My View….Between the Ears
There is a step every rider takes when they set their foot in the stirrup. In that moment before settling onto the horses back, the rider surrenders the comfort of the earth to the four legs beneath them. In faith. With trust. Somewhere amidst the microseconds between the removal of the riders foot from the ground and the horses first step forward is a serenity found nowhere else. A feeling of connection to something greater than yourself, bigger than the world and yet so small it can be easily missed. At least that’s how it feels for me.
It’s a feeling of complete surrender with absolute control.
Every time I step off the ground and sit on a horses back, I pause to savor the moment. For a fleeting moment all is right in the world. Oneness. Connection. Peace. It just feels natural. It’s not always present, often fleeting and days can pass without it. But it exists. And every rider must deal with the days when that feeling gets lost. For whatever reason, it happens. And getting it back can often be a long difficult—empty–road. Especially when it comes to trail rides.
Last year it happened. Not for the first time, but hopefully for the last. I had the worst day I’ve ever had with my horse. With any horse. Out on a trail ride with four friends. He bucked me off and sent me to the hospital. No broken bones, no serious injury, thankfully. Just a huge goose egg on my forehead which transformed into a dandy black eye. Cowgirl make-up my friends called it. And a nasty deep purple bruise on my thigh where he stepped on my leg.
The worse injury wasn’t physical. It was psychological. Not wanting to follow in the footsteps of riders who forever lose their courage, I set myself on a path of determination to take that step. The sooner the better. The thought of forever losing that joy was more than I could bear; a price I could not afford to pay. Two days later, after pushing all his buttons to rid him of whatever evil thoughts he might entertain, I hopped on him bareback just so I could cross that bridge and reach the other side before it proved too late. I continued to ride him in arenas and in drill team. But the thought of taking him on a trail ride petrified me.
Instinctively I knew AJ, my nine year old palomino quarter horse, to be a good horse. I felt it, I believed it. But I also knew AJ’s training had holes in it. Many holes. Holes I lack the experience, skills or trained eye to identify or fill. So, I turned to a professional. With access to several trainers at my fingertips, I narrowed the list down to the one person with the time, talent, and most of all, patience to give me an honest assessment. Given a few days to work with him, Sarah would either confirm or counter my own personal assessment, free of the emotional attachment I felt clouding my judgment.
I made the call, she had an opening coming up and by mid-January I dropped AJ off at Sarah’s training barn. For two weeks I left her alone to do her job. When I followed up with her I ended the call knowing I had done the right thing, so I made the decision to leave him with her for as long as I could.
Six weeks later, I’m following Sarah’s pick-up and gooseneck trailer into Hell’s Gate State Park in Lewiston, Idaho to the trailhead where we would park our vehicles. Today was the day, for the first time in over a year, AJ and I would embark on a trail ride. I’d had two rides on AJ during his time at Sarah’s, both times in her large round pen. What she accomplished with him was nothing short of remarkable. AJ now neck reined, stopped with a soft feel, and loped on a loose rein.
All morning I thought about it. I can’t deny my stomach and nerves were loopy. I felt apprehensive and excited all at the same time; apprehensive about taking this step with this horse, all things considered. Excited with longing to recapture that feeling I always felt when I sat on AJ, this time while taking in the sights and sounds found only outside the barrier of an arena.
Riding the trails at Hell’s Gate gives you a real feel for the open range found in most movies about the old west. Located on 960 acres just south of Lewiston, Idaho, at an elevation of 733 feet. The park sits directly on the Snake River with overnight camping available near the river; however, the RV park is not designed to accommodate people traveling with horses as there are no horse corrals. The trails are located east of the RV sites and there are very few trees. Offering trails ranging from sand, gravel, and dirt embedded with basalt rock. Rolling hills flow throughout, the trails are clearly marked, taking riders up and down four elevations. Having this place so close to home is a bonus for many local citizens. On the trails you will encounter hikers, and bicycles; both are required to yield to the horses.
At the trail head, Sarah had AJ tacked up, looking very sharp in Sarah’s new Corriente Wade saddle which she had graciously offered to let me try out. Saddle fit being one of the issues Sarah determined to be the root of the why AJ bucked me off that day. Saddle fit, the ever elusive quest any sensitive, educated rider deals with; it goes with horse ownership. From the start, finding the right saddle for him filled me with frustration, nothing ever fit (but that’s another story for another day). Under the Corriente Wade, AJ performed, happily without attitude or outward signs of unhappiness.
After working him on the ground the way Sarah had shown me, I slipped on the bridle and Sarah had me run through the exercises again with the feel of the bit in his mouth. A way to check our connection, ensure that he is mentally with me. You never want to get on a horse that is not with you. I’ve done that, and it rarely turns out well, for anyone.
And then I took that step.
Riding truly is a mental thing. Yes, I was a little tense at first, but that feeling of oneness came back immediately and as we set out on the trail, I felt something with AJ, a feeling I’d never experienced with him. Joy. Down to my toes, up through my head, it filled my heart. And soul. Completely, utterly and wholly ecstatic…joy. Uplifting.
As we set off, I caught myself playing that old fear tape and mentioned to Sarah this needed be a short ride. But I think she understood, and also knew I just needed a little time. Straddled somewhere between the joy I felt while edging away from the fear I had known, I commanded myself to enjoy this long awaited moment. I had an opportunity to work with a clean slate, to forget the past and walk briskly toward the future; to what is meant to be. And AJ sensed the change in me. The once high-headed, stiff and tense horse was not beneath me today. He gave every sign that he was relaxed and enjoying the moment…with me.
Joining us on the ride was Sarah’s friend Michelle, and Gunner, her black Icelandic pony gelding. Sarah was riding Paisley, a five year old sorrel paint gelding. This ride, as it turns out, evolved into a test on many levels. Unbeknownst to us, the local archery club had set up multiple life-sized 3-D targets throughout the trails for a weekend competition. The first indication came when we encountered a single rider returning to the trailhead; we’d seen her leave her trailer just minutes ahead of us. As she hurried toward us, I noticed tension on her face. We stepped aside to allow her to pass, but not before she announced, “We’re going back. He doesn’t like that wolf!”
Curious. The three of us exchanged quizzical glances, shrugging off her comment as we continued down the trail. Moments later we saw it. Couldn’t miss it actually, the white statue still figure of a wolf. Not a real wolf (thankfully), but one of the archery targets standing motionless about 30 feet from the trail.
Of all the days to take my first ride on AJ after a year, this is the day. Well, clearly someone has chosen to test me and squaring my shoulders I resolved nothing would stand between me and my horse on this ride. Just don’t look at it. Don’t fixate on it. Stay in the moment. Enjoy the moment, I told myself silently. A second later, AJ’s head shot up when he caught sight of the wolf, but I kept my eyes straight ahead, a smile on my face and my body relaxed. He followed my lead, lowered his head with only one more sideways glance at it before we rounded a corner and the target passed from our view.
This turned out to the best ride ever on AJ. He was a perfect gentleman and took very good care of me. The horse I instinctively knew him to be. I felt like I was riding a different horse, even his energy felt different. Calm, relaxed. A true partner.
It was a beautiful day, even with all the life sized targets scattered throughout the trails; there were elk (standing and lying down), a bison, deer, bear, turkeys, and, of all things, a velociraptor. Toward the end, when Gunner reacted and balked at a life-sized bison positioned less than six feet from the trail, AJ didn’t over-react or feed off the energy the way he used to do. Gunner backed right into AJ’s shoulder just before Michelle gathered him up and helped him work through the situation. I turned AJ away and stood by Sarah, to allow Michelle the room and time she needed. In less than a minute, she had Gunner’s nose touching the bison; completely trusting and relaxed. With that we continued our journey, enjoying the remainder of the ride without encountering anymore targets. Nor did we encounter any other riders.
As we descended down a hill I was struck by an epiphany; the absence of this overwhelming, nagging desire to get the ride over with. I suddenly realized two things, when I didn’t enjoy the ride, the horse didn’t either. Regardless of the why, my mind set, my attitude, my thoughts all influenced the horse I rode, and therefore the ride itself. And all those times I commented and heard comments about how once you turn back to the trailers the horses always know; they want to go, they start jigging, and this creates problems. Today, I remained in the moment and the horse stayed there with me.
Having this type of connection to another being, especially a horse, is a double-edged sword. They know what happens before what happens, happens. They are masters at reading body language. They possess a sense of intuitiveness that I’ve never felt with any human. I feel that is one of the causes for my love of horses. That intuitive connection. I think that’s why horse people, true horse people, are drawn to them. We all share that single common thread, interwoven between our hearts.
A monumental day. On many levels. One I didn’t want to end. Back at the trailers, I gave Sarah a big hug and thanked her. I couldn’t thank her enough. Can we ever really thank those trainers who, like us, sees the shining gem under the rough exterior of our horses? The ones who know how to reveal what lies hidden beneath the surface. The three of us chatted for about an hour, then Sarah observed she had several more horses to ride yet today, so it was time for us to part ways. AJ returned with Sarah to finish the last two weeks of his time with her. As Sarah loaded AJ into her trailer, a flush of emotion came over me.
Sitting in my car, brimming with satisfaction, and relief, I reflected for a moment or two before turning the ignition key. It was hard to contain my excitement and enthusiasm. Shaking my head, I silently laughed at earlier self and how I actually thought about calling Sarah to tell her I wasn’t ready. Didn’t make that call because I knew I was ready. I couldn’t wait to get home and write about it on my FaceBook page. I had taken a few pictures and after feeding Duke, my 20 year old Morgan gelding, I returned home to jot down a few words so I could share the story. That was the short story. This is the expanded, detailed version.
I hope you enjoyed it, and if you ever find yourself losing that feeling with your horse, turn to someone who can help you return to it with your horse.
This is my view…between the ears.