About a month ago, Gracie finally threw me off. I don't blame her, I would have done it too. I was riding her in the big covered arena because it is the most well-lit at night although it has the most distractions. There are usually lessons going on so it was rare to find it almost empty. There was another rider present, cantering on a big bay horse, along with a young girl with hair down to her waist on her black and white pinto. And me, in jeans and jewelry worn all day at work, sitting in my old, English saddle atop a wool Western pad, wearing my hardly-broken-in boots, gloves, and helmet bought just six months ago when I wanted to rekindle my long-lost love of horseback riding. But it wasn't my lack of a proper costume that prompted my dismissal, but a lack of confidence and the only thing worse than a horse that has no idea what to do, is a rider with even less of a clue.
I often feel intimidated when I'm at the stable, surrounded by horse women (and men) who are wealthier, wiser, and way better riders than I may ever be. They have strong, healthy horses from desirable bloodlines and good upbringings- trained from a young age to carry their heads and hold their hooves just so. They have the tack, and outfits, and confidence of riders who have spent half their lives at the stables, and they all seem to know each other really well. Me? I usually get to the barn late, on my way between one thing and another, and lacking the appropriate uniform or energy. But once I'm there, I know why- I love the smell, the sounds, the dust and the dirt, and of course, I love horses.
And Gracie? She's a sweet little thing with petite features, golden coat, and jet black hair, but we've had our share of ups and downs in and out of the ring. I found her through a craigslist ad in October, her owners were trying to lease her out to avoid having to sell her. I basically agreed to pay a set amount per month and be able to ride her independently a few days a week, while they would have someone taking care of their horse and training her; a win-win. I was told she was green, meaning she was not "broken", and had never been ridden other than while tethered to another horse on a trail, a few times a year. She was anxious and stubborn and not a horse a casual, rusty rider like myself would necessarily want to ride- and yet, after meeting her, I couldn't stand the thought of not working with her. The fact that she was boarded at the nicest barn complex in the county didn't hurt either - eight perfectly groomed, well-lit riding arenas available 24 hours a day. But mostly, I knew that I wanted to help her- I wanted to bond with her in the Black Stallion-and-Alec way, to wow her owners and the other riders at the barn, who would see the transformation my compassion and persistence would have on this little wild horse.
We started slow. The first few days at the barn weren't spent riding, but rather with me gently grooming her in her stall and teaching her to stand still and walk behind my right shoulder, and lunging her in a small outdoor ring. Horses are like toddlers, curiously watching your every move. The idea is to gain the horse's trust and to establish your relationship as leader while on the ground- just as they would learn from other horses in a pack- before you ever set a foot in the stirrups. I watched videos and read articles on how to work with green horses, as I was nervous of making any mistakes or unintentionally teaching her bad habits. Finally, once I began to ride her, we mostly walked and trotted in the small round pens. It was a long process but progress was slowly being made.
Then she got sick, as living creatures tend to do, and needed rest and medicine squirted down her throat twice a day. Gracie lost a lot of weight and my saddle didn't fit anymore so I would take her on walks around the barn and brush her and scratch inside her ears. Another trainer at the barn, along with a seasoned cowboy, tried to convince me to test-ride other horses. "You're too good of a rider to not have a great horse... this one is very beautiful" they would say, leading champion-bred geldings by on beautiful halters. But a few weeks later Gracie started to recover her health and I started over with the slow process of building up her strength, and obedience, under saddle. But a few months ago, Gracie re-injured her rear leg and was lame, meaning she couldn't be ridden as much for a while. Up to that point, I'd mostly been riding her in some of the larger outdoor rings, practicing circling, trotting over poles and around obstacles in the arena, and once or twice being brave enough to attempt to take her on a little trail next to the barn.
In addition to being stubborn by nature, horses are extremely reactionary- as prey animals, this is in their best interest in the wild- and they often "spook" (jump or bolt) at ridiculous things like their own shadows, a bird flying by, or another horse kicking a bucket (literally). In Gracie's case I've learned her very least favorite things are: moving objects, puddles, plastic chairs, bushes, cars, bicycles, hoses, plastic tarps, piles of dirt, wheelbarrows, or anything that makes noise. Typically if she spooks with me on her, I can turn her quickly enough or pull back in time to stay balanced and prevent her from doing much more than snort and lurch away from the scary object.
That night however, on a turn, at a trot, at the far end of the biggest arena, a pile of red-and-white painted wooden poles had provoked her one-too-many times and she contorted her entire body to a 45-degree diagonal, spun halfway around, and bolted- while I somehow loosed my legs from her barrel and hovered above the ground for a full second before landing on my right hip. When I looked up, Gracie was halfway down the arena- tossing her head at the other horses and heading straight out the open gate at the opposite end. I ran after her, but horse's hooves are better suited for the soft, sand-like dirt, than the feet of a slightly-shaken human so all I could do by the time I reached the gate was hope that someone had been able to catch her in the parking lot straight ahead. The other rider's and bystanders were asking if I was alright, and I was spitting out short phrases like "she's green!", "been lame!", "on grain!" between breaths. "That's a triple-whammy!" yelled one woman. "Oh, and she's not mine," I replied, shaking my head. "May be for the best" she offered with a laugh.
At that moment I saw Gracie at the end of a row of stalls, standing between two women and a big grey horse who had caught her. She had apparently run right up to the other horse who was grazing on a patch of grass. Panting, my helmet swinging in my hand, I jogged up to the women holding her, thanking them and shaking my head. "It takes a village!" one of them said with a smile. I sheepishly took the reins and lead Gracie back to her stall and took a few deep breaths to fight back the tears of shock, humiliation, and frustration. Gracie was happily devouring mouthfuls of hay by the time I headed to my car.
In the end, everyone was fine, and the bruise on my thigh wasn't nearly as bad as the one on my ego, but that too will disappear. The worst part was that at the exact moment I pulled myself up from the dirt and watched that horse gallop away, I felt that everything I had been working towards was completely in vain. When I got to my car I called Dan to let him know I was on my way home. "Had enough yet?" he teased after I explained what had just happened. I sighed. Something so obvious, yet I had never considered that an option. I realized I didn't have a clear idea of how this would all eventually end, how I hoped everything would work out. I was so caught up in the moment, afraid of letting Gracie or her owners down, afraid of feeling like I was giving up.
Had I had enough? Was I ready to accept the things I couldn't change? Could I move forward from this experience without regret? Was I able to give myself a little grace and just chalk it up to a darn good try? I pulled away from the stable, not really knowing what the next few weeks or months will hold. Just when I think I'm done, an encouraging word from a trainer or fellow rider revives me. Right when I think I've reached my limits, I learn a little bit more and unlock another secret code. Riding, in general, is rather up and down, but the end of the day, it's up to me to decide my future with Gracie; how far I'm willing to go and how long I'll hang on for the ride, even if we are just running in
slower, smaller circles.