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APHA
Learning to Let Go

Trust in your horse is the key to confidence in the saddle.

By Heather Wallace

As a self-professed timid rider, I feel more comfortable when I’m in control of a situation. It’s not surprising, then, that I sometimes lack trust in others. I overthink situations and have trouble asking for help. Once, I mounted up and started warming up my horse only to realize I had forgotten my helmet in my tack box. Instead of asking someone to bring it to me, I dismounted and went to get it with my horse in tow. It’s more than the desire to stand on my own two feet; instead, it is almost a compulsive need to be self-sufficient.

For years, I rode lesson horses—generally, I would ride one animal for a year before moving up. I had a nasty habit of asking the horse to earn my trust without having confidence in them in return.

When I met a 3-year-old Thoroughbred who was fresh off the racetrack named Delight, I was attracted to his calm-yet-grumpy demeanor on the ground. He was predictable and steady with personality. I loved working with him on the ground, but I balked when I was asked to ride him: I did not trust myself to handle a green horse.

Delight taught me an incredible amount about confidence and learning to let go of preconceived notions about age and breed, and we became a great team over the two years I rode him. He was never an “easy” horse—he would challenge me if I wasn’t assertive or spook if a butterfly landed on his nose. Yet, I learned that if I let him canter three strides after a spook, I could bring him back with a half-halt because his “thinking brain” kicked in quickly. I learned that he would chip a cross-rail jump if he didn’t have the correct stride, but it was easier for him to jump a 2-foot 6-inch fence if I was brave enough.

Our most significant roadblock to trusting each other came one day when we were riding on the flat. I nudged him a little too hard on his sensitive left side when he began to break gait around a corner. In response, he dropped his head and gave a single buck—launching me over his head and onto my side, sliding across the ground into the arena rail.

When I came to, my trainer was standing over me with Delight, reins hanging on the ground, looking over her shoulder. As graceful as a sack of potatoes, I got back on him with no stirrups and the reins on the buckle to walk him around the arena. I later went to the hospital with broken ribs and a bruised lung.

Physically, it was only two weeks off. Mentally, the toll was higher. For years, this horse and I had trusted in each other, but it was broken in only moments. I couldn’t let go of the memory of getting injured.

I chose to move on, not only from Delight but from lesson horses where I would show up and ride just a day or two each week. I opted, instead, to buy my own horse, whom I could work with and care for daily. We’re building our trust with groundwork, clicker training, hand-walking in the woods and riding. All that time spent together has increased our relationship; now, I can read his smallest signals and there is a symbiotic relationship.

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This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Fall 2020 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.

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