Dear God, let me just stay on this thing!

I wrote the following post on my other blog, Fugly Horse of the Day, and received an incredible amount of feedback from other woman who – after years of riding psychotic OTTB’s, hot potato speed horses, Arabs who hadn’t been handled in 8 years, and explosive warmbloods – had suddenly lost their nerve and now found themselves frustrated beyond belief with a head full of valuable training knowledge soaked in fear. Many of them commented that they thought they were the only one dealing with this. So I’ve decided to do this separate blog. It will chronicle the training of my Very Large Colt (16.2 and not even turning 3 for several more weeks), but what I really want to talk about here is the fear. We all want to ride. We all want to feel the way we used to on a horse. Many of us have horses sitting in the backyard that desperately need for us to march our butts out there and just do it. So ladies, here is your support group. Let’s talk about our progress, our setbacks, our fears. Maybe we can even network people together locally to be ground people and cheerleaders for those of you who are usually stuck riding alone? There’s no such thing as a fear that cannot be overcome…let’s figure this one out.

My original post of March 22, 2008:

When I was a cocky teenager who would ride anything, me and my cocky teenager friends would sneer haughtily at this middle-aged lady at our barn as only cocky teenagers can. We couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her – she was afraid to ride her own horse. Oh, once in a while she’d get on and do a little walk-trot but mostly she paid someone else to ride him. And he wasn’t a tough horse. A little hot, maybe, but in retrospect I don’t think he ever got turned out and given the circumstances, the horse was a saint.

The thing that baffled us is that we all remembered when we were little kids at the barn and we remembered her riding the toughest horses there without a second thought. Did this mean we were going to get old and chicken shit too? Perish the thought. We were sure it wasn’t going to happen to us.
Until I was about 27, I rode six days a week, no fewer than three horses a day, and often as many as ten. Many of them green, many of them horses with “issues.” It took a lot to scare me. I won’t say there aren’t horses I turned down riding back then, but they had real problems – rearing, brain-turned-off-bolting, flipping. (I still (knock on wood) haven’t been flipped with and I really do intend to try to avoid that experience)
Then, life happened. I finished college, I broke up with the horsey guy and married a non-horsey guy, I moved a couple of times. I sold off everything but two horses and I pretty much just stopped riding. Oh, I rode here and there – I put some training rides on a friend’s greenie after she unexpectedly got pregnant, I hopped on my old gray mare and rode her around the field a few times – but for the most part, I quit. I lost my riding muscles, I lost my balance, and I gained thirty pounds.
In 2003, I got the urge to start riding again – and was quickly in for a shock. Where was my balance? Where was my flexibility? Where the hell were my guts? I got scared easily. I got off and walked horses back to the barn if they acted barn-sour. I could hardly post halfway around the arena without my stirrups. WTF?
First, I blamed my weight. Surely it was just the thirty extra pounds that had turned me into a bad rider, so I starved it off over the course of a winter and wound up thinner than I had been in my 20s. I ran every morning before work and weight trained, convinced that fitness was the answer. You know, it helped – but it didn’t help enough. I was still gutless. My balance felt off. If a horse did the spook-spin-bolt with me, I got dangerously off balance. It wasn’t that I was coming off but I just didn’t feel tight and secure like I used to. I would get dizzy if they did something too quickly. I remembered making fun of that lady when I was a cocky teenager and realized karma was kicking me in the ass!
I went on a campaign to FIX THIS. I took longe lessons with no reins and no stirrups, doing endless transitions using only my seat and legs. The trainer told me I was perfectly fine, didn’t suck, and it was all in my head. Did I need to quit the trainer and go to a shrink? Take a few shots of vodka before riding? Prozac? Zoloft? Hypnosis? What? I decided to stick an ipod in my ears, crank up the music and try to distract myself from any fears. It kind of worked.
Strangely enough, the thing that helped me was getting back into horse rescue. If you are going to help the horses, you have to get on them and evaluate them. You don’t have history. The horse might be dangerous. You simply do not know until you get on, but someone has to get on and when you look around at your fellow rescuers, you realize that you’re in the minority as someone who has started greenies and ridden a lot of OTTB’s – even if it was many years ago. You find that, like it or not, you’re the most qualified person to hop up there and find out what you’ve got. You’re IT, sunshine. Being chickenshit isn’t going to save a life, so just cut out the mental bullshit and get on the horse already! I started getting on the “unknown history” horses again, and at least so far, it hasn’t bitten me in the ass. In fact, in honor of my 40th birthday last summer, I decided to volunteer to ride an extremely green Arabian mare owned by a rescue in a schooling show. Did I mention I didn’t have any opportunity to ride her beforehand, and that she had been a totally unhandled 10 year old just five months earlier? She was green but nonviolent and while our show performance would have made for one hell of a funny Youtube video (you guys probably would have posted it here and gone “who is this yahoo, maybe she should have gotten the horse trained before the horse show?”), I had a good time and felt like at least I wasn’t a total wimp in my old age. 🙂
So now I am on to the next hurdle: Breaking out my gigantor 16.2 three year old. I love this horse and he has a great mind and is easily the best quality horse I’ve ever owned in my life. I have heard even more training horror stories than usual in the past years and am paranoid and trust no one (well, Mugwump or OFCOL or CutNJump but they are all too far away from me) so I have been doing ground work for weeks and contemplating putting the first ride on the very…very…Very Large Colt. Last night seemed to be a good time – no thunder, no lightning, no jack donkey braying continuously while locked in a trailer in the parking lot (that has happened before, and Very Large Colt doesn’t care for it, to say the least). We tacked, we longed, we hand walked around the arena and practiced our “ho” and he was every bit as semi-catatonic as he usually is.
Then the internal conversation began – which I suspect will sound very familiar to many of my over-35 readers:
Left Brain: Just get on the damn horse. You have been getting on feedlot rescues for the past two years. This is a nice horse from a good home. This is actually easier.
Right Brain: Fuck, that is a long way down. Why did I want a 16.2 hander again?

Left Brain: Because the judges would laugh you out of the ring on your 14.3 hand mare, even if she does want to be a hunt seat horse. Remember?

Right Brain: Oh yeah.

Left Brain: Speaking of said 14.3 hand mare, you got on her not thinking she was broke AND she was violently cold backed AND you did it after only three days of ground work in a crowded arena in December.

Right Brain: Yeah, but I had to do that. Someone told me to just get on her and there were witnesses so I couldn’t wuss out. I’m all alone here, nobody is gonna know if I chicken out but me. Hey, there’s another good reason not to do this! Nobody is here. Guess it’ll have to wait for another night!

headlights roll in

Left Brain: Try another excuse, Wimpy Wanda. Your friends are here and will be happy to call 911 if you eat dirt. After they stop laughing, of course.

Right Brain: Maybe I’m rushing things. He’s kind of girthy and stuff…he probably needs more ground work.

Left Brain: *snort* Oh yeah there ya go. Why don’t you just put the horse away and go in the house and go online and order the Parelli videos now? You too can be one of those middle aged ladies doing perpetual ground work with her horse that walks all over her! Hey, maybe he can wear a tarp on his head. I’m sure they’ve got a class for that at AQHA World!

Right Brain: Shut UP left brain. You know, if I got hurt and couldn’t work, how could I support all of these horses? I would have to put myself on my own blog as one of these losers who can’t afford hay. Check it out everybody, this stupid 40 year old woman with eight horses to support got the genius idea to break out her first greenie from scratch since about 1994. Of course she wound up putting herself in traction and now she’s on the Internet begging for someone to take care of her 30-something mush eating mare for her. Pathetic! Wouldn’t it have made more sense to spend the lousy $500 and have someone else who can actually still ride do it?

Left Brain: OMG I’m ashamed to share a head with you. For fuck’s sake, the horse doesn’t even buck when he’s turned out. His idea of being a bad ass is to put his head down and shake it a few times. Are you gonna fall off if he does that? Go roll yourself in feathers if you’re going to be that chicken. BWAAAAWK BWAAAAWK BWAAAAK! *flaps arms*

Left Brain won. I got on the Very Large Colt (pictured above, several weeks earlier, and yes, there IS a fence in the middle of the indoor that I am kneeling on in this picture…old converted dairy barn). As I predicted, the worst thing he did was back up a little bit in confusion. He quickly figured out forward motion, stopping, turning, etc. The “ho” command worked just as well from the saddle as it did from the ground. He reacted to the sudden appearance of the little gray barn cat by following said barn cat along the fence line and sticking his nose on the barn cat and snarfling all over it. (Now, we all know that the real challenge is ride three or four…but I’m gonna pretend if nothing happened the first time, nothing is going to…)

All right, the rest of you – as COTH calls them “re-riders” – or just admitted middle aged wimps, tell me your stories! I know I am not the only one struggling with this issue. We can all feel stupid together, woo hoo!

Published in: on April 25, 2008 at 3:52 am  Comments (14)  

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  1. I feel the same lol got hurt a few years ago and it took me three long years to feel okay again after hynotherapy and meditation but I still hear those voices telling me are you crazy what if….. but I also found out that chewing gum for some reason relaxes me when I ride must be the chewing action.

  2. Just wanted to say, I’m newly 30, with a toddler daughter, and 30 pounds more than i was 5 years ago… ridden all my life, got thrown last year and suddenly, i’m more terrified of falling off than i’d have thought possible. I used to ride saddlebroncs!! and now, i’m trying to become a re-rider. THANKYOU for this, because i thought it was just me.

  3. I am appalled at my lack of balance and core muscles. I haven’t really ridden in years either and now suddenly I slouch and am so far off balance it’s scary. Not coming off thankfully but still… I have a soon to be 3 year old, we’re doing ground work and attending every in-hand event, anything I can find. I have no plans of riding till he’s 4, just getting him used to life as much as I can from the ground. We even attended a desensitizing/despooking clinic where he walked through lines of fire and up and over bridges and through tarp squeezes with smoke bombs and flares going off with a police car spinning donuts around us with the siren blaring and a police dog barking up a storm in the back seat. My colt got bored and started chewing on his lead rope, he was ground tied for most of it.
    We went to Oregon to the Northwest Mountain Trail Show and he got high point for the 3 day weekend and we won a buckle. No spook to him unless you walk into his stall with a ladder, that’s cause for alarm apparently.
    At any rate, I think I’m a little nervous. When you’re mid 30’s you don’t bounce like you do when you’re in your early teens! I know he’s going to be a good boy and he’s so smart, he accepts everything I at him and I know he’ll take to riding. I’m even go to go so far as to say with no buck! LOL… ask me in 2015 when he turns 4. 😛

  4. I’ve ridden nonstop since I started riding but right before i turned 40 I started eventing. My horse took to it with enthusiasm and we did great til the fences got bigger and he made his displeasure known and I ate some logs. Had him checked for soundness and concluded while sound, eventing wasn’t his thing and why force him to do what he doesn’t like? He now belongs to a little girl who dresses him up like a unicorn. But I didn’t sell him until I was already nervous and backed off about jumping. In an effort to be helpful trainers and friends encouraged me to get “something easy” and focused on my worries. That wasn’t terribly helpful. I finally had to point out to myself that I started a difficult discipline and had a couple bad rides, and lost trust in a particular horse, but that didn’t make me “chicken.” I think my trainers were dismayed (but supportive) when I bought a four-year-old sassy filly, but I adore her and her can-do attitude. My big goal is to make sure, if fear does kick in, that I don’t communicate it to her and that’s when I ask a trainer for help. And hey, if you don’t think twice about sending a green horse over some of those eventing fences, then you aren’t thinking!

  5. I know exactly what you mean. I have a 16.2 App hunter gelding that scares me to death. He’s a good guy and I’ve raised him from a yearling, but good god can he buck. In turnout, under saddle, whenever whereever he can be airborne in seconds. He’s totally going to go to the trainer and save me from near death. I’m only 25, but I’m chicken shit already. :/

  6. You hit the nail on the head – bought a 3 year old Hanovarian/TB cross because I wanted to ride again and I fell totally, completely, in love with her. To say that this mare is an athlete is a complete understatement – to say that I am is a complete lie 🙂 It’s been 15 years since I’ve ridden (I’m 57). I did the right thing for her – professional, careful, loving training and my daughter (an eventer) bringing her along for me. One of my clients became my left brain – he paid his barn manager to take me out at least once a week on their guest horse on the trails to get me back in the saddle so that I can ride the horse I love with my life. The first month was horrible – this dear, sweet (very short) old gray gelding hauled my sorry ass through miles and miles of gorgeous trails. Patient, calm, sure-footed, never put a foot wrong. It took me the full month plus before I didn’t feel dizzy and could get my balance back and begin the process of remembering how to ride. This now leaves me with the daunting process of learning to ride past a walk on my wiggly, bouncy, athletic and VERY looky mare. I’m afraid to fall – like everyone else in my situation – because I can’t get broken being a caterer and only breadwinner in my household. But, somehow, fear in numbers makes me feel better – I will persevere!!! 🙂

    • Kerrits “stick tight” breeches. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  7. After not riding in 15 years or so, I puled an old arab mare off the feedlot for my first horse. She had heaves but was amazingly sweet, and we did a lot of ground work together as I rehabed her before I ever rode her. When I did, I took it slow and I was scared to death because I had no idea of her history. She was perfect for me every time, but I only rode a handfull of times because usually she was too ill to do more than walk and even then only on a good day. Last May I finally had to put her down, and I was devistated. I did get another mare last August – much younger, much healthier, much -greener-. I used to ride all the time, size didn’t matter – it could be 13.3 hand ponies or 18 hand drafts bareback with lead rope and halter. Now I get nervous every time I ride my new mare, and I do a lot of ground work with her and tell myself my schedule makes it too hard to ride every day. She would be so much better though if I did, and technically I could. Even though she’s barely 15hh, it just seems like a long way down now! And I am heavier than before, and my muscles just aren’t what they were. On the ground I am totally her boss, but on her back… I just realize I am vulnerable and fragile. What is the way to get confidence back? Just get up there and do it, watch more YouTube training videos, set up some sort of schedule (we start with free lunging for 15 min, go to lunging on the line for 15 min, then tack up and walk for 15 min, then trot for 10…) or get someone to give me lessons? How did I forget everything I knew about horses, which was my life before this, in the short span (haha) of 15 years? And why does is it feel like so much has changed? I swear before all the western horses I rode had bar bits, and you just threw on a saddle and off you went. Now there’s all these methods – Parrelli, Buck, Anderson… New bits, new tack, new health care methods – put vodka in the water buckets to keep from freezing, don’t put vodka in the water buckers you will poison them! Vaccinate your horse to keep it healthy, don’t vaccinate you are taking away their natural defenses and they can’t fight off disease. Worm your horse regularly, don’t worm so much you are putting poison in their system and it does more harm than good! Give them beet pulp to put weight on, don’t give them beet pulp it only adds water weight and no nutritional value.


    Everything I “knew” is out of date, my body is not the same, and the fearlessness of youth is replaced with the knowlege that broken bones really, really hurt and this 1000 lb animal could kill me if she wants. Everything is more complicated and it just seems more dangerous now. My new horse is really a good horse and I am selling her short by not riding, I know this, but the fear is still there every time I get in the saddle. I kept thinking it just meant I need to ride more, but it isn’t really going away… and I am not really riding more than I was. I want to get past it, just not sure how.

    • I have never heard of vodka in the water buckets, but I suspect heated buckets are quite a bit cheaper over the long run!

      I still traditionally worm. I’m not changing it to follow a trend. I see no evidence it doesn’t work as I have literally no issues with horse weight or coat and I haven’t had a colic other than a gas colic in many years.

      Throwing on a saddle and off you go is probably less likely to mess up your horse then blindly following any clinician. Listen to your horse and see by trial and error what your particular horse responds to. Guarantee you that shaking a rope in her face or using a flag will not end well with an Arabian. 🙂 If you are going to take advice, take it from someone with a long history of successfully training that breed. They truly are a little different – it’s like how you have to take a foreign car to a mechanic that understands how they tick.

  8. What a GREAT thing you shared with us.. and I am with you… I am so glad you shared this… Thank you…My story is your story… Growing up went to college for horse training and been teaching and training for years, but I have fear that I have never had before… weight, balance and if I get hurt I have kids to care for and bills to make sure are met and will I lose my real job… and how will it effect my 29 horses… and yet being shown up by all the young ones in their 20’s just gets me. yet I figure if they want to take the chance to get hurt let them.. I will ride the broke ones!

    • This is an old blog that I linked to again because someone was asking about it – written six years ago. The outcome was:

      1. He was fine. I got him broke, he never did anything scary ever, he showed successfully in a number of events. He is injury prone and at this point has already limited himself to being a trail horse who won’t stay sound if stall kept, so he is gelded and my friend is moseying around on him. I own him but I just pay his bills. He knew which side of his bread the butter was on, as they say!

      2. Regarding fear, I’m glad I trained this guy but especially in the past few years, I’ve realized it’s not just fear. It’s that I’ve lost any desire to ride. I hop on a horse a few times a year and never feel like, gosh, I really miss this, I wish I got to ride more. When I think of things I miss and would really like to do more of, the #1 entry is “sleep.” I’ve seemingly acquired the entire range of annoying health symptoms that seem to happen to a lot of women at my age, and I consider the day to be a huge win if I’ve done all the chores and don’t feel too exhausted to drive home. This is not the same issue I was dealing with in 2008, when I felt fine. Now it’s literally the knowledge that if a horse picks a fight with me, I won’t have the energy/balance/fitness level to ride through it and fix it. So I feel like I’d be doing anything that was the least bit green or challenging a disservice by riding it. I’d rather pay for people to ride them who can ride them properly and keep them tuned up and performing their best. I love horses, I’ll always have them, I love the caretaking part – I’m weird enough to truly enjoy cleaning stalls – but I think my riding days are pretty much past.

  9. I have been fortunate in that my fears have been left with the horse that caused them. I have been able to move on to other horses without alot of residual fear from being bucked off the previous horse. Sometimes I also have the conversations in my head, but I am able to just say ‘that was on that other horse, not this one’ and get over it pretty quickly. That doesn’t mean I don’t still have fear, I do. But it’s not fear of getting bucked off, it’s fear that my horse will trip or stumble on an obstacle (competitive mtn trail) and end up in a heap at the bottom of the hill. So this is an imagined fear, not based on any actual events. I just tell myself that I’m wearing a helmet, and I probably won’t die if that happens, so just shut up and do it. It feels so good to push thru one of those barriers, so I try to ‘feel’ that success ahead of time, and envision our success prior to entering the arena. I do enjoy riding, but I have to have a goal. When I started back with horses after many years of not having any, I thought I just wanted to trail ride. But that became boring for me, so I tried the Competitive Mountain Trail events, and love them. Gives me something to work and practice on. Having a defined goal seems to motivate me to go outside my comfort zone again and again. It’s all a journey, and even with the occasional fear issues, it’s a journey well worth taking.

  10. Thanks for posting this! I made a blog post about my fear experience:

  11. I wish I had been riding my whole life. I am in my late fifties now and have ten years of riding experience. I am cautious with what I do, when and where I do it. I am blessed with a good calm horse and happy with trail riding in the woods. Hitting the dirt in your forties and fifties really hurts, and memories of that stick. Some of my riding friends may try to goad me into situations I am not comfortable with, but I do things at my own speed regardless. I am just happy to have finally been able to realize my dream of horse ownership since childhood and stay relatively safe. As long as I can swing a leg up, I will ride. Walk, trot, occasional canter on my terms, and no one elses.

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