Trying to learn to ride a horse at fifty-something is daunting at best. I’m quite sure that I break more easily than I did when I was ten, and the idea of ending up in a body cast isn’t appealing in the slightest. That said, I don’t seem to have any particular fear of falling. So, why do I seize up with anxiety at the very thought of climbing up on Captain’s back?
I never took riding lessons as a child, but I vividly remember the percherons. Molly and Bob were the two working draft horses that belonged to Gordon Shifflett. When they weren’t hitched to a plow, they lived on the steep, rocky side of a mountain that was Gordon’s back yard. His farm and his mountain were tucked away in a little corner of Appalachia called Mutton Hollow (pronounced “holler”), where nobody had indoor plumbing and a dollar was hard to come by.
Gordon had a daughter about my age. Cheryl and I took every possible opportunity to heave ourselves up onto the backs of these tall and massive horses. We’d be barefoot and covered in summer dirt, riding without so much as a halter and rope, let alone a saddle. Long stretches of dirt road wound next to the creek, and we’d meander along on those gentle titans without a care in the world, drinking in the green and giggling over something foolish.
One of those summer days, we somehow ended up at a farm where they trained race horses. There’s a picture in a family album of a horse race that everybody went to. It took place on a wide, dusty back road; just these local guys, racing their horses like their urban counterparts drag racing down Main Street. Well, we ended up at that farm, and the next thing I remember is being perched on the back of a sleek thoroughbred and walking around on the training racetrack. It was glorious!
I was ten – maybe 12 years old, feeling fancy and graceful up there, until one of the boys popped the horse on the rear and whooped. The horse took off like he was running from the devil himself. Faster and faster that horse ran, and I hung on for all I was worth, tears streaming into my ears from the force of the wind. Crouched over that horse’s neck, all I could see was the white whir of the inside rail as the red clay exploded under pounding hooves. Funny thing is, I had no experience of fear at all.
I don’t have any idea how I got that horse slowed down to a walk, but I do remember the cheers from the boys that had gathered around!
Forty years later, I’ve been a horse owner for nearly a decade. I’ve taken in rescues, tended to abscessed hooves, bandaged wounds, fed, cared for, and loved my horses. But none of them have been broke or sound to ride until I found the Captain. Here’s his story if you need to catch up.
Captain is so gentle, so well-trained, so docile and intelligent, that if I’m ever going to learn to ride, he is the horse to do it on. The vet adores him. Sue, the woman who comes out to the farm to coach me says that he’s worth 10 times what I paid for him. I’d have to agree. So, what am I afraid of?
I crawl up onto the mounting block, and insist that he stand still while I mount. So far, so good. I’m relaxed, happy, and comfortable. Sue says it’s about time we leave the round pen and take a walk around the pasture. The anxiety starts rising, and by the time she’s opened the gate, I can feel my legs shaking with fear.
My pasture is very hilly, almost terraced in places. I stay up near the barn where it’s flat, and practice turning in large circles and stopping. Stopping is good. My familiar pasture is suddenly looking like a vast and terrifying down-hill slalom course where I shall surely die. Captain stops and sighs. I think he may have fallen asleep.
Sue marches half way down the hill and shouts, “Ride down here, Hun!” – her long-ago British roots evident in the “Hun”. I breathe. I “relax”. Here we go! Captain inches down the hill, mindful of the shaking sack of human terror on his back. “DON’T LOOK DOWN!” shouts Sue.
We arrive at Sue’s position, then finish the circle and go back up to the barn. “AGAIN!” Round and round we go, and little by little, I’m feeling less anxious. Sue is encouraging, but she keeps saying that I should stop looking down.
Finally, after about five round-trips in each direction, I’ve had enough. I feel like I’ve run a mile while having a massive anxiety attack. I dismount and lead Captain over to the hitching rail on the premise that I need some water. Mostly I just want my legs to stop shaking.
Sue walks up and says, “You really have to stop looking down, Hun. It’s terrifying you!” I stop and think about that for a moment, and I tell her that the strange thing is that I have no fear at all of being that high up or of falling. Hmmm… Then it comes to me that what I’m so afraid of is that I will ask Captain to step somewhere that will cause him to stumble. I’m not worried about me, I’m worried about him!
“It’s a horse,” she says. “He knows how to walk around and not fall down. You let him do his job, and it will make yours a lot easier.”
Horses are great teachers if you take time to listen. My childhood with horses was wondrous. My childhood with parents who demanded that I parent them taught me to be responsible in the extreme for everyone and everything around me. If something goes wrong, it’s ultimately a failing of mine, right? Oh, dear.
I could feel my shoulders dropping slowly down to a more normal position. I’d been wearing them as earrings just moments before. Captain snoozed while I sipped water and contemplated this.
After a while, I loosened the girth, pulled off the saddle and hoisted it onto the rail. When I’d taken off the bridle and eased the bit from his mouth, Captain shook, and instead of wandering off, he raised his head and rested his chin on my shoulder for a moment. It felt like a hug.