Pie, OTTB Sly Pioneer snorting on right while Sovereign, OTTB Suave Lord comforts him. This April day in 2009, three year old Pie was scared of Sovereign's mask. Pie was indignant all morning that Sovereign would agree to don the fly protection. Now, older and wiser Pie jumps into his own mask in the summer.

My big boy, Pie, an off-track-Thoroughbred whose official racing name is Sly Pioneer, stands almost 17 hands high and can stretch his neck up and snort like a fire breathing dragon when he is frightened. Riding and working with he and his other horsey friends in this world takes a certain amount of courage. But, it takes more courage, in my opinion, to work with horses in a new and different style from accepted practices. The very essence of what my horses and I are doing ignores existing paradigms of "riding" that can sometimes prevent horse lovers from actually getting to ride each day. I have never been a gutsy person, but I want to ride horses everyday. And I am not trying to stir up trouble in the horse world by going against accepted norms, but I want to ride them in a way that keeps them sound and sane! Therefore, I had to find the confidence to do both somehow. During the first 30 years or so of my life I spent time with horses and gained the confidence I needed to ride and work with them. Then, in the next seven years I spent time without horses and found the confidence to ride and work with them in a way that feels right to me. In no way are my philosophies contained herein intended to supersede other disciplines and training ideas. This is just what is working for us. Maybe it will work for you and your horse!

Sometimes in a tough situation while riding one of my Thoroughbreds, I sing and release all tension on the reins (bitless anyway).  Relaxed energy flows to the horse and another disaster is avoided. Blogging friends occasionally comment about my confidence and I roll my eyes and laugh to myself, "If they only knew!"  If they only knew the history...the own journey with confidence...

In third grade, every girl in my class at school was obsessed with horses. They would talk of nothing else and of course they talked to me non-stop because I was the luckiest girl in the world - I had my own pony!  What my classmates never knew was that my pony and our other horses petrified me and this fear made me secretly feel apathetic about them. My little pony, Dimples, was the sweetest, kindest, most adorable pony in the world.

Me on sweet little Dimples with my mom (and her tail) in 1971 (above)
 and Mom and Dimples in 1979 (below).

Dimples was small, but to me she was sometimes a scary equine with her own ideas. At nine years of age I had already been stepped on and run off with and dumped and seen my mother get trampled and bucked off her own horses many times. I had witnessed the bloody aftermath of stallions fighting...and blacksmiths yelling and veterinarians suturing...and, honestly, I was scared to death of the horse species. Certainly there were many girls who would be perfectly fine with these events, but I am still not a super courageous person. Horse fear was all consuming for many years. Thinking back now, it occurs to me that I had more fear of horses than anyone else I've ever known.  Sometimes I was so scared that I would vomit. Yes, I had the obligatory horse poster taped to the bedroom wall, but it was a sham. I had very little interest in riding or even being at the barn with my mom.

Mom at a show in the Sixties

Unbelievably, in sixth grade, (still not sure why), I did revisit the idea of maybe grooming and possibly riding. My mother signed me up for lessons at a local hunter/jumper stable even though I wasn't one bit more courageous - it's just that my desire to touch and be with horses was starting to become insistent. My instructor was knowledgeable and had an aggressive personality.  She was the perfect complement to my timid demeanor.  There was an indoor arena so lessons were once a week all year round.  Again, I was stepped on, run off with, bucked off - the usual experiences one encountered when taking riding lessons in the 1970's. An excerpt (below) from my retraining blog tells of a typical incident during my lesson years.

Meanwhile Back in the Year One

Here is a funny photo taken at my first schooling show ever. The picture is dated 9/30/79 on the back. I must have been in 7th grade. I look so mad and I know why. I had just been bucked off of Chance. That's right - my first show and I fell off!!! I was wearing the helmet when I fell. My mom has it on because she is gearing up to ride the rest of the classes. My hands look terrible and my reins are too taut - such a beginner. Why am I jamming the bit in his mouth? Ugh - because I am scared. No excuse - poor Chance. By the way, this is a perfect example of why lesson instructors should use bitless bridles until the student gets independent hands and seat. They would save their valuable lesson horses' mouths.

Chance was a school horse who, sadly, had navicular. I hated riding school horses because they always seemed so tired and miserable and I felt that it was my fault they were sad. Chance was the worst, though, because of his pain. My instructor would tell us to canter and whenever I would ask for his left lead, he would make this painful wincing sound and then he would buck. I would fall off EVERY SINGLE TIME. Every week I would pray that I wouldn't be assigned Chance and every week there it would be on the paper in the tack room - Julie - Chance. My heart would sink. My stomach would be in knots. And, then we would come to the canter and off I would go. I had started lessons in June and in September, I was in my first "show", and, of course, I had to ride Chance. The judge called for the canter and I made it around perfectly. Then, I heard it. "REVERSE YOUR HORSES". I knew what was coming. Walk. Trot. I went. I was mortified. No one else fell off in the whole show. My instructor told me to get back on which I did, but I was finished. I knew I didn't have the guts to go in there for the other class and get bucked off again.

Mom rode in the other class for me. Here she is below on Chance. Of course Chance bucked with her too, but she didn't have any problem staying on! Poor old Chance. He was a flea-bitten grey angel who unwittingly helped me conquer my fears. Thank you dear, sweet Chance.

The photo above, from the same day, tells quite a story. I look so dejected and hurt, yet I am touching Chance lovingly. I was never mad at him. I remember worrying about him and his pain. My mom cracks me up. She isn't worried about Chance.  She says, "Give me that ribbon." At least her hands are soft and kind.

With a few years of consistent weekly lessons my fear was eventually completely conquered. I rode any horse in the barn, even the "nutty" ones, and showed and jumped 4' high fences on green Thoroughbreds my instructor had in training and on my own horse, Penny Lane, a sweet dark bay my parents bought for me after I had outgrown Dimples. Outside of the ring, this mare spent many years allowing me to ride her all over our farm bareback, and in just her halter. Never becoming what you might call an aggressive rider, I guess because in my heart I still don't believe that I am supposed to fully "control" a horse, I wouldn't call myself a timid rider anymore. I certainly ride into every fence with the intention of going over and occasionally do without my horse.

Me aboard Penny Lane in a CPJHSA class.

I definitely don't wrestle with fear at all and look forward to every single ride on my silly young Thoroughbreds, every day. Where did the confidence finally come from? The last few years I have been observing riders and horse owners, beginners through advanced, to understand where the confidence to work successfully with horses does come from. By successfully, I mean, working with horses in a way that keeps both riders and horses safe and happy throughout the entire process, keeps the horse sound, and accomplishes reasonable goals.

Many people today can afford to buy a horse before they take a few years of weekly lessons.  I see them after their first serious scare.  They all look like me in third grade or after Chance bucked me off in my first show. They love horses so much it hurts. They adore their own horse more than anything in the world.  But they are physically sick when it is time to go to the barn if they have to ride.  They are riddled with fear and they are embarrassed to tell their husbands or kids or friends that they are frightened or even to admit that they are over-mounted.  They decide that their horse has issues and hire a trainer. 

Some of the beginning riders who get themselves in the most trouble are adults. Why should this be? What was different about my experience and theirs? Can it be that when we are young, our egos are smaller too, so being scared, or crying with pain or fear about anything small is ok?  Older beginning riders have it tough because they are embarrassed to be scared of something "little" with everyone watching them at a boarding barn, so they unintentionally get themselves or their horses into bigger, serious trouble and the result is complete agreement that the horse is dangerous or has issues. Then, they buy a new horse and the cycle starts again. 

Does this mean that the only way to ride confidently throughout a lifetime is to take riding lessons as a child? Do all the lucky kids who learned to ride as youngsters, me included, have an unfair advantage? I knew this couldn't be right - some of my friends who started riding later in life and took weekly lessons were doing fine with their horses. So learning to ride in youth wasn't the answer, but I sensed that ego did have something to do with success. I was fortunate to be born with the idea that I am basically a goofball. I don't take myself too seriously among humans, and I know that I am not even remotely able to hold my own with the brilliance of our animal friends. This may not get me far in the "real world" but it has served me well with horses.

Ego or not, beginning riders weren't the only ones struggling with confidence when I returned to the equine world in 2007. I saw advanced riders, women who had started showing as juniors and still at it, suddenly lose the confidence they once had. What was going on with horses and confidence? Here I was, in my forties, having an effortless, rewarding time grooming and riding young, barely "trained" OTTBs, when simultaneously, boarding barns were overflowing with horses standing in stalls while the owners congregated in the tack room or at the local tack shop and talked about their horse's issues. On blogs I read with sympathy about riders facing conflicted desires to groom and ride or just stay home because of their fear. And the worst part was hearing or reading of the methods used by the frightened riders, or excited new horse owners, or brave, popular trainers that was "natural" yet left the horse slightly off or sore and bored and even more detached mentally from the entire process. Were some of these new ground work techniques actually setting riders up to fail by robbing the horse of the trust it was attempting to instill?

Me riding silly Sovereign, OTTB Suave Lord, out on the trail, bitless and bareback, September 2011.

What enabled me to avoid going down that road?
Anthropomorphism, or assigning human qualities to animals, is a pejorative buzzword right now. Much is said and written about being objective and not assuming your horse feels a certain emotion just because we do. Yet, from the very beginning, way back with little Dimples, my pony's likes and dislikes seemed blatantly obvious to me by her very real horse behavior and horse responses, but they were ignored by the adults in charge. In my middle school riding lessons on school horses there were times when what my instructor told me to ask - no, demand - of the horse felt icky to me - like I was taking advantage of the rider/horse partnership. Later, as a teenager riding at our own barn on our own horses I understandably had to listen to my mom, and her years of riding experience trumped my naive ideas. She had trained and ridden with the greats in our country. She had been part of a horse world where the horses she showed were tacked up and cooled down for her. At that level of competition in the late fifties and early sixties, riding was about the rider and the horse was incidental. I absolutely adore my mom and I fully respect her horse knowledge and perfect, soft hands on a horse, but her methods when I was a teen of grooming and lunging and riding, although always kind, seemed perfunctory, hurried, and shallow to me. She looked fabulous on a horse, could truly ride well, and had the ribbons to prove it, but I often wondered if she and other riders were missing the point. 

Mom aboard Prize List on an outside course circa 1959.

After college, while still riding my mare at our farm, I got a job cleaning stalls and doing turnouts at a show barn. That situation gave me the opportunity to lead and handle hot horses twice a day. I was unsupervised and able to confirm my belief about the correct way to work around horses. I wasn't riding there, but did get to test some ground theories and had success. I also worked during my college and graduate school summers, and even many years after that, riding in the truck for our beloved large animal veterinarian, Dr. Weber. Unbelievably, "Doc" gave me free rein and ample opportunity to practice calming the injured and terrorized horses we seemed to encounter daily. There again I found success.

Me with Abby, OTTB Riboccan (1969-1995) circa 1981. 

In my thirties, even with this rewarding training experience under my belt, any attempt to try out what I thought would work with our own horses was thwarted by my mom. "Now, Julie, you are good with dogs, but you don't know horses." Once, I convinced her to ride her troublesome Thoroughbred Abby, above, bareback and in just a halter without lunging her first. We got on our horses bareback and headed out at the walk to the trails in our woods, both horses in halters with lead ropes as reins. Her previously unmanageable mare was interested, willing, and quiet for the whole ride. But, my ideas were counter to the vast amount of horse knowledge out there in popular training books and magazines and I didn't have the confidence or experience to push them on my mom or try them out on our horses consistently.

Then, my mare, our family's last horse in a long line which began in 1953, passed away after living 32 happy years. I decided to take a break from horses. My secret, unorthodox riding and training ideas went on a back burner in order to give my two year old daughter some years of undivided attention.

Honestly, I was relieved to be out of the horse world for awhile. The Natural Horsemanship movement, just in its infancy was, gratefully, closer to what I thought would work than the rough lesson instructor of my youth, but it still did not always consider the horse's mental wants and physical needs, in my untested opinion. Subset philosophies to Natural Horsemanship were spawned, opening up a new and burgeoning world of clinicians that touted ideas so foreign to my own sensibilities that it made me feel embarrassed to be a human. There was an accepted horse religion based on RESPECT growing like a giant rolling snowball offering horse Expos and Affairs with quick-fix-clinicians who could take frightened horses and make them whole in 30 minutes or less in front of large, loud, cheering crowds. Obedient, trusting animals were asked to lie down in the arena dust while grown men in flashy attire crawled all over their equine recliners as they explained through a piercing headgear microphone how to teach the horse to respect man. What? Audience and trainers looked to be kind and well-intentioned, but it still seemed to me like a modern day version of the donkey jumping off a diving board into a bucket. Thankfully, not as cruel, but every bit about people and awe and egos and gear and not really about anything Natural or Respectful - to the horse.

Sometimes late at night, when Maizie was asleep, I would revisit the tiny, smattering of horse books that did make sense to me. Most were fictional children's books, but inside were brilliant training ideas that still resonate with me to this day. I dreamed and planned the process that would allow me to groom, ride daily, and just be with them in a way that was comfortable to me if I ever returned to their world.

When I did return to horses at the age of 40 I was a completely different person, confident about what had been achieved in my everyday, non-horse life. My successful petsitting business had a waiting list of sweet, furry clients who would stay at our house and return home, according to their owners, happier than when they arrived. I was an enthusiastic Humanities professor and accomplished painter. My husband and I were on our way to raising a kind, well-adjusted 9 year old daughter.  An injury free long distance runner for 24 years (30 now and counting), I had amassed accurate, first-hand knowledge about the proper way to train and exercise that could be adapted to keep horses calm, happy and sound too. In all this horseless experience, I found the strength to trust my intuition, ignore my ego, and never worry what people thought about my riding or training ideas.

I finally had the confidence to do what was right for any horse.
On August 29, 2007, after putting Maizie on the school bus, I drove, without hesitating to phone ahead or double think myself one more second, directly to a local boarding barn and asked if anyone needed exercised. I was given the charge of an off-track-Thoroughbred whose owner was an over-mounted beginner. I could help by riding the gelding in the mornings since the owner dreaded coming to the barn in the evenings after work because she was frightened to ride him. I started this unbelievably joyful journey by looking at the adorable, mahogany bay boy in front of me and quietly asking the question I always wanted to ask a horse, the question whose answer would require my resolute confidence to guarantee action, the question that would be the key to my success with horses. I asked Baja, "What's in this for you?" 

 Adorable Baja, OTTB Gone to Baja, in November 2007.