Just Me and My Horse
By Betsy Kelleher
Riding alone may not always be wise, but there is a definite joy in the special bond you develop with a horse out on the trail alone. I haven’t ridden alone much for several years. I enjoy riding with others, and I feel safer.
I would feel safe riding Traveller alone almost anywhere. But I don’t ride Lady very far alone, and I’ve been asking myself, what is the basic issue here? How can I fix this? It isn’t the age of the horse, or the breed. I want to say that it’s mental confidence and maturity, which could be improved with training. But with Lady, it’s not that simple. It’s her temperament.
I prefer a horse that I would feel safe riding alone. Some horses get hard to handle when they aren’t with a riding buddy or when heading back to the barn. Young horses may not have enough confidence in themselves or their rider. And then there’s Lady. She has a mind of her own and can be very assertive. She’s a fast thinker, a fast mover, very smart and very Alpha! She doesn’t spook often, but when she does, you better be ready! I’d like to think that Lady and I have a good bond, that she respects and trusts me, and that we have a good partnership. But that doesn’t change her personality.
If I don’t feel safe riding a horse where I want to go, then something isn’t as good as it should be. Perhaps the horse’s training hasn’t gone far enough, or the respect isn’t strong enough, or this horse has issues that need to be addressed. So what can I do? This year, I’ve ridden down the scary road (with big trucks) with two friends who have more courage than I do and who know how to stay calm. It has helped.
I still don’t ride Lady very far alone. I want to be sure my horse can handle the situations we encounter, and I want to be sure I can handle my horse. I want to KNOW we can meet obstacles as partners, and trust each other to stay safe with a mutual confidence in each other.
There are always risks when riding alone. It’s wise to wear a helmet, and carry a cell phone. Think about where you will go and what you will encounter. Be prepared. Do what you can at home first, to duplicate any situations and objects you might encounter on the trail. A young horse needs lots of exposure to everything possible; but at the same time, you need to develop the horse’s confidence in you and in himself to be able to handle new things. An older horse may be calm and experienced, but you need to be alert for things that this particular horse reacts to in ways you might not expect.
Cynthia Medina can make Lady go or stand where she may not want to, but I’m not that confident yet. I usually ride Lady in the arena awhile, feeling her mood and her degree of responsiveness and calmness. If she seems quiet enough, then I venture down the driveway, into the road a little ways both directions. I may take her by the gate with the flags waving (not a problem), or ask her to stop by the mailbox. I have even stopped by the big green garbage can, lifting the lid and letting it slam shut. No problem there. And I feel pretty confident that we can stay relaxed when the dogs come running out barking in a circle around us. It’s only when I see a huge truck coming down the road toward us that I get this sudden panic in the center of my tummy. I’m hoping that someday I will know in my heart that Lady and I can go safely on down the road as that truck passes, but we’re just not there yet. And yes, I realize that it’s my own confidence as much as Lady’s that needs work.
I recently read a newsletter from Mary Midkiff, which talked about training the horse’s nervous system. I was especially interested, since my Traveller’s experiences with EPM, which does affect the central nervous system. This newsletter was more geared toward training than health issues, but the two are very closely related, and we need to remember that. This particular newsletter has really started me thinking.
Mary Midkiff is an author and trainer who specializes in issues pertaining to women and horses. Her website is www.womenandhorses.com (she includes my book on her “bookshelf,” by the way). She has written “She Flies Without Wings,” as well as “Fitness, Performance and the Female Equestrian.” Based in Colorado, under the name Equestrian Resources, she offers training advice, books, fitness materials, saddles especially for women, essential oils and almost everything of interest to a woman who loves horses! I receive her e-mail newsletter, which always has interesting information.
“Just like any animal that has been raised with trust, support, patience, respect, understanding and compassion from a very young age, a fully made horse is a horse that is well-adjusted, trusting and fully realized.” Sounds like a horse you could ride alone, right?
In this newsletter, Mary writes about helping the horse to focus on the human, to bond, and to stay calm and relaxed and to be comfortable and confident. She stresses the need for physical comfort in the horse, a relaxed and alert mind, and good health. But training a horse is more than physical development. She says to “train and ride to educate and encourage rather than just exercising your horse’s legs.” Instead of lunging to wear a horse down, find exercises that use his mind. I’ve been asking Traveller to walk over poles, step over branches, back up, and do lots of circles, asking him to use his rear end more to strengthen both his mind and muscle. What does Lady need?
I realize that much of the horse and rider partnership depends on us. “If you are well-adjusted and balanced within yourself, and know when to be firm and strong and when to be soft and allowing in your mind and in your body, this will pass along to your (horse).” OK Mary, now you’re really hitting home. We have to work on ourselves as well as our horses. We need to keep ourselves calm and in control and to pass that inner confidence on to our partner. I’ve been told that very thing several times, and I’ve repeated it in this column! Isn’t that a product of personal growth and maturity? Isn’t our mental health and spiritual balance part of our confidence?
Owning a horse isn’t a simple thing. Wanna-be horse owners need to understand this. Buying a horse is only the beginning! We need to understand our own personality and what kind of horse we can handle, and we need a basic understanding of the horse as well. We must be committed to care for this horse and to work with the horse in a way that benefits both of us. The wonderful thing about owning a horse is the way we can grow and learn from each other. Caring for a horse is a challenge. It is a great responsibility, just like raising a child, and it is a precious opportunity and blessing.
If we grow within ourselves as a result of owning a horse, that may be what God intended. If I can help Lady trust me enough to control her fears of big traffic, and if I can learn to relax and stay in control of my own emotions, then we have both come a long way.
Riding alone in the past, I have found great freedom in the experience. Just as being alone with the Living God provides great peace and joy and a precious communion! Is it sacrilegious to want to feel one with a horse and with God, all at the same time?
God has not left us without help and support. His Holy Spirit is always with us, to offer guidance and strength and courage, as well as caution. Fears have a purpose, you know. Not all fears should be ignored. We know when we are ready to face something. We know when we are not. It is up to each one of us to deal with our issues so that we can become more mature, as we were meant to become.
In II Timothy 1:7, Paul reminds his young disciple, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” And in II Timothy 3:16-17, Paul admonishes us all: “All scripture is God-breathed (given by inspiration of God), and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The goal is maturity.
We train our horses to depend on us and to obey us, and we need to discipline ourselves to become the mature and worthy rider that our horse needs. Our goal is inner spiritual and mental growth, for both horse and rider. To do that, we can tap into the resources that God offers us, through his Spirit and through his Word. A partnership exists between my horse and me, but there is a greater partnership between me and my God. Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we can grow and develop greater maturity within ourselves, and then communicate that confidence and strength to others, even to our horsey companions!
(Originally published in the September 2006 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)