Thursday, April 24, 2008

Addressing Fear - Part IV

Previous posts in this series:
Addressing Fear - Part I
Addressing Fear - Part II
Addressing Fear - Part III

The accident happened on Labor Day, so my surgeon and anesthesiologist got called away from their holiday celebrations to put my arm back together. My orthopedic surgeon had been out riding his motorcycle at the time he got the call. He said to me, "I ride motorcycles, but I would never ride a horse based on some of the injuries I've seen come through this emergency room. Horses are living things with minds of their owns. At least you know you have total control over a motorcycle."

He had a point, but most of the articles I've seen in the local paper recently have been about injuries sustained from quad and motorcycle accidents. It's possible that riding motorized vehicles is more popular than riding horses, and that's why those accidents seem to happen more often. I would have to argue that horses rarely intentionally hurt people, and can even display feelings of remorse when they do hurt someone. My horses have gone out of their way to avoid hurting me on occasions when I have been in the path of their stampede. My son was once leading Bombay at a trot through a narrow alley between two fences. My son tripped and fell in front of Bombay, and the horse came to an immediate halt, and then sniffed and nudged him to see if he was okay, which he was. A quad or motorcycle can't do that. If you are in its path, it will run over you, roll over you, or land on top of you without any remorse.

Despite all my logic, my surgeon's comment really scared me. During my recovery, I read "Inside the Halo and Beyond - An Anatomy of a Recovery" by Maxine Kumin, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. I had met Mrs. Kumin years before at a poetry conference. I adore this woman for all her bravery. I have always been inspired and influenced by her pastoral poetry, but this book was a memoir about her recovery from a horse driving accident. Mrs. Kumin's horse, Deuter, had some bad experiences when a runaway bridleless horse still attached to its cart crashed into him and when another agitated horse lept through its stall window and crashed into him. Just when Deuter seemed to be coming back to his old self while warming up at a clinic, a logging truck with chains clanking roared up from behind him as he was pulling Mrs. Kumin in a cart.

He broke into a gallop and raced back down into the arena where all the other drivers were warming up. The brakes were powerless against this horse's fear. Mrs. Kumin's damage added up to a punctured lung, multiple broken ribs, internal bleeding, bruised kidney and liver, and a broken neck. She was paralyzed and not expected to live, but she made it, and she wrote a beautiful book about the experience.

Of course, reading that particular book during my recovery was inspiring, but it did not help my fear. I was still trying to figure out how I could break my arm falling from a 15-hand horse. I was only 5 to 6 feet off the ground when I fell, and the ground was soft decomposed granite. I wandered outside in my drug-induced state with arm in sling to survey the scene of the accident and discovered the point of a triangular-shaped rock sticking up right where I fell. I figured that my arm must have landed on that rock, and the rest of my body landed on my arm. The rock acted like a fulcrum and snapped the teeter-totter in two.

You can bet that once my arm healed, I put in a lot of time picking up and digging up rocks in my riding areas. With my neighborhood being an area that was once under a river, the rocks are endless. My neighbors used to make fun of me for trying to clean up all those rocks, telling me that it was an impossible task. After years of rock picking, I now have a sizable pile of river rock at one end of the paddock. The horses like to climb on it and pretend to be King or Queens of the Hill. At one point I had actually cleared all rocks from the surface, and then our leach system failed and the septic company had to bring tractors in to dig a new leach system. Now I'm starting over with the rock problem. I know people think my rock clearing efforts are ridiculous, as trail and endurance riders don't clear their trails before riding. However, I figure the softer the ground is that you land on, the better your chances will be to walk away without broken bones.

I tried to make myself feel better during my recovery by thinking how fortunate I was that Bombay didn't fall on me and break my leg or that I didn't fall into the railing and break my neck. It was fortunate that Bombay didn't get hurt. It can always be worse, I suppose. However, thinking through all the what-could-have-happened scenarios, I only managed to scare myself more.

Bombay went off for 60 more days of training at a facility while I recovered. I was not able to take those riding lessons on him that came with the training, so my daughter took the lessons in my place. I wasn't concerned about him not being a safe horse. I understood that every mistake that led to his undoing was mine and the chances of all of those mishaps coming together again were slim. I learned from those mistakes and my daughter was in good hands with our new trainer. In fact, when the trainer finished working with him, she gave him the highest compliment I could desire. She said he would make a great school horse for kids. Now all I had to do was get back to school myself.

From my accident I had learned to never feel rushed when working with horses, because taking shortcuts can lead to mishaps. My accident reminded me of an airliner crash that was caused by a series of little things going wrong. If any one of those things did not happen, the crash would not have happened.

I learned the main differences between a green horse and an old stable horse trained for kids to ride: Green horses get confused easily and can panic, just like their riders, while well-trained, experienced horses tend to know the difference between a beginning rider and an advanced rider, and they act accordingly without getting overly-emotional about the whole thing. Good school horses ignore beginning riders' mistakes and understand that they as the horse are the teacher. Green horses can't differentiate between what is the rider's mistake and what is their own mistake. For that reason, it's best to have advanced riders handle green horses, but if a beginning rider is riding, an advanced rider should at least be present to instruct the beginning rider.

Once my arm healed, I took my riding lessons, but on a school horse. The trainer's gelding taught me how to ride by only responding to the appropriate cues. He demanded consistency on my part in order to consistently perform well. If I screwed up and mixed my cues, he simply stopped. He showed me that not all horses are fearful, as he calmly let me ride him at a walk with a kitten swinging from his tail. Other kittens leaping up onto the wall took me by surprise and made me jump out of my skin, but this horse didn't even blink an eye. He was so used to other animals running around, sudden movements, and sudden noises, that his nervous system was always on an even keel. His calmness eventually led to my calmness. His confidence led to a growth in my confidence.

I'll never forget the day when my trainer said, "I need to get ready for my next lesson. Why don't you ride him around outside the arena on your own to cool him down?"

On my own? All that fear came rushing back. "But what if something scares him and he bolts? We won't be in an enclosed area." I said.

My trainer smiled and said, "He'll be fine. You're in good hands."

I rode that school horse all around that facility, exploring every avenue. We walked past rows of young, green horses that were calling out to us, and though some of their whinnies were startling to me, that gelding didn't flinch. He walked right past a haystack without trying to snatch a bite. The longer we rode, the more my confidence swelled. My trainer had to hunt me down and tell me I'd been cooling him down long enough. When I dismounted, I realized that I felt more comfortable on that horse than on my own two feet.

For the next lesson, my trainer took me out on a trail ride. She rode a green horse and I rode her school horse. We had a long talk about fear. We rode past the house of a famous baseball pitcher. He had his own batting cage and pitching machine. She taught me to lean forward and loosen the rein when going uphill, and to lean back when going downhill. She taught me about the dangers of gopher holes. She even took me by surprise by taking off at a fast trot on a fire road to see if I could keep up. Much to my amazement, I did keep up. The next step was for me to start trailering my horses in to her facility and take lessons on them.

Until the Part V, I leave you with my favorite horse poem by Maxine Kumin: "Jack"


Anonymous said...

Every time I've gone to the emergency room (yes, it's been more than once, always for horse related incidents) they doctors seem to take great pleasure in announcing that horse riding is the most dangerous activity. :-( I think if you look at the statistics related to the number of people who ride horses vs. the number who ride motorcycles, you'll see the difference. Plus, police don't usually respond to equestrian accidents, so the newspapers wouldn't have the info to report about those. Although, once a friend was trail riding with another friend and they were "buzzed" by some ATVs. She got dumped and was badly injured (almost lost an eye) and they ended up having to airlift her out of there as an ambulance couldn't get in. THAT made the papers. :-(

That lesson horse sounds like the perfect horse for you to regain confidence! Can't wait to read the next installment.


Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Ann -- It's not just the papers, but when students at my kids' schools get hurt, it's usually a motorized vehicle accident. People give me a hard time for only riding my horses in controlled arenas, but there's nowhere horseback riders can go around here without running into motorized vehicles. I don't want to take my chances of stumbling upon an ATV driver who is ignorant of trail etiquette and how to behave around horses.

Anonymous said...

I have a similar problem here. I live on a small, quiet, dead end road, with 1500 acres of state conservation land that joins up with the Town Forest which is huge. I should be able to trail ride for hours, but every freakin' kid on the street has a dirt bike and/or ATV. :-( They are usually good IF they see me and will stop or turn around, but they go so fast and one time they didn't see me standing at the side of the road waving my arms at them while holding on to my 17.2 hand horse until they were about 10 feet from us. At which point, my poor horse was so freaked he was running backwards up the hill with me running after him because I was not going to let go of the reins! I'm just glad I heard them coming soon enough so that I could get off quickly. If I had been on him, I'm not sure I would have been able to ride him through it. So, I only hack out on weekdays during the school year when the kids are in school, but then I have limited time because I have to work. But, it's just too dangerous. So, I sympathize.


Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Ann - Wow! I'm just impressed that you can dismount a 17.2 hand horse without hurting yourself!

sue said...

I have such respect and appreciation for "trainers" who "really train" and take such time and care with their students... I, too, am lucky enough to have one of them... but, from what I see they can be hard to find.... it's "so easy" for someone to throw you up on a horse and call it lesson, verses the ones who teach "true horsemanship"..... great story, thanks for sharing.....

woolies said...

hi - just stumbled on your blog and can't stop reading.
I was catapulted from my horse 2 years ago while trail riding in state park - there was something scary off the trail (coyote?) and I broke my back. I'm OK, but have never been able to ride like I used to - not that I rode with wild abandon, I was ALWAYS incredibly careful. And my horse was just being a horse - horses are prey in the wilds - it is natural instinct to run, twirl, spin - get away from the danger.
so now I teach beginners how to ride, safe in my arena....

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Sue - She was a great trainer. I hope to go back for more lessons this year.

Woolies - Thanks for stopping by and reading. It's true that just because someone is well-educated and careful when riding horses, it doesn't mean they are totally safe. It's definitely that prey instinct that makes horses dangerous to ride.