No matter how attentive we might be to issues of safety, there are always risks involved in working with horses, and, particularly, in riding. Given my age and the bone density issue I have, I am acutely aware of these risks. Consequently, I contend with a certain level of fear, particularly, with a fear of falling. In adulthood, I have had a couple of traumatic falls, and, although they were a long time ago, the bodily memory remains. Despite this, I have a deep need to continue riding.
Some time ago, Corey suggested that I write about why riding is so important to me and how I address my issues with fear. This could be encouraging, he thought, to others in similar situations. While we all have our particular histories with horses, fear in working with them is common, even if not always acknowledged. (At this point, it is perhaps worth mentioning that it was after the second of those falls that I sought out a different way of working with horses, one that focussed on learning how to understand and communicate with horses.)
Briefly, here is my history. When I was 5, I started caring for and riding a pony. I rode almost every day throughout my childhood and into my teens. As a young adult, I rode on and off when I had the opportunity, but it wasn’t until I was 40 that I again had a horse of my own and began to ride regularly. I now have two lovely arab mares, Peridot and Pia, who are cared for by Corey and Suzi. Horses, then, have been part of my life since those formative years of childhood, and, quite simply, I love them – I love the feel of stroking them, the peaceful sound of contented eating, their smell, their soft muzzles…. And I miss all of this if I’m away for a while, for horses are a part of my being.
As a child, I was fearless when I rode and had no trouble getting straight back on after a fall. As I grow older, I am more at risk of serious injury, and, with experience, I have become more aware of the potential dangers and my vulnerability. So, to avoid the risk, I could give up riding and focus on other aspects of my relation with horses. In fact, I find everything that we do ‘on the ground’ interesting. On the ground as much as in the saddle, whenever I am really communicating with a horse, I feel a sense of wonder at finding the horseness in myself. Nevertheless, there is something special about the bodily sensation of riding, of moving together, of the rhythm in our horse-and-human body.
What keeps me riding are those timeless moments of joyful aliveness when my horse and I are in-tune with each other, being carried by the connection between us. These are moments when things come together, when something feels just right. I had one of these moments recently with Peridot: after having had some issues with our forwardness, there was a change, with some lovely free-flowing balanced trot. And then a smooth, floating transition down to walk. Corey and I had been working on this communication issue with patience for a while, and so the ease and rhythm of that trot felt magical.
Joyful moments like these happen particularly when I am having fun. To encourage playfulness, Corey will sometimes set up a course of obstacles for us. Unfortunately, I can turn this into a try-hard exercise, on turns, say, which will be neither fun nor effective. What can work better for losing wilfulness is what I call the ‘rocks and trees’ game, played in the bush outside the more formal ‘playground’. In this game, my horse and I have tasks to do together: we are going over rocks, between rocks, up and down slopes, around trees, engaged and interested in this adventure, exploring things together. I let go of any self-centred wilfulness that I might have had when doing an ‘exercise’. Now, I’m completely absorbed in this activity, having fun, feeling like a child, playing. And, we’re doing turns! I’m out of myself, in the bush with my horse, our horse-and-human bodies weaving around trees. In moments like those, I forget myself and my age, and I forget about fear.
[Painting by Max Ragless, from the family home, now in my apartment.]
This game is so effective because it resonates with a daydreaming I have of riding in the country, along dirt roads and bush paths, a dreaming of horse-and-human movement connecting with the movement of the path drawing us on through the bush. ‘Oh, my roads and their cadence’ (Jean Caubère, Déserts) evokes perfectly this meeting of horse and road dreams. While this dreaming draws on childhood memories of riding in the country, it opens to a deeper dreaming beyond those memories, to an archaic dreaming of a place, an experience, I’ve ‘known forever’.
Wonderfully, there are times, these days, when I get to live these dreams. (In the past, I have ridden tracks on the Yorkshire moors and monks’ paths in Tuscany.) When Corey judges that the circumstances are right – with me, my horse, our connection and the environment – we head out beyond the familiar and relatively controlled area of the playground, out along the dirt road that runs through the property beside a creek or up a bush track into the surrounding hills and gullies. This is what I love doing best of all with one of my horses, even though it can feel a little scary at times. Riding in this sort of environment takes considerable skill and awareness. To be able to respond calmly, appropriately, to whatever might arise – a kangaroo jumping across the path, a motor bike coming along the road, a newly dug wombat hole, a goanna running up a tree – you need to be in-tune with your horse, but also with the environment.
As my horse and I relax into the rhythm of the ride, we track up a hill, and I can feel horse-and-human muscles meeting with the track’s ‘muscles’, our feet connecting with earth. We are immersed in the environment, surrounded by trees, sandstone cliffs, birdsong and butterflies, pausing now and then to really let down and take it all in. In the silence, I watch the sky reflections on the lake below, the water birds, a sea eagle soaring high above us. And breathe in bush air. This is it! I’m smiling, I’m where I want to be, with my horse, on a dirt track in the bush.
Implicitly I’ve been suggesting that the key to addressing the issue of fear is an awareness of our state of being. I recently heard a concert pianist give a similar response in relation to stage fright. When Tamara-Anna Cislouska was very young, her piano teacher mother told her: ‘If you are nervous, you are thinking about yourself. You need to think about the music. Serve the music.’ This is also wonderful advice for us horse riders. We need to get out of our self-centred states and ‘Listen to the horse’ as Tom Dorrance puts it. Only then can we offer our horse the right support at the right time. (True Unity pp 17-21). And when we are in a relational state, providing the trustworthy support our horse needs rather than focussing on our worries, we are in fact creating a safer space for both of us.
In order to provide that calm trustworthy space for our horse we need to be present and grounded, like a tree, reliably there, with our feet-roots firmly planted, in connection with the earth. This is the case whether we are working ‘on the ground’ or in the saddle: in our horse-human body, we feel right down to our hoofs-feet. Acquiring this state requires slow, deep breathing, a relaxation of our shoulders, opening of our chests and a lowering of our centre of gravity as we ‘get out of our heads’, let go of our ‘selves’ and connect with our horses.
With awareness, I hope to be able to catch myself if I’m going into a self-centred fearful state. A sure sign of this is becoming controlling, by, for example, shortening my reins, which can then set up a cycle of control and fear: my horse feels trapped and looks for a way out, I try to control more, becoming more fearful and so on. In a situation like this, I can find myself slipping into that self-protective posture of leaning forward and closing my chest. When in that ungrounded, and, very unsafe, position, I distinctly feel like a separate ‘human’ being, which tells me just how unsupported my horse must be feeling – sensing my fear, she will think there is something to worry about. So, rather than reacting to a situation of worry for either of us, I need to breathe, slow down and stroke her, calming us both. In a connected, grounded state, I can feel my whole horse-human body, and the difference it makes for my horse is unmistakable. Rather than try to take-over, and/or look for things to worry about, she will relax and get in-tune.
Being grounded and present, I can let go of a fear of falling and ride with faith. Rather than anticipating a fall, I trust in the relation and ride now, with confidence and joyful openness.
On this note, I would like to thank Corey for providing a trustworthy learning space for myself and my horses, and for knowing when we are ready to take up new challenges with confidence.
With thanks to Andrew and Corey for feedback on drafts.
PS After my brother, Philip, had read this piece, he reminded me that, in childhood, our ponies were our ‘safe space’. We’d feel ‘cocooned’ in their stables, ‘comforted by their warm breath and soft muzzles and chaff blowing’. And, we did have a lot of fun having adventures with them.