Aiming for the gate

Some of you know that I am passionate (obsessed) about learning to ride horses.  Or really just one horse, my boy Mo.

Mo is a show hunter, which just means his day job is to go around a course of fences in a steady, rhythmic canter and jump over the fences looking graceful, obedient, relaxed, a pleasure to ride.

More on hunters and the hunt seat style of riding …

Mo showing in a hunter competition with great riders Cathy and Kristin (who are not me) — this is what I aspire to.

Mo is a veteran — he knows his job and loves doing  it.  He is a Cadillac of a horse — smooth, obedient, patient, “push button” (easy to cue to specific movements or gaits).  He is very well-trained and athletic.  He knows what kind of rider I am, and he demands that I ride him correctly.  Or Else.

My trainer Alejandro has been working with Mo and I for what seems like eons to get me over the Heebie Jeebies about jumping.   After all, I paid the equivalent of a new car for Mo because I wanted to jump and needed a mature schoolmaster-type horse to teach me.

Lately we have been working on getting me comfortable with Mo’s Big Canter, the one he needs to jump well, to cover the ground in the correct number of strides between fences so he takes off at the right spot in front of the fence, and lands at the right spot on the other side.

For our training, Alejandro sets some poles on the ground with a given number of stride lengths in between.   If Mo isn’t going Big enough, he can’t make the distances between poles smoothly — he has to add or subtract steps — which makes the ride disorganized, choppy, bumpy, stumbly, or in the worst case, the Or Else thing.

Big means a bit faster than I typically want to do, and with a longer stride.   And when Mo goes Big,  I go Heebie Jeebie.  Which complicates matters, since Mo senses when I’m fearful or not up for something, and he shuts down in response.   This is the veteran horse behavior — he is not going to expend any more effort than I ask him to expend.  If he thinks I’m shutting down, he is more than happy to accommodate me by slowing down.

The thing I fear most is really an unknown — I am not really afraid of going fast.  I have reasonably good form and balance for an “advanced beginner” level rider.  I am not afraid of falling off.  I have fallen off horses many many times.  I know how to fall off and I do it very well.  I suppose I might be somewhat afraid of getting injured, but in the environment I ride and with Mo being Mo, the risks of serious injury are truly very low.

Alejandro asks me to ignore the individual poles.  They are there and we need to jump over them but I need to set my sights above and beyond each pole.  He tells me that I need to look up and  aim for the gate on the far side of the arena, and to the scariest thing of all … ride Mo as if to tell him to fly right out of the gate.

So I am learning, as with all other Things Horse, the way I conquer the Heebie Jeebies about riding is to ride.  This annoys me.  I need to ride even though I am afraid.  And keep on riding with the fear astride.  Keep asking for More from Mo.  Stay with it over the poles, as bumpy, stumbly or face-planty-in-the-dirt as it gets.  When we get the Big canter, ride it.  And then ask for Bigger.

So then I think … hmmm… is this what living with anxiety and panic is about?  Instead of living in fear of the fear, which is what anxiety and panic stem from, fighting and asking it to go away and always losing the fight … ask for More, and Bigger?  Aim for the gate?