Riding 29 year old Sandy in 1997

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Staying on

I'm sure everyone has caught at least some of the Olympics recently.  The greatest riders and horses in the world have been soaring over fences, galloping across country, and performing the intricate dance of dressage, some coming to triumph, some to tragedy, others there to give the winners someone to beat.

I was once the greatest rider in the world -- when I was 15.

Then I met Molly, who put me on the ground and broke that bubble for me.  No longer could I cling to my illusion (delusion?) that, being unthrown, I was unthrowable and therefore clearly the best rider in the world for surely every other rider in the world had hit the ground at least once.  And I hadn't.

Until I met Molly.

Ah, you can read all about Molly in my book, "Tails" of a Suburban Cowgirl, but Molly was one of the horses of my past.  The horses of my present are Dash, Dawn, Dottie . . . and up until a few years ago, Dutch.

Dutch made a mark on me like no other horse in my past ever had.  I got Dutch after Sandy died, when I got back into horses a few years later.  I had bought Dottie to be my broodmare and Dutch, a beautiful palomino gelding, as my riding horse.  Except Dutch and I never really got along.  I was later to discover that part of the problem was saddle fit, but Dutch was unpredictably explosive.  We could be riding along  in perfect amity, enjoying the day, and all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, he would "blow."

Mind you, I fell off him exactly twice -- once was a buck-off while warming up for a local horse show in Norco.  That was caught on tape by a friend who was with me, and it took three bucks for us to part company.  The second buck-off occurred right at the end of the rodeo parade, when a kid whizzed by on a skateboard, spooking Dutch and several other horses and he broke in two and put me on the ground, then nearly fell on me.

But it was those little explosions on the trail -- often right after going up a hill, when he would leap into the air and leave my stomach somewhere up above my head -- that took the toll on my confidence.

I got to dread riding him because I never knew when he was going to blow.  Probably my anticipation of the explosion was directly connected to the likelihood of the explosion occurring.  Anyway, Dutch and I just didn't get along and eventually I leased him to a 12 year old girl whom he predictably bucked off, but who continued to work with him and eventually had a level of trust with him that I'd never had with any horse in my past.  (And then he died of colic.)

But those "blows" had etched themselves into my psyche and affected my relationship with other horses.  Dottie was fine -- I'm not sure she even knows how to buck, and she's one of those horses who is just plain willing to do whatever her rider wants.  She passed that on to Dash, who likewise is just happy to be chosen for the ride.  She's the one I can ride in a halter and a bareback pad and know that I will have a happy ride from start to finish.

And then there is Dawn.

Dawn came out of the womb fighting.  The moment I laid hands on that 15-minute-old scrawny ugly foal I knew she was going to resist.  Dash was born friendly; Dawn was born suspicious.

Dawn has grown up into a friendly and sweet mare, however.  She's a fearless and competent trail horse; her bare feet are as tough as the rocks I ride her over.  She's sensitive to bit and heel, will stop on a dime at the slightest "whoa," will stand in one spot as long as you want, without fussing or fidgeting, will push through manzanita thickets, climb over rocks, tuck her hocks and slide down a slope.  Just a fantastic horse in every way.

Except sometimes she cops an attitude, and blows.

And her first "blow" came after cantering up a somewhat steep slope after Tessa's horse, whereupon she gave a bit of a crowhop, and memories of Dutch came flooding back.

There have been a few other times when she has "blown" and again Dutch leaped into my mind.  And every time this has happened, it has done something to me.  It has made me not want to ride her, and made me apprehensive when I do ride her, waiting for that moment when my normally quiet and responsive mare is going to . . . do something.

And knowing how hard the ground is and how long it takes to heal and being ever-mindful of the fact that I am alone, with nobody to help me if I were to become injured or disabled, I am leery of taking the kind of risks I would have thought nothing of when I was 15, or even when I was 30.  But at 57 if I am to be totally honest, I have to admit I am a little bit afraid to ride.

So . . . it was with this in mind that I started dressage lessons in February.  While I dreamed of someday riding those Grand Prix moves that are so beautiful to watch in the Olympics, I mostly wanted to be a better rider.  I wanted to regain that sense of oneness with my horse that I had enjoyed with my beloved Sandy, back in my youth when a fall from a horse did not make me afraid, but made me determined to WIN, to show that horse that I COULD ride it, and the thought of selling a difficult horse never entered my mind.  My first horse, Chang, bucked me off on a regular basis; I just held onto the reins, reeled him in, got back on, and continued without another thought.

So I've been taking those lessons faithfully, without missing a single week, for nearly six months now.  And I've noticed that I seem to be better balanced, and more secure in the saddle than I was before I started the lessons.

Tonight I rode Dawn on a trail ride.  I've barely ridden her at all in the past couple of months but tonight I decided I just had to put her in the rotation and it was her "turn."  So I worked her in the round pen for about 20 minutes, then rode over to Tessa's and we headed out into the woods.

It was one of the nicest rides I've ever had on her.  She was just wonderful, quiet and responsive (which is how she is most of the time) and we had a nice long ride.  Coming back, we were riding in the wash and the four dogs were running around chasing their lizards.  I said aloud to Tessa, "She has been SO good today," and the words were barely out of my mouth when out of the corner of my eye I saw one of Tessa's dogs right next to us, up on the bank (which was probably about 8 feet high; the dog was about level with my face).  And then he came sliding down the bank directly at Dawn.  I didn't even have time to gather reins or even think that she might react, and she whirled to the left, away from the dog, and just stopped.

And I was still in the saddle.  I don't even think I'd lost a stirrup.

Dawn was very calm about it.  I don't think the dog actually scared her, I think she just wanted to get out of his way.  And as I rode over to Tessa, I realized that my heart was not pounding, I was not upset, I was not frightened -- and neither was Dawn.

Those dressage lessons were paying off.  As she whirled away from the dog, I simply had gone with her.

So we were talking about that, and talking about how Dawn had not remained excited but had simply stopped once she was out of the dog's way.  We rode on down the wash to the "get out" place.  Tessa let Poncho trot up the slope.  I told Dawn to walk, but when she gathered herself to trot up the hill, I just let her do it.  Only the trot turned to a canter and the canter to a buck.

I lost my left stirrup on the third buck, and if there had been a fourth I probably would have come off, but she stopped at that point and I straightened up the saddle and regained my stirrup.  Tessa commented that Dawn had not been malicious about it; it seemed to her that the buck had come from playfulness.  She had never pinned her ears and had stopped of her own accord and had not really been trying to get me off at all.

And I had stayed on.  And my heart was not in my mouth, and I wasn't upset, and wasn't scared, and didn't want to sell her -- and I realized that 30 years ago . . . I would have thought it was actually fun.

And what's really funny is that I am not dreading my next ride on Dawn; I'm looking forward to it.  Because I think that what she did today is probably as "bad" as she's ever going to be -- and it's not that bad, and I was able to ride it out.

Staying in the saddle is half the battle.  And I stayed in the saddle.

I'll never be the best rider in the world again; after all, I'll never again have the naivete of a 15 year old.  But maybe I'm good enough to ride my own horses.  And that's really all that matters to me.

And that's the latest from the Ranch.


  1. Now, if you couldd only bottle that courage, I'd take one or two!