May 22 2006
My First Date with Buddy - A Flippin' Thrillin' Ride
“I don’t see how you can just get on other peoples’ horses. I wouldn’t have the nerve.”
Several people have said that to me. It’s not that I have a choice, really; I can’t afford my own endurance horse(s), so if I want to endurance ride (remember my letters: ROER – Rabid Obsessed Endurance Rider), I have to ride other peoples’ endurance horses. It’s not anything I really ponder, it’s just what I do. It’s my job (even though I rarely ever get paid), and I take it seriously. Some of it is with friends, much of it has been for endurance trainers, who often have a plethora of horses to ride, many at questionable stages in their breaking and training – no matter what the trainer tells you or thinks! (You sure learn a lot that way, especially on green horses.)
Riding is supposed to be fun! But it isn’t always fun - when you ride for other people and get on crazy horses, or ride with a crabby person, it’s only fun about half the time. But even then, I would rather ride. A friend has a bumpersticker: Endurance riding is like sex: when it’s bad it’s still good, and when it’s good it’s really great! That about says it all. Since my bad horse accident 6 years ago, I have luckily not been afraid to get on a horse, or been afraid while riding. And if I do get anywhere close to that feeling, I have no problem bailing off. If I had been afraid to ride, I don’t know what would have happened to my soul, because riding is such a big important part of my life.
Just like when you have a first date, or a first meeting with someone you will be working or living with closely, there’s that initial tentative feeling out of each other, not knowing how the other will respond. Since every rider rides just a bit (or a great bit) differently, and gives different signals, the horse may be confused while he tries to figure out what exactly his new rider is trying to say to him. The rider is likely thinking, Why doesn’t this horse know what I’m asking, or, Is he going to freak out if I ask him to do this?
I go through a lot of those first dates (and sometimes the 2nd and 3rd dates are the same way), because I get on a lot of different horses. And there is always that little voice in the back of my head, not fear or apprehension, but maybe a very very slight unease, way way back there, or maybe an Awareness of things that could possibly go wrong. And there’s always a little prayer I say, a little mantra to every horse I get on, Please Don’t Hurt Me.
So today I got on a strange horse, and he flipped over on me. Buddy is Gretchen’s husband’s horse, although her husband has only ridden him twice. Gretchen and another friend have had him out a few times. He’s a paint/arab, nice enough personality though somewhat dull. He’s not very athletic or nimble or flexible, he’s not real responsive to the aids, and though he doesn’t stumble a lot, he’s a heavy goer. Kind of takes your breath away when you ride him, because you’re working on his back. We’d been trotting up a road for a mile or two, then climbed a little hill, and headed down the other side. When he got down to the dirt road, I wanted him to turn left, but he thought we should turn right. Left rein, right leg, hard right leg, harder right leg… it was hard to convince him to go my way. So we stopped there a minute and worked on turning the hindquarters. Hard, very hard for him; he couldn’t pivot at all without moving the forehand also, and his left side was even less responsive than the right. To pivot his hind end to the right, I had to pull his head all the way to his left side, then ask him to move off my left leg, move off, MOVE OFF. He could get a few steps, but then it turned into a clumsy half falling to the right, moving his whole body… which was our undoing.
His back legs stepped over the edge of the road, and though I’d ridden by there hundreds of times, I’d never noticed how steep the drop-off was. And Buddy, being not so athletic, could not catch himself, and he immediately started to go over backwards. Now, it’s easy for armchair riders to say, You should have done this or that, but when these events happen, they happen so fast, you don’t have time to sit and think, Now hmmm, maybe the best way out of this situation would be…
I really don’t recall what precisely happened. I sensed he was going over and I must have bailed off. (Gretchen said I did. I think I heard “Oh, shit!” in there, but I’m not sure if it was her or me). I think I landed on my back in the brush (thank goodness it wasn’t in cactus!), head downhill and my momentum carrying me over backwards. And instinct flashed through my mind that if I am flipping over backwards, my horse must be flipping over too; as my body came to a stop on my belly, Gretchen yelled something like, “MOVE MOVE! HE’S COMING OVER AGAIN!” I’m not sure exactly what the words were, but I heard the urgency in her voice and my body was already responding, scrambling on hands and knees away, until I completely lost my footing and slipped down in the brush, even as I caught a side glimpse of a part of Buddy’s body coming my way. Your mind thinks so fast but your body can’t react that fast: because I knew I couldn’t get out of his way, I thought instinctively to curl up in a ball, but my scrabbling arms and legs were strung out all over and I didn’t have time. I fully expected a 1000 lb horse to land on top of me, and, while there was no fear, I braced myself for the knowledge that I had another split second or two before I might be dead, or broken into pieces. As my slow body was still trying to respond to the immediate instinct of curling up in a ball, Buddy’s butt came to rest gently against my back.
That was it!? My body instinctively burst up and away again, in case he might start thrashing. I turned back to look, and Buddy had gotten to his feet, and was standing there below the road. He didn’t look shaken up, more like, Duh, what happened there? I walked up to him, took hold of the reins that were still in place, and led him up to the road. There we both stood for a minute, Buddy looking like nothing at all had happened. I realized I was completely out of breath, my heart pounding a mile a minute. Was that from being out of breath, or from a delayed adrenaline rush? Buddy and I stood there a while, till my breathing slowed down, and I refused to think of the myriad disasters that could have happened there.
After moving his front and back end around a bit on the ground, to make sure he was okay and he knew what I was asking, I got back on. We continued our ride, and Buddy did fine (we did stop a few times to practice our turns again, only not near road edges), even crossing a rushing creek, which he’d had trouble with on a previous ride. It turned out to be a nice ride, or, I could even say a thrilling ride – I am so thrilled I did not get hurt!
There are obvious things I could have done differently. Not pushed him so hard to do something he can’t do yet. Often I think we tend to do that. When a horse can’t (or won’t) do something we think he should be able to do, we tend to try to push him through it. I should have just asked for one little step at a time. I should have moved him around on the ground before I got on him, something I always used to do, but have slacked off on. You know, Parelli’s Seven Games? Many people swear by Parelli, many deride him and his Seven Games, but call it what you will, clever or stupid, just doing something to get your horse to respond to you on the ground, and see how he responds to you on the ground, can give you a clue as to how he’s going to respond to you on his back. If the horse can’t move off the pressure of your hands on the ground – backing, turning on the forehand, turning on the hind end, he’s probably not going to move off the pressure when you’re on his back.
Had I done that before I got on, I would have seen how hard it is for Buddy to pivot on his front end, especially on his left side. I just didn’t take the time to do it. Which I will be doing again from now on, even the horses I ride regularly! It makes for a much more responsive, lighter horse, which can always helps in unexpected situations. The horse usually feels good about himself when he can easily do these things you are asking of him.
A shaky, scary, but ultimately fine (and thrilling!) first date with Buddy. I know our next date will go much smoother!