The White-Knuckle Ride
I want to acknowledge the fear issues that we all have and encounter with horses and our daily life. It’s okay to be afraid to do certain things with your horse. Recently, I taught a lesson to one of my more fearful students. She was very happy to trot the school horse a few laps around the arena. She had to confidently and assertively take control when he tried to stop at the gate. It was incredible progress. It took me a long time to realize that this is a big milestone with some students.
I never really understood how to deal with students and their fear issues until I dealt with my own. To help me better understand my students I often relate my personal fear issues to riding. I was in a very bad car accident during winter break my senior year of college. I was driving home after a day of riding. It was one of those lessons where you just really suck. My trainer kept hollering at me to stop my horse with just my seat, and I couldn’t do it. My horse would not stop off my seat. Isn’t that the epitome of good training, the horse should listen to your seat? I felt so humbled, and embarrassed that I couldn’t make it happen – the lesson of checking the ego at the door. I know this was an exercise that Vi Hopkins tried on a lot of people. My trainer worked with Vi for a very long time. Many of his students rode with Vi over the years. She was one of those people that I would have loved to meet in life.
The roads were very icy, it was cold, but I could still see the strip of pavement from the tire tracks of cars before me. I was driving in the low thirties and cars that wanted to pass me were tailgating. My tiny college car hit the black ice and floated across yellow line. I’m using the word floated because that’s what it really felt like, there was absolutely no traction. After crossing the yellow line I was t-boned by a mini-van on the passenger side. I don’t know how fast the other car was going, but my car was totaled. I don’t think people realize how wrecked up you can become from an accident at 30 miles per hour.
I cleanly fractured my left femur in two places, shattered my right hand in three places, and put a few hairline fractures in other parts of my body. There was no blood. My trunk was packed with my winter break belongings and came open after the impact. The first thing I saw when I regained conscious was a man standing at the driver’s side door. As the realization of pain hit my body I could see my tall boots in the snow bank. I wondered, why were my tall boots in the snow bank? Later, the firefighters found my saddle in a tree. My accident was in a very rural area so after admitting me I had to be transferred two hours by ambulance to another hospital. It was a very long night and an even longer recovery.
I spent 18 days in the hospital about 1,000 miles away from home. I grew up with divorced parents, and they were already scrapping between phone calls, so I told them both to stay home. I learned to never judge the decisions one makes in the wake of a tragedy, and I always remind myself of that when my students make decisions out of fear.
After being released from the hospital I flew back to Philly in a wheelchair with a walker on my lap. I had the pleasure of flying first class for the first time ever in my life (how else do you get to the back of the plane?), and finished out my senior year of college with a wheelchair ramp to my apartment. To this day I am so grateful for my awesome professors at F&M that supported me throughout the spring semester of my senior year – and my ability to walk and ride.
But the truth is, it’s still an emotional endeavor for me to drive in the winter on snow-covered roads. I’ve had far too many white-knuckle rides to the barn this winter, I even slid down a hill a few mornings ago in a nice haunches-in position. I was never the fearful type of rider, until after my accident. The first time I got on a horse after I was cleared for weight bearing I asked another student to stay there with me, “just in case.” I remember that day clearly; because that was the first day I realized how easily you could be hurt when riding a horse.
I’ve tried my hardest to avoid confronting my winter driving fears. The first really bad winter since my accident I spent teaching on the Navajo reservation. Since the teachers must rent from the housing campuses on the reservation, I could get a ride to work on snowy days (and yes, this is the high desert of Arizona, so there is lots of snow). Then I avoided driving in the winter because I leased a farm with a house attached. If it was snowy I just didn’t drive anywhere.
This year is different. Now I lease a facility that doesn’t have on-site housing. Somehow I made it home the other night. It took me 1.5 hours and I passed a lot of flares and cars in ditches. It wouldn’t be so bad, but my fears come rumbling to the top every time it starts to snow. Like a hint of snow – just a dusting, and I am ready to run! Sort of like riding you know – oh he flicked an ear so he’s gonna buck, right?
When I start to see a spec of snow I go into panic mode. I don’t get any work done, my mind races to how it’s going to be getting home, and I call my night check/evening chores person at the slightest hint of snow. The good news, I get more writing done. The bad news, my horses don’t get worked.
But it’s more complicated than that. You see, this winter I am leasing a farm that is at the top of a very big hill. It’s not just any hill; it’s a hill with a series of s-curves at the bottom and a very sharp incline. This is not a two-wheel drive hill. You must have four wheel drive and good tires. It’s not uncommon to drive by cars that are victims of the hill on a snowy day. There is a back way around the hill, but it takes about 10 minutes longer and also involves “hills”.
The hill makes me a blubbering little crying shaking idiot. After a rough drive home I am mentally exhausted, shaken, and unable to focus and get work done – sort of like a bad scary ride, right? And every time I deal with this I think of my students with fear issues. I know there are a lot of books out there on how to deal with fear issues. I never really know what to say, other than words of reassurance, to the student who has their leg shaking and trembling in fear, in such a way that I can visibly see it. I try to do whatever is easiest when I see a student in that shape. Can we successfully walk a circle, a figure of eight?
I also tell them to go watch videos of confident riders. After my accident one of the best things that helped me was to watch youtube videos of car accidents and pile ups due to black ice. When I couldn’t sleep and I saw my accident replay in my mind over and over again watching the videos helped me realize a traumatic accident can happen to anyone. Likewise, it’s sometimes helpful to see that a horse can cause the same problem with another rider.
If you have fear issues, go watch really confident trainers and riders and note how they maintain their composure. My student with fear issues couldn’t believe how calm and centered Stephanie remained at all times if a horse acted up, had less than four feet on the ground, or bucked under saddle. If you are afraid that your horse might buck in the canter then go watch a good youtube video of a horse bucking (or tossing a wee little crow hop) in the canter with a confident rider. I’ve seen so many times a student “get” something or “understand” something by watching it visually or by seeing how someone else handles the situation.
On a final note – and for all of you out there that ride with pain issues, I commend you; it’s not such an easy thing.
“You need to find your frog legs”, Andrea said over and over again. I understood what she meant, but I couldn’t understand how it was correct. Why did she want me to open my knee? It was very contrary to what I had previously learned. I heard these words from Andrea Walz at a clinic in September. It wasn’t until I started jumping my mare Gracie in November that I fully understood the meaning of finding my frog legs.
Learning to find your leg and developing a good seat is a very long process. I remember when I started taking dressage lessons in my early teens my instructor insisted that my leg was always at the girth with toes pointed forwards. Combine this with my weekly hunter lessons, and it was an equitation disaster.
At my hunter lessons the instructor had me open my knee, point my toes out, and keep my leg underneath my hips. Then we would do laps and laps around the arena in posting trot and two point position. She had me grow taller and taller and stick my tail feathers out, but I didn’t really understand what she meant when she told me to stick my tail feathers out. I remember this position to be incredibly painful, and it was something that really turned me off from jumping lessons. Somewhere between my twisted ankles and contorted stiff back I wondered, was riding really suppose to hurt that much?
I was very confused in those early riding days because in the back of my mind I thought a good position should work for both jumping and dressage, but I was told to do completely opposite things in each lesson.
Then I went to college and had a few working student positions. It was then that I found that typical “dressage” leg, which made the jumping position make more sense. Before I “thought” I could feel my seat bones when my instructor asked me if I could feel them, but the reality was that it was my perception. Yes, I could feel my seat bones, but it wasn’t the correct feeling for seat bones. I really wasn’t sitting deep enough.
That changed when my instructor peeled my thigh off the saddle, twisted it, and then laid my leg underneath my hips. Hello deep seat! I thought this was the correct position. My body was aligned through the shoulder, hip, and heel. Sitting this way made posting really easy.
And that’s what I’ve stuck with, until now.
Enter, sensitive OTTB.
At the clinics in August and November Stephanie gave me the green card to dashboard with Gracie. I’ve never gotten the green card to dashboard before, so I’ve never really played around with how it feels to stick my legs out in front of my seat.
I was bracing myself for Gracie’s buck, and Stephanie told me to stick my legs out in front of me. She was really particular about this in the canter. I was not to drive Gracie with my seat to canter – so I sat a little behind the motion, stuck my legs out in front, and I followed with my seat. It was the same idea of getting behind the motion to get a sticky horse forward, but used in the canter. I apply the aid to canter, Gracie canters and I follow. I don’t push the canter with my seat. There was a huge take home lesson from this experience. Somehow, dashboarding and following the motion helped open my hips.
So back to the frog legs. I realized that my super sensitive OTTB doesn’t like that a rotated thigh dressage leg, and when my dressage leg sucks onto the horse like glue it can hinder the mobility of my hips and the horse’s motion. The fix? If I open my knee and point my toes out just a touch my hips open, my thighs are a little lighter, and my horses are much more forward. And although I feel like I have frog legs, it really doesn’t look that way.
After I started feeling this change in my position I pulled a few equitation books off my shelf and read what they had to say. Some advocated a rotated dressage leg, others we’re very adamant about an open knee but a balanced position that was aligned shoulder, hip, and heel. I personally feel a huge difference in my horses when I ride them with an open knee and looser thigh. I can feel that this position opens up my hips and allows me to follow my horse in a much more fluid manner.
What really made the light go on was jumping Gracie. I remembered my old hunter jumper lessons and opened my knee and sank my weight down into my heel. It was so easy to ride Gracie on the flat in this manner, that I started playing around with my position like this in my dressage tack. What a difference a simple change can make!
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