The second instalment of my Confessions of a Coaching Intern series in which I re-visit my experiences as an equestrian coach-in-training, 1995-1997.
Enjoy the ride!
Finding clarity with a pitchfork and a song is one thing. Finding your courage on the back of a misbehaving horse is another thing altogether.
In this post we’ll step back in time to the true beginning of this journey. A journey I didn’t understand until I was in the throes of the pitchfork meditation … and beyond.
This instalment will be broken into at least a couple, or even three, posts. It was an invaluable experience and I don’t want to cut corners in the telling of it. At some level it’s about meeting and conquering a nemesis … and I know I’m not the only one who’s ever had a run in with one of those. 😉
Before we begin, let’s hang out with Bear for a moment. He likes company …
The Buck Stops Here
My story begins in 1991, four years before I chucked in corporate life.
I was a naïve almost 30-something, struggling with my identity, married to a man who didn’t love me and forking over my hard-earned money to pay for his expensive Masters degree State-side. I was living in my mother’s house, childless, aimless, anxious and unhappy.
My sanity? A weekly riding lesson … and singing in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (but that’s a story for another blog).
Being around the horses kept me stable. (Ha!)
I was riding at the farm described in my last Confessions post (featured on Freshly Pressed), only at that time it was under different management and my intentions were much simpler. I just wanted to ride nice horses in beautiful surroundings and be happy doing it.
One of the things about learning to ride at a commercial equestrian facility is the variety of horses at hand. Each horse is different and has therefore, something different to teach you. The challenges from rider to rider, horse to horse within one group lesson are all different. A simple exercise for one horse/rider combination may be a total disaster for another. It’s all part of the learning, fun and, occasionally, frustration.
As it turned out, many of the horses at this riding school were re-trained off-the-track-thoroughbreds. They were purchased at a steal and given a second career, allowing more advanced recreational riders a skillful challenge and a cheap thrill. Most of these horses were fairly young. Many were ornery. Some were a joy to ride while others were downright unpredictable and posed a greater challenge.
I didn’t mind a challenge, but I didn’t want to get killed.
Peppered among the thoroughbreds were a few quarter horses, appendix quarter horses (half quarter horse/half thoroughbred) and a few non-descript ponies. Many were older, on loan from owners who needed their horses to have a job to maintain their upkeep.
Horse assignments were non-negotiable.
For the most part lessons were great fun …
I was in a group of four adults of similar riding experience (intermediate/advanced, whatever that means) and we all gathered on Saturday at 9 a.m. for a jolly good time.
Every week was a jumping lesson ~ indoors in the winter and outdoors, my favourite, in the summer. Out in the hunter fields with all the fixed obstacles, the horses had to jump big and bold and we once-a-week recreational riders had to muster courage. The adrenaline rush was something else. Looking back I wonder what I was thinking.
Our coach was a temperamental fellow of Eastern European extraction, a throwback to the cavalry. He growled a lot; lost his cool all too easily, and threw keys at the back legs of a horse if its rider wasn’t making him go fast enough. I didn’t like him. And I hated the keys. But his lessons were entertaining enough so, along with the others, I hung in.
(For the purposes of this post we’ll call him The Grumpy One).
I got to ride many fine horses; horses that suited my skill level. Horses like Soubrette, Raven and Finesse whose joie de vivre helped me to feel whatever existed of my own. Horses that allowed me to think and feel like I knew what I was doing.
And then there was Buck …
Buck was a four-year-old bay thoroughbred gelding. I don’t know if he’d ever made it to the track. He was lopsided ~ knees at slightly different heights, feet of different sizes … other things. He was also a bucker.
He was the horse that would show me how broken I was.
When he was new to the riding school, he was ridden by far more advanced riders than I to get him ready for his new job. And then one day, after he’d been in the school for just a few weeks he was, to my disbelief, assigned to me.
I was fairly confident of my riding abilities. After all I’d ridden most of my life and been aboard many horses who’d enjoyed kicking up their heels, however inappropriately. I’d been dislodged by a few of them too, but always got back on ready to give it another go. But from the moment I met Buck I felt a distinct unease.
It was a brisk February morning. As horses and their riders trotted around the indoor arena The Grumpy One, from his position in the centre of the ring, barked instruction.
“Halt!” “Turn-on-the-forehand!” “Trot!” “Faster!”
Vapours of warm breath drifted from blowing nostrils (horse and human) and sparkled off the sunlight in the frigid air. Hooves brushed through sandy footing, saddle leather creaked against cold and horses chomped absently at the bit. Half an hour in and all was well.
And then a shift …
With an unexpected heart-stopping leap my happy place became a house of horror. From nowhere and for no fathomable reason Buck was all fours off the ground and kicking his legs out behind him. He landed on terra firma with a bouncy thud and planted his feet. He snorted.
Somehow I was still on board, the drum of my heart sounding an alert while a rapid pulse of terror coursed through my body.
The Grumpy One looked over. He growled.
“Get that horse moving!”
I saw keys.
“Okay,” I remember thinking, “I can handle this. Perhaps this was Buck getting it out of his system.” (Or perhaps, I wonder today, he was just too darn sore and conformationally-challenged to do the work. … Or maybe I just wasn’t riding very well. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s rider error. Buck may have been the exception to that rule … or maybe not. Who knows with horses … )
Taking a deep breath, I pressed Buck forward into trot. We were on our way once more, moving in the maelstrom of the group dynamic.
The Grumpy One growled more instruction. On high alert now, my attention was divided between what he wanted and what Buck was willing to give which, it appeared, was up for debate.
Because it wasn’t long before he bucked again … and again … and again as if he was some manic rodeo bronc.
Certainly, I was not happy nor was I comfortable with this situation.
What was I doing wrong? Why was this horse being such a bully? What needed to happen to make it stop?
I looked to The Grumpy One for some guidance. The scowl chiseled into his late middle-aged face told me I was out of luck. I would have to figure this out on my own. But I didn’t know what the h-e-double-hockey-sticks I was doing! Years of once-a-week recreational riding had not prepared me for anything like this. I didn’t want to end up broken in a pile of frozen horse manure.
With no support or guidance, and a total lack of interest from The Grumpy One with respect to my plight, I felt my nerve, and my courage, drying up; the colour in my face draining.
Frustration mounted as Buck, sensing my discomfiture (which horses always do), took full advantage and refused to move.
This was supposed to be my happy time; my time away from the complete shambles that was my home life. I didn’t need this horse to give me a hard time. I didn’t want, or need, this challenge, especially without appropriate instruction. I wasn’t there to be tortured.
After a final desperate appeal for help, and another growly disinterested response, I did something I’d never done before ~ I gave up. Choking back tears of frustration and deep humiliation I walked Buck to the middle of the arena and dismounted. The Grumpy One grunted. I lead Buck back to his stall. Untacked him. Left the barn.
I was done.
Buck had tested my mettle and I’d failed. What was supposed to make me feel better had left me feeling worse.
All I wanted, needed, was a little guidance. All The Grumpy One had to do was show a little interest in helping me to work it out. All he wanted to do was growl and throw keys.
It reflected a pattern of repeated negative interactions with the males in my life (human and horse, apparently) that had become all too familiar.
Later, at home, I relived the experience in my head over and over, wondering what I could have done differently. Without appropriate instruction there was nothing to be done. Buck had hit a nerve and, in the interest of safety, my reaction had been to cut and run.
I realized that The Grumpy One was not a good instructor for me. Perhaps worse was the notion that Buck would be assigned to me again.
The apprehension around that thought was more than I was prepared to handle. So, with no apparent other alternative, I put my passion for horses on permanent hold. I was done. It was a childish pursuit anyway, I reasoned. Time I grew up.
Was I too easily discouraged? Possibly, but as a person with serious trust issues at that time, I didn’t know where to turn or who I could talk to. Obviously The Grumpy One had no interest in being the nurturing teacher I needed. As well, no one in my family understood my passion for horses, so there was no point in bothering them with my dilemma.
Could I have moved to another barn? Absolutely. But my heart was no longer in it. My nerves were too frayed.
Thereafter followed four of the most miserable years of my life, during which I experienced three failed attempts at in vitro fertilization; the continued downward spiral of my marriage and the moment that changed everything … the death of my grandmother.
Which takes us to the internship …
Stay tuned for Part II of “The Buck Stops Here …”
Nurture what you love …
©Dorothy Chiotti, Aimwell CreativeWorks 2013