The Day I Fell Off (A Story about Trust)

          Anyone who has spent any amount of time knows what I’m talking about – falling off.  When I first learned to ride, that’s pretty much what I thought riding was – climbing on, clinging as long as possible, falling off, rinse and repeat.  Literally:  rinse the dirt out of my mouth, climb back on and do it again.  Eventually, falling off got to hurting more, and staying on got to be a goal.  Now that I’m older, falling off hurts A LOT more, and I spend quite a bit of time thinking about staying on. 
          Last spring, I fell off in a big way.  We were riding in the outdoor arena, working on our stops.  If you’ve watched reining, or ridden reining, you know what that’s about.  It’s about running the length of the arena at top speed, and then asking your horse to stop.  If all is right in the world, the horse will tuck his hind legs under and slide to a stop.  Really cool if it’s right.  Really scary if it’s not. 
          On this particular day, we were taking our game to the next level.  I had been going to shows and getting scores of 69.  I wanted 72’s.  To get there, we had to take a risk.  We had to push our maneuvers to the next level, which means going faster, running harder, and trusting more.  That’s what we were doing on that Saturday morning.  I was running him harder to his stops, and he was trying harder in his stops.  Unfortunately, I mistook trying harder for doing more.  I thought that I needed to push more with my body, to sit back farther, to steer with my hand.  Inadvertently, I took away the trust I had with Sergio.  Going slow, I trusted that he could perform the maneuver with me aboard as a passenger.  Going faster, suddenly I was grabbing the steering wheel, pushing the gas pedal and working the clutch.  Sergio was confused.  In fact, he looked back at me a couple of times as if to say, “What are you doing?  I don’t understand this new language you are speaking.”
          The ultimate result was that he came into the ground crooked, his back end slaloming off to the right, his front end jarring into the ground.  I popped up out of the saddle and off to the right.  I had a moment to clutch at the saddle, but all I saw below was dirt.  So I fell off.  It was not pretty.  I left my own slide tracks with my butt and hip.  As I crawled around, alternately pressing my forehead into the dirt in pain and fumbling for my glasses, I wanted to quit.  I was pushed beyond my limit, and scared.  Truly scared, and this is not something I enjoyed one bit.  But I knew that I had to get back on, to try the stop again, and do it quickly before the fear really set in.  I didn’t need to worry about Sergio’s fear, he understands forgiveness, and offers it up most of the time.
          As I climbed back on, knowing I was going to have a beautiful bruise and maybe some swelling, my hands were shaking.  My heart was pounding, my thoughts were racing.  Even as I readied myself to do it again, I was coming up with excuses not to.  Instead, I pointed him to the other end of the pen and kissed.  Or at least I pursed my dry lips together and squeezed my shaking legs.  Sergio took off for the other end of the arena.  As we loped, I told myself that I absolutely had to trust Sergio to do his job.  I had to let go of driving and be the passenger (or I would die).  It worked; we stopped bigger than we had all day.  We quit on that one, but the lesson was learned.
          The tricky thing about trust is that it is easy to give when I am in control.  When Sergio is providing the impulsion, locked in and doing his job, it’s a lot harder to trust.  I noticed, too, that the trust can quietly erode away when we don’t challenge ourselves as a team.  If I get in the habit of riding the maneuvers at home at a medium pace, I lose the trust I have in pushing ourselves to go faster.  Then we are right back in the same situation, I’m trying to drive and he’s sitting in the driver’s seat. 
         The thing about the stop is that you absolutely cannot Flinch.  As you are flying down the length of the arena, you must remain calm.  Your middle must be supple, your legs relaxed, your hand down.  I repeat the words of my coach – your hand down.  No really, you must put your hand down.  If you pick your hand up, it is equivalent to putting your foot on the clutch.  The engine revs but the car slows down.  If you are focused on the end of the arena and your jaw is set, your eyes are up, your body is flowing with the horse, and the pounding of his hooves fill your head … then, whoa.  The horse (who is now one with you) drops out from under you, your body rocks from side to side as he powers to hold on to the ground.  You can hear the friction of his sliders on the arena base, and it is a deep moan that echoes in your chest.  There is no thought at this time, no worry or wonder, and no doubt.  It is simply, “Whoa.”

Competitive Heart

 I once knew a horse who loved to compete.  You could ride him in the warm up pen for hours, but when he entered the show pen, he was a different horse.  He loved the run in patterns best.  I think it was because he could make a big entrance and wow the judges with a huge stop.
         I loved to cheer for him.  I would chuckle as he stood before the gate with his eyes half closed.  He was just waiting, confident that today he would get applause, today the judges would love him, today he would win.  It was so much fun to watch the judges sit up in their chair when he came in.  Here was a horse who wanted to compete, here was a horse who tried hard, here was a horse with heart.
         What is a competitive heart? When looking at horses, can you see it? A competitive heart is hard to define, but easy to spot.  Horses with heart come in all shapes and sizes, but they are the ones that people remember.  They are the ones who overcame odds, who tried the hardest, who never doubted - even when their rider did.  Secretariat, Sea Biscuit, the Black Stallion, and now War Horse; our stories are filled with tales of heart. A horse with heart draws an audience.

Riding a horse with a competitive heart, on the other hand, isn’t as easy as it would seem.  These horses will run until they’re hurt, will give too much, and end up broken.  Their desire to win is greater than the pain they feel.  
Not trying hard enough is equally dangerous.  Holding back a competitive horse by not showing seriously, by showing tentatively, or by making mistakes too often can frustrate the horse.  He will express his frustration in a variety of ways, many of them destructive in the show pen.
"The rider must know when to guide and when to ride."
         A competitive heart requires a bold rider.  The rider must know when to guide and when to ride.  There has to be a trust relationship between the rider and the horse. The rider has to be definite in his actions, and confident. The confidence is important, because the rider has to trust the horse. When it is time to compete, the rider's role is to guide the horse through the maneuvers, and let the horse do the showing.
If you have ever had the opportunity to ride one of these special horses, you understand what I'm talking about. Horses with heart will change you, they will challenge you to be better. They ask us to rise up to their level, to trust their desire, and to be their partner in the win.

What is your story about an extraordinary horse?