Where do you feel fear first? Head, heart? I feel it in my feet, as though I’ve just stepped into a mire. My feet feel numb, and the lower parts of my legs feel very heavy, like I want to run but they are so heavy I cannot lift them. And my feet and lower legs, while feeling mired down and heavy, are tingling with fear. I thought it odd that I felt fear in my feet and legs, but I don’t know. Maybe everyone does. Most of the fear that I feel these days is fear of falling off my horse. Or maybe being slung off my horse would be more accurate. It’s a dreadful feeling and I’m trying like crazy to deal with it, get over it, conquer it. I think it has been a problem since my big fall in 2011. Up until then, I never thought much about falling. Everyone who rides knows that a fall may occur at any time, because horses are unpredictable at best and downright flighty at worst.
I remember my first fall like it was yesterday, or even earlier today. I was 6 years old and my Daddy had bought me my first pony. He was a young wild thing (I mean my pony but I’ll bet this could also describe my Daddy at that time) who had never been ridden when my Daddy put him in the stable on that first dark night. That did not prevent me from trying to ride him. He specialized in scraping me against fences, running under low-hanging limbs, all the standard pony tactics.
One Sunday morning when Rusty, as we called him, had been living with us for a while and was about as “broken to ride” as he was going to get, my Daddy decided we would have our first free gallop across an open field. Sounded good to me because I loved going out alone with my Daddy on an adventure and of course, I loved Rusty.
We walked through the woods, Daddy leading Rusty with me perched on his back. We came through a copse of pines and then to edge of a broom sedge field, an open rectangle of brown, with a wall of trees down each side. “Okay,” Daddy said, looking over at me, “You’re going to ride him across this field. By yourself.” He unclipped Rusty’s lead and slapped him on the rump. Like he needed that. What I remember is speed, the pony running, me losing my balance, and falling. Hitting the ground, and then I couldn’t breathe. I tried to, but couldn’t. When I could breathe or make a sound, I started sobbing. Rusty was gone.
Daddy scooped me up, told me I was fine, and walked back to our house through the woods. My Mom, I remember, came running out the door when she saw us.”Aww. She’s alright,” Daddy said. “She just got the breath knocked out of her.” I don’t remember feeling any fear prior to that fall.
There were other falls, of course, some far more memorable than others. When in college, I came home for the weekend and my Dad decided that was the perfect time for a first ride on a two year old filly that was mostly a pet raised from a baby. Unsure of the weight on her back, she reared straight up and fell backwards, her body landing across my pelvis, resulting in a trip to the emergency room and a bruised tailbone.
But the fear was missing; from early childhood on, I would climb onto any horse I was given a chance to ride. When other kids balked, I was right there, eager. I felt no fear of falling from a horse until I was well into my 60’s.
I was not afraid when I took my big fall in 2011: the one that resulted in surgery and metal pins in my ankle. I simply nudged my horse into a canter, the ground was too wet, he lost his balance, I came off and he came down onto my leg. I even tried to mount back up to ride out but quickly learned that my ankle was crushed.
Since then, I admit that I have fear each time I ride. I have a different horse now, and he’s bigger and spookier than any I’ve ever owned. He twirls when he sees something that he needs to get a better look at, or sometimes he jumps and twirls over nothing that I can see or name and it’s really hard for me to stay seated during one of these typically fast twirls.
We have mastered the one rein stop and I’ve watched Buck on DVD for several hours. I see him crack wise in his clinic problem solving sessions in hopes of finding something that will help me. I have attended horsemanship clinics with my horse and practiced loads of groundwork. I’ve hired a vacquero to ride him for six weeks. Still, as recently as last Saturday, he did a couple of very unexpected twirls inside a boxed arena with very little to there to spook him, and I felt myself lose my seat, but I haven’t fallen off this 16 hand bad boy . . . yet.
I thought maybe teaching him to drive and have him pull me in a cart would lessen his anxiety, since he would be harnessed and wearing blinders, and maybe even lessen my fear. I bought a sulky and some Amish harness and we did some trial lessons, just walking along for many weeks and then I harnessed him to a pallet. He pulled the pallet without incident in a round pen, and then I moved to an arena. The day was going well and he had pulled the pallet through the soft sand for a couple of rounds. I decided it was time to add some weight, so I sat down on the pallet. He tried to take a couple of steps, but couldn’t. He went straight down, lying down in harness. I rolled off the pallet and he began to roll over in the harness. He stood, lurched forward and ran toward the arena fence. He barreled through the fencing, taking out two posts and six rails and fell to his knees. He turned and hurled himself back into the arena through the opening he had just made and ran towards a rider on a young Arabian. Her horse spooked and she fell off. That was the worst thing that happened that eventful day, my horse coming away with a few minor scratches. I’m still riding him, but haven’t hitched him back up yet.
This past Sunday I accepted an invitation to take a ride in a wagon pulled by a team of donkeys. These two donkeys were two of the most broke animals I’ve ever seen. They stood calmy for brushing and harnessing, like two huge stuffed animals. They were incredibly gentle. We started the ride uneventually, despite being on a paved secondary road with a considerable number of cars coming up from behind and passing us, as well as coming towards us in the other lane. I was totally impressed with how little the traffic seemed to affect the two as they walked or trotted along, with five ladies and one bulldog in the wagon.
Things were going swimmingly when a herd of deer came out of the woods on our left, several yards ahead of the team, and the deer bounded across the road, single fine, one after another, at least fifteen of them. The donkeys took notice and wanted to bolt. The driver held them as steadily as she could, using considerable muscle to keep them from running. As we took the oncoming hill and reached the spot where the deer had crossed, about three or four stragglers from the herd who had missed the grand crossing came flying out of the woods into the donkey’s path.
That’s when I really felt it: the fear. It started like feet in lead, unmovable against the footledge of the buckboard. From there it worked it’s way up my legs, past the tingling nerves into my shoulders, neck, and head. I grabbed the left rein as my friend struggled to pull the two donkeys under control. They were running and heading for the opposite shoulder of the highway, which meant than any car or truck coming over that hill would be directly in their path. My fear was full blown now, and I pulled mightily on that left rein, as the driver was doing to the right rein, in an attempt to get those donkeys to stop.
They did finally stop, before they and and the wagon left the road. We got them back onto the right side of the yellow line and proceeded with our Sunday outing. The feeling I felt, however, has been slow to leave me. I have questioned myself and wondered about whether I am suited to this horsey life. I love horses, everything about them. Those who know equines, donkeys and mules and horses, will tell you that their temperament is different. Donkeys are the calmest and horses the flightiest. If that one incident on that peaceful Sunday wagon ride terrorized me, what business do I have with harness and a sulky and a spooky horse?