Friday, September 25, 2009

One Step At A Time

How does one get up the nerve to approach riding when they're older and find themselves uncertain or afraid, but still have that drive to ride?  I found success with one step at a time.

I hit the big 4-Oh and felt the clock of age ticking.  I had the best intentions in mind when I went shopping for my first horse.  We can be easily swayed when we purchase our pets, large or small.  This is especially true with first time horse owners, who have waited all their lives for this moment.  Emotion easily runs over common sense. 

I bought the first horse I saw, a 20+ year old mare.  Those days my decision was based on #1) she was pretty, #2) she was the right price (all I had was $500), and (finally some common sense prevailed), #3) she was an older horse.  No vet check, didn't ride her first, never laid eyes on another prospective purchase.

I was comfortable moving around her, grooming her, etc.  Then it came time to ride her and...I found myself totally terrified.  My first rides were spent being humbly led around the pasture on what came to be called, "Pony Rides".

After about a month of  many Pony Rides, I knew I had to ride her by myself.  We headed down our road and then we had Rodeo.  She bucked, spun and I barely stayed on.  As soon as she stopped I shakily (and very hastily) climbed off and led her back to the barn. 

I'd been around horses enough to realize those pony rides had set a tone with her and that she had my fear number big time.  I knew I had to be more sure and assertive when next I rode.  I did ride her again a few more times but I always felt I was on the verge of a wreck and it's no fun to ride when you feel that way.  I found myself drifting to what was now our second horse, a 19-year old gelding, purchased to keep our mare "company".  I left the mare to our young daughter who with little fear, got along great with her.

I decided no more pony rides.  I read an article that said to take it one step at a time.  First step was to get up the nerve to climb on.  I took hours to groom, saddle and walk him around, and I can't count how many times I checked to make sure the saddle was secure.  I'd purchased a 2-step mounting block so climbing on would be quick, smooth and comfortable for both of us.  I got on the mounting block and...shakily, climbed back off.

I was so frustated with myself - I couldn't get up the nerve to climb on the horse!  I ended up climbing up on the mounting block and laying across the saddle, inhaling all the great smells of horse and leather.  I put my foot in the stirrup a few times but never did climb on that day.  I acted like this had been the plan all along and ended by hand walking him.

For some reason I went home elated feeling I'd accomplished something (but wasn't quite sure what it was).  I made a pact I'd return the next day and told myself I'd climb on and just sit on him.  The next day I went through the same ritual of grooming, saddling, assuring we were both ready.  And when the time came, I said what I still say today, "One, Two, Three and  Up and Over".

I was shaking from head to toe but I concentrated on the scenery and tried to calm down.  I must have sat there for 10 minutes trying to breath.  The poor horse finally turned his head and glanced back at me with such a questioning look that he made me laugh and suddenly I found myself relax and sink comfortably into the saddle.  It felt great!  I backed him up off the fence and we walked a few feet away.  I called it a day.  I floated back to the house in glee, looking forward to returning the next day.

Day 3 had me getting ready much quicker.  Climbing on was still a challenge and I reminded myself to take it one step at a time.  As I climbed on, silently chanting my of "One, Two, Three and Up and Over."  I made myself laugh, which made me even laugh more at what someone observing this from afar would be thinking.  And with that laughter I found myself sinking into the saddle, relaxing and taking control of the situation.

I focused on a daisy, sitting alone out in the middle of the pasture.  I rode out to it and back.  Grinning ear to ear, I returned to the daisy and decided I'd go past it to a tree a little further out.  Off we went, over and over again, further and further out into the pasture.  That night I danced home.  One step at at time soon had us out and about anywhere we wanted to go.

As time passed and other horses came into my life, I found that my fear centered on swinging my leg over the saddle, that final step of commitment that finds you are now  up on a horse and in charge of something that you may think you are in control of but worry you may not be.

Today at 50+, I'm still nervous when I first climb on my horse Champ, an 11-year old Paint.  He's dominant towards women.  At over 16 hands (I'm 5'3), with a Dennis the Menace, give-an-inch, take-a-mile attitude, it's strictly business with this guy or he'll run you right over, literally.  But once you've established you are in charge he is a joy to ride.

I take it one step at a time by first setting the tone with ground work.  I establish that I'm in charge.  I won't let him get too close, ahead or behind me.  As I lead him to the mounting block (a great tool for us 50+'ers) I chose various places to suddenly stop and back up and I expect him to do same.  By the time I'm ready to get on we've usually have set our terms.  If not, I continue until we do have them set, no matter how long it takes.

Repeating this ritual each time I ride is now taking less time to set the tone.  The result is that when I do climb up I've got a respectful horse which helps me quickly get through those first few minutes of butterflies.  I truly believe one step at a time has given me the lattitude to quickly get over my nerves, enjoy all my rides and most importantly, helped me avoid confrontations or worse, wrecks.

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