Baby Steps: Big Milestones

It is a lazy Sunday here on the homestead.  My hubby is making breakfast, and I am taking a moment to reflect on this crazy journey of mine.  

In order to properly share where I am and how far I have come, I need to share where I have been.  I was born on a small Wyoming ranch outside Cody. Well, not actually born “on”.  More like born in the hospital and brought home to the ranch.  We were a small town but babies were still mostly born in hospitals, but I digress.  My mom was the one who sparked my love of horses.  My dad, much like my husband thought them a completely unnecessary expedature.

Me 3 years old and my first horse, an Appaloosa named Apple.

I was in 3rd grade.  I had two friends spending the weekend with me.  We bounded off the buss and straight for the horses.  We were going to spend the weekend riding and playing.  I had a darling, but slightly bitchy yellow mare by the name of Sugar Plum Fairy.  Old Sugar Plum was going to have a weekend full of elementary school girls crawling all over her, laughing and making memories.

Those plans were dashed by a yearling Arabian colt by the name of Smokey.  When I approached the horses to catch Sugar Plum, something spooked them from behind and they ran toward me.  I tried to get out of the way, but ended up right in Smokey’s path.  The next thing I knew I was staring up at the tree tops and was confused as to what had just happened.  

I pulled myself together and stumbled to my feet.  The horses were at the other end of the run looking at me.  I was so mad that Smokey had knocked me down that I made a b-line right to him. It was in that moment that I realized my leg felt real funny.  I looked down to see a perfect fillet of flesh right along my groin!  Not only had he knocked me down, he had run me over and I was badly hurt.  

It was a frantic drive to town.  The ER was ready for me as was the surgeon who was supposed to stitch me back up.  I laid there trying to make sense of everything.  I was hurt really bad, but it didn’t hurt.  It really didn’t make a whole lot of sense.  I heard the doctor say, “She is real lucky!  See that, that is her femoral artery.  Thank goodness he didn’t nick that or she’d be gone.”  At 10 years old the only thing I really understood was “she’d be gone”.  How could I have been so close to death and not have any real pain?  My leg felt funny, but certainly not the pain one would expect from being filleted right down to the artery.  

They worked diligently to prepare me for surgery.  They wanted to cut off my cowboy boots but I begged them to please try and take them off.  They were successful.  My jeans were a total loss as were my Friday panties.  I had received a set of days of the week undies for Christmas and Friday was my favorite pair.  Side note: Mom promised to get me another set of days of the week panties and I never got them.  

I was stitched up and got to spent a while in the hospital before they sent me home.  Smokey had severed the nerves in my leg.  Half my upper leg was numb, and would be for years.  I walked away from the hospital with a perfect horseshoe shaped scar tucked neatly along my right groin.  It was a sort of badge, a horseshoe shaped reminder of how close I had come to death at the hands (or hooves as it where) of a horse.

I was released from the hospital with no idea that while I had been in there my dad took it upon himself to get rid of Sugar Plum.  At the time I had decided that I was done with horses so I don’t much remember being upset that I didn’t get to say goodbye or find out where she’d gone.  

I knew in my heart that horses were no longer something that I needed in my life.  My mom could see that fear had taken the place of love and wasn’t about to let fear win.  It didn’t matter if I was done with them or not, but I certainly wasn’t going to be afraid.  She loaded me in the car at the hospital and drove me right to the corral.  

I remember driving down the hill toward corral where the horses where.  My heart was pounding, I was shaking and the tears were flowing. I had loved horses so much and the silly act of a stupid young colt had ruined that for me.  My horse was gone and so was my desire to be a horsewoman.  

She didn’t give the the choice.  I had to get out of the car and say hi.  Smokey was the first to greet me. I stood there shaking and crying.  Uncertain if I could survive another “attack”.  As if he could tell that what I needed most was kindness, he touched me gently with his nose. He was still a young, stupid colt, but in that moment he grew up.  Even if only for a moment long enough to apologize for destroying something most dear to me, my love of horses.

My mom explained that Smokey never meant to hurt me.  I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and it would be a shame to stop loving horses just because of one stupid accident.  It wasn’t magical, but it was the beginning of me realizing that horses are worth the risk.  

I never did find out what came of Sugar Plum.  I suspect that she ended up at auction in Billings.  That is where the useless horses were sent.  I never got to say goodbye.  I also never forgot her.

Try as I may, the events of that day still stick with me.  Thanks to my mom I was able to find that great love again.  I was lucky enough to get a darling Appy mare who would “raise” me as a horsewoman.  She would teach me to be bold and brave.  She was the perfect mix of kind and loving and giant bitch.  She taught me how to trust and how to lead.  She helped me to overcome the demons of that day.

More than 20 years passed since I said goodbye to that amazing mare.  Twenty years of struggling with a horse shaped hole in my heart.  Twenty years of praying that Missy would not be that last horse to own my heart.

It never occurred to me that fulfilling my horse dreams would come at a cost.  Those demons came back.  They cause fear to overcome joy.  They tell me I am not good enough.  They tell me that I am too fat to ride.  They tell me that I don’t belong in the show ring with the “good” people.

Keno, sadly, has his share of demons too.  He didn’t come to me with those demons.  It isn’t important how he earned them, but sufficed to say it has been quite a journey to help him work through them.  With the assistance of a great trainer he is at a point where we have way more good days then bad.

My guess is that the single worst match up between horse and rider is when both have their own demons.  Especially when one is dealing with fear and uncertainty and the other has learned that fighting humans how you deal with nerves.  But, for what ever reason I refused to give up on him and he has decided to give me a chance as well.

Through this journey I have learned that he is happiest (and least fighty) as a hunter.  That means that I, the girl who isn’t sure that she even belongs in a saddle at all would have to decide if she would go hunter or give up all together.  One thing is for sure, I have come too far to give up.

Once upon a time I loved Riding English….too bad I could never find the right diagonal.

Learning to ride hunter has been a challenge to say the least.  There are no training wheels.  You cannot fake it.  That little piece of leather is not sufficient to give you any sense of security at all.  But, I decided that I would ignore the negative voices in my head and saddle up.  

So far I have been able to find a basic sense of balance in that saddle.  I can find and post the correct diagonal. I have survived a trail ride where we started with a spook, spin and trot back to the barn.  We managed a trail class where we completed each obstical with ease and confidence.  We survived a WT Hunter Under Saddle class where a panicked horse caused Keno a panic of his own that resulted in me on his neck.  Each of these has been a baby step that became giant leaps in our partnership and my confidence.

Yesterday was lesson day.  Melinda asked me if I wanted to work on trail or eq.  When I said that I didn’t care she decided that she would take the opportunity to encourage yet another baby step in our progress.  

I knew I was in trouble when she asked if I was feeling as balanced in my English saddle as I was in the western.  My first thought was to lie and say “NOPE”.  I knew that balance plus confidence equals canter.  

I had only cantered him twice before.  The first time was at a schooling show under the supervision of the trainer who had given Keno his demons.  It was a disaster.  He was so fast and out of control.  The only way I could get him to stop was to run him into the rail!  It was terrifying. 

The second time was last winter.  Still dealing with his issues, Keno once again took off with me.  The second I asked for a canter he shot off.  Throwing himself into a run, putting me off balance and bouncing around on top of him.  The reins had been ripped through my hands and I had zero control.  No steering, no stopping and being thrown around on top of him.  That moment would stick with me.  I didn’t come off, but it made me question if we will ever make it out of the walk trot pen.

Melinda explained that when I am ready to just move his hip and softly kiss. Relax into him.  Relax my hands and my body and move with him.  Sit deep through my heels and don’t be too stiff.  I couldn’t shake the memory of being a hostage to his whim last time.  I couldn’t shake the doubt and fear that this was not going to end well.

I reminded myself that the Keno who enjoyed terrifying me is gone.  He has been replaced with a guy who wants to take care of me and knows that I will do the same for him.  I told myself that while I look like I don’t belong in an English saddle that I have a decent seat and even if he takes off I will handle it.

I collected up my rein.  I slowly moved my outside leg back and he quietly moved his hip up.  Reluctantly, I softly kissed to him.  With confidence and ease he stepped into the canter.  He didn’t throw himself into a dead run, he quietly departed from the walk to the canter.  It was soft and easy.  It was the rocking chair gate that I remembered from days before Keno took my confidence.

It was only half the length of the short side of the arena, but I did it.  A deep seat and a quiet whoa and we came to a stop.  I was shaking with excitement.  I gave him a big pet and told him over and over what a good boy he was.  We, Keno and I, had taken a baby step that would forever be remembered as a huge milestone.  

Truth be told, I was not at all convinced that Keno and I could ever do a walk, trot, canter hunter under saddle class.  I made the mistake of listening to the negative voices in my head telling me that I have no business riding English at all let alone in the “big kid class” with three gates!  Keno said to me, “I can do this if you can” and then proved that we are both capable.  

It is funny how 5-6 strides at the canter can be so significant.  It was an affirmation that the time and money I have spent on training was necessary.  Keno is a different horse than he was and I am a different rider.  Neither would have happened without professional help.  Those 5-6 strides showed me the significance of baby steps.  I didn’t need to canter until Keno couldn’t any more or even be comfortable at the canter to feel like we passed that milestone.  Keno had a beautiful canter departure, an easy few steps and a soft stop.  That was enough call the events of the day a milestone!

I still have that scar on my leg, I still have the scars on my psyche, and I still deal with a significant amount of self doubt.  For a moment, one glorious moment, I was free.  Free of the bonds that hold me down.  I look forward to stringing those moments together.  For now, I will revel in the fact that we have checked off another milestone in our wild and crazy journey.


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