Lessons from a SchoolMaster and Fear

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I walked into the barn to take pictures of Paladin for my post about riding a school master and to ride him again. It was cold. He’d just been shaved. It’s an uneasy thing to get on a horse I don’t know. And work with a trainer I’ve never worked with before, even though Ann O, says she’s done a great job with her horse, Stone. And I saw it with my own eyes, how much better he was going.

Paladin nickered at me when I walked up. I was flattered that he knew me even though I’d imagine he nickered because of the treats I gave him last time. (At home the mares know me as their vending machine. Tessie drops her head or moves to the side, she’ll get a treat. Morgen stops a ways back so I can open the door without being crowded, she gets a treat. Or she touches her nose to the boat bumper I’ve tied on the stall. Again, another treat.)

But as I brushed him, my nerves tightened. I have closed myself off from riding for the winter, happy for the break, so it’s hard to get back to work. The fear almost feels like my own resistance to this because I need this time off, this break from being afraid.

I have felt that acid fear with Tessie while trail riding, but Tessie has stayed steady, even when I’ve flinched at a pheasant flying up.  Tessie knows to take care of me and she’s bred to be steady.  With Pal, I tried to breathe around my fear, but it wouldn’t leave, not when I brushed him, not when I stepped on him. Alyssa said to half  halt, meaning I should tighten my core and squeeze the reins like a sponge to slow his walk. She asked us to halt. But he would not stand still. He felt like you do when your foot catches ice and you start sliding.

“Alyssa, you can ride him. I’m sorry.”

I’d thought last summer I’d gotten over being afraid of riding. Alyssa explained how it’s hard to ride a horse you don’t know, because you don’t know what he will do. But she said, and I agreed, that it would be good for my confidence to ride him and work this out. I believe he is a safe horse, but he doesn’t know me and I don’t know him. I couldn’t breathe around my fear.

I hopped off and turned him over to Alyssa. She picked up the lunge line and sent him out on the circle. He burst into a canter right off.  A pretty fast canter.

“Well he had itch in his feet.”

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And I wondered if the tension I felt, was as much his as it was mine. I wonder if that itch in his feet came from not being worked, from being cold and wanting to move to warm up. I wondered if my instincts called it right to get off.

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One of the reasons I like driving my horse better than riding is because sitting there in the drivers’ box I don’t feel her fear or tension welling up at me. I’m not overcome by it. And I only have to worry about my hands and voice. What my body does, doesn’t miscommunicate.Of course with driving I don’t have bad memories to frighten me, not even the time Morgen lifted the carriage off its front wheels or when she trotted fast the wind singing in the vents of my helmet.

I’m beginning to wonder if I should do therapy around this fear that keeps rising and looks rational, but maybe not so much. I was five, when a horse reached over and bit me, while I was riding, and from then on, fear rise every so often. And then there were the falls off Tessie, off Morgen, spaced a year apart, the terror of their bolting, my loss of control.

One of the turning points in my fear was when I took Tessie to Everbold, and she cranked up because all the horses on the place were stirred up by one of the owners’ dogs. And when Tessie cranks up, I can feel her power, her self containment, that could explode. All that power frightens. (Others have taken one look at her stout neck and swallowed hard. She wouldn’t be easy to stop in a runaway. Thing is she has circled, stopped when I needed her to.) I stepped off and lunged her.  Then got on and she felt fine. My trainer, Robin Young, said she’d always thought I had good instincts, that there was no point in riding a rodeo, in setting yourself up to get hurt.

This was the same way. I stepped off because Pal didn’t feel right and let him work out his energy. When I got back on I calmed back down and Pal felt calm. Who was tensing who? Alyssa told me to continue the conversation. That horses need us to talk to them or they look elsewhere. When Pal spooked, she said ride through it, don’t clench up. (Not sure I’ll ever learn how to keep riding but I am getting great coaching and great practice to work through these startles.)

We worked on walking, on slowing down, learning that a half halt is tightening my core and squeezing my reins like a sponge. That if I want him to step under himself I put my leg on but tighten my core so he doesn’t go faster. I started talking to Pal, telling him what a good boy he was being, when he carried himself for a step or two. Then his ears softened. He started listening, connecting with me. It seems as though Pal needed my voice as much as I did.

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6 Comments

  • Christine Guzman says:

    Kate:

    I enjoyed being brought back into my horseback riding days. I took lessons for a few years – including some jumping. Later in my early 20’s I went on a 6 day horseback riding tour through Banff, Alberta. Thank you for sharing your feelings and experiences.
    I thought of this poem I wrote – based on 2 stories – one I heard on radio, the other in Gregory Clark’s book “Bar’l of Apples” titled Fear:

    Living with Fears

    A woman whose boat capsize in the middle of a lake floated alone in a life jacket, realized by calling help over and over just made her panic, so decided to sing every song in her memory while calming and soothing her, voice training she got until others heard her and came to her rescue.

    Gregory Clark was a real scaredy cat, but when stuck in a foxhole with his football hero, gunfire and bombs flying overhead he talked about all his heroes moves in his favorite games. The football hero, when danger had passed, exclaimed “Great God, weren’t you scared!”
    Gregory replied: “I’ve been scared all my life, the best thing to do is keep talking all the way through.”
    – Christine Guzman

    • katiewilda says:

      Love this poem. What good advice. My trainer tells me to do that too, to count, while riding to take my mind off the fear. I noticed when I started talking to Pal, that his ears softened and he started listening to me and connecting. Thank you so very much for sharing this poem.

      I bet that horse back riding tour was amazing.

  • Christine Guzman says:

    Katie:
    Gregory Clark also had an amusing story of having a lifetime fear of cats. It was not until he was in his sixties he was cured by hearing the story of the origin of his fear – from his 80 year old Aunt. How as a 3 yr. old he had a white cat that went missing for days. He found it’s body and carried it home – it had been poisoned by rat poison in the neighbour’s greenhouse. His mother and a number of her friends who were over screamed, she grabbed it and flung it far away.
    – Christine

    • katiewilda says:

      What a sad even horrific story for young Gregory Clark to go through. I think there is real insight here for me. Hearing and knowing the story can spring us loose. It’s the old truth shall set you free principle I think. This is a good thing to share with me as I am thinking of getting help for some of my early memories.

      Who is Gregory Clark? Thank you for sharing.

  • Christine Guzman says:

    Katie:

    Gregory Clark is a Canadian writer of short stories. He is now deceased but I treasure a lot of his stories from his various books. I first came across his books in the library when I started doing a Reading group at the Nursing home where I did my field placement. I think he wrote for the Toronto Star, the now defunct “Canadian Magazine” and put a number of his story collections into a few books. It is worth looking up his various books – for his personal glimpses of regular life – both his childhood and adult years and his wartime experiences.

    • katiewilda says:

      Thanks. I will see if I can find his books. I have access to our university library, so it shouldn’t be too hard. What kind of work do you do? Thank you for coming by and visiting.