By Diane Brault
This article was an honorable mention in the 2018 GMO Newsletter Award in general interest narrative for GMOs with 75-174 members. It first appeared in the December 2017
Wisconsin Dressage and Combined Training Association newsletter, eQuester.
Caryn’s request about sending in our goals for next year got me to thinking. Sure, I know a goal I want to work on next year. I want to get a nice canter on one of my horses next year.
While thinking about my “simple” little goal of getting a canter on one of my horses, my mind wandered oﬀ into analyzing what I will need to do to reach that goal. That really opened a can of worms, as I dug down deeper into the issue and found what I really need in order to accomplish that “simple” little goal is to work on ME, my attitudes and emotions (especially the dreaded “F” word — FEAR). As you might guess, when I started to write about my “goal,” I got a bit carried away. A sentence or two became more like a page or two!
The Pendulum Swings: A Reﬂection on My Riding Goals.
Have you ever noticed how life can be like a pendulum at times, swinging from one extreme to another, never quite resting in the middle? Over my career of teaching elementary school, I have seen that happen many times. At one time, “whole language” was the only way to teach reading skills. “Phonics” was looked down upon. Fifteen or 20 years later, the pendulum swung and the opposite was touted as the only correct way to teach reading.
Do you remember having to memorize math facts? As a child, I had to. As a young teacher, I was told that kind of “drill and kill” would only alienate kids. Instead, the advent of calculators in school would make memorizing obsolete. (Yes, I’ve dated myself here!) We were supposed to teach mathematical thinking and problem solving, and let the kids use calculators to do the ﬁguring. As the years went by, the pendulum swung back again, and the “powers that be” realized how handicapped many kids became by not knowing the basic math facts. So, we teachers were encouraged to return to teaching those skills, albeit with some beneﬁcial attention to teaching methods to help ﬁgure out the ones that were diﬃcult to remember.
Experienced teachers watched the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other, all the while knowing that there really was no single way that would help each child – you needed to have all of those methods and more in your bag of tricks, if you hoped to do the best for all “your kids.” You needed to ﬁnd the middle ground, not the extremes. Sounds a little like working with horses, doesn’t it?
Yes, back to horses!
It seems to me my life with horses, and my attitudes and emotions about them, have been swinging through different arcs of the pendulum.
In my early years, teens and twenties, I was nothing but a fearless, adventurous rider. I’ve been told some of the things I did were a bit crazy. (I regularly encircled my yearling gelding with a homemade surcingle, to which I tied clothesline ropes to support me around my back. Another set of clotheslines was tied to the bit to use as reins. Then I hopped on my skateboard and had my yearling pull me around the streets of my Madison neighborhood. We made frequent, unplanned stops when pieces of pea gravel caused my skateboard to come to a screeching halt and ﬂip out behind me. But, hey, what else was I supposed to do with him until he reached the age of ride-ability?? In the winter, we switched to a toboggan, which didn’t steer very well, and then to an up-side-down Volkswagen Beetle hood, which was very easy to slide oﬀ of, and bucked like a son of a gun when it ﬂipped over and “chased” my poor gelding over a fence.)
Finally, on Jan. 26, 1968, my youngster turned two years old, and I hopped on his back. The day he turned two, he began his life as a riding horse! (Please note I haven’t claimed that I KNEW ANYTHING about horses back then…) I’ve been told I gave a few people some “rides from hell.” (“Come on! You can do it!” I shouted back to a friend as my little gelding and I clambered up, then slid down some huge gravel hills in a quarry. Yes, the area was fenced oﬀ. Yes, there was a “No Trespassing” sign. Yes, we went around those. My friend and her horse did make it up and down those hills, by the way. And she remembers it to this very day!)
In those earlier years, I never had a thought about possibly getting hurt. When I did have an accident or injury (an elbow and a couple broken feet) when a horse ran out into the street and slipped and fell with me, or when one objected to the moving obstacles in Vitense’s mini-golf park, jumped into the street, reared three times and fell on me … I’d just brush them oﬀ and get back to riding as soon (or sooner) as the doctor allowed.
After the mini golf incident, I removed one stirrup from my English saddle, since I couldn’t put my broken foot in the stirrup, and rode with my broken arm in a sling. My dad would give me a boost up into the saddle, bless his heart! No lasting repercussions, though. I think fondly of those years as my Era of Invincibility. Just a part of youth for most people, I think.
In my 30s and 40s, the pendulum seemed to swing into the middle of its arc. I still had plenty of conﬁdence, but had mellowed out a bit. Risky behavior was rarely on the menu, and better judgment was the ﬂavor of the day. I paid attention to how my mare was feeling in diﬀerent situations. I listened to her and was more thoughtful with my preparations and requests. When she was fearful, I relaxed and didn’t force her. When she worriedly tried her best, I rewarded and calmed her. When she would spin or shy in fear and dump me, she would stay with me instead of running away. Our trust in each other, our partnership, grew. (As you might guess, I stayed out of a lot of trouble!) I think of this as my Era of Sensible Maturity.
In my 50s and now 60s, the pendulum is screeching towards the far end of its arc — the opposite end from the Era of Invisibility! I think of this current state as my Era of Irrational Fear.
It started one bright summer day, when I asked a very athletic young mare to canter for the very ﬁrst time, and she very athletically bucked me oﬀ! My response to this was quite diﬀerent than in past years. Instead of popping back up and forgetting about the whole thing 10 minutes later, I hurt so much I couldn’t get oﬀ the ground for 10 minutes, even though there were no broken bones (thankfully!).
But the mental and emotional response was unlike past years. All of my conﬁdence in myself, my knowledge, and my skills had simply vaporized! From that instant on, I was afraid to ride that lovely mare. She’d see something in the woods, or twitch an ear, and I’d “ﬂinch and clutch.” Eventually, I found that mare a new home with a young lady who loved her and had great success with her on the Class A Arab show circuit.
Unfortunately, my new fears didn’t leave with the horse! They just found new homes with the other horses I was training. Mostly, they somehow center around cantering (surprise, surprise). Of course, my sensitive little Arabs pick right up on that, and add their own antics into the maelstrom of cantering!
My “worrying” mare must think, “Oh-oh. I think my rider wants to canter, but I’m not sure. So I’ll give her one big leap, and then come to a standstill. If she asks me to canter again, I’ll just crow hop around, and then she’ll quit wanting to canter and I’ll get to stop all this confusion and worrying.”
My dominant, lazy mare must think, ”She doesn’t really know what she wants, so I’ll just ignore her. But
if she tries to make me canter again, I’ll buck a bit and make her think twice about telling me to canter again!”
So, while reﬂecting on what it may take to achieve my modest little goal of enjoying a nice canter on my little Arab mares, I came to the conclusion the underlying obstacle was not my skills, my knowledge, or the personalities and training level of my horses. Nope. The real problem was ME — my attitude and emotions.
My pendulum had swung to an extreme where my subconscious attitude has become, “I KNOW something BAD could happen. She’ll buck! She’ll shy! She’ll bolt and run away with me!” Basically, my horse will be in control, not me.
The emotions bubbling under the surface revolved around the dreaded “F” word – FEAR. The fear of falling oﬀ, breaking brittle old bones, being hospitalized. Not that all those things never happened to me before – they have. But I was younger then, and my pendulum was at the opposite end of its arc! The Final Fear was that I might someday lose the courage to ride.
As they say, “Knowledge is Power.” Now that I have ferreted out the real obstacles to reaching my “simple, little goal” of a comfy canter, I can take that knowledge and use it to create a plan to help me achieve this simple, yet profound aspiration.
Many years ago, the philosopher Kalil Gibran was in vogue. One of his tenants was you must experience extremes at both ends before you can recognize the middle. So, maybe there is actually a beneﬁt to having experienced the extremes along the continuum of Rider Conﬁdence. Maybe these extremes can help me return to the balance of being in the middle of the pendulum swing.
May your pendulum come to rest in the middle and help you in the journey through your goals.