Saturday, June 18, 2011

Riding Ben: A Confession of Cowardice

I’m afraid.

I’m afraid to ride my lovely, sweet, well-trained, well-mannered Thoroughbred.

I may never get on him again. If I do, I may never again take him out of a walk.

And it’s not his fault; it’s me.

Way back in early May, before Commander’s laminitis blew everything equine to hell for me, I got on both boys seriatim for a short putter about the ring. I hadn’t been riding either horse much if at all since last fall, but neither one needs to be longe-line-worked into sanity before it’s safe to get on. They’re both steady old fellows who can be pulled out of the paddock for a ride a day, a week, a month after their last work, and not get over-excited about it.

First I rode Commander, who pitter-pattered about at walk and (briefly) trot for me in his usual small-strided fashion. Then it was time for Ben, he of the big, elastic stride; I walked him about for some minutes, getting him warmed up, then asked for a trot. He surged into a big booming TROT; I could feel his body under me saying “Yeh! Feels GOOD! Wheeee!”

Fear lanced through me. Instant ohmygod fear. Snap! Fear that he was going to get silly and stupid, as he will do once in a blue moon (and which has nada to do with his fitness level) and try to take off, maybe even buck. Fear that my aging, overweight, underfit, slow-reflexed self wouldn’t be able to ride through whatever silliness erupted under me.

Fear that I’d fall off and get hurt. Really hurt. Wreck-my-life hurt.

So I pulled him back to a walk – which he came back to easily, without a fuss; he’s really a good boy. I walked him around the ring once, to settle both of us, and got off, feeling that sick weakness fear leaves behind. I untacked him, told him what a fine fellow he is, and put away saddle and bridle, wondering whether I’d ever take them out for him again.

Sigh.......... If I were ten years younger, twenty pounds lighter, riding regularly, my muscles and reflexes tuned to the task, this wouldn’t have bothered me. Indeed, just last September I survived a much scarier experience on Ben – rode through it and kept going on him for another hour. I’ve made it a rule for a long time now, even before that bolt, to ride Ben only in my Aussie stock saddle, that is far more secure than an English saddle. If Commander comes back from his laminitis riding-sound, I’ll happily get on him, even bareback (in the ring; not hacking out in the fields, mind you), because I trust him to be sensible. And besides, he’s nowhere near as BIG as Ben is.

But Ben? I’ve lost my feeling of safety on him, my desire to throw a leg over his back again. Perhaps last September’s scare has stayed with me at a visceral level I hadn’t been aware of. Perhaps it’s a keener consciousness of mortality developing in me as I age into my 60s. Perhaps part of it is that riding just doesn’t matter that much to me any more; the care and feeding and being with and observing and loving have become what fulfills me in horse ownership. Certainly a large part of the passion for riding died in me when Nick, my first horse, died in September 2005; as marvelous as Ben is, and as much as I adore him, riding just hasn’t been the same for me since then.

Further thoughts, in response to a friend reciting her own fears: I’ve come off a handful of times over the years, never seriously hurt, though one time when Ben stumbled badly and I tumbled over his shoulder I got my bell rung hard enough that the barn owner drove me home and called later to make sure I was still (more or less) all there. I used to be much braver; many years ago I rode my dear departed Nick with a broken (not from horse fall) arm, in fact.

But I’m at that stage in my life when I’m more likely to break, not bounce, if I fall. And I am the sole support of two horses, nine cats, and a mortgage, with no disability insurance. It does give one pause.

Whatever the cause, singular or multiple, the effect is this: I am afraid to ride Ben, and may never do so again. This doesn’t bother him, but it saddens me.

And if I do ride him again, we for sure will never do this:



Update: That post also went out to friends as an email, and a number of them responded. It would appear I hit some nerves. Their thoughtful replies I post below. First, from fellow horse owners/riders/lovers:

So I've never come off one.......and you know it's inevitable I will!!!!! So as I start to ride my now five-year-old, high-strung mare, Barbie, instead of my laid back 20-year-old gelding, Buck, I'm getting fearful waiting for it. And the other night I was on Buck and Matt was riding Barb and I was getting myself into a tizz because Buck gets nervous around Barb because his eyesight's poor and the indoor's shadowy and Matt's training on her. So after about 20 minutes of just jogging him, I was done. I can't risk a hand/arm injury. I do LOVE the grooming, taking care of them. But I don't want to be fearful. So I completely get you!!

I feel your pain. I too have lost my desire to ride. It really isn't anything to do with Maggie, except that she isn't Nelson. I know you can't compare, but I do, and I shouldn't. I trusted him with my life - and the life of my son - unborn and until the age of almost 5. She is perfectly fine, but has a stupid spook that involves her running out from under you sideways (and occasionally backwards) that scares the crap out of me. I too just love the care and observation, but it is turning into an expensive hobby. Hang in there and enjoy them as much as you can.

I don’t think I’d call you a coward, Laura. You are being very honest and fear is a huge factor when we are riding. You are brave to admit it and certainly smart to listen to your visceral feelings about the fear.

If you enjoy caring for your horses, then that is what you should do. Forget the riding and enjoy them for what joy they bring to you.

Oh Laura! I so understand.

I don't climb aboard the beasties anymore either. :o(
Pretty much the same reason too. Slow reflexes,the perpetual weight struggle,I just don't have the balance, agility, short,I feel afraid while I'm up there.


And then, the reflections of a non-horseperson, upon life in general:

I read your “confession” as a lament for the passing of something fun, and dear, in your life. That’s life, as the sage says. But I’m responding to suggest to you that the label “cowardice” is just plain wrong and, worse, saddles you (no pun intended, actually) with unnecessary guilt, as though your realization that you feel unsafe (insecure) on Ben’s back is a stain on your character. Not so! It is, for better or worse, an acknowledgement of aging. I will be 65 this summer, I feel fine, yet there are several things I’ve enjoyed in my life that I shall not do again. And they all involve matters where physical dexterity and balance and physical competence are involved.

I have all my life loved to go fast: I raced cars back in the muscle car days, rode and raced on my motorcycle, and loved it. But, if I were ever to ride a motorcycle again, it will be to putt-putt about the scenic roads of New England, not to race at breakneck speed. I no longer feel comfortable doing that. Likewise, racing in a car. I drive well, and sanely these days. It’s been a long time since I have lived up to my pledge to myself, made when I was about 21, that I would hit 100 mph in my car at least once every day of my life. Believe it or not, I lived up to that pledge for many years after that. But I wouldn’t think of doing so now. The excitement I used to feel at 100 mph would be fear and anxiousness now – what if something goes wrong? – and so there would be no joy in it.

Less extreme, I no longer pursue a favorite summertime hobby: getting out of my car alongside a fast-moving alluvial stream somewhere in New England and hopping out on the rocks midstream, making my way from one rock to another, skipping, jumping, sometimes quickly planning out a three- or four-hop route to make it from point A to point B. Great fun! I’ve done it with my kids since they were young, and long after they grew up. But not now. I know I am no longer light on my feet enough to feel safe doing that. And, good grief, suppose I slipped and went ass over teacups into the water, or worse, landed on a rock? My aging bones would not handle it well.

But cowardice has nothing to do with it. Rather, simple mature acceptance that I have passed the point in my life where I can prudently take those physical risks. I have neither the physical prowess for it any longer, and, just as important, my nervous system can’t handle such “excitement” anymore.

This is all a part of aging gracefully, something I hope to do. I don’t intend to curtail all activities; just the ones I am no longer comfortable doing. Nor will I let myself slide into idle senescence. But I will decline to do what is no longer comfortable for me to do. (In 2006, I won the NCRA Speed Contest for the sixth time. A great day! But I announced my retirement that day from speed contests. I knew it was time to quit.)

So please accept the changes in you that come with aging, Laura. Don’t lacerate yourself over this presentiment of mortality. You’re in good health, you’ve got your mind intact – not everyone does! – and so you can savor the wisdom and experiences you have accumulated, and go on enjoying the things you love, like horses, and taking care of them and loving them, and riding them if you choose to – or not.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Plan C for Commander -- It Works!

When last we left our plucky Morgan and his big doofus buddy, I was wondering how the heck to get Ben onto the paddock grass while providing bug-shelter for him, yet keep Commander off the tasty but perilous green stuff. I had a Plan C, but had to run it by the farm owners.

Ran it by; got approval; did it – and it works just fine. How? Here’s how: The run-in structure has two stalls on the right and on the left, divided by a hay/tool storage aisle. In back of the right-hand stalls, a few feet lower, are a small room that can store hay, and a larger room, once a stall called the Mackie House (for its former inhabitant) and currently used for hay storage. The MH has a door on either end and can open to either side of the complex; on my side it opens into the paddock.

So: move the hay bales and the pallets they’ve been resting on from the MH into the old hay storage room; clean out the accumulated cruddy moldy waste hay (four wheelbarrow loads; a task I’d been meaning to get around to sometime in any case), hang water buckets, stock the MH with several flakes of hay, secure the Dutch doors to the MH on my side open, and voila! A bug refuge and watering hole for Ben. And when Commander’s inside the run-in he can see Ben in the MH.

I was going to insert photos in this post to illustrate the new setup, but there were just too many. Here’s a link to my Webshots album showing the whole thing. I’ve put captions as well as titles on each shot to explain what they show.

All the prep work got done yesterday; all was ready to go when I arrived at the barn today. I distracted Commander with a handful of grain (laced with his morning dose of isoxsuprine) while I brought Ben out of the barn first and got him settled in his new digs. I’d worried that my timid TB would be wary of going into the dark recess of the MH, but he walked in with only a slight hesitation, and clearly approved of the joint. With the electric tape gate to the paddock hooked safely in place, I brought Commander out of the barn and into the run-in to see Ben inside the MH. He looked, said “All right then” and dove into his hay. Phew!

Originally I’d left the upper Dutch door between the MH and the hay aisle open so the bay boys could see each other easily. Alas! Ben couldn’t resist reaching in to steal hay – even hay that was just the same, in fact from the same darn bale, as what he had in his new stall; and the upper door had to be shut and latched against his thievery. Commander was unfazed by this new barrier to seeing his buddy, so that was all right then.

I had them out in the new configuration from noon to around 7:00 p.m. – and yes, it was safe to let Ben have paddock access for so long even though I’d taken both boys off the grass three weeks ago when the laminitis struck. Why? Partly because the bugs are annoying enough that he spent far more of his time inside eating hay and schmoozing with Counterpoint than he did outside grazing; partly because for the last week I have been giving him a daily bucketful of grass hand-reaped by me (scissors work surprisingly well; certainly better than a dull scythe, I’ve found), so his belly is well primed for the greenery.

Oddly enough, the diciest moment today was getting Ben off the paddock to bring the boys in for the night. His white friends were out on their field grazing and he got mildly hysterical (abandonment terror? eagerness for supper?) when he saw me enter the run-in apron and approach Commander, started running and bucking. So I haltered Commander and, much to the grass-deprived Morgan’s disgust, held him back from charging into the paddock while I opened the gate. Ben bolted through, still wired. I resecured the tapes; took Commander’s halter off; and let them indulge in a frantic session of grooming until they’d calmed down enough to lead in.

So, success! I’ll continue bringing them in overnight, at least until Ben’s got the paddock grazed down to dry nubbins. Then it should be safe to let the boys stay out 24/7, perhaps even to let Commander out into the paddock for a few hours if not all the time. Of course, by then we’ll probably be getting into greenhead season, when B&C will have to huddle inside during daylight or be eaten alive.

And the field? We’ll see.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

So Much for the Grazing Muzzle

I tried putting the grazing muzzle on Commander today, to deter him from picking at the stubble along the fence line and to see how he’d react to it. He wasn’t happy but he didn’t throw a fit. He didn’t like trying to groom Ben with it, that’s for sure.

After I’d observed him for a while I went back to stall-cleaning and he and Ben hung out in the run-in. Looking out the window now and then, it appeared that they were playing some form of face-fight/halter tag. When I went out at last to fetch them I discovered that the entire bottom of the muzzle was broken right off the woven web around the nose and lying discarded in the run-in.

When it was safe for Commander to do more than a sedate walk, I’d planned to let them start going into the paddock, Ben free to graze and Commander muzzled to forestall his getting more than tiny tidbits of grass. Looks like it’s time for Plan B, except that my Plan B has problems: I could put Ben in the paddock, with the electric tape gate closed to keep Commander in the run-in, and with a hay bag hung on the run-in wall so he could eat and see Ben at the same time. But if it’s buggy, and it is buggy now, Ben would want to flee into the run-in. So that won’t work.

Hmmmmmmm............... There might be a Plan C, but that would require some changes in run-in configuration and hay management for the four horses. Will have to ponder, and consult with the farm owner.