Life on the Amateur Rail

This dressage rider figured out how to give fear the boot.
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Credit: Jacqueline Holland Amy Tolnitch and her 16-year-old Thoroughbred, Sky

Credit: Jacqueline Holland Amy Tolnitch and her 16-year-old Thoroughbred, Sky

I started riding at the flexible, young age of 43. My daughter, then 6, was eager to take riding lessons and talked me into joining her. My first lesson horse was a Tennessee Walker named Daisy. She was wonderful until she transformed into a horse that spooked at the falling of a single leaf. After a memorable episode during which she spun, dropped halfway to the ground and bolted, I got off. 

My next lesson horse was a 16.1-hand Thoroughbred mare named Sky. She wasn’t spooky, but she didn’t understand the concept of brakes. She also had a trot that reminded me of a volleyball serve. Nevertheless, being the dogged (some would say crazy) soul that I am, I rode more and bought Sky.

Throughout all this time, I had one big problem: fear. I’d like to blame my fear on Daisy and Sky, but that would be a lie. I would have been scared to ride a 10-hand pony under reserpine. I envy each and every person who fearlessly leaps aboard a very large animal and blithely trots away. I could not. 

It’s very hard for some people, including trainers, to get this. They are the lucky ones, who’ve truly never faced the kind of fear that clutches your throat. They can’t really understand it at a gut level. I found that if they don’t, it is difficult for them to help. 

“Just ride,” I was told. “You’ve got to figure it out by going.” Or my favorite, “How long have you been riding?” I could have painted the words, “Just do it” on my forehead and gained as much benefit. 

Many, many people tried to help me. But standing safely on the ground ordering me to sit back and relax did zip. Relax? How in blazes can I relax when this animal is moving fast and throwing me in the air like a ping-pong ball? And where in the world are my seat bones anyway?

Sky, my horse, had an affinity for taking the bit and plowing forward. Half halt what? And how do I “slow my seat” when it’s hardly in the saddle? For those of you of a certain age who remember watching the TV show “The Flying Nun,” that would be me on horseback. 

Disaster loomed. I fell. Actually, the horse went right and I went airborne left to end up in an agonized heap in the dirt. Falling off just about finished me. I was hurt, unable to ride for months. I went back to riding on sheer will. 

So what did I do to make a difference? How did I conquer my, well, let’s be honest, terror? Baby steps. We all want to deny we are afraid. We all instinctively want to be thought of as the “good rider in the barn.” I probably should have quit riding out of embarrassment, if nothing else. I finally asked myself if I was wasting my time.

It was this question that was a turning point for me. How could I be wasting time? I love horses, love just being around them. I reminded myself that I wasn’t training for the Olympics and never would be, so my schedule of progress (or lack thereof) didn’t matter. The only thing that did matter was whether I was enjoying the experience. Why should I care if somebody at the barn thinks I’m a lost cause? So what if someone wants to ride with me in front of the self-important German trainer so that she looks better? I got myself to the point where I didn’t really care what my barn mates thought of me. The realization that it was no one’s business but mine what I did to enjoy my horse was very freeing. The pressure came off and with it some of my fears.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out just exactly what I was afraid of. Falling off? Looking foolish? Feeling stupid? None of these were at the root of my fears. Mine was all about losing control. Let’s face it: Lack of control is a valid fear. We don’t really have control over the horses we ride. They are independent-thinking and -acting beings. They allow us to ride and direct them. Sometimes they don’t. 

Of course, these realizations did not make me brave. A researcher at heart, I read everything I could find on conquering fear. I envisioned mud running though my body, soothing, warm mud. I tried to ignore the little voice inside telling me my mud was just falling out my feet. I made up mantras to try to disrupt my fearful thinking. Doodles! Jellybeans! Best of all, I made myself laugh. Humor got me through a lot of frustrating spots.

All of this helped. There were times when I rode my horse, usually at a walk, and managed to breathe. I played wonderful scenarios through my head—cantering across a beautiful field, lightly doing leg yields across the arena. All of these are good techniques.

Then one day we found a perfect horse for my daughter. Chatte is an affectionate 12-year-old Selle Français/Quarter Horse-cross who licks you, your clothing and anything else in reach and whose favorite thing to do is stop. However, we had a problem. I had infected my daughter with my fear, and she was afraid to trot this gentle horse. Her fear was my fault. It was up to me to fix it.

I put on my big-girl panties and did it. No trainer, just me and the horse. Amazingly, not one bad thing happened. I took that step and built on it, little bit by little bit. First with Chatte, then eventually with Sky. 

Now I can honestly say that I can ride. I’m far from perfect, and I’ll probably never do a flawless piaffe. I may never gallop across the countryside with the wind in my hair. But I ride. I even go to dressage shows. I not only trot, but canter, and all without a single panic attack.

If I can do this, anyone can. You may be thinking, “Oh sure, she’s done this. She probably wasn’t really afraid, just nervous like any beginner.” You are dead wrong. I was not nervous. I was petrified. I have been riding since I was 43. I am now 52 years old. Don’t give up and don’t give in. Take your time and enjoy the process. Forget about the outcome. I have heard many people state their desire that they (or their poor child) must canter, as if that were some magical benchmark. Does cantering make you a better person? A better rider? Nope. Give yourself a break. For the majority of us, this is a hobby, not a job. Hobbies are for fun. I’m still having fun. I intend to do so until the day I can’t scramble atop a horse (or a 10-hand pony).

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