BY RENNIE DYBALL
I got back in the saddle the day I was cleared to ride.
Anxiety did its best to eat me alive on the car ride to the barn, but I blasted music and eyed my new helmet in the passenger seat, a replacement following my lawn dart-style fall.
It was exactly eight weeks prior that I took that head-first tumble. I would spend the next three weeks not driving, another five weeks not riding, and—I feared—the rest of my natural life unsure about getting back in the saddle.
Because recovering from a bad fall now, in my late thirties, is nothing like it was in college. Shocking, I know. At 21 I was rattled by a scary, unplanned dismount, but I was equally focused on finishing my final IHSA season strong.
But now? Oh, just having a mild existential crisis over whether I can keep riding and showing at all while chasing this dream of finally owning a horse of my own. What about the risks? The What Ifs?
As someone with anxiety, I’m constantly battling those What Ifs that come with riding. And flying, and the health of my loved ones, and … you get the picture. It’s an ever-present refrain in my mental background, and it’s only got louder since an actual crash stopped me in my tracks.
After eight weeks thinking about the What Ifs, a junior at my barn generously offered to let me ride her horse, G, while she was out of town, which coincided with my clearance to ride. He’s exactly the guy you want while rebuilding your confidence: an OTTB equally happy to do his job in the show ring and at home. Trusty, kind, forgiving. I asked if I could ride him in a lesson, even if that only meant walking, trotting, and a lot of deep breathing.
And that’s pretty much what we did, with a bonus therapy session built in. Cindy, a trainer at my barn, assured me that a mishap like mine happens to most longtime riders, but that there’s room to move forward.
“You’re too good, and you love it too much to let this one experience take it all away from you,” she said.
Well, I’ll definitely give it to her on the love part.
Cindy went on. “Think of the countless hours you’ve spent in the saddle and around the barn and how much joy they’ve brought you.”
After that lesson, the exhaustion set in, both physical and mental. It felt good to rip off the Band-Aid, but what would the long-term hold? Could I really keep doing this? What if something Very Bad happens in the future?
The drive to my second lesson came with more rattled nerves, but another welcomed sense of relief once I put my foot in the stirrup. Getting back in the tack really does feel like home. For the whole half-hour I spent mounted, Cindy worked on my equitation shortcomings—my shoulder that wants to drop in the turns, my ankle that prefers to brace instead of flex in the stirrup.
“You’re a little bit like a spooky horse right now,” Cindy told me. “We have to put you to work. Keep your brain busy.” And then something happened in that second ride that I thought would be weeks, if not months away.
I had fun.
You know “fun,” the reason we do this in the first place? The next day, when I took G out for a quick flat with a friend, there was that crazy “fun” feeling again. Now the question is: How can I possibly thank this sweet horse for giving me exactly what I needed on those first few rides back? I’m still not sure, but we’re looking for the answer at the bottom of a bag of horse cookies.
G reminded me how thrilling a perfectly fluid canter transition or jumping a tiny cross rail can be (I’m starting back small on my thrill-seeking). He reminded me of the focus and peace riding brings me. And, perhaps most importantly, he reminded me of the bond and the trust we develop with our equine partners.
My anxiety won’t be silenced any longer, and needs to chime in: Will I get back to where I was, and how I used to feel, before the Very Bad fall? I sure hope so. But maybe I don’t need the big picture figured out right now. Maybe part of healing this rider’s psyche is just to stay in the moment, both in and out of the saddle.
So that’s what I’m doing. One foot, one hoof, in front of the other. One moment at a time. Yesterday I took G out for a morning grazing and grooming session, simply enjoying each other’s company. It felt great to be back.