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Old Habits Die Hard

Old Habits Die Hard!

By Betsy Kelleher

     With the worst heat of the year behind us (hopefully), maybe we can get back to serious riding! One of my “projects” is to work on changing a particular habit that is bothering me.

     I have a tendency to tighten up when a situation gets scary and that sometimes causes trouble. Don’t suppose anyone else has that problem, hmm? I have become aware of this tendency because when Cynthia Medina rides with me, she TELLS me!

     For example, we were riding one day around a lake not far from the stable.  We had just encountered a very scary little boat resting half on the water and half on the bank, and both Lady and Rocky were quite unsure of this thing, even though we have ridden around it before. After getting close enough to realize it wasn’t going to eat them, we were just standing there quietly by the lake, when I saw about 20 geese flying straight for us, coming down to land right in front of us.  I could only imagine how two horses would react to this sight and I imagined the worst. I tensed up, tightened up on my reins, and Rocky started to back up, which of course made me MORE scared of what he might do next. Then Cindy’s quiet voice reminded me that I was pulling on the reins and Rocky was backing up just as I was asking him to do!  Oops. So I loosened the reins, and Rocky just stood there as those geese saw us and decided not to land but instead flew right over our heads! Rocky didn’t spook as I had imagined he would!

      Another day I was on Lady, and I asked her to sidepass over a pole on the ground behind the barn. She got a bit fussy and started to back up instead. Only problem was, beside the pole was a long rope sometimes used as a temporary fence now lying on the ground, and of course she got one foot caught in it as she backed up. And of course, reacting fearfully, I tightened up with my hands tight on the reins, and she kept on backing.  I yelled whoa several times, quite loudly, as I saw the rope move with us and get tighter. But I finally wised up and loosened the reins, and she stopped. And then my dear old Traveller came around the corner of the barn and whinnied at me, as if to say, are you alright? I actually told him, I’m OK, and he went back to his paddock buddies out of sight. Guess my yelling concerned him, and he had to check on me. Now that was a touching experience!

     I can remember another time, maybe 20 years ago, when I tightened up on the reins and actually caused a problem that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. The point being that this is not a new habit with me but it has come to my attention that I should do something about it.

     As always, a rider must first identify a problem. And now I have.  Next, it’s time to do research, talk to an expert, read books or magazines, and decide on a solution. Then, be patient and persistent and work to change the habit. To do that, it is often helpful, even necessary, to get help from someone else. That’s why I ride with Cindy, because she is a great reminder!

     Each of us has a different issue to identify and deal with.  Each horse has a different issue, as well, that may cause our issue to surface. When you know your horse and what he/she is afraid of, you can better prepare for what is coming, or at least know what to avoid until you can help your horse overcome its fears.  I already know my horse’s issues all too well, and sometimes that adds to the problem.  If I am riding Lady and I see a four wheeler or tractor or big truck coming, I panic. I need to stay calm and give her some work to do. If I am riding Rocky, I watch for tarps or plastic bags blowing in the wind. I need to be sure I have his attention. Of course, any horse may have a surprise now and then and you need to be ready. But when I ride Traveller, I don’t have this problem, because few situations bother him enough to make me afraid. That’s the kind of horse you want! My husband’s old Ginger is that kind of horse, too.

     So HOW do I learn to change this scenario?  How do I stop myself from tightening up in a scary situation and pulling unconsciously on the reins? Will I EVER be able to stop doing this? Will I ever get Rocky over his fear of tarps and Lady over her fears of big scary things coming toward her?

     It only takes a moment for something to happen, and the rider’s reaction is often the solution or the cause of disaster. One important issue is attitude. Of course we understand that tightening up is simply a fear of what might happen. It may not seem important to look ahead for potential problems, but it’s always better to avoid a problem than to have to deal with it at the wrong time. When we become aware of a potential problem, we need to deal with it where we can be in control of the situation. When we carry our fears too far and we are constantly on edge worrying about everything that might happen, constantly playing little videos in our heads of certain catastrophe, THAT is what we must avoid. Instead, we need a pre-programmed plan to handle the probabilities. I am trying very hard to stay calm and to be a confident rider and to visualize positive thoughts. And I have been taking advantage of every opportunity to stage incidents that might help both me and my horse. Like taking Lady just close enough to stand quietly while someone is running a lawn mower or tractor and consciously NOT tightening up on the reins!

     In my own situation, I know two things that contribute to my habit. My first horse liked to run. I was always holding her back, finishing every ride with tired arms. I wish I would have known more then, and been able to teach her to give to the bit instead of always pulling on it! When we got into competitive trail riding, she was able to go like she wanted to, and I probably learned better balance in the process. But I did have to learn not to use the reins for balance and support with other horses I rode later.

     Balance on a horse is very important. With good balance, and an independent riding seat, we have a more secure position on any horse. I have heard that some riding instructors start their students lunging on a horse without reins until they develop a good seat. The one time I did ride a horse bareback on a lunge line, I sure did hang on tight! I’m not a bareback rider, however, and I prefer the security of a saddle and stirrups. My favorite saddle doesn’t have a horn, but it does have a nice endurance “handle” in front when I need it!

     Leg and foot placement is also important. I still remember the one time I entered Traveller in a jumping trail class at Fox Fire and came off during a practice jump (Traveller cleared the one-footer higher than expected!) and Connie Owens told me most definitely that I didn’t have my heels down! I was wearing new paddock boots, laced a bit too tight, and they hurt. I loosened the lacing before the actual class, and Traveller and I did pretty well over the half dozen jumps, earning a 4th place ribbon.

     The other experience that contributed to my fearfulness was when Lady spun with me on the road a couple years ago when the big dumpster truck passed us. I don’t remember being fearful before that day, but since then I have had to deal with that fear every time I saddle a horse! I believe my balance and seat kept me from coming off that day, but I am also very much aware that next time I might not be so lucky.

     I’ve probably got off track here, but the point is: a secure seat that comes from good balance and leg placement is better than using reins for support and balance. The better my seat and balance, the more confident I can feel. If I get a fearful attitude, that’s one issue to deal with. If that fearfulness causes me to pull on the reins in a scary situation, that is another issue, but they are very much related. I need to work on both issues separately and at the same time when possible. If I can learn to stay relaxed in the saddle, breathe deeply and stay quiet in a balanced seat, maybe I won’t tighten up on the reins. Basically, I want to feel that I can handle a situation safely, and that I am in control. When I think my horse might do something I can’t handle, I get scared and that old habit pops back into place! But since our horses often sense our fears and are negatively influenced by them, we need to work to stay calm and have a confident control.

     We encounter the same principle in our spiritual experience. Think about it. When some situation causes us worry, like a financial problem or a health problem, we tighten up. We are afraid of what might happen. We are afraid of losing control. We pull inward, we tend to hold our breath and focus on the problem itself. Sometimes our worry causes more problems.

     We need to have a plan in mind to handle probabilities, and we need to trust God to provide our needs and to help and guide. Remaining calm gives us greater ability to handle the situation. Instead of being fearful, we should look up to a higher power, breathing deeply from a strong inner faith and focusing on a God who is greater than any difficulty. Psalm 121 puts it this way, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills---from whence comes my help? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

     God is still in control. We can choose to focus on our problem and our own limited resources, or to focus on God’s Sovereignty and infinite grace. We may need to learn to change our focus. Relying on self, it is never enough. With God’s help, all things are possible.

     Just as a rider knows it is important to keep a horse’s attention on the rider’s control, we humans need to be sure we are in close touch and submissive to the One who has control of all things and the One who is able to help us through any situation.
(Originally published in the September 2007 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)

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