seat as though it was all same old, same old, not worth connecting with me.
Amy said to think of a good thing, that we need to fake it till we make it. So I thought of Little Falls on Vly Creek, the wide rock you could stretch out on, soaking in the sun, the sound of the water breaking over a small rock ledge. I thought of the sun soaking. I could not think of horses because I’d slide into fear. I concentrated hard and pushed Pal through his walk, trot, faster trot. I felt disconnected, out of sorts, uneasy with what he might do. Those ears were tight, pricked forward. He wasn’t paying attention to me. I’d ask him to flex and he’d pay me a bit of heed.
When we finished up, Amy said it would be good for me to ride a different horse, both for building up my skills (learning to sit up straight and hold my fingers closed) and for building up my confidence.
I came back the next day and gave Pal a few treats to brighten his mood. Alyssa told me to think of what a sweet horse he is, to focus on having a good time. And so I did. We even cantered. All I had to do was put my inside leg at his girth and my outside leg behind him and he stepped right into a canter that felt like a Merry Go Round horse or the ocean, rising and falling, rising and falling.