Horrible Horseback Rider

Letting Go of the Face To Be A Better Rider

This winter I’ve taken it easy riding, mostly just bareback hacks around the arena talking with my good friend. Last Sunday I threw my saddle on G, slipped on my spurs and set off to get some work done. Nothing too intense, I know we’re both a bit out of shape, but something more substantial than just a bareback walk.

At a jog, I set us about the arena, small and large circles, even speed, a low head flexed at the poll. It was great. I sat in my saddle on my not-so-high-horse smugly thinking about how far we’ve come, how much I used to rely on the reins to set a head, control our direction, bend his body. I actually thought, hey, I’m going to write a really smart blog post about how power comes from your legs, not your hands. How the legs are the engine, hands are just the guide.

And then, as the universe is wont to do when one is feeling especially wise and smug, I was reminded how quickly you can revert to your bad habits.

My good friend was selling a 16.3hh appaloosa who would sometimes drop his shoulder in a left-hand lope. She wanted me to lope him to see how he felt. I was intimidated by his size. I wanted to collect up his face and hold onto it until I trusted him. Let’s just say you’ll probably see my book published (please, god) before you’ll see me fully trust a horse. I have trust issues. But this horse was not trained like my catty 15hh reiner. If I crank down on Gangster’s face it’s like pressing on a coil, he gets tight, pushed into the bridle, pushing forward, looking for the release. (Full disclosure, I don’t always give it to him, which is shame on me and bless him for putting up with me.) But cranking down on the appy’s face wasn’t going to make him push into the bridle or look for release, he would just shrug his hulking horse shoulders and drop out of the lope.

16hh Appaloosa gelding
The gentle giant. Keep in mind I’m 2 inches shy of six feet tall…

It’s so frustrating what we can see for others but can’t see for ourselves. You can pick out amateurs by their dependence on the face. For some reason when you’re just starting out, you think you can control the horse, the speed, the shape of the body with your hands. Maybe it’s because as humans we use our hands for so much. If we were more in tune to the rest of our anatomy, maybe it wouldn’t be such a steep learning curve to not worry about the head with our hands and instead ride with our body.

The next night I was working around the arena at a posting trot. I’m lazy and hate lunging so I was posting at a good clip, knowing G wanted to break into a lope. But I just wanted to let him extend at the trot. My friend was lunging her own horse and told me to slow down my body, to incrementally take just a split second longer to lower back into the saddle, to rise up with the outside shoulder. An amazing thing happened, Gangster slowed down his trot to match the speed of my body. Obviously not every horse is as sensitive, but they all have the ability, if we give them the opportunity and don’t grip the reins so tight.

Arabian Horse Trail Obstacle
Look what a happy relaxed pony!

A few days later I was loping around the arena by myself, thinking about staying off his face, sitting back, using my legs to keep him straight, curved around the corners, head slightly tipped in. An owl that has taken up residence in the insulation on the roof flew out from his perch and into the vision of my horse. Certain we were about to be attacked, Gangster bunched up and prepared to spook himself out of danger. Instinctively my hands tightened down on the reins to bring him down to a total stop. And then for the rest of the night, I couldn’t loosen back up.

Trotting Arabian Horse
I would still like to see his head lower than this and for my reins to be let out more. At least my hand’s not behind the saddle horn in this photo!

I’m sure there’s an allegory for life in here somewhere. Definitely some psychology related to physically letting go of tight control, of trusting in the process. I’m seeing now that this letting go will be the next big hurdle to me taking a big leap in my riding abilities. It will hold me back if I don’t figure it out. You can’t really ever ride in that beautiful space, where horse and rider are connected but not leashed to one another, if you’re one fluttering leaf away from curling into the fetal position and ratcheting down the reins. I’ve never had a bad horse wreck, never had a reason not to trust. Gangster can be hot and reactive, but he’s never bolted, never flung me from the saddle and caused bodily injury. But all the little twitches, sideways jumps and refusals add up I guess. I don’t know how to get over this except to ride through it. I have to figure out how to ride through my trust issues, to put my hands down, my back straight and not lose my nerve over a humped back and a few crow hops.

PS… That photo at the top was taken in 2013 of me and Gangster and every time I look at it I cringe. Look at how tight his body is! That mouth pulling against those too tight reins! Why! Why??? Because I didn’t know any better. Now I know better so I do better. But I have no problem sharing this photo (which I titled horrible horseback rider) because I don’t believe in fakeness. Because if I can learn from my mistakes then you might learn from them too.

PPS… THANK YOU to Chris T. Sloan for the photos from the trail course and the competition photo. Without her there’d be no proof that I have actually improved over time!

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Theresa Rice

Writing a modern day western and telling my daily stories of humor, sadness or inspiration. Depending on the day, it might be all three.

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