Sometimes when I am in a tough situation while riding one of my Thoroughbreds, I sing and release all tension on the reins (bitless anyway).  Relaxed energy flows to the horse and I manage to survive another disaster.  Blogging friends occasionally comment about my confidence and I roll my eyes and laugh to myself, "If they only knew!"  If they only knew the history...the own journey with confidence...

When I was in third grade, every girl in my class at school was obsessed with horses.  They would talk of nothing else and of course they talked to me non-stop about horses because I was the luckiest girl in the world - I had my own pony!  What my classmates never knew was that I was petrified of my own pony and all our other horses and this fear made me secretly feel apathetic about horses in general.  I loved animals, including horses, I knew that. My little pony, Dimples, was the sweetest, kindest, most adorable pony in the world.  But, she was still a big (she was very tiny but large to me) equine with her own ideas. By the time I was 9 years old I had already been stepped on and run off with and dumped and I had seen my mother get stepped on and bucked off her horses. I had witnessed the bloody aftermath of stallions fighting...and blacksmiths yelling and veterinarians suturing...and, honestly, I was scared to death of horses!!!! Certainly there were many girls who would be perfectly fine with all this, but I am not/was not  a super courageous person.  This fear of horses was all consuming for many years. When I think back on it, I realize that I had more fear of horses than anyone else I've ever known.  Sometimes I was so scared that I would vomit.  I had very little interest in riding or even being at the barn with my mom.

Unbelievably, in sixth grade, (I still am not sure why), I did revisit the idea of maybe grooming horses and possibly riding.  I asked to take riding lessons and started at a local hunter/jumper stable.   I wasn't one bit more courageous, I just think my desire to touch and be with horses was starting to become insistent.  My instructor was knowledgeable and had an aggressive personality.  She was the perfect complement to my timid demeanor.  There was an indoor so lessons were once a week all year round.  Again, I was stepped on, run off with, bucked off - the usual experiences one encountered when taking riding lessons in the 1970's.  I posted before of my weekly cantering mishaps on Chance.  I was scared to death at times, but I eventually completely conquered my fear.  I rode pretty much any horse and I showed and jumped (the highest I jumped was only 4'  - laughable when compared to my mother ) and I rode my own mare on trails in just her halter for years.  I never did become an aggressive rider, I guess because in my heart I still don't believe that I am supposed to fully "control" a horse, but I wouldn't call myself a timid rider anymore. I certainly rode into every fence with the intention of going over and often times I did go over without my horse. I definitely don't wrestle with fear at all and I look forward to every single ride on my silly young Thoroughbreds, every day. Where did the confidence finally come from?

The last few years, I have been observing horse people in order to understand the answer to that question. Many people today can afford to buy a horse before they take a few years of weekly lessons.  I see them after their first serious scare.  They all look like I did in third grade or after I was bucked off Chance in my first horse show.  They love horses so much it hurts.  They adore their own horse more than anything in the world.  But they are physically sick when it is time to go to the barn if they have to ride.  They are riddled with fear and they are embarrassed to tell their husbands or kids or friends that they are frightened or even to admit that they are over-mounted.  They decide that their horse has issues and hire a trainer.

If only they knew that they are just at the very beginning of a long journey that doesn't have to be rushed, but does have to be endured in order to get to the other side of fear.  Also, I think now, looking back on it, that the adult ego gets in the way of overcoming fear or even starting that journey.  When we are young, our egos are smaller too, so being scared, or crying with pain or fear about anything small is ok.  Older beginning riders have it tough because they are embarrassed to be scared of something little with everyone watching them at a boarding barn, so they unintentionally get themselves or their horses into bigger, serious trouble and the result is complete agreement that the horse is dangerous or has issues.

I was fortunate to be born with the idea that I am  basically a goofball.  I don't take myself too seriously among humans, and I know I am not even remotely able to hold my own with the brilliance of our animal friends.  This may not get me far in the "real world" but it has served me well in the horse world.  A lack of ego combined with a few years of lessons and two jobs - one at a show barn, and the second,  for a large animal veterinarian  all helped me in my struggle with my horse fear.

My lessons gave me the opportunity to experience the full spectrum of equine idiosyncrasies on a new horse each week.  Most importantly, after every lesson, we rode cross-country at the walk outside of the safe ring (my favorite part) and I got to feel first-hand what it was to have a horse shy or bolt or just side-step quickly.  Beginning riders today are so fortunate with the availability of so many riding instructors. They could easily take a lesson every night in different disciplines at different barns and still be ahead financially when compared to buying a horse and paying for board, vet, farrier and training. 

Even though I had my own horse at my own barn, I got a job cleaning stalls and doing turnouts at a show barn.  That situation really gave me confidence to lead and handle hot horses twice a day. 

I also worked during my college and graduate school summers, and even  many years after that, riding in the truck for my beloved, large animal veterinarian, Dr. Weber.  I had ample opportunity to practice calming the injured and terrorized horses we seemed to encounter daily.

Mostly though, I conquered my fear of riding and learned to be a better horse person by reading a book called, Afraid to Ride, by C.W. Anderson.  (Brian got me my most recent copy from addall.) I have recommended this book to others and often times I sense a slight rebuff.  This is a children's book so I suppose some of the dismissal stems from that, but it is the title, I think, that is most off-putting.  Don't avoid this book - no matter how super-duper confident and NOT afraid to ride you are!  This is an amazing book.  Again, there is no need for egos here, we are all friends in pursuit of being better horse people.  If you are embarrassed about the title, just put a pretty book cover on it.  Actually, this is one of the best TRAINING books I have ever read.  Please understand, the horse in this book is afraid to ride just as much as the rider.

The story is of Judy, an advanced, gentle rider who suffers a bad injury at a poorly organized camp.  She realizes that she is experiencing a new, yet acute fear of riding and horses.  Her instructor and mentor, Mr. Jeffers, is the closest thing to a perfect trainer that I have ever witnessed.  His (C. W. Anderson's) wisdom about horses is throughout the book, on every page.  Jeffers asks Judy to retrain a Thoroughbred mare, who has been stupidly abused, in order to help Judy overcome her own fear.  Click the image, then click again. 

Jeffers says things like, "Stroke a horse as gently as if you were stroking a hummingbird." He also tells Judy that she doesn't have to ride at all.  Instead he encourages her to take long walks with the mare, talking and grazing her. 

It is a disservice for me to even attempt to convey all that this book offers.  It helped me conquer my fear as a beginning rider, but more than that, I learned to really understand how to be around horses. That understanding is where my confidence resides. The horse in this book is afraid.  I wonder, what horse isn't afraid at some time?  My Thoroughbreds, Pie and Sovey, were young and new to me when they arrived at our barn in February of 2009.  They were afraid to ride,  afraid of me, afraid. When I go home from this long Florida vacation, they will be wondering who I am, am I the same person, can I be trusted?  They will be slightly "afraid to ride" again.  On the trail, we encounter things on every ride that makes them "afraid to ride".  That is why I love this book.  It is applicable at all stages of  riding, at all stages of training.  He tackles horsekeeping and the nature of horses.  C.W. Anderson must know a few things about how far kindness will take you with a horse.  In addition, he provides a clear example of how slow you can take your own journey.  Screw the embarrassment, he says, through Jeffers. More than half the people out there have no idea what they are doing.  Ignore them.  Take it slow.

The point that resonates most with me is that this journey can be revisited and slowed back down in reverse throughout your life as you age.  My mother tells me that at 67 years of age it hurts when you fall off.  She is at a different place in her riding and struggles with the memory of pain more than a fear of riding.  This book has the answer to that too because the bond Jeffers teaches Judy to establish with the mare has zero to do with riding.  It is about just being with the horse.  Grooming, grazing, walking, are all just as important as riding TO MY HORSE!  Why?  Because grooming, hand grazing and hand walking helps the horse overcome his fears while giving him the attention from me that he craves.  Boarding barns are overflowing with horses standing in stalls while the riders congregate in the tack room or at local tack shops and talk about their horse's issues. If only all that time was devoted to slowly grooming, slowly grazing, slowly walking - the perceived issues would vanish.  Rider confidence would be at an all-time high because horses would be happy and confident too. When I read this book in the 1970's I was delighted to see that the author thought hand grazing was important.  I always thought that too, but even now, it is often ignored by some of the "best" riders.

I am 43 now, and, without the cloud of fear hanging over my head, I am just like those girls in my third grade class, I am horse obsessed.  I think of and talk about little else.  I plan to ride and groom and graze until I can't anymore.  If I have to add safer horses to my herd in time, so be it. I could care less if I am riding a pony or a plug or a donkey.  I don't care, I love them all.  When I can't ride anymore, I will still graze and walk my horses and when I can no longer safely do that, I will just groom them.  My days are empty without horses.

I conquered my own fear and along the way realized that I could do almost anything with a horse using Jeffers advice to Judy.  I used this ridiculously simple, yet profound method with Pie and Sovereign, and although we are still at the very beginning of our journey, we have accomplished so much with very little problems.  I will begin again when I return home and reconnect and answer their questions and fears.  It will have little to do with riding at first, and more to do with re-establishing our bond.  I always felt that this was the way to train a horse.  I just didn't know it would come wrapped up in a little package about confidence.