Sucking it Up…

I was working on the normal cliché New Year, New Goals post but was more inspired by another topic, anxiety. I know I’m not the only one to ever experience this emotion, and its been the main topic of several conversations with friends and Darling Husband, recently. I hope none of them hate me for writing this. So…I’m a risk taker for better or worse. I personally have a pretty high risk tolerance bordering on the ridiculous which makes it all the more funny that my day job is focused on risk avoidance and minimization. The majority of the time the risks taken have paid off, but there have been several big ones that did not. I learn from the experience and then get on with it. C’est la vie, you win some. You lose some. I personally ignore a significant amount of risk when it comes to my personal life, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the peril. I’m well aware the course of action most reasonable people would choose. What can I say? I like learning the hard way, it’s how I’ve learned some of life’s most valuable lessons. I feel like a lot of equestrians get me on this one.

I give you that self description because even though I’m a risk taker, it doesn’t mean that I’m not scared $hitless the entire time I’m engaged in something hazardous. When your passion in life involves sitting on a 1,200 pound prey animal with a mind of it’s own that only ever seems to make bad decisions, you get pretty comfortable with a certain amount of risk. You also have a warped sense of self-preservation. With the exception of rodeo (which stil involves horses), there aren’t any other sports I’m aware of where your equipment/vehicle can choose not to cooperate. You can be great at what you do (or not so much), but there is always an erratic variable in the mix. In order to improve your horsemanship skills, you will have to venture out of your comfort zone no matter the discipline you choose to participate. If you want to play eventually you have to suck it up, and cowboy (or girl) up.

A little over a year ago, I decided to venture out of my equestrian comfort zone. I had two “solid enough for me” horses, that I was in the process of refining. I felt that I could reasonably predict their behavior. They weren’t inherently unsafe. For some reason that I have yet to mentally process, I decided I needed the challenge of adopting and hauling home a recently rounded up wild mustang to attempt to gentle and saddle train. It wasn’t that big of a stretch from working with rescues to adopting a mustang, it just so happens my choice of a mustang wasn’t the greatest. Not my opinion, several other professionals felt that I had selected one of the unbreakable ones. After six months of getting bit, kicked, struck, I felt like we were rounding a corner, and he was beginning to see my way of thinking. Weighing the risk versus reward of saddle breaking Johnny Cash, I tapped out after I sat on him bareback, made exactly three circuits of our round pen, then enjoyed an equine assisted dismount. After that ride, I knew it wasn’t impossible to saddle train Johnny Cash. My ego was satisfied, but I had a pretty good idea that it would take me a lot longer than a professional and there was the potential for more severe injuries than the fairly minor ones I had already experienced.

One month in, my trainer had his doubts. Two months in there was progress, but my trainer admitted I had selected one of the more difficult ones. Three months in we weren’t anywhere close to me being able to ride. In the end training stretched into five months. Truth be told Johnny Cash could have benefited from at least one more month with the trainer, but I was at the end of my budget for a horse I never planned on spending any money on training. I had juggled finances like a circus performer to make five months happen in the name of staying safe and living a few more years to see Offspring grow up, but alas I had hit the limit of what I could responsibly spend.

Johnny Cash with his phenomenal trainer.

On my periodic visits to see Johnny Cash’s progress first hand, a couple of things were clear. He was still snorty, flinchy, and required some finesse to relax. He was also unpredictable. There was marked progress each time I visited, but the fact remained that Johnny Cash was still a quirky horse despite five months of intensive training by someone I consider to be the best in the business. If you were wondering when I would ever get around to the initial topic of anxiety, wait no further.

Back to the original reason for this post, I have a friend that owns several horses (some of them rideable) and her heart horse just so happens to be a highly sensitive youngster lacking in the confidence department, not a great horse for a green/beginner rider to be mounting up on. Despite having several horses that one could describe as dead broke, my friend still struggles with the confidence to mount up on any of them, but dreams of one day riding her heart horse. I’ve witnessed the debilitating fear caused by combat related PTSD/anxiety that my Darling Husband has to work through when riding. It’s taken four years, a veteran’s therapy program with horses, and just the right horse to finally get him riding again.

Darling Husband on his Veteran’s and Mustangs, mustang Koda.

There was a point in my life, when I would have been unable to understand or empathize with what they were going through. In my younger days there wasn’t much I wouldn’t throw a leg over. The more challenging the ride, the better I liked it. Then this thing called motherhood happened. Don’t mistake me, becoming a mom didn’t give me a fear or even healthy respect for the dangers of riding. I was on a brand new rescue horse ten days postpartum against physician’s instructions, but equine related mishaps affect me more than they would have pre-mommy-hood. One of Darling Husband’s horses that he had yet to throw a leg over, and that I had ridden successfully several times prior, had a freak out for no discernible reason and launched me across the pasture. That was the exact moment that I felt true fear, and anxiety took over. There is a reason riding instructors enforce the “hospital or get back on” rule when it comes to falling off of a horse. The longer the period between hitting the ground and getting your a$$ back in the saddle, the less likely you are to ever do it. Just so happens Darling Husband forced me to go to the ER that night for a cat scan, but that event was enough to plant a seed of doubt that had never been there before.

Fast forward a few years, Darling Husband and I are headed toward Mineral Wells to pick up my mustang and the anxiety builds. I have flashbacks of Johnny Cash’s aggressive tendencies. His, for lack of a better term, anger issues when he throws an all out tantrum not out of fear, but out of frustration with being asked to behave like a domestic horse. I have the utmost faith in the trainer, but the horse is capricious even with the best of training. When we arrived I didn’t want to look like a complete idiot with no riding ability in front of a horse training idol, so I sucked it up and did my best not to act as nervous (I’m sure I failed) as I felt about that first ride. Despite a small hiccup in communication at the lope between Johnny Cash and I, everything went great. The hiccup was also a beneficial experience, because it gave me a taste of what happens when communication is not clear between Johnny Cash and I.

Even with the best of experiences riding in Nacho Mercede’s round pen and arena, close to forty years of horse experience told me things could be very different once Johnny Cash returned home. I’ve seen it happen many times, with my own horses even. They behave one way in surroundings they are comfortable with, and act completely different when they arrive in a new place. Sometimes they like to test new riders, like when Odessa played a game of “So you think you can ride?” with my sister in law when she is generally a very safe, sensible horse. I knew it would be imperative to ride Johnny Cash as soon as possible after getting him home for two reasons. One, he’s a horse that needs consistent work until he has more confidence. Two, if I didn’t work him often, the anxiety would take over, and we would be back at square one in the training process. Sunday, the day after we brought him home I was determined to continue with the training program. I planned on doing some grooming, basic groundwork, and lunging to get Johnny Cash used to working with only me. I planned on riding a few hours later.

My first session with Johnny Cash was awesome. He seemed to settle in and enjoy the attention. When I returned for the second session a few hours later, it was like working with a completely different horse. I tried to tack him up using the process I’d observed Nacho Mercedes use every time we went to watch him work Johnny Cash. I ground tied him, took the saddle pad, and began to sack him out with it. For any readers that don’t know the term, sacking out is when you gently swing the saddle pad against the horse in various places to show them it isn’t anything scary or painful, think super gentle pillow fight. Johnny Cash was fine on his left side, but tensed on the right and actually kicked at the pad with his right hind. After more work with the pad until he relaxed, he scooted sideways like he’d never seen a saddle in his life when I picked it up off the ground. So we started over on ground work until he stood still, then went back to tacking up. An hour later my horse was saddled, and my anxiety was at an all time high.

An hour to tack up later…

“I’ve made a HUGE mistake” was running on repeat in my head. Visions of Johnny Cash striking, kicking, and the resulting bruises flashed before my eyes again and again. I lunged him under saddle willing as hard as I could for the fear to go away. I’m not going to claim it was PTSD from his early training days, but let’s just say the memories of his first couple of months on the property and the pain he inflicted were still fresh. After lunging both directions and more successful groundwork, Johnny Cash and I just stood there staring at each other. He was probably wondering what was wrong with me, and I was wondering the exact same thing. I convinced myself that the recent rain made the footing in our round pen too dangerous for riding. See, I am capable of risk identification. Then I untacked Johnny Cash with considerably fewer issues than putting it on him. I held to the memory of riding in Nacho Mercedes arena. I knew I could do this, but I had to get over the anxiety.

I told myself it would all be OK. Darling Husband assured me it was simply the adjustment to a new place. Our cutting horse riding neighbor that stopped by to see the finished training product insisted it was the windy day, and all would be fine tomorrow. The anxiety told me I was going to get myself killed. The downside to bringing a horse home in January is that the days are super short. However, thanks to this lovely thing called COVID-19 (I’m joking, kinda), I’m working from home. That means I can use my lunch break to work a wild mustang (he’s not wild, the trainer actually did a great job), and wouldn’t have to be concerned with personal/professional appearance when I logged back into work after my ride. However, I still have a finite amount of time whether it is during my lunch break or right after work before I run out of clock or daylight.

I woke up on Monday morning, and could already feel the tension in my shoulders from anticipation of what the day would hold. Focusing on work and the rhythm of the familiar helped me relax, but each time I glanced at the clock getting closer and closer to my usual breaktime, the anxiety would build. I read somewhere in a scientific study that horses can sense the heartbeats of animals around them and match them. This survival mechanism explains why horses seem to absorb anxiety or how sensitive reactive horses around mature confident horses are more placid than usual. I kept practicing deep breathing techniques hoping that my heart wouldn’t betray me today. Not mounting up and overcoming this fear was never an option. I know that the fear is temporary. At least, in all my previous experiences this has held true. I just needed to suck it up, cowgirl up.

Only fifteen minutes to tack up and still can’t figure out how turn on video with the PIVO.

Finally the hour was at hand, and I knew what needed to be done even if I was scared to do it. However, I went out with a game plan, and forced myself to maintain a slow steady rhythm in every movement. When Johnny Cash moved sideways as I approached him with the saddle, I maintained rhythm as best I could. I’m short, my western saddle is bulky, awkward, and heavy. I just don’t swing it up with the ease the trainer can. We tacked up in fifteen minutes, much better than the hour it took the day before. My heart was pounding, but I kept up the rhythm. Johnny Cash acted like he had never seen a blue supplement tub turned over before, despite me working him around one for months before sending him to the trainer. Maintaining the rhythm, we started at square one walking past it, side passing up to it, me kicking it on the ground toward him, standing on it slapping saddle parts, and just generally making lots of noise involving it.

The entire process felt like an eternity, but in reality I was sitting on his back having mounted from the scary blue tub in less than thirty minutes giving me thirty minutes to ride, forty five minutes if you are generous with the fact that I logged in to work at 6:30 am instead of 8:00am. Our round pen was still soggy, and it’s a small area to build up much speed if the footing isn’t right so I stuck to just walking, trotting, and moving his body around. Johnny Cash needs to get used to the fact that I’m not Nacho Mercedes, and my cues won’t be exactly the same. As expected, the horse felt tense when I first landed in the saddle. Maybe he sensed that I was tense, maybe he’s always tense right when you mount up, probably a combination. Once we started walking though he was calm and relaxed. I started to feel calm and relaxed. We had a nice short session in Johnny Cash’s new surroundings and ended on a GREAT note. I was on cloud nine. Alas, I had tried to film it all with my new PIVO camera robot, but due to user error didn’t manage to get any footage. Thankfully Darling Husband snapped a few still shots suspecting that may happen.

As predicted, the thought of riding on Tuesday filled me with happy anticipation and hope that the round pen may be safe to lope in as I crawled into bed Monday evening. The anxiety is gone. Yes, I know this horse is far from beginner broke safe. Yes, Johnny Cash is still reactive and will occasionally have moments of “I just don’t want to do it your way.” Those moments seem surmountable now, and no longer fill me with dread. I feel like I made the right decisions on so many fronts where this horse is concerned as opposed to feeling like I had made one of my bigger life mistakes…again. The first step is always the scariest, and each step afterward less so. Whether its horses or other life pursuits, when the anxiety hits my advice is suck it up, trust in the process, maintain rhythm toward the end goal, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly the anxiety disappears. If you let it immobilize you, there’s a chance you won’t get started again.

1 Comment

  1. As always, beautifully, flawlessly written, Monica.

    I commend you on your desire to take on such a huge endeavor, for facing down your fears, and for sharing and giving us a road map to Anxiety Crushing.

    In 1987, I had a calendar that had been produced by talented special-needs folks, with a wise adage accompanying each month’s artwork. My favorite one, and the one that I kept on my bulletin board for years read: The most difficult step of a 1000-mile journey is The First!! That really hit home for me at that time of my life, and was a useful tool over and again for these many years since then. I see you basically giving us that same wisdom. You go, Cowgirl!!

    Liked by 2 people

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