Thursday, May 27, 2010

St. Christopher's 2009... Or "To Fear and Back"

As promised, I've decided to share the story about last year's horse show at St. Christopher's. Makes sense that our 100th post should be a retrospective.  I of course couldn't tell you all about what happened at the start of this blog, which was way back in June 2009.  If I had, you'd all have thought I was some crazy chick with a lunatic horse who is way too much for her.

So last year I got up early on Saturday morning and gave Tucker a bath and loaded up the trailer for an overnight trip.  It was a beautiful sunny day in May.  We drove through Amish country, passed a horse and buggy (Tucker whinnied to the horse, so cute), and arrived at the horse show right on time.  2.5 hours, Tucker's longest trailer ride since the day he moved from CT to NJ as a yearling (when he got to ride in style in a box stall and was sedated for his own safety).  Tucker unloaded wide-eyed and bursting with anticipation.  Where are we?!  What is this place?  Who are all these guys?  This isn't my stall!  Why are you putting me in here?!  Are you selling me?  I don't want to pull a buggy!  They make horses do that here!  I saw it!  Oh wait I know you!  Joe!  Outsider!  Kal!  What's goin' on guys?

Welcome to your first away horse show Tucker.  So, we went for a lunge, but it was in tall grass so he couldn't do much but trot and eat (simultaneously).  I scrapped it and tacked him up for a hack.  We had a couple of moments during this ride that made me question his sanity... Example:  Trotting along, trotting along, trotting downhill, child on bike, CHILD ON BIKE!, leap into the air, huge buck, trotting along, trotting along....  Um, did anyone else see that?  My horse just leapt through the air and bucked, headed downhill, and then kept trotting as though it never happened?

The next morning I tacked up and went for a long walk with Jess and Kal.  Kal being a seasoned show horse and Tucker being, well, completely overwhelmed.  He tried to be cool in front of Kal as long as he could, but then when we got down to the rings, there was running backward.  Just barely escaped running backward into a tree.  Move it along, nothing to see here folks, he's been trained to do that.  Circus horse turned show hunter.

Then we did a jump school in the afternoon and he was actually very good, despite rearing (yes, rearing) on his way down to the ring because of a child on a slide (now that I retell this, what's with all the kids trying to get me killed?!).  He was listening, waiting when I asked him to, moving forward when I asked him to, and got a few lead changes which at the time was a complete rarity.  So I figured this horse show thing was going to be a piece of cake.

The time came for us to horse show that afternoon and we headed back to the ring for a third time.  The jumps had been set for ponies and they were tiny little speedbumps.  Tucker was half asleep standing by the ring.  Perfect.  We warmed up and he was quiet as a mouse.  What could possibly go wrong?  By this time, the jumper ring was finished.  Then, a couple of trips before my class, the other hunter ring finished.  The scene by the ring went from 100 horses to 8 in a matter of a few minutes.  Then the day shippers started packing up to leave.  Then the sky started to turn dark, and the wind picked up. 

By the time I walked into the ring, things were blowing over in huge gusts of wind.  The hanging plants on the standards were swinging like pendulums.  Suddenly, Tucker was not half asleep.  He was wide awake, and scared, and I was Nervous.  Then he was running past the distances, not listening to me, and diving left over every jump.  So then I was Nervous and Annoyed.  Each trip got worse and worse.  By the second trip he was spooking at people sitting on the ground outside the ring.  By the third trip, he was spooking at everything that moved.  And I was Nervous and Scared.

Last line comes around and we're going at a pretty quick clip.  I guess I was thinking, just one more line and you can be done.  We jumped the first jump and something behind him spooked him, and he took off toward the second jump in the line with his tail stuck between his legs.  I should pause here to say this:  I have reviewed this moment in my head a million times, and what I should have done right then is made a circle.  Just pull him out of the line.  Stop him even.  Do anything but jump the last fence galloping terrified at full tilt. 

So we sure jumped it all right, and he jumped this tiny little thing so high that we were above the tops of the standards.  The second his feet hit the ground on the other side, he was back up in the air again.  I had gotten jumped loose already from that huge jump, and now I was on his neck.  There was a brief moment where I said, okay, you're still in the saddle, all you have to do is sit up.  And then he bucked.  Twice.  And down I went. 

I know all of this because I've seen the video.  In reality it was sort of like being inside a tire rolling down a hill.  Couldn't really see what was happening but knew I was getting bounced around a lot and it was going to end badly.  I opened my eyes, flat on my back, and the first thing I said was "Is he ok?  Does someone have him?"  (Typical rider response.)  After a few minutes of lying there with the wind knocked out of me, Alicia and the EMT helped me up (walking like I'd had a few too many martinis.  Ground just wouldn't stay still.) and I went to the back of the EMT van. 

I ended up with a bruised tailbone (holy pain in the...!) and a mild concussion.  I couldn't ride for a couple of weeks, but that wasn't the biggest problem.  The biggest problem was my fear.  I was terrified of my own horse.  Do you know that I actually had to lunge my horse before I got on him?  For three rides in a row?  He was looking at me like I was nuts.  But I had this horrible image in my mind, and suddenly being on his back was no longer my happy place.  All of a sudden he seemed way too big for me, too strong, too young, too unpredictable. 

It's taken a year to come back from this.  Wasn't even that bad of a fall, but I think it was shocking to me that he would do something like that.  He's been so well behaved his whole life that I never thought he had it in him (yeah, I know, that's kind of foolish and he's a horse after all, but I was blinded by love).  I can't say I blame him for what he did, and I didn't even blame him at the time.  Scary ring, horses disappearing (herd leaving him), mom nervous and tense.  Trifecta of terror.

But rationalizing it in my head, and then being able to make my muscles relax and my heart rate slow and my breathing normal (or heck, breathing at all), were two completely different stories.  I know I've blogged about my fears from time to time over the past year (see posts tagged "confidence"), but I was really terrified of him.  It took me until the horse show I did over the winter where I became rigid as a post and turned him from a relaxed quiet horse in schooling when Alicia was on him to a running-around-the-corner nutjob by the third class.  I knew it was self-inflicted, I knew I was the cause of his behavior, but I couldn't stop.

I finally worked through it though, and for the past few horse shows I have been able to relax my muscles and body even when I'm mentally starting to worry.  I do a lot of talking myself down, chatter with friends by the in gate, keep things light.  It helps.  But it's been a major problem.  I think everyone in the barn just kept looking at me and shaking their heads.  My horse is amazing, I ride him just fine, but I was getting in my own way.  I saw it too, but it took months of frustration before there was anything I could do about it.

It wasn't until I pin-pointed the fear -- I'm afraid he's going to land from the jump and buck and I'm going to get hurt -- that I was actually able to deal with it.  Before that point, it was just some amorphous feeling that I didn't like.  Once I targeted it, it became manageable, and even improbable, once I thought about it.  I've jumped hundreds of jumps.  He's bucked me off once out of those hundreds of times.  Those are good odds!

So I guess what I learned is this:  if you're dealing with fear about some aspect of your riding (or heck even life in general), don't let it control you.  Think about it, I mean really give it lots of thought, think about why you're scared, what you're scared of, narrow it down, and then face it head on when the timing is right.  If it's too scary to face it, wait a while.  Maybe in a few months it won't be so scary.  Maybe a year later you'll look back and say "Phew, glad that's behind us.  What's next?"


  1. Very thoughtful - we've all had those scares, whether on the trail or at a show. I could tell you stories about the time we took Maisie to a show and they turned out a mare and a new foal in one of the turnouts - and Maisie had never seen a foal before (especially one that was whinnying) - it was sort of funny . . . in a way . . .

  2. Great post, Marissa. It's always comforting in a way (misery loves company?) to know that other people get afraid of their horses too. I went through a long period of being so afraid of Mosco (Tucker's twin, I swear - other than being a different breed...but 17 hands of Labrador retriever in a bay horse body? yes!). It really does help to analyze what it is that you are really afraid of. I think it almost makes it harder when you love the horse SO MUCH; it's a weird juxtaposition of adoration/terror. So glad that this year's show went so much better! :-)

  3. Wow. Totally get this. Thanks for sharing. Fear is a funny thing -- we can tell ourselves that we've done this successfully 100x before, but it's that one darn time that sticks in our heads, NOT the good ones. My mare came back from an injury and was so fresh when jumping, we'd land, cavort, ripsnort, twirl and do a 1/2 gainer, then move on to the next fence at mach 1. Was heck on my confidence and first time I've been really scared OF her. My trainer was very good in helping me see it was just high spirits -- she was happy to be feeling good and back at her job. I'm glad she was happy, but could have done with a lot less exuberance! LOL


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