Ride the Horse You Have

One rider shares her story of working with a challenging project horse who reminds her to ride with heart and technique.
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Credit: Courtesy, Juliette Cain Karen Brittle and Boo

Credit: Courtesy, Juliette Cain Karen Brittle and Boo

My first months in South Carolina were hot, humid and miserable. It was July and my husband and I had just completed our second cross-country move in one year due to his military career. By the time we arrived in South Carolina, my internal life felt anxious, worn and bleak. Thankfully, I was hired by Charleston Area Therapeutic Riding (CATR). Because the program was on break, the Executive Director, Murray Neale, and I discussed how I might contribute until it started. “How do you feel about taking on the trial horse, Boo, as a project?” Murray asked me. I was thrilled with her suggestion, and we agreed that I would ride the mare four times a week for conditioning and to evaluate her potential for the program.

Early the next morning, I was hanging onto the reins and trying to post rhythmically, hoping to slow Boo down. Her head was in the air, her back was hollow and she was grinding her teeth against the bit. Though sweat poured down her neck and shoulders, the heat did not slow this mare down. It seemed Boo was more complicated than the staff originally expected. Her Thoroughbred build and flashy Paint coat made her look athletic, but she had difficulty maintaining rhythm at her basic gaits, let alone achieving any kind of straightness or connection. Cantering was especially challenging. I also had a hard time putting aside the anxiety that haunted the rest of my life. In the back of my mind was the not-so-distant memory of being thrown from a horse a few months prior. It was the first time I’d come off in years and going from that to not riding for a couple months due to the move and then riding Boo with limited success, was making me question myself as a rider and trainer.

Murray would watch me ride and coach: “Don’t be afraid to ask her to move forward more into contact,” she said. “Remember your basics—inside leg to outside rein.” Her words were accurate, but it can be hard to take feedback in a new situation. 

A few weeks later, the act of grooming Boo brought me present, and I became aware that she was calmer, too. As I mounted, I thought of an old adage from good trainers: Ride the horse you have today. Boo may be disorganized and fast, but she is the horse I have. I owe it to her to be present and authentic in my riding. This means breathing deeply and acknowledging and releasing the tension in my body. It means re-cognizing that horseback riding, like life, is at times about risk, commitment and faith.

I worked a circle pattern, spiraling in and leg yielding out at the walk, before I asked for canter. When I did ask, I helped with my seat but I also allowed through my seat and hand. I was determined not to get left behind or catch her in the mouth, no matter how sloppy it might look or how fast and ugly the transition might feel. The balancing work on the circle prepared Boo for the canter transition. But I am convinced that it was the “going with” which had the transformative effect on her gait: a few strides into her typically disorganized canter, I felt Boo become receptive. By letting her be fast, but then quietly reminding her to balance, I began to feel her come through beneath me. 

That first balanced canter on Boo was a gift. It brought me present so sharply that I felt renewed spiritual commitment to my riding, my new workplace and our new life in South Carolina. The act of balancing the horse on the circle, of concentrating on basic work, reinforced the element of technique so crucial to our sport. It’s essential: One must take heart to ride; one must also study the basics until they apply with every horse, not just those who make it easy on us. Sometimes, in riding and in life, it is valuable to just go with what is, to ride through rough moments to reach a place of influence, balance and control. 

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