The picture above shows me riding my old warmblood Gandalf on a brisk autumn day. I’d had some fraidy-cat rider moments on him, but when this picture was taken, they were long past. Recently, though, my fraidy-cat rider moments resurfaced – because of the weather.
As you may recall, a week ago, I was complaining because it was -20°C and too cold to ride. After several days, the temperature suddenly shot up to +4°C. All the riders came back to life and converged at the barn. When I climbed into the saddle yesterday, I wasn’t alone. There were two other riders in the arena, one on a potentially explosive young horse, and another warming up for a jumping lesson. The fraidy-cat demons saw their chance and started buzzing around my head. What if the young horse freaked out and set Larry off? What if dodging the jumps stressed Larry out and he lost it? I was in full fraidy-cat-rider mode, and I packed it in after fifteen minutes.
I don’t mean to say that I’m an outright coward. Every day, I face the warning sign at the barn without flinching. “Riding is a dangerous sport”, it reminds me. Last summer when I was picking out his feet, Larry kicked at a fly and nicked my head, knocking me on to my backside. The only fear I felt was that long bangs wouldn’t be enough to camouflage the goose egg on my forehead.
Part of what makes me cautious is Larry’s choice of methods for bleeding off excess energy. In How Fast Can an Ex-Racehorse Run, I touched on his tendency to flash into racehorse mode. It happened recently in the arena when I applied a canter aid. After surviving the resulting space-launch, I discovered that we were sprinting among a maze of jumps. Those are the times when my thoughts inconveniently slow to a crawl. Oohhh noooo, I’mmmmm beeeeeing ruuuun awayyyyy wiiithhhh. Whaaaaat shooooould Iiiii doooo….? Larry isn’t a bad horse. He agreeably kept his distance from the arena door, which was open, and slowed right down when I remembered how to apply a proper half-halt.
I don’t mean to suggest that Larry takes every opportunity to run like a maniac. Sometimes he works up to it.
One day during the cold snap last week, I turned him loose in the arena. At first he wouldn’t leave my side, tagging along beside me as if still attached by the lead shank. Then he ambled off to sniff the manure tub in the corner. Then he realized he was free.
I’d only ever felt his race-horse acceleration. This time I got to see it. His feet dug into the ground, his body seemed to sink and stretch, and his breath came in snorty puffs in time with his stride. When he reached the short end of the arena, he put on the brakes, bucked like a Stampede bronc, spun around and came back just as fast. I tried not to think of how breakable his slim legs looked. After a couple of minutes, he slowed and pranced towards me, shaking his head as if to say, ‘Well, that was fun!’ And he nuzzled my hand for a mint.
So maybe you can understand why I was a little nervous in the busy arena yesterday. My hope is always that no excess energy = calm ride, but that race-horse demo was the only time Larry had drained any significant energy for over a week.
Let’s be clear. I know the problem isn’t Larry. He’s just being a horse. The problem is me.
I wasn’t always a fraidy-cat rider.
Back in the old days – the Lancer days – I was quite brave. I used to go hacking on the roads. For the most part, Lancer showed his Quarter Horse side. He was calm and docile, what you’d call ‘laid back’. The first time I saw his Thoroughbred side (what you’d call ‘spirited’) was on a winter day when I decided to ride on the road instead of in the arena. The snow ploughs had been by, leaving a nice heavy snow-pack over the gravel. I had hacked Lancer on the roads dozens of times – in summer. Meaning he’d never seen a sleigh being pulled by a pair of ponies. Fortunately, I saw this appearance from hell before he did. I braced myself.
Lancer’s calm reaction surprised me. When he finally noticed the sleigh, he stopped. Stood very still. Lifted his head really high. I think his eyes may have grown stalks so he could see better. He stayed like that for what felt like a hundred years.
Then he bolted.
I had no idea a Quarter Horse could spin so fast. Suddenly, I was hanging over the road with one foot still in the stirrup, and the other hooked across the top of the saddle. I clung to the reins for dear life. Lucky for me, Lancer turned towards the side of the road. You’ve heard the term ‘blind panic’? Well, Lancer ran blindly into a cedar hedge and got his head stuck between two cedar trees. I had just enough time to claw my way back into the saddle before he extricated himself. By the time we hit the road again, I was (sort of) in charge, meaning I was able to keep him from outright bolting. We headed back to the barn at a very fast but unstoppable trot.
Had I allowed my inner fraidy-cat to take over? No.
The fraidy-cat-rider thing seems to have developed gradually. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I don’t bounce as well as I used to when I hit the ground. Maybe it’s because I’ve lost the blissful ignorance of youth. I’ve seen too many things go wrong.
The truth is, there isn’t anything wrong with being a fraidy-cat rider. A bit of sensible caution is not a bad thing. Being a fraidy-cat is only bad when it keeps you from trying new things and doing the things you love.
Like riding Larry.