When I was young(er) I used to think I knew everything I needed to know about riding. Having been raised by parents who put a strong emphasis on physical activity, I learned to ski, swim and master a variety of physical achievements at a very young age. I was given a young, unbroken pony while I was still under the age of ten. Then after having trained and outgrown her, I got my first horse at thirteen. Mind you, I never took a riding lesson in my life, but learned to ride by the seat of my pants.
My (first) Quarter horse Serena was a well-started, gifted barrel racing horse. When I wasn’t running her on the makeshift track my father cut around our sprawling hay field, Serena and I spent hours honing our craft. I soon learned that when I cut a turn too tight my shin would clip the edge of the barrel and instantly split wide open. Damn, that hurt. Since this was long before shin guards were commonly used for other sports, I talked my art teacher into selling me a few sheets of copper that I fashioned into an armor. I used medical tape to attach the guards to my lower legs, hiked thick knee sox over them and continued to practice my turns.
I learned that making tight turns in a dewy, grassy pasture can lead to a frightening wreck. As silly as this sounds, it had never occurred to me that a horse might go down with a rider on it’s back. But one damp morning I checked my horse as she approached a tight turn and felt her hind-end slide out from under us. Her head flew up and her front feet scrambled to get a purchase on the slippery grass, but it was too late. We went down. Hard. My right leg was pinned under her side, my left foot still in the stirrup. I didn’t know what to do. I somehow managed to slip my left foot out of the stirrup and pushed myself clear as my horse struggled to regain her footing. Sitting on the ground in her shadow, I looked up. Serena stood frozen with shock, shaking and blowing, afraid to move a muscle. I stood slowly, mentally checking to make sure I wasn’t injured, then reached for the dangling reins and started to slide my hands over Serena’s legs. Thankfully, she was fine. Scared, but unscathed.
I knew I had to get back on. Not so much for my sake, but for hers. I slid my foot into the stirrup and swung on, then sat a few moments on the still quivering horse. Gently, quietly, we began to walk around the pasture. I knew we needed to go through the barrel pattern at least once so we wouldn’t develop a lasting fear of it, but I had a new respect for the danger of high speed turns on slick grass. We walked to the starting point, turned and began to trot through the pattern. Mission accomplished.
Most of the things I’ve learned, both good and bad have been taught through trial and error. At this point in my life I can honestly say I’m beginning to realize how little I actually know about riding. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something I want to change. I spent the last twenty years riding the same horse. Occasionally I rode my husband’s horse, but not with enough consistency to say I have a wide variety of experience riding other horses. I used to think that was a good thing; to have one horse and know how to ride it really well. But as I’m beginning to learn, this can actually create a false sense of security. I trained myself and my horse to be so in tune with each other that I’m finding myself a bit lost now when I ride a different horse. The subtle cues and signals I used to communicate with my old horse aren’t as readily understood by my new horse.
Starting at square one with Dharla is going to force me to change. I need to learn to grow with her in ways I didn’t take the time to learn with my old horse. I’m lucky in that I already have a good seat and soft hands, but there’s SO much more for me to learn and begin to refine. I’m excited about this, but occasionally discouraged. How did I go so long thinking I knew so darn much? Well for one, I had a great horse who made me feel like a much better rider than I probably was. When you think you do something really well its easy to stop looking for ways to improve.
In all fairness, I spent most of my 40’s trying to recover from a series of debilitating spinal surgeries that left me totally disabled. So I guess it probably wasn’t the right time to be fussing about perfecting something I was lucky I could still even do. (My surgical team did NOT give me their blessing to go back to riding. I ignored them and started riding only a few months into my lengthy recovery) Fifteen years later I have many physical limitations and the list of things I had to “give up” for the integrity of the metal hardware that holds my spine together is long. But I’m still riding. And if I can still ride then I can learn to ride better.
If having a teachable mind is the first step toward success then I’m ready to become a student again.