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.

1 comment:

H said...

OT, but: Psst!

Lovely horse by the way.