At my barn this is when the rider either makes a mistake (or the horse she is riding makes a mistake) and due to either 's misfortune the ride is cut short by an unplanned removal of human being from saddle. Sometimes the horse bucks you off, sometimes you fall off, and sometimes the rushed job you did tacking the horse sends the loose saddle flailing and you slam into a wooden fence like I did today....
Anyway, when this happens at Riding Right Farm it is announced by either a tray of cookies or a bottle of wine, left on the table by the office door where everyone walks in and tacks up their horses. This offering is the rider's penance, and a right of passage. It makes your incidence a public display everyone can relate too, and therefore less tragic. Some months there are a few bottles of wine and bags of cookies by the office when you come in for a lesson, and you just know some people had a rough week. This is the story of one unscheduled dismount and the education of a novice rider. Your novice rider. Me.
It all started with a girth strap. I was talking with Elizabeth, a good friend I met through workshops and farm visits. She was up looking at property in Washington County from the Berkshires and stopped by to say hello. After she helped me with some barn chores she was game to come along to a riding lesson with Merlin. I was excited "show off" what I knew, and looking forward to the ride with Merlin after our great lesson Friday. Riding was becoming fun again. Less drama, problems of confidence and attitude being repaired. I was drunk on this horse, on the whole experience of it.
...Which is why I was rushing through the tacking process, something I have done countless times without a hitch. I was using a new saddle and a new girth. Instead of a dressage saddle I was using a multi-purpose English saddle which requires a different kind of girth. This was my problem: That girth strap, that thing that goes around the belly of the horse. It is what attaches the saddle to the animal. It is supposed to be tight, not clinging to ribs, but tight. I adjusted it on the same holes I would for my old saddle, and that simple mistake would cost me dearly. A lack of focus. The kind of thing that doesn't slip in instructor-approved lessons but on general riding time can.
I didn't notice it was bad at first. I got up on Merlin near our cross ties and rode him from the inside stall area to the outdoor paths. We walked calmly down a path and into the outdoor arena without a single problem. Merlin was fine. I was fine. Elizabeth was talking alongside us. We chatted. Life was good. Friends and horses, and sunshine.
I started off around the outdoor arena at a sitting trot. I like this pace. I learn to ride in a decent seat and he learns to move across the landscape comfortably. We did a few laps around and nothing seemed wrong. Then everything went wrong.
While riding Merlin near the outside fence at a faster trot things got weird. He started to speed up and I didn't know why? He was suddenly cantering and it was then I realized that my body was sliding off to the right. That girth was so loose my leg had gone from his side to almost under his belly. All he knew was pressure, and that meant faster. I was almost 90 degrees off him and gaining on the wooden fence. So in a daft move I reached out to hang on to the side rails and jump off the horse at the same time. This was not wisdom.
I did manage to get off, but my unscheduled dismount was not graceful. I slammed into a fence between the horse and ground, my soft part of my right forearm slamming into the solid wood to break my fall. Merlin dragged be a short distance and if it wasn't for the safety stirrups that had a breakable-super-rubber band sides I would have been dragged along for quite a long and dangerous ride. Instead all my fence trick did was get me hurt, and the saddle slung under him. I was down and he was gone.
So now there was a woman on the ground and an 1100 pound animal who could not understand why the saddle was on his belly and not his back. He was mad with fear, running every which way trying to flee from the metal banging into his back feet and pulling him to the ground. It was like those Discovery Channel specials where the water buffalo tries to shake off the lions clinging to his body. Merlin had gone mad. I could do nothing but watch. I was worried he might jump the fence, or brake into it. For 30 seconds I was frozen in shock, pain, and pure terror.
Elizabeth was standing in the arena, calm and unfazed, but I wanted her OUT of there. I didn't think Merlin would hurt her but I didn't want her to get caught up in the panicked animal's fray. I yelled at her to get out of the ring and she did. With her out, and the gate closed so Merlin couldn't run out, it was down to me and him. He raced all around me, not listening. I had to get his attention. I put my hands up and said "WHOOAAA" in a calming, yet firm tone. The only thing I could think of was Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer, trying to make himself look large and calm around the insane animal he rehabilitating in the movie.
I knew this much for certain. I was not going to go running for help. I was going to fix this. Merlin was my horse. The girth being too loose was my mistake. There was chaos and it was my fault and I was going to fix it or break trying. I was just grateful this was happening in a fenced arena, a sterilized area where a beginner Horse Crisis Repair Woman could learn what she and her mount were made of without him tearing off into traffic or a forest. My biggest fear, him running away, was tempered. Time to catch my boy...
I am not a horse trainer, but I know that when a dog or other animal is scared it needs a safe place. I refused to run out of the ring, or run to him. I stood and told him to whoa,and when he came at me at a run I knew he would either stop dead or run me over. I stood firm, and as he came to me he slowed, stopped, his breathing heavy his eyes white. I grabbed the reins, certain and calm, and as fast as possible undid the girth and let the saddle drop to the ground. We walked away from the pile of tack and he kept stomping, blowing hard, but I let him get it out and just walked. I talked to him like Patty talks to Steele when he is going too fast in his cart, "Eaassssy. Walk on. Easy, son..." and it took a while, but he calmed. I think I was the boss mare to him, or in some way the sense in all the panic. And now I had a choice. I could either walk him into his stall or keep the lesson going. I knew what I had to do and it was more for me than for Merlin.
I had to get back on that horse.
I am not a complete fool. I did not want to jump onto a scared and panting animal. We could work up to it. So at first all we did was calmly walk by the pile of tack. It laid in the dirt like a dead body. The saddle was dusty and scratched now, missing a stirrup and the other one broken. My right arm that broke the fall into the fence was really starting to hurt. I knew nothing was broken, but things were bruised up. I tried not to think about any of it. The whole world was now a scared horse, a saddle, and me.
So we walked around the saddle, and when his ears and body seemed calm, I picked up just the saddle pad and let him smell it. I talked calmly to him. I rubbed it near his neck. He seemed okay, still scared but not erratic. With nothing but ease and confidence I threw it up on his back and he let me. This was promising stuff. I walked him around the arena in just the pad. I kept telling him the world was okay now, and he walked with me. He seemed to believe me because I made myself believe it as well.
Over the next fifteen minutes I got the saddle on him and the girth tighter. At one point it started to slide off and he started throwing his head and backing up to panic, but I held him and told him "Whhhoooa" and I grabbed the cantle and set it right on his back again quick as a wisp of hair out of my eye. He was scared, but he trusted me enough to let me handle him. If it wasn't trust, it was herd law or some basic training from his younger days. I didn't care. I just wanted him calm and back into his normal gear.
We walked around the arena, now back to the full tack he was in when the world stopped making sense to him. He wasn't 100% so I told Elizabeth we would lunge him in the indoor arena. Let him get used to it all again. He could move in a controlled circle and see that the thing on his back would hold fast.
I lunged him for a short time. After a while he seemed his normal self again. Back in this safe place and the smells of his horse neighbors and his normal barn all around him. He eased up more. I knew he was okay, but I knew if I walked out of that arena having not gotten back up on the horse that I slammed off of—I would be quitting. I had every excuse not to do it, and a sore body and ripped breeches, but I kept thinking about us being out in the real world. What if a girth had ripped or a bee stung him on the trail and we were ten miles from camp? Would I walk him back? What then? No, we had to solve this problem together. We were going to end this lesson just like we started it. I would get back on.
I took him to the mounting block. He balked. I remained calm and just walked him around it. I moved it closer to him, and told him the same calm words. It took a bit, but eventually he let me stand on the block while I stroked his neck. He let me lean some weight into his back. He allowed me to pull down on the stirrups, like I would if I was going to set a foot into them and mount.
And then I did. See that picture? That is me on the back of a horse that I was flung off of and was freaking out like a black tornado a half-hour earlier. I was up and on him and he walked calmly. I wanted to break down and cry.
He was okay. I was okay. We were riding together, communicating, we were a team. After a short while I jumped off and called it a lesson. Then I hugged him. I hugged him the way football players hug after a championship game, the way best friends hug in foxholes when the sirens stop blaring. I grabbed that big, black, neck and pressed my cheek into it. I was so damn proud of him, proud of us both. The Jenna from just a few weeks ago would not have had the confidence to catch, calm, and get back on a horse she was ejected from. (Certainly not all in the same hour!) But this animal is changing me, forcing me to become a stronger person. Teaching me to keep following a dream even if people called me wrong and foolish. Teaching me to be calm when the world is crazy, to be brave when things are unknown, and to fall hard and get back up even harder. To take life by the reins and ride, damnit.
I'm so damn proud of that bossy, beautiful, majestic, complicated, vulnerable son of a bitch.