We thought having a horse would make everything perfect. It’s a dream most of us were born with; we were drawn to horses in some way that we can’t explain in polite words. We were a bit frightening to our mothers. We begin to lose whatever meager social skills we had for small talk at social events in favor of clock-watching until we can make an excuse about feeding and leave early. We gave up princess dreams in exchange for barn coats, muck boots and gnarly nails.
We love to tell horse stories that all have the same plot: We get a horse, usually the wrong one. We struggle with challenges on all fronts. We get bad advice, we lose money, we get bucked off. We persist, two steps forward and one step back. We eventually find a better version of ourselves. Then even if the horse lives to thirty, we think we lost them too soon.
As a kid, I clutched the “H” encyclopedia, the only horse book on the farm, and begged daily for a horse of my own. My father eventually relented and came home from an auction with a wild-eyed pony who kicked me in the face. Don’t all horse stories really come down to trying to balance love and fear?
If it was as easy to buy confidence as it is to buy tack; if trust was a supplement that came in both human and equine form, we’d be just fine.
On good days when it all goes right, we should hoot-out with bravado. We survived, we had a feeling of true partnership, whether competing or out on the trail, we had a blue-ribbon ride. We should celebrate, not out of garish pride but because we know the fluid state of reality. We know that confidence can come and go like the tide.
It’s a perfect storm that creates a perfect ride. It’s a hundred details important to your horse like a healthy stomach, balanced hooves, great saddle fit, physical balance, a low bug population, and a peaceful barometer. This all matters because when things go wrong, there’s a perfect storm, too. It isn’t about luck, it involves things that our senses can’t pick up, things important to the horse. And that doesn’t include the human aspects of the perfect storm and we’re much more complicated.
Let’s say you’re a good rider and you have a great horse. The two of you have small challenges but no glaring problems. You’ve had enough horses to know how lucky you are. Then on an ordinary sunny day, just when you have never felt better about your horse and the progress in the last year… Just when your goals seem to be within your grasp, because you’ve gone slow and done it all right, it happens. The ride comes apart. Your horse is frightened and so are you. Maybe you ride it out or maybe you come off. Maybe you bounce to your feet or maybe you’re hurt. The details will be scrutinized, excuses offered on all sides, you will go deeper for better understanding. Some might laugh it off but most of us will find a quiet place and soak in the pain of doubt.
It feels like the rug was pulled out, that your horse has betrayed you. That you are wrong about everything, and you can’t trust your horse or anything you knew. In other words, things just got real. The drama of the moment blinds ordinary perception. You know intellectually that it’s just one day in the story you’ll tell in the future, but it’s the hard day. In hindsight, it may build character but right then, it all feels like a failure as your partnership crashes to the ground.
You’ve been horse-crazy since this obsession began, but now you’re scared, embarrassed and self-critical, feeling that you’ve betrayed your horse, too. You love your horse and you’re afraid. It would seem crazy to someone who doesn’t have horses, but for us, it’s a common. Some would argue, a healthy state of mind.
You might notice right about now that we romanticize horses. We dream of National Velvet or Black Stallion. We give them titles like therapist or lifesaver, or fur-kid. We form a secret society with a password nicker, only to get booted out. Trust is destroyed, confidence is rattled, and it feels like innocence is lost, even if you’ve had ten horses before this one. Weirdest of all, even now, you know you can’t quit. The only thing worse than the despair in the moment is thinking of a life without horses.
“They taught me how it works. You have to let your heart be soft. You have to let your love be just an inch bigger than your fear.” -Dedication in Relaxed & Forward, the book.
Nothing about horses comes without a cost. And so, we start again. We remind ourselves that horses are horses, and then try to understand what that means in a deeper way. They have instincts that rule them, as ours rule us. We have to negotiate that balance.
Instead of being made weaker by our fears, let’s drag them out into broad daylight and, like your weird uncle at family reunions, invite them into the process. What if fear could be re-framed as common sense and we channeled it into self-awareness. We can stop demonizing fear and let it be a learning aid. Not that it’s an easy thing to do, but because hating part of ourselves is a losing proposition. Embracing our parts makes us closer to whole.
Once the swelling goes down, we might negotiate the idea of confidence, too. It isn’t a commodity to gain, so much as a reality that we nurture. We can’t chase it down, buy it in a book, or wish it into existence. We have to befriend confidence and after a bump like this, it’s a bit like a rescue dog, shy in the beginning or trying too hard to act like nothing’s wrong.
We need to show ourselves the patience and compassion we hope to have for horses. We have to give ourselves the time we need to heal. Getting bucked off means that we land in a new reality. Trade romance for an honest relationship with your horse, where strengths and weaknesses get mixed together.
Then go slow. Lower your expectations, so you can congratulate yourself more often. Praise your own breathing. Tack up and take a stroll. Loiter at the mounting block, and then go back to the barn. Take your time to climb back on and have a friend on the ground. Have a three-minute ride and dismount hungry. Say thank you.
Let affirmations take the place of self-criticism. You’ll need to remind yourself about that every day… until confidence becomes a habit.
When we are in the middle of the story we will eventually tell, we’ll lose perspective because the process is always a challenge, with every horse. Details change, it isn’t always pretty, but all horse stories end the same way. We still love them.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
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