Tuesday, June 24, 2014

life lessons from the endurance trail

Endurance riding...and honestly, anything involving horses, ain't for the feint of heart.

But you know what? Neither is life.

In general, horses and riding have not come easily for me. It's my life passion, and I've yet to find anything I would give it up for...but I've had to fight for it every step of the way. Every goal, every achievement, every milestone.

My first introduction to lessons and riding was a rough start when I was persistently and maliciously dumped by one particular horse. I got to the point of being so scared that I would be nauseous and crying on the drive down to my weekly lesson. But I wanted to go...insisted, through the tears and shaking nerves, that I would go and I would ride. (There was also always a slim chance that I would get to ride one of the *good* horses, so I had to take that chance...I think there's a life lesson about hope and optimism buried somewhere in there.) My parents didn't force me. In fact, they offered me every out...but I refused to take them up on it.

After about of year of this, they moved me to a different instructor...one who employed reliable, kid-safe, caretaker lesson horses. Early impressions and imprinting are hard to overcome, though, and it would take several years, some patient instructors, and a couple of sainted equines (Deck and Snappy, I owe you everything) to help me piece my shattered confidence back together.

Even now, I'm not a brave rider.

I quit jumping after one wreck too many...I came back one final time a year after my worst incident to "conquer the fear," which I did in a pretty stellar fashion (5 courses, including a timed jump-off and the highest I've ever jumped the pony -- 3') and I haven't jumped since.

And while we're on the subject of true confessions? I used to be scared to ride out of the arena. My trainer used to have to literally clip a leadrope on Mimi and pony/drag me off the property. I'm betting I'm the last person on this planet anyone would have ever bet money on becoming an endurance rider. And not just an endurance rider, but one with Tevis aspirations.

Do I still get scared?

All the time.

I hate hitting the dirt. When I part company with a horse, rarely is it the "gracefully slide/roll and stand back up again" variety. It usually involves some kind of story/drama/trauma, and subsequent splat in the dirt.

I don't get along well with uptight, nervous horses who need lots of coddling and reassurance...or the kind who need a devil-may-care rider who laughs off spooks and misbehavior. I can be confident and guide an inexperienced horse along the trail, provided that horse is the kind of base personality that tends towards bold and doesn't constantly second-guess me when I say "It's okay, keep going forward, nothing's gonna get you."

And the biggest obstacle I face as an endurance rider is the fact I am paranoid and afraid of breaking my horse. I've had enough challenges and issues with Mimi over the years that it's made me hyper-aware and overly cautious about pushing a horse, let along pushing them too hard. Again, the early imprinting of having to struggle through and hold my horse together to get those miles...every ride completion we have is a victory and a celebration that I don't take for granted.

But doing endurance has forced me to recognize those issues, to face them, and attempt to deal with them. Last year was an excellent stepping stone for me. I rode lots of new horses. Some experienced, some brand-new greenies. Not just once, but several times, I climbed on a horse I'd never ridden until the morning of the ride, and proceeded to ride 25-50 miles on them. I toughed it out on horses who I didn't completely mesh with...and really, really appreciated the ones I did.

And I learned to have more faith and confidence, not just in the innate ability of a conditioned, athletic endurance horse, but also in myself that I wasn't going to break the horse and it wasn't all going to go horribly wrong. Ever since Mimi's unceremonious retirement halfway through our last 50 together, I've been beating myself up, wondering what I did wrong, what I could have changed, psycho-analyzing every minute detail, and generally feeling sorry for myself and my pony.

It's taken me some time to get my head around this concept, but sometimes, stuff just happens. You can do everything right, and the stars just aren't aligned on that day and time. This has been a hard thing for me to grasp. I tend to take it personally when things go wrong, and don't shake things off easily. Yes, that can be a bit arrogant and self-indulgent...but we are who we are and we all feel, react, and cope differently to every situation. And outside circumstances at the time made it easier for me to just duck and cover, and temporarily go on hiatus from endurance. Even that couldn't last too long, though, and friends with extra horses started coming out of the woodwork, giving me something to ride.

Yeah, the last couple of years haven't been ideal, catch-riding and rig sharing/borrowing and generally relying on the good graces of other people when I'm by nature more of a self-reliant person...but it's better than not riding. I accomplished a number of milestones under those less-than-ideal circumstances, including getting my first endurance and LD mileage patches, going to new rides I'd never been to, seeing friends I wouldn't otherwise get to see, and facing down some of those above-mentioned personal demons.

Circling back around to where I started, this hasn't been an easy ride for me. But endurance has been the best soul-searching, horizon-expanding, comfort-zone-shifting thing for me, pretty much ever. Life lessons, indeed. If I've learned anything, it's that there are no easy answers...life doesn't come with a handbook...you just have to live it.