Cutie boy Sovereign, OTTB Suave Lord, waiting to go out for a bareback ride, March 2011.

The story of Lollipop and Robin, the boarder who was talking on her phone and stomping around the barn, simultaneously swearing at her employee and horse, had another common theme in the horse world besides the ever-present cell phone. The situation reeked of fear. Robin was afraid to ride. Much of her anger, the high pitched talking and especially the delaying were the result of acute panic and fear of her horse.

Fear Born of Inexperience
Robin is not alone. There are many horse owners who are frightened to handle and ride their horses and even the thought of going to the barn starts a series of very real physical reactions of sickness and dread. Fear of horses and riding doesn't always stem from inexperience, but in Robin's case, lack of saddle time was the culprit. Robin's journey with horses is typical. As an adult she fell in love with horses and took a handful of riding lessons. She stopped the lessons in a few months and adopted a mini donkey and mini horse. After one year of joyous ownership and daily caretaking of the minis, she added Lollipop, a full size horse to her little herd. She tried to ride him, but her fear and his "bad" behavior prevented this from happening consistently. Of course, Lollipop isn't bad at all. Robin, like many other horse lovers today, just put the cart before the horse.

Me on sweet Pie, OTTB Sly Pioneer, October 2010.

Chuck's Boat - A Cart Before the Horse Story
My family has a condo in Florida. We've owned this place since the early 1980's and it has been our annual getaway destination from chilly Pennsylvania winters. It isn't fancy or upscale in anyway, but the draw to us is the back porch. The porch faces south on the Intracoastal Waterway and used to have a lovely view. Dolphins swim right up to our dock and a large variety of birds make their home on an opposite island. We've spent many happy hours on that back porch reading and enjoying the scenery.

In the late 1990's a neighbor two doors down purchased a boat and promptly elevated it up out of the water. It blocked part of our much loved view, but my family is the type who say nothing. (We are able to yell at each other easily, but observe our manners with others!) This man never takes his boat out. Never. It hangs on the Davit Master device all year round. The cover is worn and faded from the sun, but the boat never touches the water. I coined the moniker "Master Davit" for this man because of my annoyance.

The condo between ours and Master Davit's was inherited by two of the sweetest people you ever could know, Chuck and Beverly. Their dock is directly beside Master Davit's boat. Chuck and Beverly are not boaters, in fact they do not know one thing about boating, but last year, inspired and encouraged by Master Davit himself, Chuck decided to buy a boat. The boat buying experience was an extensive one, stretching out many months. After the model was decided on, there were permits to be obtained and estimates for dock storage. When the process was complete, Chuck had his own boat and hung it proudly on his own Davit Master device.

The  sad, motionless view of two boats hanging on their davits.

Now, our already measly view is completely obliterated. We spend our time outside on the porch watching two boats go nowhere. They hang in their Davit Masters, day after day. Occasionally, Chuck comes out and lowers his boat and then raises it back up. He smiles at us and shakes his head and embarrassingly confesses that he doesn't know how to drive a boat, but he laughs, "What else are you going to do with your money?"

What else indeed. I have had plenty of time to stare at the boats in their davits and think about how much they look like horses in stalls at boarding barns. Where I come from in Pennsylvania we have gorgeous stables that offer state of the art horse boarding. Stalls are immaculate with clean, wide aisles. The tack rooms are nicer than my own home. The wash racks are heated and well lit. Every amenity you could imagine is available. Yet, hardly anyone rides. Horses that took months to find and be test ridden and vet checked and trailered home, now stand in their stalls, looking like boats in the Davit Master. They are turned out daily and sporadically lunged and groomed and washed, but fear prevents actual consistent riding. The vet is called often for x-rays and blood work. Many issues are discussed and trainers are needed and hired, but few owners ride their horses, daily, happily. 

Adorable Baja, OTTB Gone to Baja, waiting patiently in his stall at a local boarding barn, 
November 2007. He says, "Please someone come and play with me!" Me riding him each 
morning helped alleviate Baja's boredom, but it did not miraculously teach his owner to ride. 

Boats and horses used to be luxuries. They were romanticized and dreamed about, but when I was growing up in the 1970's both were expensive and required time to save up enough money to afford. Today anyone can afford a horse. In fact, our local racetrack gives Thoroughbreds away for free after each race. Monthly board is well within the means of many people, so basically everyone who wants to own a horse can and does. The problem is, like Chuck, they don't know how to drive the boat.

Riding Lessons - A Simple Step Not to be Skipped
Saving the money needed to buy and board a horse used to give people the time and opportunity to actually learn to ride. Most riding instruction was for one hour, once a week, all year long. Riders took lessons often for three years or more before the thought of purchasing a horse was even discussed. Three years back then was 52 weeks x 3 years or 156 lessons. Today our schedules are full to overflowing with conflicting activities. Cancelled riding lessons might cause "three years" to honestly be a few weeks in one year and a few weeks in another year. Sometimes, riding lessons don't even happen before horse ownership. The lessons are arranged when you buy the horse, like a packaged deal. This package can turn out to be dangerous for the rider and extremely unfair to the horse. 

In the very same barn in Florida where Robin boards Lollipop there is an excellent rider, Molly. Molly is in her late twenties and doesn't own a horse. When she was young, her family decided to sign her up for riding lessons instead of buying her a horse. She started weekly lessons when she was twelve and continued until she graduated from high school. When she was living on her own and earning her own money, she weighed the costs of horse ownership. She looked at purchase price, monthly board, vet bills, farrier costs and supplies. Molly decided to lease a horse. When that lease was up she found another horse to lease. She has saved up enough money to buy her own horse trailer. She is now leasing again, a gorgeous Palomino gelding named Gold. Molly is able to trailer sweet Gold to trails and shows. She may even buy him, but she is not in a hurry. Finances forced her to slowly learn to ride many different horses in lessons and through leasing programs and now she is an advanced rider. Gold is lucky to have her in his life. She rides every single day and it is obvious to me that she and Gold love their rides.

Sweet, adorable Max, OTTB Maximiliano, bravely crossing a scary bridge with me aboard on a trail ride in Florida, December 2011.

Like Molly, I learned to ride slowly. Although my lessons focused on Hunter Seat equitation at the walk, trot, canter, and over fences, the real lesson was about the hours I put in the saddle and bareback with my instructor monitoring my progress and safety. Riding time back then allowed me to experience the nuances of horses that had nothing to do with judges and ribbons and much to do with my ease of working with equines today. My lessons on a different school horse each week gave me plenty of chances to ride through varied blowups and shies and bucks and quirks that all these unique horses offered. And make no mistake about it, as I explained in the Finding the Confidence to Ride This Way chapter, I was scared out of my mind for many months.

My instructor, Penny, had a string of 15-20 school horses. Each week I rode a different horse, unless I got hung up on an issue like my cantering/bucking off problem with Chance (described in the Confidence chapter). In those cases, she would put me on that horse every week until I conquered the difficulty. As I got to be a more proficient rider, Penny had me ride boarders' horses in need of exercise. This allowed me to ride a horse who wasn't a push button school horse. After I had been taking lessons for two years, Penny invited me to come and ride some of her green horses on my own on days that I didn't have a lesson. 

Pie, OTTB Sly Pioneer, studying the wet tennis court as we head out on a September, 2012 ride.

In her program, once a rider was past the very early beginner stage, even before we could canter, Penny would take us out on a ride over the fields on the outside course at the walk. After that ride, all subsequent rides and lessons required that the student ride the horse at the walk for a cool down over the outside course for 20 minutes after each lesson. Not only did this train us to allow extra time for the horse when our lesson was over, but we were exposed to how horses can react outside the safe ring. Out there, birds flew out of nowhere, trash trucks banged and snorted on nearby roads, and ground hogs rustled in the underbrush. I learned to sit through shies and bolts and quick side steps. I had forgotten about all these early events in my training until this past winter in Florida when Molly and I stopped our horses in an equestrian park and started trading "war stories" of our various falls and close calls with horses. Laughing together, she on Gold and me on Max, out in the middle of nowhere on a great ride, we traced the journey that got us here. Robin was back at the barn lunging Lollipop and trying desperately to skip the riding lessons for herself.

My heart goes out to Robin and other horse owners like her. I meet them at every barn I visit. Their eyes are filled with horse love as they dream about safe, daily rides. Invariably they tell me about their horse and its unique problem that is prohibiting their bliss. Sadly, somewhere along the way, they were misinformed or misled about how important it is for the rider to take many lessons before being left alone to handle or ride a horse. The popular trend of matching a beginner rider with a small horse or pony is not the answer either. There is no substitution for my years of lessons on school horses. If I hadn't had this instruction, then I could not in good conscience ask for anything of any horse. Beginner riders often hire a trainer to "bombproof a horse" but this will never miraculously by osmosis teach the beginner owner how to ride. Any clinician or trainer who accepts money for a clinic or training and attempts to work with the horse alone or the beginner and their horse as a team, when the rider actually never learned how to ride, is cheating everyone involved, especially the horse. The beginner needs to work with a trainer only on a school horse. If I buy a jet and hire a top mechanic to keep it up and running smoothly, I still won't know how to fly it. Flying lessons will start in a Cessna, no matter how much money I have. Similarly, weekly riding lessons for a few years on reliable, varied school horses, is the safest way to become a proficient, kind rider.

Beginning riders today who haven't bought a horse are fortunate to have so many riding instructors available to them. They could easily take a lesson every night in different disciplines at different barns and still be ahead financially when compared to buying a horse and paying for board, vet, farrier and training. My advice to beginners is always the same:  If you are horse crazy and haven't bought or adopted a horse yet - don't! You win the prize for being patient and horse smart. Because you've waited, you are well on your way to being a great horseperson. Now, go enjoy horses every free second you have while taking lessons for two or three years. (That means take 104 - 156 lessons.) Next, move up to leasing a horse. You may find a horse you absolutely love and lease it for many years. I have a dear friend who is 75 years old and has leased the same horse for 15 years! She rides three to five days a week. I'll wager that she rides more times a year than many horse owners today even though she has never owned a horse. Eventually, you may want to lease other horses or own a horse, but if you honestly love horses, you will wait. The very day when you realize that horse ownership isn't part of being a great horseperson is actually the day you are worthy of owning a horse.   

Pie with me in our hayfield, June 2009.

So What Can a Beginner Do If They Already Own a Horse?
Inexperienced riders who purchased a horse prematurely can keep their horses happy and healthy in a Full Board stable with responsible, kind handlers and daily turnouts. This solution, while not perfect, will undo the cart before the horse mistake. The horse will still be hanging in the Davit Master of stall and turnout, but he will be free of daily drama and mishandling by a frightened beginner. Also, the horse thankfully will be removed from the roller coaster ride of being lunged and/or ridden by a trainer in the costly and ludicrous farce of making the horse safe for an inexperienced rider. The owner can relax knowing that their horse is being cared for and then they themselves can go and find a place to take lessons on school horses. Their new focus is no longer the daily care of a horse, but now they can concentrate on learning how to ride safely and correctly. Even two years of consistent, weekly lessons (Two years is 52 weeks x 2 = 104 lessons - keep a record to make sure) from a slow, careful instructor will improve the unhappy situation measurably. 

In this scenario, the owner will learn everything she needs to know from haltering to leading to grooming and tacking up and repeat these tasks until they are second nature to her before she tries them again with her own horse. As she becomes comfortable in the repetition with school horses, she will gradually be able to try to increase her handling and ground skills with her own horse. But again, the idea here is not to rush it! All interactions with her own horse should be as an experienced horseperson so any handling task attempted must be only that which has been done ad nauseam with school horses first. And, as the owner's riding skills improve on the kind, patient lesson horses, the instructor will eventually invite the student to take instruction occasionally on her own horse. This will not happen right away, but if lessons are consistent, it will happen. The horse will be reintroduced to a confident, kind rider. When the rider knows how to ride, the horse and rider will become a safe, happy team. 

My Own Cart Before the Horse Story
I know this process works, because I had the opportunity to experience it first hand. Soon after I had started lessons, my mom spied a gorgeous horse, a dark bay mare named Penny Lane, whom she knew would be a good show horse for me. My parents purchased Penny Lane and brought her home to our barn, but my own handling and riding of this mare had to wait. This horse was perfectly trained and calm and wonderful in all aspects, but again, her excellent qualities were not going to miraculously turn me into a rider. I had to put in the time on school horses at the lesson barn with a meticulous instructor making sure that I learned how to work with horses properly on the ground and in the saddle. 

Mom on her own Thoroughbred, El Capitan, circa 1959.

In the meantime, my mom handled "Tardy" (the silly name her original barn name "Star" evolved into) on the ground and rode her daily at our farm. I gradually started to be able to do more and more things with my horse, but it was a lengthy process with bumps and bruises along the way. I tried like crazy to hurry it along, because after all, it was my horse. I was an animal lover of the first order. How could I ever harm my horse? I kept my mare's stall spotless and scrubbed her buckets daily. The problem is that I didn't know what I didn't know! I had no idea that my lack of knowledge was inadvertently causing me to hurt my horse in small little ways - jerking her around while leading, hitting her in the mouth with the bit even just at the walk, leaning too far forward at the canter and a zillion other little hurtful twinges to her that a beginner would never notice. Every time that I stupidly rushed to put the cart before the horse, I was slammed back to reality quickly. Sometimes literally slammed into trees. Thankfully, I had my mother there with her knowledge to save me and more importantly, my mother's experience reassured Tardy that she wasn't owned by an insecure, fearful, ignorant rider. 

What if my mom wasn't there? My horse would have developed very bad habits based on her need to defend herself from my inexperienced actions and fear. This is why a Full Board barn is the answer for beginners who imprudently bought a horse before they themselves know how to safely ride. The horse can be turned out daily by trained horse people while the owner learns to handle and ride horses in a lesson situation on a school horse. The purchased horse is no longer punished by the human's mistake. Instead, he is saved from the pain and distrust that the owner unknowingly inflicts when she performs simple acts of grooming, leading and riding in an inexperienced way. Happily when she returns as a knowledgeable horseperson and rider, her horse will only know her as a kind friend who can be trusted.

Little Foggy, Found in the Fog, with the big ears on a grass path through our Goldenrod, September 2012.

Fear and the Experienced Rider
As described above, fear of horses by a beginner is understandable and resolved by taking lessons to genuinely learn how to work on the ground and ride. Fear by an experienced horseperson is an altogether different kind of problem. One is born of uncertainty and the other is born of knowledge - first hand knowledge of what can happen when attempting to work and ride a 1200 pound animal with its own thoughts and ideas. In fact, someone who has ridden confidently, without fear or hesitation for many years is more likely to develop acute worry and dread about very real dangers than new riders. 

Please note: This next section is for riders who honestly have taken numerous lessons on many different horses and have successfully ridden without any fear for years. If you read this section as a beginner rider with the intent of using the following information as a substitute for lessons you are cheating yourself and your horse out of safe, daily rides. 

My husband, Brian, and our daughter, Maizie, took riding lessons so they would be safe around my horses. Naturally they learned basic ground safety and leading skills. In addition, Maizie learned to walk and trot and Brian learned to walk, trot, and canter. They both have nice seats and soft hands. Neither of them are afraid of horses, but neither are experienced riders either. Their lessons enable them to work with horses minimally if I am around. They can get on and ride with me occasionally. But they could not safely tack up or ride a horse without assistance. They are not experienced riders even though they have no fear and have taken a few lessons. When I tell them about my daily rides and the occasional dicey event, I sense that they have zero clue about the danger that inherently goes with horses and riding. They don't know what it feels like to have a horse run off with you or to be on top of a horse who is throwing a few mean bucks. Brian and Maizie are oblivious to what can happen. Experienced, advanced riders share no such oblivion. 

A recent fall or near-fall can start a new, gripping feeling of dread in a seasoned horseperson. Sometimes just seeing another rider having a bad accident will initiate the lack of confidence spiral. And of course, the insidious process of aging that robs us all of agility and balance can shake the nerves of the most stoic rider. How can an experienced equestrian who desperately wants to be free of a new, acute fear ever fully conquer that knot in her stomach? Many riders hire a trainer. Trainers are a wonderful asset in the equestrian world. They serve as your eyes on the ground and can help you and your horse through many glitches, but trainers do not help an advanced rider conquer fear. In fact, they actually inhibit the progression. Instead, the answer that works for me is familiarity.

With horses, familiarity does not breed contempt. Familiarity breeds confidence. The word "familiar" means that your are intimate, informal, and have an established relationship, in this case, with your horse. You had a familiar relationship with your horse, but all that changed with the unfortunate event that is causing you hesitation now. In order to erase every nuance of fear, from slight trepidation to full blown terror, you must reacquaint yourself and become familiar all over again with everything in your horse's sphere. It sounds silly, but you have to establish a new, post-trauma relationship with the driveway to the barn, the parking lot, the tackroom door, the halter, lead line, brushes, cross-ties, arena, bridle, saddle, mounting block, gate, fence, barn, stall - every single item in the world of your sweet horse. You must only touch, handle and ride that which is so familiar to you on this side of the event, that it is boring.  You have to do just that which does not cause an adrenaline rush of angst. Somewhere along the line you did something or saw something that toppled you, either literally or figuratively. You no longer have the capacity to do what you were doing with horses. So don't. In a way, just like a beginner, you can not put the cart before the horse. You do not need lessons, but you must go back and reintroduce yourself to everything in your horse's world including your horse and ONLY do that which doesn't cause one falter or hesitation in your brain and body. And don't try to lie about your fear to hurry this along. You can't lie to your horse.

Horses Are Psychic - They Have X-Ray Vision and Excellent Sniffers
There are many people you can bluff or fool, but you will never fool your horse. A horse can tell immediately if you are fearful of ANYTHING. You reek of fear like you just rolled in a dumpster of fish. You stink to your horse. I am a bloodhound, so I understand the idea of strong, repulsive smells, but if you don't like thinking in terms of disgusting odors, then think about your fear as a color. When you are scared, you are walking into the barn with a hot, radiating red circle around your whole body and your horse can see it. You can not trick your horse into thinking you don't smell or you don't have a fire-red silhouette around you. No amount of lunging or time at the trainer's will clean you up. This is your work to do and it is best done alone.

The boy cantering The Black Stallion on the island. 
Fear in the experienced rider can be conquered by getting yourself to an island.

Get Yourself to an Island
You are experienced. You know how to ride. You have ridden for years and can handle any jump, any outside course, anything with a horse. But, something has happened and you lost your nerve. It is gone and the dread and pain in your stomach is real. Your hands shake and your mind races and you think you may never ride without fear again. You've hired a trainer to work with you and your horse, but you still feel lost at times. Maybe you are back riding, but that carefree feeling you used to have when you were on a horse is gone. These days you notice that you lunge more than you ride. 

What would happen if miraculously I could put you and your horse on an island? The Black Stallion was a fictional book and movie, but fiction often sheds light on brilliant ideas. If you and your horse are left together, loose, on an island with no watch, no plans to show, no trainer, no audience, no "railbirds" or other such critics at a boarding barn, and no schedule at all, you would slowly rebuild your relationship. You would become familiar with each other again. You would not learn how to halter a horse. You are not a beginner - you know how to halter a horse. But, you are on an island. You are bored out of your gourd. You miss your horse and you have nothing to do and no agenda. You try to halter your sweetie pie but you feel your heart race and your hands sweat because of the fall you had. So you stop. There is no trainer encouraging you to move forward, waiting for you in the arena. You are alone with your horse. You don't put the halter on. A week goes by and now you really want to be with your horse. So you try again. This time, you put the halter on and you feel ok. Then, the butterflies start. So you stop. You put the halter on the next day and stop. You only do what feels right because there is no one else there. You are alone and can work at your own pace. You only do what doesn't scare you and if you feel a twinge of fear, you stop. You are on an island and no one can see you and you are not embarrassed to do nothing at all. And, when you are ready, you also are not embarrassed to do a simple step, like haltering, twenty days in a row. You put your horse's halter on and then you remove it. That is your horse work that day. Remember the boy in the movie. He inched his way into the horse's life until he was able to ride. He was a beginner so his expectation was low. You are advanced so you think the bar is high. Drop the bar. On this island, no one cares about you and what a great rider you were. You are going to inch your way back into your horse's life in the exact same way as the boy won over Black. 

Of course, you aren't really on an island, but this is about your horse love which is important enough to require theatrics. You need to pretend that you are isolated from anything that will come between you and your return to riding. No cell phones, no lunge lines, no trainer, no grand scheme. If you choose to enlist the help of a trainer, you will be riding again in a few short weeks. Your horse will be tuned up and worked for you and you will gain confidence while your trainer is present. The problem with this sequence is that you aren't doing the work alone so you are inadvertently skipping steps. Your trainer's confidence is propelling you and your horse forward. When you work alone with your horse, even if the horrible event was caused by a dangerous new habit, like rearing, you will not rush the outcome if you only allow yourself to do that which causes no fear. It may seem ridiculous to go this slow, but kindergarten-slow is good. When something seems too slow in your stomach (not your head), then you know that is a task you can handle. Start at your home. Only dress for the barn if you can without dread. Stop the wrestling match in your head and heart and gut by only doing that which is not scary. A week may go by until you can drive to the barn. Listen to your body. Are you scared? Drive in and out the driveway until you are bored. 

Pie captured by autumn sunbeams in our hayfield, October 2012

Horse love is tough because by definition it causes excitement. I adore horses and I get a physical rush of Thrill when I think about going to the barn and grooming and riding. It is like a drug. That is different from fear, but I have to pay close attention to my thoughts. I never do anything with a horse EVER that causes me a second of hesitation. If it doesn't feel right, then I don't do it. I have to make sure that what I am feeling is happy excitement, not worried excitement. And, as a side note, oddly enough, I have to put the happy thrill away for my time at the barn too. Adrenaline and giddy emotions are no good for horses, even when they are under the surface. That is why I keep using the terms "bored and boring" - you have to be unbelievably comfortable with every task, with every movement, with every brush of the mane, with every tightening of a billet that you are yawning "ho hum" to your horse. Bored. This is b-o-r-i-n-g. 

There will come a day when driving to the barn is boring again. No butterflies. And, then, grooming will be fun, but boring. Then, walking beside your horse will be old hat. And standing beside him while he grazes will make you laugh and smile. You will hear him munching and reach out and touch his withers and think, "Hmm, I could just sit up there while he eats." Then, you think, "No." But, the thought of just sitting up there will come back. And then it will come back again. So you put the bridle on one day after grooming and you get nervous. So what? You untack and call it a day. Then you tack up again and untack. And again. One day, you lead your horse around the barn in his bridle. Then, the next day a little farther. Another day, you don't even think about it at all and you tack up with the saddle too. You lead him around the property. The next week you sit on him. You are on an island. No one can see that you just sat on your horse for 10 seconds and dismounted. Your horse likes this and so do you. In all this time, he has forgotten the rearing habit or bolting event or whatever else you two experienced together. It is gone from both your memories. Instead, you have forged another path together. Your slow pace retrained your brain and retrained your horse all at the same time. Every day is fun because you only do what YOU can do. If a meteor hits the island and you both die before you actually ride, so what? You were touching your horse, grooming your horse, walking beside your horse. You weren't standing 30 feet away making your horse trot on a lunge line in an attempt to make the knots in your stomach vanish. Instead, you were engaging your horse in your journey and he loved every minute of your work together because it was together.

In less time than anyone can imagine, you will be riding again. But, there is no need for that word "time" - you are on an island and there is no watch or calendar. There is only you, smiling from ear to ear as you ride your amazing horse.

Pawing Pie-Pie and me smiling from ear to ear in shorts, half-chaps and hiking shoes, August 2012.

Lunging and Fear
Beginner or advanced rider, a sure fire way to detect a cart before the horse scenario is to notice the frequency lunging is utilized in a horse's life. Lunging is a very obvious act that tells the world that someone is putting the cart before the horse. Lunging deludes the frightened beginner or recently unnerved advanced rider into thinking they are "working with their horse" daily when really they are just avoiding the problem - they are scared. Sometimes riders are tired or injured themselves or physically unfit. They are not able to ride joyfully so they grab a lunge line. Instead of reaching for the lunge line, beginners would find joy if they would reach for the phone and sign up for long term riding lessons with a qualified instructor. Advanced riders can put the lunge line away for good by following the slow and steady process described above in the Fear and the Experienced Rider section. Tired, injured, and/or physically unfit riders are equally able to benefit from the meticulous process described above in the Fear and the Experienced Rider section.  The same process that slowly reintroduces a rider to her horse after a frightening experience can reintroduce a rider to her horse after a surgery or illness or other physical ailment. 

Egos and Horses
The most difficult cart before the horse task to correct, for beginner or advanced rider, is that of the human ego and the horse. Your horse needs to always come before your ego. Simple to say, but not so simple to put into practice.

Our human egos tell us a fictional story about who we are as people.  We listen to the constant playback of this story in our brains and often allow this false perception to guide our actions. Our ego makes us worry mostly about what people think about us. Sometimes ego is harmless. My ego causes me to worry that I have food in my teeth or that my breath reeks of garlic after lunch. I would not care one straw about my breath or the bits of basil in my pearly whites if I was truly enlightened. But I am not - I plead guilty to being a ridiculous human worried about such trivial shortcomings.  

When you are at a barn or working with horses, ego isn't so harmless. Your actions, based on your own false sense of self and your concern with making yourself look "good" for others, could cause you to act in a manner that is not good for your horse. Showing off with horses can lead to injury or worse. It is helpful to ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing with your horses. What are your motives for today's show, today's schooling workout, today's game plan? I have this horrible childhood memory of watching a movie called A Girl Called Sooner on The Wonderful World of Disney one Sunday night. (There was nothing wonderful about this series. Every week Disney featured some heart-wrenching tale that usually involved the death of a favorite pet that left me bawling with a headache and a lifetime reaction to run from anything Disney.) This movie had a scene where the girl, Sooner, brought out her favorite pet bird to show her friends. The friends proceeded to stone the bird to death with pebbles and Sooner just stood by laughing with them because she wanted to be liked by the friends. Obviously, this is an extreme example of a human needing acceptance and going to great lengths to get it, but it is important to remember when you are caught up in the moment at a busy boarding barn or at a show or other type of competition, or writing a blog post, or posting on a horse forum, that acceptance in the horse world is not as important as keeping your own horse happy and healthy.

Fear will never be conquered or bliss attained if your own ego is put before your horse. Your horse's happiness depends on you letting go of worry about what anyone thinks. You have to care more about your horse than about the opinion of other people.

I have come to a point in my horse life where I just could care less what others think. I had an epiphany one day at a horse show and I never looked back. I was sitting on my mare, Penny Lane, in the hot July sun at showgrounds without one tree for shade. We were riding in six classes and the temperatures were soaring and supposed to hit 90 degrees that afternoon. The bugs were awful and the air was still and stale. To add insult to injury, that morning a tire had blown out in the trailer my mare was riding in on the way to the show. I followed behind the trailer in a car and worried for her safety. She made it to the show, but for what? My sweet horse was sleeping under me while we waited outside the ring and I thought, "What are we doing this for?" This was supposed to be fun, but as I looked around I didn't see anybody "having fun" or laughing or enjoying themselves in any way. My mare loved to jump. In fact, when she was turned out in a pasture with fences set up, we often saw her jump when she was at liberty playing! But, on that day, the heat and the bugs and the typical length of the show was too much, even for her. She was sweating profusely and twitchy and obviously uncomfortable. My ratcatcher was strangling me and my breeches and boots were unbearable. My young brain knew somewhere deep down that a normal person would not choose to dress like this on a hot day. I thought about our farm and the shade there and the freedom I had to plan my rides to take place in the cool mornings or evenings in the summer. Still sitting on my horse, with time to kill and the heat swirling my thoughts, I kept on with this philosophical progression. So was I here because she liked to jump? No, that didn't make sense. We jumped at home. We were here because I needed to get experience in the show ring. Yes, that was it. But for what? I couldn't figure it out. Then, it hit me, like a smackeroo-blue. I was here so I would win ribbons and get experience and move forward and win more ribbons and then get points and then ride more horses and win more ribbons and more points and become an accomplished equestrian. 

I knew in an instant that this would be my last show. We finished our classes and did well, only because my horse was a fabulous little trouper. I had the ribbons to show anyone who wanted to see them, but the truth is that those ribbons had very little to do with being an accomplished equestrian. I changed my life that day. I realized that my need for human validation when I work with horses is just not very strong. It is gratifying to accomplish goals with a horse, but I wasn't born with the need for anyone to see it. 

Penny Lane lived with us on our farm until she passed away at the age of 32. She and I rode most days, except for my time away at college and graduate school. For me, the experience and feedback I got from her was far more useful to my equestrian pursuits than anything I did publicly. We did have a trainer come and teach us dressage for balance and flexibility, but we never competed again. Learning to be a confident horsewoman was challenging and rewarding. I skipped the audience part. 

Often times I know that I look like a complete idiot because of what I don't do to prove myself to others. I am fine with that as long as I don't look like a complete idiot to horses. I feel very comfortable working with any horse and my ego is proud of that accomplishment. The fact that I can confidently say those words - any horse is enough for me. I do not ask a horse to rush or do something which is uncomfortable to them physically or mentally. My ego can not force me to cross that line. Consequently, there are some "horse people" whom I only interact with intermittently who might not even know I can ride. Our current vet, for example. After our much loved veterinarian, Dr. Weber, "Doc", passed away, we started with a new vet. She comes out twice a year for shots and often tells me about people who are doing this or that with horses. The stories are grand and quantifiable. I listen and smile and think to myself that she thinks I don't ride these young, feisty, huge Thoroughbreds. She thinks they are pasture ornaments. But, I can't say much. There is nothing quantifiable that we are doing. I can't say how I did in a recent show or where we are eventing next weekend because we aren't competing anywhere! If I were to listen to my ego I would hear that we aren't really "doing" much of anything. Thankfully, horses don't hear our destructive, inaccurate human egos. My boys and I are doing incredibly well by non-competitive, non-quantitative standards. They are excellently behaved in all weather, in all situations, without lunging and without bits. They seem happy and are sound. They allow me to ride everyday. And, when I travel and interact with other horses I know that I am slow and kind enough to help any horse on the ground or on their back achieve the same goals of bitless, bareback riding in all weather. What else could there be for me? My ego would be hard pressed to top that. When you find a way to let go of the show and put your horse ahead of your ego, you and your horse will soar!

Righting every cart before the horse scenario
If you have come to a place where things aren't going right with you and your horse, you can fix it simply by listening to him. He will tell you if you are putting a "cart" before the horse. That cart might be fear or inexperience or ego, but in every case, when you rearrange your behavior and only do that which is easy and kind and happy to your horse, your problem will be solved. He can't speak. You have to ask in a slow, kind manner and then watch and listen and observe his response. You can't ask others. If you are inexperienced, you will be able to do very little without a negative response from your horse. Stop handling him until you are experienced enough to do it in a way that makes him smile. If you are experienced but recently frightened, only do that which causes you not to be afraid. Again, listen to him. He will know when your ask doesn't reek of fear. If your ego is ahead of your horse, he will respond to your requests with little ease or joy. In his lifeless eyes you will see your ego. Put it away, behind your horse and all will go right. 

More to come...