Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Things We Don't Say

I trotted my horse for the first time this year today.

I know; it’s September 6. Mo isn’t lame. He’s not recovering from an injury. He’s as sound and healthy and happy as he ever was. I know a lot of you have had to take extended breaks from riding because of a horse’s injury—I have, too, just not with him. And it’s a horrible feeling, that tearing-the-hair-out helplessness, watching time pass. Worrying the horse isn’t going to come back the same. I’m lucky that that isn’t why I needed time off.

Mo didn’t get burned out or over-faced. In fact, we ended our season in October with a third place in his first beginner novice at the Maryland Horse Trials. I didn’t write about it, but he was perfect. The dressage judge loved him. His show jumping was on point. He became a better and happier horse with each jump on cross-country. I couldn’t have asked for a better day. 


Mary said that he was going so well that if we got one more BN under his belt in the fall and maybe one or two in the spring, he could move up to novice in the spring with an eye to his first training by the end of the fall. But when the first time you’ve trotted your horse all year is September, that isn’t going to happen.

I didn’t get injured. My coach did, though, breaking the hell out of her collarbone at the beginning of the summer. Right when I was about ready to get back on, I ended up at the barn every morning anyway, mucking stalls. This did good things and bad things for me, but one of the good things it did was show me that I can get out there before work. But I didn’t have a fall, I’m not afraid of him, I didn’t get intimidated, I didn’t lose interest.

I mean, who could ever lose interest in that face.

I did have some big life changes, some of which are up for discussion and some of which aren’t. The most significant is that I opened what has become a very successful coffee shop in my town with my best friend. Owning a business like this is a full-time engagement, and it’s taken quite a bit of my time and energy. It makes sense that I’d have to put competitive riding down for awhile to get this up and moving.


That isn’t really why I haven’t trotted my horse since last fall.

Here’s the truth of the matter: 2016 has been for me, as it has been for many people, incredibly difficult and painful. I have had, for my whole life, a lot of mental health problems, mostly as a result of various traumas that have happened over the course of my life, since early childhood. For one reason or another, all of that has come to a head this year.

I have post-traumatic stress disorder, for starters. Sometimes it’s worse than others. I go through stages where no one would ever know. This is not one of those times. My PTSD has a couple of co-morbid issues, including panic disorder and anxious-avoidant attachment disorder. All of this piles up to a lot of pain and issues with functioning and making choices that aren’t always in my best interest (no drugs or alcohol, so there’s that). And the other thing that seems to be very common for me, almost like breathing, for as long as I can remember, is suicidal thought.

It’s not that I want to be dead. I don’t, at all. I just want the pain to stop. And it rarely does, honestly. I’m not going to hurt myself, but living with that feeling all the time is exhausting.

“So ride, Jess. Get on the horse. Riding fixes everything. Riding is like therapy. Riding is self-care.”

I mean, yeah. It is. Riding is great for me, and I definitely feel better now that I’m getting back to it. But I’m getting back to it because I’m shakily in a place where I can. 


As this article explains very well, self-care isn’t necessarily a thing for people like me. We can look at self-care lists and be like “…” because it isn’t enough. It’s not even a start. It doesn’t compute. Take a bubble bath? That’s going to fix the fact that my insides are wrapped in barbed wire? No. It isn’t. Because, as you’ll understand if you read the article (READ. IT. Someone in your life needs you to. Maybe it’s you), I’m used to living with a car that’s crashed through the walls of my above-ground pool and is now parked in there. A patch kit, a self-care list, isn’t going to fix it.

Riding can’t fix it. It can’t. Not even riding my perfect perfect beautiful Mo.


In fact, the more pressure I put on myself to go ride him, the worse things got for me. I’ve been having panic attacks at all hours of the day and night, and my adrenaline is regularly out of control. Thinking about the things that are slipping away from me—relationships, opportunities, passions, my riding career—just makes the panic worse. It’s why I haven’t been reading your blogs, as much as I enjoy them.

And the other piece of it is, he’s a young sensitive delightful thoroughbred. If I get on Mo when I have cortisol flooding through me, he’s gonna have a meltdown. And Mary can’t fix it for me because she’s injured. It’s just me and him right now, which is fine with me, but what if I have a panic attack start up while I’m riding? They may or may not be triggered. Nothing bad needs to happen for me to unravel. And you’ve never seen me have one of these, but they are very. very. very. bad. When I panic, those suicidal thoughts come rushing in. I’m difficult to be around. I’m sobbing. I’m shaking. I’m certain that I’ve ruined everyone’s lives.

Some people can handle it and some people can’t. Some people are safe and some aren’t. Some of the people who love me the most are not the ones who are safe. That…is confusing, especially in the moment, when I feel like I’m trapped on the side of Mount Everest and I’m too disoriented to know which way is up, or whether I’m going up or down. It’s hard to look at a familiar face of someone I love and recognize that in that moment, they’re not safe for me. They’re going to make it worse. Imagine being at your worst, shooting out chaotic energy, and looking at someone you love and knowing if they get near you they’re going to hurt you. Now try that when you’re on your horse.

I’m lucky. A couple of key friends started to pick up what was happening and encouraged me to seek out safer people, to get therapy, to find medical help. Doing all of those things has helped me quite a bit. I’d encourage anyone else suffering from any of these issues to do the same thing (and I can be the person you reach out to, if you need it). So now I have my feet under me the tiniest bit, and I’m less likely to panic at a moment’s notice, and I can get on my horse.

All last week we walked. The week before that we walked, too. About 20 minutes at a time, no big deal, just in the ring. Today we walked over a pole that was on the ground from someone else’s ride, which he thought was really fun. Then we trotted, and he stepped forward into the bridle even though all I was asking for was for him to trot at all. I remembered that I know how to post.

So we’re not going training level. Part of me is so angry at myself that I’m not writing about his conditioning schedule or our most recent dressage scores or how naturally brilliant he is on cross-country. We trotted for maybe four minutes. It felt great. I don’t know if I can do it again tomorrow, we’ll have to see. 

I’m in a lot of pain these days, pretty much all the time, and I’m working on accepting that instead of also being pissed at myself for not feeling good. I’m also, very slowly, letting feelings come back, letting things I love come back, trying to accept the good things I have in my life. There are people who love me, including a stripey-faced four-legged person with cute ears.

This is where I’m supposed to say that everything is better with riding. It isn’t. He can’t fix my problems, he can’t make me okay, he can’t guarantee me anything. The things I’m afraid of, he can’t do anything about. I don’t get that magical feeling of freedom when I ride that people talk about. And that isn’t because that thing isn’t real, because it is. It’s because I’m not well enough to feel it. That euphoric feeling after a good lesson? I literally cannot handle that right now. I can’t do it. I can’t deal with the wildly unstable feelings that could bring, and with the potential for chaos. I’m not okay.

So walking it is, and sometimes trotting, more to ensure myself that I’m not losing everything than to do the self-care thing. And because he really does like me, and he deserves a human who is attentive to him and gives him a job to do. He didn’t ask to be purchased by someone with mental illness. I have never and will never hurt him (I don’t do rage—I implode, I cry, I curl up, but I never get angry). I always put him first. So I’m trying for him, as much as for me, because through all the feeling like I’m wrapped up in barbed wire inside, I do love him. That comes through, warm like sunshine.


Monday, October 5, 2015

Pushing the Height

Ugh y'all, I'm way behind on posts. And here's the thing: there are many exciting possibilities afoot in Camp Rainbow at the moment. Those possibilities are demanding quite a lot of my attention, which they deserve. That might mean this blog slows down again for a bit. But we're heading into winter anyway, so. I'll do my best to stay on top of interesting lesson recaps and show stuff, if for no other reason than I really enjoy looking back on those, but if you don't hear from me for a bit, don't fear for my life.

Anyway, another exciting thing is how well Mo is going (aside from how cranky and annoying he was on our trail ride this morning). We have, more than a year into riding him, gotten the jumps up to 3' in a school. I don't expect they'll stay here--M's novice horse doesn't necessarily always jump 3', depends on the exercise--but it sure felt good to know that he'd canter down to the middle of a slightly bigger jump and spring over it in as relaxed a fashion as he does the smaller stuff.

All the jumps below are pictured at their final height, not the starting height.

These two verticals are set on the diagonals, so they made for a good figure-8 exercise to get him warmed up. You'd come right lead off the rail to the blue one, around the top of the ring, and then left lead back over the black one. We did that a couple of times until he found a rhythm and was chill.

Then we snuck into this oxer at a bit of an angle because there was a skinny two strides before it, and I wanted him to find each element individually before tackling them together. The first time to it was a tiny bit disorganized and we pulled a rail, but we got that figured out.

The first time we did the skinny I came in between it and the oxer and trotted it, but after that he had to canter it, and eventually we did the skinny-to-oxer line. First time through needed more engine but nothing really went wrong; second time was fabulous.

I loved that the ring was a little flooded, because these barrels were in and out of the water. This one threw him for a bit of a loop, but we got it together and eventually he trotted back and forth over them like NBD. This seems like a legit BN question to me without the water element.

We also played over these verticals. Mo doesn't care about the liverpool. He hasn't seen the carpet in awhile, so he took a peek the first time but was fine after that. They could be ridden in a four-stride line, or each vertical was a five-stride bending line to an oxer. He was good with all of that--always made the steps, never lost his rhythm.

This is probably our biggest accomplishment of the day: he trotted to the rock with no rail over it and jumped it the first time. I had to ride to it a little bit, but he did it, and because the rock has been an issue for us, I hopped off at that point and he was done. 

When I was dismounting, M was all, "Can he please just go BN at the next one coming up?" And it's true. Compare those oxers to, say, anything we've been jumping at shows so far this year. They're a whole foot taller. I think it's good to school above the level, but that's 1-2 levels up from where we're showing. And, frankly, elementary is boring now.

So that's the plan: BN on October 18 at Loch Moy (if you're going and you're not already my friend on FB, add me and maybe we can meet up or something). We're going to go XC schooling one more time, and then I think we've got it. The dressage won't be perfect, but it wouldn't be at elementary either. And as Bruce Davidson says, if you wait for the dressage, you'll never jump.

I think plenty of people would have the horse jumping bigger than this and competing at a higher level at 13ish months in. And that's fine. Philip Dutton would likely already be running him Training. For me, it's not worth the risk of confusing or frazzling him. I know in my gut that he's got enough scope to go Advanced if we want to (not sure that we want to). But I think that eliminated-at-intro to reasonably-attempting-BN is good for one season with a rider who hasn't ridden in a horse trials since the 90s, you know?

The weirdest part is that I'm excited. To event. Ha!

Friday, September 25, 2015

He's So Bad and He Does it So Well

There's your Friday-morning TSwift reference. You're welcome.

Yesterday I took Mo on an XC schooling adventure. M had a couple of other students going so we tagged along, as did my mom on Teddy (M said Teddy got the award for Best Mane).

You can see why.
Teddy didn't really jump, although he bravely stepped over some logs and did the little step in and out of the water. The other two horses and Mo needed pretty much the same school, so that was good.

Good thing: Mo jumped everything put in front of him without saying no at all. He did ask some questions but I put my leg on and he jumped everything. The jumps ranged from tiny logs on the ground to some solid BN questions. He owned the jumping, the terrain questions, all of it. Ditch-to-jump, jump-to-ditch, on the bank, off the bank, funky looking jumps, whatever.

This was, what, my second day with him or something?
He's never cared much about terrain issues. Love that.

Bad thing: He did NOT own the "we're just hanging out" time. It was chilly yesterday, and he was a little up, and he just wanted to mess with me endlessly. He also got nappy about leaving the group a couple times. But if I made him gallop away from them, he would. There was a lot of head-flinging and acting like a dummy, so he's gonna get a running martingale for at least awhile.

This would have been a mild disobedience in yesterday's context.

What was interesting was that his best behavior was when he was pointed at a jump he thought was interesting or maybe hard. Then he'd focus on his job. But logs on the ground are borrrrrriiiiiiing to him now. This is a HUGE step up from where we were at the end of May, exactly four months ago. However, I would like him to be rideable. I think we'll get all the pieces in place. He was acting like a screwball yesterday, but I don't think he really is one fundamentally.

Fundamentally he wants to nap.

The one thing that kinda messed me up with his behavior was that I was taking back the reins too quickly after the jump to defend against his antics, when what I needed to do was stay soft and just let him gallop. We all know this horse needs to be more forward-thinking, and so the worst thing for me to do is to stop him. But always happens, M harasses me until I do what she wants. I'm pleased that I was able to stay soft going TO the fence, and put him between my leg and the jump and leave my hands out of it (and this comes from him now understanding his job, that he's to march down to the middle of the fence and jump over it, so I don't have to keep a hold of his mouth on the way in). I also have my release back and was able to let him jump all the way over the fence without feeling my hand at all. But within a couple strides of landing I was instinctively like "get back here" instead of "go go go." By the end it was much better, and this really is an easy thing to fix. I just have to be aware of what I'm doing, and isn't that a huge part of riding anyway?

Ultimately, I'll take the horse that ably and enthusiastically jumps what's in front of him and yanks my chain when he's bored over the horse that ambles around like a saint but can't/won't jump. That's my preference, and it doesn't have to be yours. Still, I think I can get Mo's brain back into my hands over time. We all know that his brain does sometimes fall out an ear and roll away. This ain't the first time that's happened and won't be the last! I also trust my seat enough to know I can stick a lot of crap, and I trust him enough to know that the crap isn't going to get truly terrifying.

We were schooling at a place owned by a lovely man whose life basically revolves around OTTBs, and he's been in love with Mo for awhile. So when he came up to us after the schooling he was eager to show me (and Mo) that the lock screen on his phone is a picture he took of Mo back in May when we went to the Brian Ross clinic. I LOVE it. I texted it to myself right away. It was worth the trip just for that!

He's not very tall but he IS handsome as hell.
He jumped well enough that if we can get one more good XC school in the next week or so, I might move him up to BN for MDHT on the 18th. We'll see!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Stay Not Freeze

I'm picking up on something. A pattern is emerging. I need to break the pattern right now if I'm gonna progress in my riding.

When M says "stay," I think "freeze."

Example: "Stay still, don't change anything in front of the jump" leads to me NOT MOVING for the last two strides, just sitting there doing nothing. Which is not what she meant, because that translates into dropping the horse, losing the rhythm, and then good luck getting a decent jump. She doesn't really mean "don't do anything," she means "don't change what you're doing." I've got this sorted out while jumping now. Part of what helped was M saying "stay connected" and reminding me to count my rhythm.

Staying in the moment and not abandoning Mosey.

Now I'm having the same issue with transitions. I can competently ride my lovely horse from trot to walk and back now (after like 25 years of riding), but I freeze in the halt ("If I sit here perfectly still, you'll be perfectly still, too, right?" Um, no).

He needs to stop moving but I need to ride him while he's standing still.

And then yesterday, M realized that I'm still riding the canter transitions like he doesn't know what those are--tipping a little forward, throwing the reins at him, driving with my seat. Instead, I need to STAY--I need to sit up, keep riding, do just what I do in the walk-to-trot transitions. But instead, I FREEZE, and do nothing. And then he inverts and runs into the transition because that's what he has learned. From me. Yay.


I can fix this, I think, by riding Red. His canter transitions aren't perfect yet but I know that on him I can stay sitting up and keep the trot rhythm going (and I bet if I really think about how I'm riding them, they'll get better...). But I need to be sure that when I get on Mo, he's getting that same ride from me.


Is this something you've dealt with? How did you fix it?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

SB's Awesome Things "Blog Hop"

I love SB's "blog hop" that doesn't involve any fancy links but is a GREAT idea. Here are some awesome things I can do with my horses.

Celebrate the holidays with Reindeer Realness

Teach a kid to groom

Walk over scary liverpools

Find a freaky-similar Breyer model

Sunrise hacks

Winter naps

Own grids

Pose for treats

Lick our lips

Jump clean at our first show

Start a ribbon pile

Dressage in front of one of the best in the world and not die

Scrutinize our tests

Teach a kid to ride


Ensure M's job security

Learn to like XC

Road trips!

Model outfits


Jump 3' for his first time like a boss

Ride show jumpers in the dressage ring and live

Scrutinize tests some more

Summer naps

Make my coach work WAY too hard

Have some dressage moments to be proud of

Jump like a baby rockstar
Ahhh. I love these horses. Thanks, SB, for the cool idea!