The topic of fear seems to have touched on a theme for equestrians and I have been thinking about it a lot the past couple of days. I wanted to share my thoughts on that, plus wrap up my thoughts on this past weekend. I would give anything to be able to ride that much, especially with J, every weekend. Alas, we do need to eat, so I shall continue to get rides in where I may,
I think my biggest fear is that of falling. Not falling off, but rather, in having the horse fall with me. I was much younger the last time a horse fell with me and I'm not sure, at my age and physical fitness, that I would survive another fall like the one's I've experienced. In the two instances when the horses fell with me, it was a slip and fall, not a rotational fall. Riding a horse that is prone to tripping or stumbling makes this fear even more real.
I think one of the subliminal awareness' we carry with us as equestrians, is the knowledge that the horse can fall, either through a rider mistake or a misstep on the part of the horse. This can happen any time. For people who jump, their horse can hit a gate, land awkwardly or tangle their legs and a rotational fall can happen. But even for riders who work on the flat a rotational fall could occur, as almost happened to Saiph at Wait For the Jump a couple of months ago when she was riding her mare Grace in the arena. A rotational fall can happen on the trail, especially when moving at speed, due to hidden holes, tangled grasses or a horse that's not paying attention to where they are putting their feet. Yesterday, we slowed our pace when Cali began to trip and stumble. In watching her go, there was no reason I could assess for her not taking care of her feet. Ashke is normally very sure footed, but even we had a slip yesterday on the grass while taking a corner.
The fear of falling is compounded by circumstance: riding on a narrow trail overlooking a steep fall. The trail I ride on is not sheer. It is steep, but it might be possible for a sure footed horse to manage the scramble down if not burdened by a rider. It still scares the crap out of me, and honestly, the threat of falling is one of the reasons I will forego the dream of riding the Tevis. If other riders have fallen several hundred feet on that trail, I have no need or desire to try and ride it. I do not believe I could get clear of the wreck if something happened. I've spent hours and sweat and tears learning to stay on during a spook that my body does it without thinking. That's a great habit to have when your horse goes sideways because of a tree branch or a scary plant. Not an easy habit to break when your horse goes sideways off a cliff.
One of the things I thought about yesterday, when Cali was stumbling and tripping over her toes while walking down the sidewalk, was exposing our horses to more than groomed sand in the arena to develop their agility and surefootedness. The two times Ashke has slipped (a small one yesterday on the wet grass as we were making a turn and the first serious one a year ago stepping from the street up to the sidewalk and his boot slipped on the curve of the curb) he has caught himself. Yesterday, it required him to rebalance us; last year it took a lot of effort to keep himself from going down. J said, after he was once again standing stable on all fours, that she could see the concentration and effort he was making in keeping us safe. Trotting down hills helps him develop the balance he needs. And yesterday he cantered down a slight slope for the first time. I could feel him balancing over his hind end then. So incredibly amazing. Every new opportunity I give Ashke to develop his skill at keeping us upright over unknown terrain is another tool in his toolbox.
Honestly people, we are expecting our horses to do a myriad of things while keeping not only themselves but us balanced on top of them. It's amazing we don't fall more often.
Okay, enough on falling.
One of my best and most consistent commands with Ashke is Stand. When you are on trail and have to get off (to retrieve your camera, to potty, to negotiate an obstacle from the ground) and then remount, Stand is a necessity. I have started also asking Ashke "Are you ready?" while rocking the saddle to let him know I am going to swing on. When I do this I can feel him shift his weight and brace for me to clamber on from the left side. (Sometimes he is resting a back hind foot and if I let him know I'm about to get on, he will shift and brace with that leg.) I always try to find a hillock, or stump or rise in the ground to act as a mounting block, but still, It's not easy getting into the middle of him. At least my saddle doesn't slip.
Ashke has a powerful trot. I'm am getting so much better at being able to maintain that pace without wanting to cry afterwards. Doing some dressage on the trail, mixed in with letting him gawk around at things, makes both of us happy, even though we are still discussing what makes a good balance. We had several moments yesterday when he threw his head up and braced against my hands. This behavior only happens when we are riding with another horse. I'm not sure if it's a "I'm going to be left" thing or a "I want to go faster" thing, or a "damnit why are you holding me back" thing. I do know he did the brace and throw up his head more times yesterday while riding with Cali then he did both of the days before, combined. My expectation is that he can walk on a loose rein, but he has to keep his nose tipped down when we trot or canter. I'm not asking him to be long and low, just have his nose tipped down instead of up and out.
Our canter on trail was better on Sunday than yesterday, mainly because he was fighting some of the time to go faster. I did reward his collection at the canter with a couple of flat out runs, one of them over pretty rough terrain. He didn't put a step wrong and he also listened and responded to the neck rein requests I gave him.
J said she can see the difference in his butt muscle development. I am pretty proud of how he looks. Although his barrel is rounded, you can see the muscles rippling along it when he moves. No more pot-belly-starving-to-death looks. I just need to keep him in enough work that we don't lose that over the winter.