It dawned on me recently that I have rediscovered my confidence and joy in horse riding, and I am not really sure precisely when it happened. Just one day I returned from a ride and realised that I had thoroughly enjoyed myself. This has happened before, last summer I began to recover some of my confidence, but it was on the odd ride where the horse had been particularly calm, or nothing untoward had happened. I was riding more, but remained very anxious and I know I was not riding as often as I use to, even though I actually had more time to do so.
This was different. This time I knew I had turned a corner. I was curious about what had changed. There were five signs that I had finally conquered my excessive nerves when riding:-
1. I was riding out on my own often, and enjoying it.
2. On one ride recently Svipur, my lovely gaited Icelandic horse started to canter before I had my reins fully gathered (after taking this photo), I pushed him on with my seat (to make sure I didn’t get Pace) and gathered the reins as I went…and didn’t even think about it until afterwards. I made a mental note to myself: do not ask for canter in your seat and head before you mean to! Horses pick up the smallest of signs, more of this in a moment.
3. Another day that week I chose a ride I hadn’t done for a year specifically for the canter across an open field.
4. On the way home were passing a wind-turbine and there were eight balloons twisting and flapping in a tree on the right, and big scary horse eating rocks on the left. Instead of thinking ‘OMG’ and getting anxious Svipur and I just rode on by.
5. I can’t wait to go out again, and am thinking about all the other neglected rides I have been avoiding.
Some steps I took were big, some steps were very small but one of the key things was simply to keep riding, keep getting in the saddle. I was trying to do this anyway, but one thing that helped me keep on track was listening to Karl Greenwood from Centre for Horseback Combat , he talks about being part of the “In the Saddle Division” and this prompted me to tackle my many excuses for ‘not riding today’ – the rain, the wind, feeling a bit tired. I kept taking myself to the edge of my comfort zone, and just beyond. I entered the Shows and went to the training clinics, though to be honest my Icelandic horse friends would have probably come and got me anyway if I had said I was not going to a show! I continued to work on my skills and confidence with lessons and rides with my friend and trainer Fi, but I did all this at my pace. I pushed myself to be in the saddle but I was clear with those I rode with what I was comfortable to do and what I was not. I rode familiar rides, and aimed for short and often. In the end it was keeping riding that got me over the edge. I just kept getting on the horse. Eventually I became bored with my same old ‘safe’ ride around the block and this pushed me to venture out and rediscover some of my favourite rides.
I focussed on the positives. Horse riding is not the most dangerous hobby you can do. It really is not. In fact the worst fall I ever had, by a very long way was from my bicycle. Social media can have a powerful influence on our emotional states. It’s wise to consciously decide how you interact with it. Thinking about all the things that could go wrong was crippling my confidence so I stopped reading stories about people having accidents on horses, incidents between horses and cars, and even stories about horses being neglected or abused. I did not what these negative thoughts in my head. I ‘hid’ those stories on my timeline, and for some friends who seemed to repost a lot of such stories – I unfollowed them for a while (so now you know!) I tired to post on Facebook positive stories about my little victories in dealing with incidents while riding – and being okay!
That’s not to pretend that bad things can’t happen, or to be cavalier about potential risks, but the best way to be prepared for these is the be the best rider I can be, and to put the work in with my horse so that he is more confident and looks to me for help when we are faced by something challenging.
I did question if I wanted to keep doing this. What about just giving up the horses? I made it a question I could ask myself and faced it head on instead of pushing it away. I imagined what I might do instead, what I would lose but also what I might gain (time, money, flexibility, space for other things). I thought about how I would re-home the horses, and this made me cry! So sentimentality did play a part in my decision to keep going (heart) but also a careful evaluation (head) of what I would gain and lose practically, financially, socially, emotionally and psychologically.
I decided I would lose too much. My childhood dream – a place to live close to nature, chickens, cats, a dog, a horse (I was never bold enough to think of having more than one!). A hobby that connects with me with others, that is just a little ‘different’. Icelandic horses are quirky – described in one article as the ‘hippies’ of the equine world. Hippies on speed maybe!
I have hobby that constantly challenges me to be a better person – kinder, more mindful, more self aware. I have to notice my own energy and mood, and pay careful attention to the smallest of signs in my horse’s behaviour to be the best handler I can. Recently on a Richard Maxwell course on Ground Work I learnt to lunge Svipur with a halter and a rope. After only a few minutes he was changing direction when he noticed me quietly passing the rope from one hand to the other, getting ready to ask him for the change. That’s some responsibility!
What became almost too much of a challenge has become a joy. What I had to psych myself up to do has become my relaxation from other tasks. What seemed frightening becomes entertaining, or a challenge to be worked out. It’s a virtuous circle – the more relaxed and certain I become the better my horse feels – the more confidence he has in me – the more relaxed he is the more confident I feel. But I was the one who had to interrupt the negative spiral. I could only change me, my behaviour and feelings. I could not ‘make him change’ He changes because he wants to, because I am offering him easier options and confidence to do what I ask of him.
And isn’t much of this the same with people? You can not force other people to change, but you can change how you respond to other people. You can not change what has already happened, but you can change how you respond to it. It’s about taking control of your life and believing in yourself. It begins with connecting with yourself, facing the challenging questions, having a purpose or goal and going for it….getting back in the saddle.
I am sure there will be set backs, I may have to face this journey again, but for now I am back in the saddle and loving it.