Garbage Cans and Cardboard Boxes--Oh My!
By Betsy Kelleher
Now that I have only one horse, I feel like a new woman! Life is easier, with less pressure, and I have more time and money. My husband cleans the stall, and I ride. What more could I ask? Well, I’d rather have my old reliable Traveller back, but that’s not possible. I may never make Lady into the perfect horse, but I’m going to enjoy the effort—because I’m not ready to trade her off!
After a recent ride, I had an epiphany! Doing great things with my horse isn’t necessary as long as I enjoy what I do. If I listen for her willingness and work with that instead of trying to force what I want, Lady and I can enjoy the ride wherever it goes.
When I was in my 40’s, I was obsessed with distance riding. I started with an excitable, headstrong Appaloosa mare that loved to run, and I wasn’t afraid to take off alone down the road. Well, maybe I was a little nervous, but I went anyway. And I loved an exciting fast pace. After Lady spun with me on the road eight years ago, I lost my courage. I’m not afraid of Lady now, but I’m still cautious. Since I usually ride alone, I only go where I feel comfortable and safe. My pace is slower and so is the progress, but I enjoy what I’m doing. My goal is simply to expand Lady’s comfort zone and deal with obstacles along the way.
Earlier this year, as I rode Lady into the woods, we surprised three deer. I could barely see them between the trees. Lady stopped and I could sense her telling me, “I’m not going one more step in that direction!” I let her stand there, actually happy she had not whirled around to run. I waited until everything was quiet up ahead and she relaxed. We went on a short distance, but the path was blocked. I turned her around and made her stand there a moment. I know a nervous horse wants to go faster the minute you turn for home, especially from something scary. So when I turn Lady around, I usually ask her to stand still a moment. A few days later, I rode that same wooded trail with two riding buddies behind me. One deer suddenly ran out quite close ahead of us, but Lady did not spook. She just kept walking along, calmly. I knew it helped that she was not alone.
With flies and mosquitoes so thick now on the trail and in the woods, I’ve been riding on the road. Yeah, that same road that I used to avoid! I originally planned to ride a little further each day until we went the whole mile. Maybe that was too much to ask. Instead, I ride to one place several times, and then a little farther several times. One day, I walked and led Lady almost half way! Cars and a pickup went by, and a dog came out barking at us but left when I talked to him. I just wanted to take her farther than she had been ridden, and let her know there was plenty of yummy grass ahead. Yeah, I use grass as a reward. It works! I’m sure that’s why Lady now goes eagerly down the trail all the way to the woods.
One day I asked Lady to walk between empty garbage cans near the edge of the road. Two were upright, and one was on its side and she walked between them with no hesitation, even though the space was narrow. We walked on down the road. When we came back, I asked her to walk on the other side of the garbage cans. The can on its side was lying with the open end toward us. Apparently that dark open hole looked dangerous, and she refused to go any closer. She tried to back away, even though she had walked within inches of that thing only a few minutes earlier from another direction. It took about 10 minutes, walking around the cans at a safe distance, walking away from them then back toward them, before she finally walked past, keeping her head down, watching for anything that might jump out of that black hole.
I then dismounted and led her back to the trio of garbage cans. I walked her closer and she finally touched one with her nose. I asked her to walk between them as she had before, and she did. She was cautious, but she seemed relaxed and maybe just a little embarrassed.
I am more able to help Lady work through her fears now. She seems braver when I’m on the ground beside her or when she is ridden with other horses. I don’t force her to get too close too soon to something that scares her. I let her stand awhile where she feels safe, and then I ask her to gradually get closer one step at a time, or to walk on by at a safe distance. I give her time to think about it, and I encourage her to check it out for herself. Calm patience really is the key. And when I can relax, it helps Lady relax.
Another day as we started down the road, I saw a pile of large cardboard boxes at the first house on the right. I knew by the way Lady was already looking at them that she wouldn’t go too close. So I rode on the opposite side of the road. When she stopped and lowered her head, I let her look. Then I asked her to sidepass along that side of the road until we got past the boxes. Coming back later, I purposely did not look at them, and I made a conscious effort to breathe deeply, sit down into my saddle and look straight ahead (Hey Cindy, I do remember your lessons!). Lady walked on by.
I’ve also ridden her beyond our most recent stopping point to watch a riding lawn mower moving back and forth. Such noisy things have spooked her in the past. I merely asked her to stand still at a safe distance. She wanted to turn around, but I wouldn’t let her. When we did turn back toward the barn, I first asked her to stand quietly for a moment, and we stopped again a few times on the way back. I gave lots of praise as she did. This process of riding out alone has finally taught me something valuable. If doing less helps me relax, it has the same effect on Lady.
Lady may never be the perfect horse. And we may never ride that whole mile beside the barn. I trust that time will give me what I am meant to have. At my age, I am satisfied with less. Lady’s smooth gait is easy on my back, and she can be fast when I ask.
We don’t always have the horse we want, but we often have the horse we need at the time. Lady has been a challenge to confront my fearfulness. What we are doing now isn’t impressive, but I am more relaxed now than I was a few years ago. My goal is to simply enjoy what I am doing, even one small accomplishment. Lady and I are working well together, within a relationship of trust.
My spiritual journey this year has gone through a valley of sadness and loss. I claim Isaiah 43:1 as special comfort: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are mine.” I realize more than ever that I am alone with God through many of life’s moments and especially at the end of life. Our relationship is what helps me find hope and joy in spite of life’s fears and troubles.
(Originally published in the July 2013 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)