My Life

With the help of her horse, a life­long rider learns an im­por­tant les­son about horse­man­ship on her 64th birth­day.

Practical Horseman - - Contents - By Carol Susan Woodruff

As I head off to catch my horse, I be­gin pro­cess­ing the lessons he’s re­minded me of to­day— from plan­ning each ride to know­ing when to quit.”

On this sunny Oc­to­ber af­ter­noon, I’m cel­e­brat­ing my 64th birth­day with one last can­ter up a gen­tle slope. Four strides in, my 16.3-hand Dutch Warm­blood geld­ing be­gins drift­ing left. I feel Bindigo’s back mus­cles bunch be­neath the shal­low, un­padded saddle I’d pulled off the tack­room wall. Haul­ing his more se­cure cus­tom saddle from my house to the board­ing sta­ble had seemed too much trou­ble. But oh, to have my usual knee rolls to sink into! Oh, to have mas­tered the one-rein stop my hus­band is for­ever lec­tur­ing me about! I’m a sit­ting duck—but not for long.

Bindi launches an im­pres­sive crow hop. Glanc­ing over his shoul­der at the ground far be­low, I won­der, Am I go­ing to fall? Af­ter 55 years in the saddle, I sim­ply don’t do fall­ing—and, with thin­ning bones, shouldn’t.

A sec­ond crow hop, fol­lowed by a duck, sends me cartwheel­ing. But luck is with me. The grass, soft­ened by rain, cush­ions my land­ing. I prac­ti­cally leap to my feet, amazed to be un­hurt. As I head off to catch my horse, I be­gin pro­cess­ing the lessons he’s re­minded me of—from plan­ning each ride to know­ing when to quit.

Ad­mit­tedly, ear­lier that day, Bindi had told me to quit—many times and in many ways. But I’d stub­bornly per­se­vered, demon­strat­ing the my-way-or-the-high­way school of rid­ing.

Our out­ing be­gan smoothly—de­spite my lack of plan­ning. We trot­ted up­hill and into the woods, saun­tered down­hill and re­sumed trot­ting on the flat. Then we dou­bled back at a hand-gal­lop, trot and walk. Soon we’d re­turned to the vicin­ity of the barn. A good time to end a birth­day jaunt, eh? But nooooooo.

For the heck of it—not the best ap­proach to train­ing—I con­tin­ued down­hill past the barn. Be­fore cross­ing a con­crete bridge re­quir­ing horse and rider con­cen­tra­tion, I an­swered my cell­phone: my brother call­ing to wish me happy birth­day. So much for safety-con­scious­ness.

Once across the bridge, I sent Bindi straight into a trot in a grassy area. I hadn’t thought to look around first. But Bindi, a prey an­i­mal, had. Only af­ter a 180-de­gree pirou­ette did I see what had spooked him: a man par­tially vis­i­ble in the woods 30 yards away. Bindi’s airs above the ground spooked me. Here was my chance to re­group—to work him in the round­pen, re-es­tab­lish our con­nec­tion and switch our brains from re­act­ing to think­ing mode.

I wish I’d taken that op­por­tu­nity. In­stead, I urged Bindi past the barn again—any­one see a pat­tern here?—and up the gen­tle hill be­tween pas­tures. I was still chas­ing the good note to end on. My horse be­came balky, surely think­ing we were done. But he soon agreed to trot and can­ter on. Then every­thing headed south.

Our environment changed dra­mat­i­cally. In­ex­pli­ca­bly, some­one was rid­ing in Bindi’s field, just to our right. An­other rider was travers­ing a dis­tant, usu­ally empty pas­ture. My hus­band, 50 yards to our left, be­gan video­ing us. Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters, I asked Bindi for a flying change—some­thing that takes all his fo­cus.

Suf­fer­ing from sen­sory over­load, Bindi un­corked—three times. I vowed that if he’d do a lead change in both di­rec­tions in the arena, I’d call it a good day. To my cha­grin, I broke that vow. Pleased with his changes, I wanted to cel­e­brate with, yes, one last can­ter up the hill.

If I didn’t know bet­ter, I’d say trainer Julie Good­night, a nat­u­ral­horse­man­ship spe­cial­ist, was on the side­lines. “Now he’s tired and emo­tion­ally spent and you ask for more,” she writes in her Feb. 8, 2017, blog, “A Horse’s Sense of Fair­ness.” “Things fall apart and what should have been a great train­ing ses­sion turns into a sal­vage ef­fort. Fair­ness would dic­tate that you rec­og­nized your horse’s best ef­fort and let him rest on that rather than feed your own greed.”

Of course Bindi dumped me. I bought my­self that fall. Luck­ily, the Bindigo Birth­day Bo­nanza was a twofer, in­clud­ing a re­fresher course in good horse­man­ship. My take­aways? I must think out ev­ery step of my ride, fo­cus­ing on clar­ity, con­sis­tency and com­pas­sion. No point is worth driv­ing home if do­ing so is likely to land me in the ER. I need to ride my horse as he is to­day, not as I wish he were. And a good note to end on is no less good be­cause it doesn’t take the form I orig­i­nally en­vi­sioned.

Carol Susan Woodruff and Bindigo

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