BY LAUREN MAULDIN
Here are some facts about me:
At any given time, I’m thinking through at least five different things in my head (What do I need from the grocery store? I have to finish grading before my Friday discussions sections. Do I have any clean pants at home? Crap. I think I’m out of dog food. What’s my course again… is it diagonal rollback oxer, or outside bending oxer?). Also, I’m a huge chicken. At the beginning of a lesson, any jump over 2′ looks big to me. If it’s an oxer? Make that 18″. I’m a ridiculous Type-A, overly ambitious Capricorn. Beating myself up about mistakes is one of my hobbies — especially when it comes to riding.
Here are some facts about my horse:
He’s extremely emotional, and will completely shut down if he feel like he’s “done a bad job.” If he likes you, he’ll try his hardest until the end of time. When he’s feeling fresh, he ducks and wiggles his head a little bit like a dog shaking a toy. He knows the difference between when the trainers groom him and when his mom grooms him (Mom doesn’t get mad if he looks for cookies in her pockets). He was bred in San Marcos, Texas to a hobby racehorse breeder. He has terrible hocks. He’d never pass a vet check. His lead changes are sticky, and by any realistic description he’s your run of the mill, average hunter/jumper OTTB.
But he’s worth his weight in gold, and here’s why.
Last week, I had one of those lessons where I just could not get my crap together. It was one of those days where my trainer wanted to start off with a line, and I requested a single instead because I wasn’t feeling brave enough to tackle two jumps in a row without a circle and time for meditative breathing in-between.
When we started jumping that single, I could not find a distance to save my life. To. Save. My. Life. I pulled when I should have added leg (when am I not supposed to add leg?). I dropped my hands when I should have supported him. I came in hot when I should have waited. No matter what the scenario, I missed again and again and again.
Do you know what my little, average OTTB did during the entire lesson? He pricked his ears forward and cantered up to that jump as many times as I missed to it. He never got mad. He never got frustrated. When I was close to having a full blown meltdown due to my complete and total inability to ride, he just kept jumping that jump with a smile on his face.
After my lesson, I groomed him and shoveled piles of cookies in his mouth to apologize, but I couldn’t shake off the guilt that I felt over my poor performance. My horse doesn’t just take a joke, he takes an entire comedy show. Why can’t I ride like someone who is worthy of such a happy, willing creature? Do I even deserve him at all?
I think many ambitious, dedicated adult amateurs ask themselves this question at least once a season. We want so much to do right by our horses, but sometimes we struggle. The truth is, riding is just one of the many things we have to juggle in life. We work. We have families. We have friends and (in theory) social obligations outside of the barn we can’t neglect. Riding is an important part of our life, but it’s not the only part. We can’t be like the professionals who dedicate every hour to the barn, and we can’t expect ourselves to ride like that either.
When I start to fall down the Adult Amateur Guilt hole, I pull myself out by shifting the focus from all the mistakes I make with my horse, to all the ways I try to do right by him.
I have a tendency to pull too much and lock my feel on his mouth, but I ride him in a gentle bit. Not only that, but I pay a good trainer to remind me (usually multiple times in an hour) to loosen up my elbows.
I’m terrified of the big oxers and “fun” jumps that he loves so much, but I take him for weekly hacks outside of the ring. I let him gallop up the hill, and don’t get mad when he tosses his head or acts a little bit fresh because he’s feeling good that day.
Whether I have a terrible lesson or an amazing one, I treat him the same every time. He gets liniment baths, all kinds of fancy sprays and lotions for his sensitive skin, long curries over his itchy spots and of course — lots of cookies.
If he ever acts strangely or has a dip in performance, I look to his body for answers before accusing my trainer or my horse. He has a good farrier, never misses a dental appointment, and enough GastroGard and fancy digestive supplements to keep his stomach happy through a post-apocalyptic crisis.
Even with me as his questionably talented, distance missing owner, my horse will never have to worry about his health or safety.
Unlike us, horses don’t have great ambition. Even the immensely talented ones don’t wake up in the morning and think, I’m really going to be disappointed if I don’t make the Olympic team next year. All they know is what’s immediately in front of them. Sometimes that’s a 2’6″ single with a rider that can’t find a distance that day, and sometimes it’s a big pile of fresh hay.
That’s what I have to remember when I start feeling guilty that I’m letting my horse down. I think that if you asked him, he’d say the only way I could let him down (besides stopping with all the cookies!) would be to give up on us as a team.
About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.
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