Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Letting Go

Today marks six years since the riding accident that broke my back.  It was the accident that ended my career as a horseman.  The lingering effects of that injury are still vexing me today.

In my experience, after a riding accident people go one of two ways:  Either you become afraid and eventually stop riding, or you push through because you're just too stupid to learn.  I pushed through after my injury, but I will not say that I was unchanged.  It isn't fear, I actually had (and still have) a sort of "indestructible" complex.  I've already fallen and been broken.  I got back up and kept right on pushing.  Nothing can stop me now, right?  I've invested far too much of my life to give up now.

Except that my body doesn't always cooperate with me any more, and that knocks my confidence more than any fear ever could.  I am not the same rider I was before I fell. 

Before I fell, I was strong and effective in the saddle.  I was quick to react and I could push a horse through any resistance.  I was a bulldog in the saddle, and I could ride anything. 

After my fall, I am weak and slow.  My body doesn't do what I tell it to.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in a lesson.  My trainer yells "Flex him, flex him NOW!".  My brain yells "Left leg, now, Now NOW!!!!"  My left leg does nothing while my trainer yells and my brain yells and my horse just blows through me like I'm not even there.  And my confidence shatters.  I am not afraid to ride, I'm just incapable of doing it.  I want it, but I'm just not good enough. 

That's how I feel most of the time: Just not good enough.  But something clicked in my last lesson.  A simple idea that I've heard a million times, and expressed a million times, cut through my doubt. 

A simple idea: "Don't rely on your strength, you'll never be stronger than a horse." 

I've spent so many years mourning the rider I was that I've failed to see the rider I would have become and the rider I still can become.  With experience and finesse the bulldog of my youth would have mellowed.  She would have become a sensitive, tactful trainer of horses.  She would have used her brain to ride a horse, not her strength. 

I had that epiphany after about the millionth time riding in a circle listening to my poor trainer yell "Activate him!".  I stopped my horse and protested, "I'm trying, but I don't have the strength!".  His response was simple, and not a new idea: "Don't use your muscles, use your brain.". 

Of course!  I know better than that, I am better educated than that.... but it so easy to fall back on our strength. It is so easy to be bullish.  Far easier than actually sitting back and thinking about the problem. Far quicker, too.

My lack of strength is not my problem.  My reliance on my strength is my problem....


  1. You were an aggressive, push through the problem, kind of rider. Now you will have to become a more effective rider. You will be a better rider for it.
    I didn't have an accident that changed me but I didn't ride for over 15 years. When I got back into it and determined to learn to jump I found that I had acquired 40ish fears, knowledge of mortality and an awareness of the consequences of a bad fall. My previous 20 something self had been an aggressive, fearless rider. Like you I had a memory of a different way of riding and like you I was upset for years at the 'loss.' I am finally coming to see that my aggressive riding would not have worked today on the horses I ride (OTTBs) and the sport I love, eventing. The more tactful rider I am learning to be suits my current life just fine.
    You are not alone and you have lost nothing! You just have new things to learn.

  2. A most excellent solution. :-) Thanks for the post.

  3. I'm of the opinion that you have to ride with your mind most of the time. I've been guilty of aggressive riding with my warmblood because he was so hard to get moving forward. This was mainly because the trainer trained him that way. After we left there and my daughter started training him he was as soft and responsive as you could ask for. I feel a lot of it is in the training. All of our horses go with the slightest touch of leg and rein. It can be learned and I think you're sensitive enough a rider to accomplish this sort of connection with your horse. We don't need the bullish strength to communicate what we want, we just need to practice a lighter touch.

  4. I still remember my teeny tiny trainer riding her HUGE warmblood mare. "How can you get her to work like that?" I asked. "She is so big and you cannot be that strong on her."

    "I just never let her get heavy to my aids," my trainer replied. "If a horse can feel a mosquito, she can certainly feel me."

    Somehow that quite sums it up.

  5. Use your weakness . . . I also (many years ago) used to be an aggressive, do-anything ride through anything rider. I'm not anymore - both for philosophical and physical reasons, and think I'm a better rider for it.

  6. As I was reading your post, I was thinking of those para-equestrians at the Olympics who are riding Grand Prix with disabilities. If they can ride without strength at that level of finesse and communication, surely there must be something to it. Good for you and your epiphany!

  7. No history of strong brave riding here. I spent my early riding years being over-faced and over-horsed by a dangerously incompetent trainer.

    As a forty something woman who works in a very physical occupation - landscaping - I have learned (the hard way) that using the muscle in my head is preferable to my other, often less well equipped muscles. I call it - cleverage ;)

    Thanks for the thoughtful and sincere post.

  8. I would say this is a big problem of mine and I love your quote and it is something I need to think on.

  9. Thanks so much for this post.
    My new horse is a 16.2hh TB and me being me am really short.His back is a lot taller than me.
    Anyway to get to the point this post helped me realise that I can't fight him when we are having problems because he will always win. You just gave me solution to our problem :)

  10. Excellent post and a great reminder to us all. :) Keep up the great work. You'll get there.

  11. Great post. I had a fall that put me off for 15 years - I call that my sensible days where I let my head rule my heart and ditched the silly dangerous sport. When I came back I lacked strength, seat and any kind of sensitivity, and two years in I still struggle to get the response my trainer asks of me.

    I try to hard mostly...I like Jean's Mosquito comment, I will try to think of that as I knock my pan in!

    "Good, is good enough" they say.

  12. An accident like this is such a scary idea. I don't let myself think about it, but deep down it's something I worry about. This is such an inspirational and well written post. Kudos to you on so many levels.

  13. Awesome, enlightened post.

    I do everything that I can to preserve my confidence as a rider. I have been bold and ridden horses that required lots of strength, but I have realized that I was not having as much fun as I do now, riding my thin-skinned horse who refuses to be muscled. I actually used to lift weights to be able to ride the heavy, warmbloods that I took lessons on. I also used to have a trainer who yelled. I have dropped both of those things and I would not go back.

    1. I would be so bold as to say that those "heavy" warmbloods were not very well trained. No horse should be heavy, we should not have to muscle them around. In fact, the entire idea behind training them is so that we don't have to muscle them around! I see a lot of "heavy" horses in the sport, and it saddens me. It doesn't have to be that way. Strength is a young rider's game, and there's a reason the Master's of our sport were all old!

      As far as the yelling goes, I must say that there is "yelling", and there is "yelling". I have been around "trainers" who yell, but have nothing to say. They suck. They are the people who yell for every little infraction, because they cannot see past their own ego. They will yell at anyone, for any reason. I have little respect for them.

      My trainer does yell at me, but he is also a close friend of mine. So, the yelling is not inappropriate. We know each other very well. He knows I won't get upset if he yells, I know he only yells because I'm doing something really stupid. He knows I know better, I know he knows I know better. Plus, I'm a yeller, too. We even occasionally get in screaming matches. But, I always respect his opinion, and his yelling, because he has the best interest of my horse at heart. He will not tolerate me doing anything that could potentially break down my horse. When it comes to the well-being of my horse, he does not care about my ego at all. And that is why I respect him, why he is my trainer, and why he is my friend.


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