Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Unpredictable

By Laura Crum

Reading Jami’s post early this week had the effect of reminding me how unpredictable life is. Just as I toddled down to the barn last January expecting to catch my son’s horse for his little friend to ride and instead found Henry colicked, dealt with the colic persisting for 48 hours, eventually culminating in our sending the horse to colic surgery to save his life (they removed a stone the size of a big cantalope), and plunging me into three months of rehabbing the horse…well, Jami’s story reminded me that you just never know what will happen next (and I hope your mare is doing well, Jami, and your husband, too). Its not that I don’t know this truth intellectually, but sometimes life seems calm and predictable, as if nothing will change. Its an illusion, I know, but life can seem stable, reliable, downright boring. I think we all forget that it isn’t really like that. Until something happens to remind us.

So yesterday, when I took my son for a ride on the beach, the unpredictable quality of life was big in my mind. Though I love riding on the beach, and in most ways its very safe (big, wide open, nice soft sand, few obstacles), it, like all public places, is unpredictable. People show up with surfboards, kites, tents, big billowy dresses, wild dogs, fishing poles…etc. You never know when your nice quiet ride will become a spookfest. And though I’m pretty Ok with my horse being boogery, I am not Ok with my son being scared, or God forbid hurt. So, I worry.

But it was a beautiful day, perfect for a beach ride, and I don’t want to spend my life hiding from shadows. I hauled Henry and Sunny down to the beach and we climbed on.

Henry and Sunny both felt good. It had been a week since we rode them and they are fat. (An aside—its not entirely my fault they’re fat—they’ve been eating the acorns dropped by the oak trees in their corrals). I felt a little nervous. My mind was on the unpredictable…combined with two steady horses who were feeling good. But we rode down the beach with no problems.

Sun glittered on the water. It was low tide (which I had checked ahead of time, always being one to minimize my risk of problems) and the waves rolled gently a ways away. The temperature was in the low seventies. Our horses marched down the smooth, firm wet sand, looking alert and very happy to be there. My kid and I watched the pelicans dive. It was beautiful. I started to relax. We were having fun. We were about halfway through our ride and everything was great.

And then…. Two helicopters appeared in the distance, flying along the water line, flying very low. Who knows why, but aircraft seem to like to do this. But helicopters are the worst—they’re so loud. I had almost been killed once, riding a spooky horse on the trail when a helicopter came over, flying low.

However, I’d had helicopters fly over me when I was riding Sunny on the trail and he was fine. In the minute remaining I got Sunny next to Henry. I told my son to shorten his reins and get hold of the horn. The helicopters were almost upon us, the noise was deafening. Henry’s head came up and his eyes got big. He started to move backwards, as if to get away from the choppers. My son said, “Mama!” in a frightened voice. I grabbed Henry’s halter, which he wears under his bridle, crowded Sunny right up next to him and said, “Whoa.” Sunny stood like a rock, unfazed by the choppers. I held onto Henry. On another horse it might not have worked. But Henry is a steady trooper. He stood still. The helicopters passed overhead and went on down the beach.

I let go of Henry and told my kid he’d done fine. We were both a bit shaken. We rode on, but I had a tight ball of fear in my stomach. My mind was fixed on the unpredictable. What if the helicopters came back? What if Henry panicked and ran off? What if my kid fell off and was hurt or killed? What if…? You can imagine.

My kid was not as spooked as I was. When we turned around to ride back, he asked if we could lope, which is something we often do. I was a bit dubious. But the horses seemed fine. So we kicked up to a lope.
Now it was Sunny’s turn. He felt good; he wanted to run. I held him in and he crowhopped and bounced around. It felt like I was riding a pogo stick down the beach. Sunny can’t really dish anything out that I can’t ride, but I also can’t pay attention to much else riding a horse who is behaving like a pogostick. Henry was rapidly loping away from us. I was in no position to keep an eye on my kid. So I called a halt.
“We need to trot,” I said.

So we trotted down the beach. It was almost as fun as loping. Sunny settled into a steady gate, still feeling good, but not fighting me. We trotted a long ways, all the way back to the parking lot. The horses were relaxed and seemed happy. The choppers did not come back. But I have to admit, I was relieved to get back to the rig. We’d had a nice hour’s ride on the beach with only a couple of setbacks. All in all, a success. But “what if” was still big in my mind.

It wouldn’t have taken very much to turn our nice ride into a disaster—I was acutely aware of that. The unpredictable is just that—unpredictable. I pondered the broken bottle I’d seen on the beach, remembering a friend whose horse had stepped on just such a bottle riding across a field and cut his pastern to the bone. The unpredictable.

No, I don’t want to spend all my time riding around my own little arena where I feel safe. But I do, at times, struggle with this fear of the unpredictable. I’ve tried to minimize the risk by buying two reliable horses, and I think this choice has paid off. But as demonstrated yesterday, any horse can spook.

So my question for today is this. Do some of you struggle with this issue? And what are the choices you make? I know there is no simple answer. The unpredictable is just that. If we ride horses and love horses, we are taking a risk, both of getting hurt ourselves and losing the horse that we love. However, life itself is one big risk, and nobody gets out alive. It doesn't make sense to me to give up horses because they are one more form of risk. But I also struggle with my huge need to keep my son as safe and happy as I can. I'm never sure where the line is between acceptable risk and undue risk. I’d welcome any advice or insights from other horse people on how you cope with your fear/anxiety about this.


Mel said...

I stress about the unpredictable element of NOT riding my horse. When my 50 miler was cancelled this weekend, I was a bit relieved as I am out of town all week and it would have been a bit stressful.

But there's another local ride (50 miler) that I could do Saturday. I think I'm going to make the extra effort to go because you never know when your last ride will be on a horse. I'm ready, my horse is ready. It won't hurt us to NOT do this weekend, but because we can, if we don't and she dies next week or something happens, I will regret not doing it.

It will be different if I come home, look into Farley's eyes and she says that she doesn't feel up to it after a week off. Then no regrets - we don't go. A ride would cause more harm than good.

I lost a horse this spring and more than anything it taught me that there may not be a tomorrow on the horse you love and thought you would have for 20 years. If you can do something NOW, then this is the time to do it.

Laura Crum said...

Mel--That is a really good point. Its kind of similar to why I loaded up and hauled the horses to the beach yesterday despite being in a slightly nervous mode. You never know when you won't be able to do something like that ever again. A good friend of mine was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer last weekend. He didn't smoke. He thought he had a persistant cough. Now, suddenly, he is facing a completely different situation. He's a lifelong surfer. Now he may never surf again. Its worth thinking about.

Laura Crum said...

Another thought arises for me from Mel's comment. When I was younger, in my twenties and thirties, I felt very much as she describes. The idea that I might lose a beloved horse and be unable to ride it again was very near intolerable. I can remember the absolute desperation I felt when my horse Flanigan colicked and I thought I might lose him....and that horse did live to be twenty-one and carried me for many more miles after the colic episode I'm remembering. The thing is, I don't feel that way any more. I love my horses, I take good care of them, I enjoy riding. But if I lost Sunny, I would ride one of the others, ditto for losing any of them. I'd miss the one I lost, yes, but it would not be the bitter loss I would have felt in my younger years when riding and competing was so important to me. I fought very hard to save my son's horse--mostly for my son's sake. Where I am in life, keeping my son safe and happy means so much more to me than any one horse...its a big difference from the way I felt pre-kid. At the same time, I really do enjoy my horses as much as ever. I'm just not as attached to them, or at least, not quite in the same way I was. I guess I should be grateful, as I worry less about them than I used to. But at the same time, now I have a child to worry about. I guess I'm just a worrier by nature.

KB said...

I was pretty calm when my son was riding his old, steady pony, but he has moved up to a horse now. He's riding my mare's baby, who is a steady but green four-year-old. He is calm and handles her beautifully. While he is a great rider, and has to ride a horse now that he is 5'5", I worry constantly. What if he is truly injured? What if he becomes afraid to ride? I know we'll get back to the carefree rides, where joy is my strongest emotion, but for now I'm riding worried, nagging the poor child and the lovely horse at every turn.

Laura Crum said...

KB--oh dear--that is my fear too. Because of my worry I nag too much. I try to trust, but its not easy. I fear I will make riding not fun...because of my worried nagging.

Shanster said...

This is a great question! I don't know how to get past it... I am struggling with this for the first time in my life too.

I guess like you, I swallow hard and try to just go and get past it. The "what if" game is horrible and can sure snowball! I try to be present - be here and now - don't borrow trouble by worrying about what could happen.

As I get older my worry-wart side is a lot more present! :)

OneDandyHorse said...

Hmm... as a 24 year old... I'm not such a worry bug. I do panick if my horse has discomfort or is injured (lightly, she's never been injured seriously). I don't worry that I ride or not, I have not been riding in 2 or 3 weeks, but I'm fine with that, she is not yet 4 years old and I have plenty of time to ride her. She developed a cough and runny nose, so I had been treating that instead and giving her time to rest... she seems to be getting back to normal. If I ride with children around 10 years old... I'm a worry bug, BIG TIME... I can't take my eyes off of them even if they are right behind me... unfortunately, the horses they ride aren't nearly as reliable as Henry, but the parents let them do it anyways and I am the one who ends up worried... Why can't the parent understand that a horse is a living, moving, breathing PREY animal and might run off, buck, rear and smash your kid to pieces. I am not at all against children riding horses, I am completely for the idea, I just think that there better be a really good horse under those kids. I was riding at a very young age myself, but my mount was a steady halflinger mare that was over 20 years old!! We still fell off and sometimes got a bit hurt, nothing major, thankfully. We ALWAYS wore our helmets and were only riding between two fields so adults would know where we were at all times.

autumnblaze said...


We went to my alma mater for a football game, left our dogs at my parents over night. I was back home at my parents 20 minutes, took the girls out to frolick in the yard. My 3 year old labX slammed into my 7 year old Aussie - completely shattered her tibia and fibula. The board cert. osteopathic vet I used to work for during college fixed her Monday for a hefty sum but still keeps harping on how bad this break was! I know what he's seen. I have 2 full months of keeping this hyper Aussie kenneled most likely more - longer than your average fracture. THEN limited rehab and finally easing her back into a normal life. All I did was take them out in the yard off leash...

I am a worrier by nature too. I'm learning though most of the time the things I feel the need to worry about aren't what gets me. It's the complete blind siding things. I worked in veterinary medicine for many years and seen many dog/horse disasters some preventable, many not. I try not to worry about my own but I do and I take extra precautions. Little things become big things my head. I keep telling myself it's good 'practice' for my one day kid/s my critters...

Still, I try to manage my worry but live my life. I have to work hard to enjoy today though sometimes. I worry about the what if's, tomorrow etc. Always have. However, this accident with a dog who is pretty much my baby made me realize well... she's still here and while this next few months are going to be hard (paying her bills, keeping her calm as to not reinjure etc.) I will be spending lots of time with her. That's nice, even if the circumstances suck. I have to be positive so she doesn't get upset - she's very sensitive to my moods. It's a lesson. I've told myself very seriously to take it day by day with this or *I* won't get through b/c I'll worry myself sick.
If she was my child? I'd be a bigger mess that I know. Still, I wouldn't have about worried taking my dogs out to play with my imaginary kid either and Lily could have slammed into and accidentally broken me or a child just as easily as Autumn.

I know I spend too much energy worrying. My dad is worrier (so I get it honest) and it kept him from doing things. He's not very happy and I've noticed that my whole life. So, I try and put a damper on my worry, deal with what gets tossed at me and well, keep on keepin' on. Otherwise, I miss out on what makes me smile and all those wonderful moments.

And you know what? That day on the beach, your horses listened to you. That's a big win because helicopters are super scary. Next time Henry will probably be calmer even. Your kid listened too, which is awesome. You're giving him something wonderful, you know that. Stay safe as best you can prepare and beyond that well... it will be what it is I guess.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks for the good advice, all.

And Autumnblaze, I do hear you how its not the things we worry about that get us, its the stuff we don't worry about (like your dog--and I hope she recovers smoothly). I had no worries about Henry colicking, for instance, he'd been a healthy horse his whole life (I've known him since he was six), and look what happened.

I've been up in San Francisco for a couple of days, taking my kid to museums. We spent the night in an old hotel on Haight Str. (Very colorful, which was what we were after). I managed to worry about everything from traffic to earthquakes to street people, so of course, nothing happened and we had a smooth trip. Maybe that's what worry's good for. If you worry about it, it won't happen. Ya think?

little K said...

I'm not really much of a worrier at all. From my perspective bad things just sometimes happen. Sometimes even if you played it completely safe you still wind up hurt. So I just live life and do what makes me happy and not worry too much because worrying is such a downer to me. That doen't mean I take uncalculated risks. I just think there is a differnece between observing unsafe situations and behaviours and creating "what if..." worst case scenarios in my head. In recognozing situations that may be unsafe you can logically work preventatively or reactively to imporve the situation. In the latter you may act preventatively and avoid the dangerous situation but you also end up stressing. And especially working with horses this is not a good side effect. Horses pick up on that and I think a stressed rider puts a horse on alert and increases the chanes of unpredictablilies.

So when I start to worry I fist ask myself why. I figure what it is about a given situation that is causing that fear. After I pinpoint where my anxiety is coming from I evaluate whether it is legitimate/likely. If it isn't and I'm being crazy I let it go and laugh at myself. If I do have true cause for concern I look at my options. Can I leave? Do I want to? How can I be as safe as posssible? Is it worth it? From here I can usually figure out what I want to do and how to do it safely. It sounds complicated and new-agey self-help-ish but it takes seconds and saves me loads of stress. Fear is important. It kept every single one of your ancestors alive in order to create you. It shouldn't be discounted but it shouldn't keep you from having fun either.

Laura Crum said...

Little K--That's an insightful comment. I actually try to use a similar approach. The point of my post is that sometimes I just don't know how much weight to factor in for the "unpredictable". I can certainly decide if a ride on the beach is a good idea or not...minus that one crucial element. And most of my worry springs from concern for my son. However, I do agree with your point. I seem to have become more anxious as I get older. Somehow, judging only from your comment, I wonder if you are younger than me.

I also checked your blog but couldn't post a comment. How did you come up with "Little K"? And where are you and your Connemara ponies? I found your first post very interesting.