Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Riding Smoky

by Laura Crum

Not so long ago I would have told you that I didn’t plan to ride any more young horses. And I meant it. I never thought I’d climb on anything less than eight years old and a reliable, broke horse ever again. I’ve trained somewhere upwards of a hundred colts in my life, but since then I’ve taken quite a few years off to be a mom, I’ve grown middle-aged and stout, and I just don’t feel up to riding/training young horses any more. Sounds fair enough, right?

But then my friend/boarder took a three year old colt in exchange for a debt and asked me if I’d train him (I trained a few other horses for this friend that he liked.) I said no. I said I was done with training horses. We turned the colt out in my sixty acre pasture and let him learn to be a horse. We sent him to a trainer we both trusted. And now Smoky is five years old, a green broke horse, and back in my barn. And guess what? I’m riding him…and enjoying it.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but somehow I became convinced that I’d feel OK on Smoky. And from the very first time I rode him, I felt fine. Yes, he’s green, and requires support, guidance and correction that the mature horses don’t need. But he’s kind and willing, a bit lazy, and shows no real resistance. I feel very safe on his back. He lopes nice circles in the arena and goes down the trail without spooking at anything. So far so good.

And then, yesterday, the wind was blowing like crazy. My son was determined to ride. I saddled Smoky, and the colt was looky. Why wouldn’t he be? The trees were crashing around; I heard one go down up on the ridge.

“We aren’t going out on the trail today,” I told my son. “are you sure you want to ride? Its awfully windy.”

“I can go faster than the wind,” my kid replied.


I saddled Henry, my son’s horse, who appeared completely calm and unworried by the wind. At the same time I regarded the obviously anxious Smoky, who wasn’t very happy about the blowing trees. And I felt a knot of anxiety in my stomach.

I could cope with Smoky being looky and/or jumpy—I knew that. But I wasn’t sure I could do this and still keep my focus on my kid and his horse. And when I ride with my kid, my focus is on him, and keeping him safe and happy. And even Henry is capable of spooking if a tree tips over right next to him. So I felt anxious—worried that I couldn’t deal with all these factors.

In my younger days I’d have stuffed the worry down and climbed on the colt. But I’m older now and a mom. I took a step back mentally. What is important here? What is important is keeping my kid safe. It will do this colt no harm to stand saddled and tied for a few hours and not get ridden. It will, in fact, do him good. And I climbed on steady Sunny and rode with my kid.

My son had a ball, loping endless circles on a wild windy day. His grin was a mile wide. I kept my eye on Henry, who remained completely relaxed the whole ride. It all went well.

And when I unsaddled the gang, I was glad I’d paid attention to my instincts. Not just because everybody was happy and healthy, but because I’d been relaxed and enjoyed my ride. I had done no harm by not riding the colt when I felt anxious. I’ll ride him again, many times, I hope. I had simply done a smart thing.

So I want to put this little wisdom I’ve gained out to all the others out there who, like me, once rode better than they do now. I’m finding its Ok to limit myself to what I feel comfortable with. I don’t need to beat myself up over being afraid. I can enjoy riding Smoky when it feels right, and I can do him no harm by giving him some time tied up and saddled when it doesn’t feel right (and by the way, this is an old horse trainer’s trick for getting horses broke—lots of time standing around saddled.)

I read a very good blog post on Janet Huntington’s Mugwump Chronicles blog on this same subject the other day, and it really inspired me to keep trusting my instincts. As a fiftyish “re-rider”, my main goal is to keep myself and my son safe, and my second goal is to have both of us relaxed and happy horseback, rather than anxious. Pushing myself to do what I don’t feel comfortable with does not further these ends.

And it still turns out that I can ride young horses (gentle ones, anyway) and enjoy them—as long as I listen to my instincts.

Anyone else have any insights to share on this subject?


Anonymous said...

It's really smart to listen to your gut - particularly at our age - I'm in my late 50s and used to be able to ride anything, under any circumstances, but I'm a little more cautious now, for good reason.

stilllearning said...

This is great. I was afraid you'd tell of ignoring your instincts and riding anyhow and something nasty happened. I love that you saddled and tied Smoky, giving him a lesson in patience, while you watched over your son.

We've been discussing fear, and facing it down, but this brings up another favorite ropic of mine: focus. You recognized your need to focus and set things up so that your top priority (son) was the main focus. Yeah! Fear aside, lack of focus causes many problems, too...and I'm happy to report that I can focus much better in my old(er) age than I could in my youth!

Laura Crum said...

Kate and stilllearning--it really interests me that there seem to be so many people out there in horse blog land that are facing the same issues. I did read a few blogs awhile back that told of folks who had had serious horseback accidents and were really afraid--sometimes afraid to ride at all. I realize that this could happen to any of us, but I also think that trusting our instincts and not doing things that we feel uncomfortable about can go a long way towards keeping us safe with our horses. And staying safe is definitely priority number one for me. And I don't know about you guys, but I don't enjoy riding when I feel anxious--not any more. I suspect that I never did, but I was so determined to accomplish certain goals that I wouldn't let myself look at this issue. Now that I'm not so goal oriented, its easier for me to feel what I really want to do--and what I really don't enjoy and don't want to do.

Martha Seaman McKee said...

With age comes wisdom! :)

Shanster said...

I'm trying to learn this! Have some new fear issues and man does THAT feel weird! But I'm on no timeline and I'm not trying to impress anyone so I really need to LISTEN to myself vs. beating myself up... Thanks for the post cuz it helps me out! :)

stilllearning said...

Laura, I'm not surprised to find that people get more afraid as they age--that's almost common sense. What I love about these discussions is the attitude that despite the nerves, we're still going to ride. I'm really enjoying hearing about others' solutions and good ideas.

I'm glad to hear you're riding a young horse now, too. Never say never.

Btw, my youngster and his resistance problems?? He's growing up and growing out of that stage. I feel quite lucky. He's becoming more of a pleasure every day. (I also changed his diet, worming program and saddle...all of which seemed to help him alot.) I'm sure we'll still face lots of challenges together but his basic personality is so much better. Whew.

Laura Crum said...

Shanster--I still have problems remembering that I have nothing to prove. My first response to feeling anxious is to think I need to get on the horse and work through it. However, as I did on Tues with Smoky, I can usually check in with myself now and try to decide what I really want to do. One thing that helps me is to conciously give myself permission to do something that looks very silly. For instance, when I was feeling fearful about going out on the trails alone with Sunny, I'd give myself permission to ride down to the gate and just sit there, feeling if I wanted to go out. I totally gave myself permission to ride in the arena when I didn't feel like going. This helped immensely. Soon I could easily sense when I wanted to go and when I didn't. Being able to sense this made me more confident, and I went out on the trails more often. I wouldn't use this approach on a barn sour horse--you'd just be teaching him to stall out at the front gate in the future. But Sunny doesn't have that issue, so this worked well for me. If I had been worrying about how dumb I looked saddling Smoky and then "chickening out", I would have had a lot more trouble making the choice I made. Its important to be willing to look dumb (!)

Laura Crum said...

stillearning--I don't offer much horse training advice--I'm not a horse trainer--but I really thought from your description that your horse is not a truly resistant horse, merely a lazy horse. I've had a bunch of these and with patience and consistent training, they usually mature into good, enjoyable horses. So I'm hoping your horse is one of these. It sounds like he is. Bravo to you for your persistance. One truth I've learned--with horses, as with much else in life, perseverance, or persistance, is the single most key ingredient to success. Cheers--Laura

stilllearning said...

Amen to that! But sometimes it's hard to tell whether you're being persistant...or just stubborn (and stupid) for persisting.

I would never ask someone to "train" via the internet, but appreciated your support and advice. Thanks.

Laura Crum said...

stillearning--I totally agree. The trick is to know which horses are worth persisting with--at least for you. Back when I wrote those pieces about resistant horses, I was definitely referencing your point--sometimes its stupid to persist. One of the resistant horses I wrote about (Ikey) whose very competent current owner continues to persist with him, just did yet another stupid resistant thing yesterday and hurt his rider--not badly, but still. There are some horses I would get rid of...I would not persist. So I definitely agree with you on needing to sort that out. And I don't suppose there are any hard and fast rules. It just comes down to a gut feeling--yet again.