Many times others have questioned me, saying I don’t strike them as a timid person. In fact, I appear quite the opposite and for the most part there is truth to that. For me, I struggle with relinquishing control.
For a person with trouble giving up control, it might seem ironic that I chose a sport where that is IMPERATIVE in order to succeed. Equestrianism is a partnership, a team event benefitted by the bond, communication, and trust between horse and rider. There must be a give and a take.
In the last few years I’ve bloomed in confidence as I built my relationship with Ferrous. Owning my own horse has given me the time and the freedom to explore together. I can read him easily and know when to push him and when he needs me to back off, or let him lead. The last is the hardest for me.
Delight came back into my life last fall and once again I had an opportunity to rebuild a relationship with a horse that has meant so much to me, largely because we are very similar in personality. He strikes those he meets as confident, intelligent, and bold but when placed in a situation where he is uncomfortable he FREEZES and begins to panic. His panic is short-lived but explosive but then he comes back quickly. This is very like my own anxiety response and one of the reasons I enjoy working with him on the ground. He is my mirror and makes me see myself, perhaps a little too clearly.
When preparing for a riding holiday at the White Stallion Ranch in Tucson, Arizona I in no way was concerned about the mental aspect of my riding. Obviously the horses are well-trained and used to a variety of rider abilities. Instead, I was focused on whether I could physically ride three times a day with my group and sit the fast-paced rides comfortably for a number of days in a row without being incredibly sore and in pain.
Ironically, the physical aspect was not a problem. I did become a little sore near the end, from the wide Western saddles more than anything. Instead, I found that I experienced a mental realization on Day One that affected the rest of my journey.
Our first ride was a slow trail, learning our horses at a walk for about an hour. I was thrilled with my mount. Dolly is a beautifully palomino. Short and wide, she appeared to be a Haflinger cross. While walking in the middle of the pack I began to get a sense of her personality. She disliked being slow and would try to walk nose to tail until I learned to drop my hand so that I rested directly on her mane. Even a little raise of my hand raised her head and caused her to speed up. I also had to limit my hip movement as she was very sensitive. I truly enjoyed her but was unsure as my read of her was that she was a little sassy and forward. I never felt out of control or nervous with her, but I was wary.
My suspicions were confirmed during our fast-ride test with the wranglers. Before we can ride the canter on the open trail we must prove we can follow in a single line and canter or halt when requested. She was a beautiful, comfortable mover but as we halted, she needed a little more firm hand and proceeded to paw and toss her head. She wanted to go and it was adorable. But not for me. My goal was a quiet, relaxing ride.
I asked to change horses and was promptly given a handsome fellow named Huckleberry who I rode in the test and seemed perfect.
We began the trail and enjoyed a lovely half hour of walking and long, canters among the Saguaro cactus and other beautifully cholla peppered along the desert landscape. With each canter I could feel my horse become faster and extend into a gallop before I brought him back to me as we chased the others from the back. When we turned home, something changed.
Perhaps it was excitement. Perhaps it was happiness. This time when we waited our turn to canter, Huckleberry refused to go forward and instead leaped in the air, tossing his head, and twisting- once, twice, and on the third time I almost lost my balance into a cactus.
I gave in and called out to the riders ahead. The more distance between us, the more I feared Huckleberry would become upset.
I was incredibly embarrassed. The ride stopped. My friends waiting patiently ahead while their horses did not, pawing the ground and jigging slightly with irritation. The Wrangler radioed for assistance when I described the incident, and she was surprised my usually calm mount would act up in such a manner.
We all volunteered to walk back to keep the horses calm, but then dust rose in the distance and the Head Wrangler came galloping through the brush to help. He took my horse, gave me his, then followed the rest of the way so I was no longer in the rear.
By this time I felt ashamed that I created drama, rude that I made the wranglers job harder, and embarrassed that I couldn’t control my horse.
This colored my entire afternoon. I refused to go on the third ride, knowing it would be fast and they would give me an entirely new horse I didn’t know. For me, there is safety in knowledge. It has been so long since I rode another horse besides Ferrous that it has become almost a detriment.
I tried to deflect with humor but inside I was stiff, holding my emotions in and guarding myself the only way I knew how. A friend of mine pulled me to the side when we were alone, hugged me, and told me to stop. She called me out. She saw me. And it was terrifying and yet I’m so grateful.
Because she sees all of me and still loves me. A friend like that is priceless and in that moment, I went to have a good cry out loud- alone- and decide to stop the cycle.
I stayed behind the third ride of the day and recharge. Get my mind right, release the tension, and wash away the nerves and self-doubt with a bath and some meditation.
It worked. More, I realized something incredibly profound. Not only is my timidity purely mental but it is absolutely okay. It is okay that I prefer slower rides where I can enjoy the scenery and chatting with friends. It is okay that I like to canter on a horse I know and trust. It is okay to step out of my comfort zone AND it is okay if I don’t want to be challenged. I am okay.
The first day was a eye-opening one but I came to terms with something that I believe will help me in the future to grow. The rest of our holiday was amazing and perfect. I was paired with a steady Mustang named Ocho who fit me mentally and with that trust I did challenge myself, trying cattle sorting and team penning.
I have seen riders of all shapes, ages, and sizes beautifully handle their horses. In my opinion, the mental aspect of riding and horsemanship trumps the physical aspect every single time