Relationship triangle: Horse, Rider, Trainer

Learning to ride dressage requires eyes on the ground. I need cues to better align the horse in nearly every transition. While it is a solitary sport it isn’t like a runner who can truly go the distance solo. We need a partner to help us develop our position correctly, which will get the horse to use his body correctly. Mirrors help an educated rider see what adjustments are necessary, but for someone like me starting out I find myself one half of an equation and extremely needy. Needy is not a feeling I cozy up to and nuzzle.

Jack and Biggie two years ago after they won their first dressage test.

Jack and Biggie two years ago after they won their first dressage test.

It’s difficult to find a correct trainer for dressage, someone who will commit to helping me reach my goals, put up with my weaknesses, work with my schedule, and practice a patience that is neither human nor equine but more like divine. I find if I don’t take two lessons a week I develop bad habits before half the month is gone.

The triangle.

The triangle.

There are many reasons I appreciate my trainer. She has three of her own horses that she’s developing and she remains an avid student herself. I respect anyone who has achieved a high level and yet remains a student. She doesn’t condescend my efforts or criticize the level of riding I’m capable of producing. She knows I’m pushing myself and doing my best. She also cares about the sport and does her part to raise the next generation of good riders. My favorite quality is that she doesn’t teach for the test. She is no doubt a dressage queen but she isn’t preaching the patterns of dressage because she believes that if we can get the horse to give us his whole body, and we use our position to move it where we want it to go, then he can ride any pattern. (If only it were that simple. As the saying goes, it takes two life times to learn to do dressage.)

I don’t want to learn to ride dressage for the sole purpose of riding a perfect test. In fact I don’t have much interest in the show environment for my own riding. If I can reach a point where my horse’s body submits to my aids and his energy is mine to rate I’m quite sure we can hit any point on the geometry of the arena. That would be thrilling enough for me. And if my trainer says well done that’s an 8 then I’ll rest my boots for the day and give my friend a carrot knowing we succeeded.

I really enjoy his uphill canter

I really enjoy his uphill canter

I find myself enthralled with the triangle of partnership between rider, horse and trainer. It’s as delicate as a marriage some times. When my trainer picks up a whip while I’m riding I want to dash out of the arena! But I trust her to show my horse what my aids are meant to produce and I trust my horse that he’s not going to buck and bolt in protest to her added aid. And then in the very next ride don’t I reap the reward of more reach from the hind legs? I do. And it was because she was there to help us.

Imagine my conflicted heart when my trainer told me this week she’s not going to teach any more beginning in January. She has personal goals for her own horses that aren’t being met because she’s spending so much time training others and running the boarding facility. I’m so happy for her and yet the sense of feeling cut loose gives me a vulnerable screech of worry. One partner is leaving the relationship for all the right reasons. So I need the courage to trust I’ll find another trainer to help Jack and I reach our equestrian goals. Change is good so they say.

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I’m a woman of faith. I go along the road of life hand in hand with God and when an obvious block in the path comes my way he has always been faithful to provide an alternate route. I’ve walked a crooked path for 47 years following a loving all knowing God so I’m sure this change in route will be a blessing. I am absolutely sure his way is better than mine. What I won’t do is wrangle the situation like a cowgirl. I’ll wait, watch, pray, and seek the heavenly nod that I’m going in the right direction. Long ago I gave up the passion for wanting what I want more than I want what God wants for my life. My way is always the dead end. God’s way has proven itself to be a journey of growth and expansion. I can peacefully trust he has something just right lined up for me and Rudy. What I am learning in dressage is integral to my education as a leader of the organization I run in Africa. I believe God has used my education with horses to help me do the work he’s given us to do with orphans in a dark dark place. Daily I take in the lessons from an equine partnership and it makes me the very best I can be for our organization. This is no trivial pursuit. He will bring to my life a trainer who can appreciate how very much I want to learn this most difficult dance.

...he is so beautiful he takes my breath away...

…he is so beautiful he takes my breath away…

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Riding through the Thunderstorm

Yesterday my son had the privilege to ride in a clinic with Volker Brommann who visits our area several times a year. Someone cancelled their ride so we were able to enter Jack. This is an expensive Dressage lesson and a high level trainer, let me just say that. And we dropped other fun family weekend plans to be present. But Jack recently scored highly in training level at a dressage show and he has set the goal to move up to first level in the spring. He’s got a lot of work to do. This is a big reach.

Jack and Biggie at their horse show

Jack and Biggie at their horse show

When he tacked up for his first ride yesterday, off the radar, out of nowhere came a torrential thunderstorm. While warming up in the indoor arena I could see my son was nervous. I know I would be. The energy in the air was popping and it was so loud we couldn’t hear a shout. He stroked his horse and breathed. Volker carried on as if nothing were happening outside. Biggie, the pony, popped up in the air a few times and tossed his head. Biggie confuses dressage with rodeo every now and then. Biggie was searching for a reason to spook, but Volker told Jack calmly and steadily to keep his head from being able to look around. Jack asked, “do you think we should lunge him first?” That was barely code for “I’m scared he will buck me off in this.” Volker said let’s try to ride this out.

They are a lovely pair to watch ride.

They are a lovely pair to watch ride.

Then Volker gave instruction for Jack and Biggie to make direction changes and transition changes at least every five strides. The two of them were so concentrated neither of them noticed the rain calmed. Thunder remained intermittent through the forty five minute ride, but they both achieved the necessary relaxation. And Volker guided the two of them through some first level Dressage movements that would score well.

Biggie's face says it all.

Biggie’s face says it all.

Boy and horse completed their ride soaked, not from rain, but from sweat. Volker had this pony understood in five minutes. He is a lovely mover in all three gaits, but he’s got pony attitude so getting him to use himself is the real challenge. Yes. That’s why mama isn’t so keen to ride that pony. He always says, “make me”. I figure after struggling with my five children the last thing I want is my horse to take on their same reluctant attitude. I bought a horse who says, “sure, happy to do that with you.”

Can't see the rain but it was heavy. See Biggie's neck is tense and his ears aren't paying attention to Jack.

Can’t see the rain but it was heavy. See Biggie’s neck is tense and his ears aren’t paying attention to Jack.

A sign in Jack’s tack room says, “if you climb in the saddle you better be ready for the ride.” That is a reality check for me some days when I know life is overwhelming me or stress is high and I arrive at the barn hoping for a gentle ride, an encouragement, and a confidence builder. Some days I know before I lift the saddle onto his back that I might not be ready for that ride. With that acknowledgement out slips my confidence same as if I wet my pants.

Turns out they had a lovely ride.

Turns out they had a lovely ride.

I learned something as I watched Volker guide Jack through this ride. If I get the mind busy concentrating on transitions and direction changes everything outside goes away, and so do the internal demons that challenge my riding confidence. Within a short time I confidently realize I can handle anything this horse has to give me in this ride. And when I am a steady reliable leader to an animal who likes to flee at the first notion of fear then he is willing to stay with me, work with me, and give me a ride that indeed increases confidence. I’m thankful Jack got to learn that at fourteen years old because it’s rather humbling at 47 to battle fears.

gotta love boys who ride

gotta love boys who ride

After overcoming a confidence challenge in the saddle I enter my day absolutely certain that I can handle a five year old female drama melt down, teen age boy dilemmas, staff issues, technology snafus, as well as major or minor emergencies. What we learn in the saddle transfers to how we respond to our daily life challenges. This is a courage that stretches from “I can ride this buck” to “friend, you crossed my boundary let’s have a talk.” There’s a centering in my self that happens when I open up and say “bring it on”. I’m beginning to think I’m an addict to that kind of confidence medicine. It has helped me be a more present mother, friend, wife, student, leader and follower.

After his training level test at the show he flopped over and hugged his friend.

After his training level test at the show he flopped over and hugged his friend.

So besides the fact that my horse is my favorite friend he also helps me be a better person. There’s no reason to wonder why I spend each morning at the barn with him.

Better be ready for the ride when you climb in the saddle.

Better be ready for the ride when you climb in the saddle.

Do you find that the courage you practice in the saddle helps you in your daily life? Share your stories with us and we can all be encouraged to pursue our horseback courage.

Getting back in the saddle.

The weekend I lost Bear I was able to hide out with my family at our lake house. I was tender, raw and memories of him were flooding my awareness. The tears flowed from my broken heart at just a thought of his gaze, or the warmth of his breath on my skin, or the way he searched me for hidden cookies with his soft muzzle. His picture is here or there and as it caught my eye my face would redden then down came the tears. My husband can hardly bear for me to be sad so I had to assure him to just let me feel my way through it and let it out. He was comforting, compassionate and patient. Kira, my five year old, however, had enough. At one point she looked at me in the kitchen while I snuffled and gasped for air and exclaimed, “Not again!”. We just had to laugh. It took me five days of incessant journaling and pouring through photos of him to be ok. When I could talk about him without crying I knew I was beginning to rise up strong. IMG_1784

My new horse, Rudy, whom I bought when we retired Bear, was foot sore at the same time I was losing Bear. His front feet grow differently so we x-rayed them and found a farrier who can help us correct his alignment. This is in effort to prevent future ligament or tendon trauma. The corrective shoeing gave him sore soles and he could barely walk. It was pitiful. I had to be honest with myself and admit I didn’t even want to ride him or enjoy him while I was grieving over Bear. Feeling repulsion towards riding was alarming and new. I always want to ride. But I wasn’t going to force myself to feel something different than what was happening in my heart. I was clear minded through the pain refusing to escape it or numb it. I took it in its raw form and I wrestled with it.

Bear reluctantly carried Kira in a lead line class at a horse show. He nearly refused to trot with a tyke on his back.

Bear reluctantly carried Kira in a lead line class at a horse show. He nearly refused to trot with a tyke on his back.

I trust God’s timing in all areas of my life. Rudy’s inability to be ridden at the time I was grieving the loss of my first equine friend wasn’t accidental. I understood the whispers in my heart to complete the process of loss. During this time I learned that it hurts to lose an equine friend more than I ever imagined it could. It might make sense to build a wall, hold back and not love so deeply to protect myself. Through the wrestle, I decided not to hold back. I’ll put my whole heart in it again knowing the risk because what memories I have of my friendship and bond with Bear are stronger than the hurt. I won’t trade the good I learned from Bear to protect myself from the hurt. As it is I see I not only survived losing a friend, I am more aware and stronger because of it.

my whole family had a special spot for this fellow

my whole family had a special spot for this fellow

I started riding when I was 43. I’m honest with myself and know I won’t be training or working with young horses as I learn to ride the dressage way. I need the made horse to teach me. I’m getting started too late to ever think I’ll have something to teach a horse about being ridden. Bear partnered with me in his last years to teach me. Truth is I wouldn’t have been able to ride him in his glory days when he was an eventer. He was too hot for my ability. But in his retirement he taught me what is possible between horse and rider. He taught me how to canter, though it was scary. He hand held my riding ability until I could canter without fear. For that I’ll always be thankful. When I close my eyes I can recall the first time the field was full of riders and my trainer was teaching me to dig deep into his throttle so I fully enjoyed my first gallop in an open field with Bear. And I loved it. I rejoiced and celebrated over that accomplishment like nothing else in my life. He gave me that proud moment. He coaxed out the perseverance, bravery, and love of a  thrill that was quite dormant in my mid-life self.DSC_0190

So, as Rudy is 16 years old, it is likely I’ll walk him home in the same way I did for Bear. I’m willing to do that. Now I know I can be brave and stroke his mane through his last breath. I learned I can look heartache in the eye and not collapse. I can fall into the depths of the sadness pit and not get stuck there but find my way out stronger. I don’t need to protect myself from that hurt because now I know I have the courage to go all the way through heartache and come out stronger.

Me and Rudy. The beginning of a great love.

Me and Rudy. The beginning of a great love.

I believe getting up from the lowest point of heartache and choosing to love Rudy with the same innocent abandon, knowing I will go through this dark cave again is COURAGEOUS. If Bear taught me anything aside from riding a canter with incredible jump and forward action it is that I have courage. He showed me there was more of it inside me than I ever knew and he helped bring it out. For that I honor him and remember him as a teacher who helped me understand what I am truly capable of handling both in the saddle and in my heart.tonyarudy-115

I’m happy to report that I had my first lesson with Rudy this week. All the way to the point of beginning the work with my trainer I wasn’t sure I could do it. But then I was lost in the magic of communicating with my equine friend and before I knew it we hit some beautiful 20 meter circles where he was light in my hand, round under the saddle, straight and forward. Yesterday I was able to play with him and he was so willing and happy to work with me as I asked for a variety of transitions demanding a committed quick response. I had so much fun. I’m back in the saddle.

Bear-y Sad Letting Go

painting

This painting hangs in my bedroom at the lake. I bought it at a local art gallery a few months ago. I wanted to be able to look at it often because I was captured by the way the two horses in the foreground were ears pricked and alert  towards something happening that we can’t see coming toward the scene. The environment in this painting is also a fair recipe for horse heaven, fresh water, abundant green pasture, protection of woods and shade from a tree.

I saw this painting fresh this morning and it triggered tears from my grieving heart. Bear died two days ago. He was my first horse and one of my life’s best teachers about not only how to ride, but how learning to ride is a mirror to all the lessons I need to live a more courageous life.

Losing him has cracked me open and among the sadness also springs renewed interest in creativity. I have a fresh desire to share openly about how “the outside of a horse is good for the inside of man” (quote from Winston Churchill).

At this tender moment I can only share how this painting was a comfort. When it caught my eye as I made the bed I gasped and dropped the sheets to stare. It occurred to me this could be the image I can hold of Bear’s welcome home. Maybe he’s what the horses see. Maybe they are the welcome committee. It’s what I want to believe and I imagine they see a renewed healthy Bear galloping, bucking snorting and and jumping toward his new herd.

bear

bear

This could be crazy talk out of suffering and sadness. I am a serious Christian I don’t want to begin making things up so I feel better about my grief. But I have often wondered if our animals meet us in heaven. In Psalms it says “our God is a good God and his love endures forever.” He gives us animals and the ability to connect with the unique way He created each one. I just have to believe the goodness in them will be waiting for us somehow in eternity.

As I bicycled around the lake community this morning it occurred to me that maybe the only way an animal needs to get entrance into heaven is to have a believer make the prayer request. I know I begged God in Bear’s last hours to let me find him there when I get “home”. In my grief it feels good to believe I will. Regardless, heaven will be perfect and without flaw so when I get to go home I won’t sense anything missing, but to be here on earth in the mess of life I find comfort in my loss believing he’s there.

I do hope for a farm of my own some day. I regret I wasn’t the one who was able to care for him through his rapid decline. If I don’t get a farm here I have a good feeling I will have a nice one in heaven and wouldn’t it be wonderful if all my favorite, well-loved animals are there to greet me? Maybe Bear’s nickering will be the first thing I hear when I get there.

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I’m going to share much more about what this horse taught me in the three years I had the pleasure of partnering with him. What I develop from learning to ride transfers to what kind of person I am in all the roles I play: mom, wife, entrepreneur, leader, daughter, friend, student, and teacher. It gives me opportunity to practice courage and grow stronger as a whole person and that’s why I love it enough to risk this great heart ache of loss.

Horse decisions are hard to make.

I seemed to have disappeared, though I have not.  I’ll say I’ve been through a sad time and I just couldn’t bring myself to share until I was through it.

With all the help, vet care, and nutrition my Bear didn’t come back to his strong steady self. One final visit to the chiropractor confirmed what we feared. He’s experiencing a lot of pain in his back and pressure on his spine is causing him to lose sensation in his back end. His vision is also rapidly declining as I watched him stumble over things in his path that he would have stepped aside to avoid or as he panicked over shadows his eyes couldn’t interpret.

We had to retire my best friend to pasture. I can say it now without crying but I sigh when I pass his empty turnout and he doesn’t look up in recognition of my truck, or pause with his hay and follow me with his eyes as I pass by. I miss his sweet eye and his warm breath. DSC_0035

We tried everything possible for almost a year after his injury to bring him back. I have no regrets and I am certain no trick was untried, no professional I could find who didn’t touch him in some way, and no prayer was left unsaid. He’s in a perfect retirement home until when I have my own farm and can greet him at the start of each day. All my dreams of what he and I would do together are now neatly bundled into a box called “could have been”. I don’t look in there any more. But I do remember our happy memories of how he taught me to have confidence riding…before he declined.

I thought it would take a long time to find my next partner but I feel it was the grace of God who allowed me to find Rudy only days after the decision to retire Bear. I’ll share more about Rudy and our serendipity in stories to come. The confidence I needed these past couple months were not in the saddle but in my heart to believe my instinct and know the hard decision was the right one for Bear, though not for me.

Me and Rudy

Me and Rudy

The important message I hope to share in this blog, besides “horse decisions are hard to make” is the change in me and my confidence when I sit on this big warmblood’s back. I was instantly changed. He is so solid, sound, available, responsive and willing. I realized how defensively I’ve been riding for months and months. The pain Bear was feeling would often cause outbursts that intimidated me. Riding was preparing myself for what could happen next that I didn’t want to have to handle. That’s not a fun way to ride. It had become THE WAY I rode.

My new friend allows me to make mistakes, try this, ask for more, demand a little bit more than I ever did before and he’s Mr. Steady. I can take a lunge lesson riding him once a week! And that was something I could never do with Bear. So I find I am learning to ride all over again right from the beginning. Learning a new horse is exciting but it is also slow and gradual. But these days I’m thinking about riding and not surviving a ride. I’m wanting more forward, I’m seeking better connection in the seat bones, I’m testing how to supple his stiff side, and how deep I must reach my ankles while his trot suspends higher than any other I’ve ridden. I am a rider again. We are making a partnership and it isn’t scary. It doesn’t feel like he’s going to fall down, throw a fit, or bolt from a shadow. I’m a little discouraged that it feels like I am starting from zero but I have zeal for the process. I know each day we will learn a little more about each other and enjoy our play time. I am back in the saddle.

There's a new friend to greet me each day.

There’s a new friend to greet me each day.

And my first confidence goal is to set the standard of my expectations for him in a clear and consistent way. He needs to know when I ask him to move off my leg I mean it. I see what he does when the trainer is on him so I can learn to get him to believe me too. I’ll let you know how it goes.

A Bear-y good Partnership.

Dare I say it takes courage to admit when I can’t do something for my horse (I desperately wish I could do) and then step forward among those who can do and say, “I need help.”? Here’s the story of my horse Bear.

bear

I had 15 amorous months with my older horse Bear as he taught me patiently how to canter, how to ride him straight, get him round and on the bit, and what exactly forward really feels like. We became a unified team and we understood each other. My father watched me ride him for the first time ever and I was happy to show off well balanced uphill 20 meter canter circles with flawless transitions. It was all I hoped riding a horse would be. I had met my first goal in riding which propelled me to think it might be fun to begin showing and taking the dressage tests so I could systematically improve through the levels.

 

My father was in town to attend my son’s college graduation, not to see me ride, so off we went for a long weekend of graduation festivities. When I returned I made my usual mad dash to the barn before I ever unpacked a suitcase. I found a lame horse. A friend was exercising him for me in my absence and they had a great lesson with my trainer and the next day he was lame. ( I try to get better riders to take my lessons when I am absent and I pay for the lesson. It’s a great way to get feedback about my horse.) The only explanation was the silly stallion play he gets up to with his pasture mate who is 27 years old. The two of them act like two old guys planning to rob a bank.

 

my oldest son playing a game with Bear

my oldest son playing a game with Bear

I hauled him to the vet and he had a strained suspensory and check ligament on the front left. Many expensive sessions with the shockwave therapy strung out before us. He was off for the whole summer. No riding for me. My life tumbled down around me. I had been using riding as my coping mechanism for the stresses of the rest of my life. I was flattened without it. I myself was a bear without my Bear under saddle. We did everything possible to help him heal including sending him to an equestrian swimming center so he could blow off some thoroughbred steam without hurting himself or me. He got acupuncture, chiropractic work, massage, daily hand walks and a small isolated turnout to keep him from playing like crazy during his recovery.

 

It took five months to get back to work and during that time my older horse lost too much weight and the necessary strength in his back end to work as he used to do. He also became depressed from solitary confinement. Not only was it hard for him to do the work, he didn’t want to do it any more. I could feel him resist, tense up, fight, bully me, and evade everything I asked him to do. As if an injury isn’t enough he’s got glaucoma and his left eye is going blind. He’s spookier than he ever was and that’s a handful all by itself.

 

acupuncture

acupuncture

I am almost 47 years old. I keep fit because I know getting fit is way too much work, especially the older I get. So I understood his balking but it didn’t make it right. And the plain truth was he was intimidating me with all this push back and I wasn’t able to interpret it correctly. His back end would fall out as if we were going to tumble to the ground together. He had more hitches in his giddy up than he had clear strides. My instinct was “get off”. But my trainer said, “no he’s weak, make him work!” But he didn’t want to work. And I didn’t have the guts to make him do it correctly. I wasn’t up for the fight. For a few rides I watched him fight it out with my trainer on his back and I was soooo glad it wasn’t me. I tried for a few months to bring him back myself until the humbling moment when I said, “I need help.” Sending him away for training wasn’t acceptable. I am passionate about his recovery and I wanted to watch it happen and be sure he got as many rides as he needed by a better rider. ( I have trust issues when a trainer says they’ll do something I usually doubt it will get done. I’ve found the horse world isn’t that different from doing work in Africa. You have to be there to make sure it happens!)

 

I asked a young trainer and friend who works at our facility to help me. She has far better feel, talent, and a no nonsense expectation from Bear. And she knows how much this means to me. She puts her whole heart into everything she does. I love her. She rides him in the afternoons. I ride him in the mornings. Her rides help him. My rides help me. After a month of this arrangement he is considerably stronger. His submission is back to the ole Bear I first knew. I don’t feel him fight any more. It was worth admitting I couldn’t do it. I feel safe again. My hope that we will be the team we once were is flickering back to life. And that I admit makes me cry.

 

The big decision was to put him back out into his old turnout with his bank robbing partner and their new friend, an itty bitty pony named Cinnamon. All my riding problems (and considerable expense) began because of the two of them and their shenanigans. I said aloud to my husband and my trainer, “I want him happy so he can have his herd, but if he hurts himself I’m not going to go through this again. I’ll go shopping for a new horse and hang a retired sign around his velvet neck.” Both of them will have to get busy if this happens. He will pay and she will have to help me get a good match and then teach us to become a good team. The intimacy shared between me and Bear is so personal, so well understood by us both that I can only compare it to the sweetest parts of being married. It’s my heroin. I’m an addict for what’s possible in communicating with my own horse. I confess. The thought that I can find that in another horse leaves me with doubts.

 

Riding with Erin in his current recovery program

Riding with Erin in his current recovery program

Yet, I find there’s almost nothing I can do alone as an equestrian. It takes a big team to make the pair of rider and horse. I need family support for barn time. I need my husband to listen to my endless talk about my rides and my emotional ups and downs according to how well the ride went that day. I need my trainer to teach me how to feel what she sees. I can’t ride without her eyes. I need the barn people to help me with every little detail I didn’t know from how to fit a new bridle to where exactly to set the saddle on his back, what to do when he sets back, and help catching him when he does. Those who have been riding for decades continue to learn from those who have even more experience. It can never be fully grasped. I prefer to be a self sufficient loner so needing all these people in my life is a new sense of dependency.

 

He has so much expression in his canter. I can't wait for it to be what it was! Thoroughbreds are made for this gait. Love it.

He has so much expression in his canter. I can’t wait for it to be what it was! Thoroughbreds are made for this gait. Love it.

Bear is not all the way back to himself yet. He needs more strength and another 100 pounds. I’m going to keep my friend on the payroll for his afternoon rides for another six weeks at least and then we’ll see how he does. We added oil to his alfalfa and we switched to a more digestible food. These old horses are not easy keepers, but they really are great teachers for novice riders.

 

This whole process taught me more than I would have learned if we had continued on in our blissful state of steady progression. I learned not to take a single good ride for granted. He and I bonded as I helped him while he was in pain. I learned to listen to his way of telling me “this is hard and I don’t like it”. Thankfully that wasn’t a big buck or a scary bolt. I learned that just because I want to do something myself doesn’t mean I’m able to do it. If I want it done right I had to ask for help. That’s an ego swallowing moment for a girl who swears I’m the female MacGyver. (not sure of that spelling but the character on that tv show could make a bomb out of a gum wrapper and a shoe lace.) I’m not arrogant. I’m just sure that if it needs to get done I can somehow figure a way to do it.

 

Any way I’m starting to think humble pie doesn’t taste so bad. I’m even willing to take a daily helping if it means I’ll be back to the old wonderful partnership I had with Bear before his injury. (I want my drug.)

 

I'm doing my best to come back to ya Mama

I’m doing my best to come back to ya Mama

 

A leader is not a leader if there are no willing followers.

I’ve arrived home from two weeks work in Africa where I opened and run an orphanage. While I must travel several times a year for work I arrange to have excellent daily care provided to our horses. Taking a step back from the barn life and my passion for all things equine, but especially the riding, gives me a new perspective. The work in Africa serves to re-balance my life in a way that refreshes my eyes, my priorities, my approach to using my time energy and talent. I get a good internal cleanse of the junk that crowds around what is true, vital and critical in life. My confidence is rekindled by this work. There’s no coincidence that I began to learn to ride at the same time we began our nonprofit to help orphans.

 

In the scope of life after the perspective of hardships I experience in Africa I see that riding is a posh hobby of mine. The results of the work we do for the orphans in our home and the children who need life saving medical care, that’s seriously rewarding. That’s my purpose in life. But riding horses isn’t a silly trivial activity where I waste time or escape reality. No. I believe God has given me the pursuit to ride well as a way for me to learn to be a good leader in every area of my life. Riding gives me a mirror to my weaknesses. Looking at them straight on and then striving to develop strength from them is what makes me worthy to be followed by those I lead.

 

a friend of mine working her young horse

a friend of mine working her young horse

Leadership is a consistent and clear role whether I am riding a horse or leading an organization, it requires followership. For progress and development forward I must be worthy of following. This is achieved through humility and not a bossy dictatorship. It requires trust, excellent listening, integrity and honesty. I, as the leader, must believe in what I ask of those who might follow me. They must trust me in the direction I lead. I must not doubt or waver. It must be genuine. My source of understanding and strength is my faith in God to provide me wisdom and strength.

 

I propose that a horse is more sensitive about the worthiness of a leader than the people on my staff. “Nice” doesn’t make an effective leader. My trainer always tells me, “don’t be so nice to him.” If I doubt myself my horse will know instantly. A progression of weak leadership while riding gives my horse good reason not to follow me. With that, we spiral downwards in our confidence with one another. It’s not the path I choose to take while learning to ride well.

 

There are times when my life burdens are so great and the stress can be so strong that I actually have no business getting on the back of a horse. I ought to recognize those lulls and acknowledge them for what they are. It feels weak though and I fear it makes me a quitter which I am not! The truth is, that I am no good for my horse if I am not going to be the leader he needs. He knows when I am faking it.

 

I’m going to get on my horse this afternoon for the first time in a while and I’m fully confident that I’m going to ask him what to do and he will follow my request. If not, I’m clear on how to correct and move forward without fear of the response. My inner strength, the little voice only I can hear is saying “you got this girl. You can handle whatever he might do and you are worthy to follow. He is secure when you are a strong leader.” A month ago I was so far on empty that I couldn’t believe those words.

 

I am learning how easy it is to burnout when I am the leader in every area of my life. I must take a break to restore my tank. I’ve got to get my fuel tank back to full before I can effectively lead anyone. I realize for a long time I kept running on fumes and it made me an all around ineffective leader. I find for me it is time alone with God reading scripture that speaks to my heart and gives me security in HIS leadership in my life. That fills me so I can in turn lead in the areas he’s given me to lead.

 

I’m quite sure if I weren’t riding horses I wouldn’t learn the intricacies of leadership I need to pioneer our organization in Africa. We’d have crashed and burned long ago if I wasn’t willing to submit to the lessons of leadership taught to me with riding. Facing my fears in the saddle causes me to rise up, rally all my courage and risk failure. But failure isn’t the worst thing that could happen. It’s just a lesson in knowing how to take a new direction and try again. It develops perseverance. That’s good character development. As much as I lament when my riding confidence takes a dive, I do learn from it and rise up to greater heights as a result of the time spent down low.

 

There were times last year that I just wanted my horse to comfort me and carry me. I needed the barn time and riding experiences to be my therapy for all that was difficult in life. Now I look back at that and see I can’t really develop and grow as a rider during those times. It isn’t necessarily bad that I use my relationship with my horse to comfort me. He was willing and he is able to soothe my heart aches. But those times aren’t necessarily developing me as a rider. These episodes of “getting by” become a plateau I endure until my strength is restored and I am prepared to lead. (I feel a little embarrassed I wasted my trainer’s time during this period.)

 

Now my chore in discovering this cycle of ebb and flow in confidence is to be kind with myself. When I need restoration and I fail to progress I can give myself the time to recover without condemning myself to failure. Let the hard times be acceptable. Be patient and go to the source to refill the tank.

 

And GET HELP! I admitted to my trainer I couldn’t bring my horse effectively back from his injury. I don’t really have the skill to do that at this point in my riding experience. So I hired a better rider who can feel what he needs better than I can. She can interpret his weak back end better than I and get him to use it, where as the hitch in his giddy up confuses me. With her help he will return to the horse that can teach me to be the rider I can be. Admitting my limitations wasn’t easy for my ego, but I care more about my horse’s recovery than my own pride. I’m really excited to feel his progress after my absence.