I was never a particularly fearful child. I loved exciting rides at the fair, I loved my dad driving fast, the feeling of nearly being out of control was exhilarating and liberating. When I got into riding, I loved to go fast. In fact, the memory that prevails of my riding experience is the time that I went on a beach ride with my riding school. It was an evening ride and there seemed to be loads of us. We travelled down to Littlehampton to ride along the beach and my mount was to be a little dark bay mare called Cadbury, who I had never even sat on. It didn't bother me; I have never forgotten the wild, intense joy that felt as if my chest would burst, as I thundered across the open sand. There was no fear of not stopping - the ponies would tire long before the end of the beach and I can honestly say, no feeling has ever come close to rivalling that adrenaline rush.
Summer days were spent working endlessly at a local riding school, loving the ponies as if they were my own, riding bareback to the field, boasting of heroic acts of horsemanship required to stay on the 'ginormous' buck that a particular pony had put in; I used to jump without stirrups, without reins, holding a cup of water in each hand and with my eyes shut; I would vault on a pony while it was cantering and leap from my mount in order to win a race of some sort. I have nothing but fond memories from this time.
I can tell you the exact day that this changed. I had never had a pony of my own and had instead relied on free rides provided in return for long hours as a helper at a local riding school. However, when I was about fourteen, my parents had a little more money; they were certainly not rich, but had a little more than when I was a small child. To this day, I don't know how I managed it, but I eventually persuaded my dad that he should buy me a horse and that I had found a horse that I liked. I think by actually saying HERE is a horse I want to buy rather than the hypothetical 'can I have a horse?' was what worked. Essentially, I put him on the spot. I tried this horse out a few times and was adamant that I wanted her. Within a few weeks, she was mine.
I don't think I could have picked a more unsuitable partner if I had tried. I was a confident rider, but I rode Fell ponies and Section Ds, not six year old flighty thoroughbreds. I should have bought myself a sturdy pony with a leg in each corner, but I ended up with a mare with serious and dangerous psychological problems. I bought her from a dealer that my friend worked for, thinking that it would be OK, because I sort of knew him. It wasn't. The first time I rode my beloved new horse, she planted herself solidly in the arena and refused to move. It was the strangest experience - she actually didn't seem able to move. Here I was, proudly mounted on my brand new horse, the envy of all the helpers at the yard, and she was planted - rooted to the spot. We tried everything - I coaxed, I kicked, I got someone to lead her, I got her fieldmate out to lead her in front, but nothing worked. She wasn't going anywhere. Getting upset by this point, I kicked again and smacked her a few times. The rest is a bit of a blur. I remember her running backwards, I sort of remember her rearing and I remember hitting the floor, with my horse falling on top of me.
I won't go into the rest of the details, as the 'Hattie experience' could fill a whole post of its own, but it was on that day that I realised that, no matter how good a rider you are, no matter how well you can stay on to 'ginormous' bucks, the horse can always win. The horse is always stronger and if he really wants to, he will get you off. This was a devastating revelation; my first moment of understanding that I was not invincible and that riding was a dangerous game. The next time I rode her, with the dealer there who had sold her to me, sealed my fears. I was so tense that I must have clamped up the moment I got on. Hattie proceeded to gallop flat out around the school, feeling very much as though she were going to jump the fence at the end and take off down the road. I had no idea what this crazy animal would do and that has ingrained in me a deep-rooted feeling that I can never know what these animals will do.
When I worked for David for two years, you would think that riding every day as my job would cure me of my fears; in fact, I think it ingrained them even deeper. I was desperate to be fearless, but every time something scary happened, I felt this wash of terror and it was totally irrational. When I became a better rider, I started to get offered the ride on some of David's better horses, but I couldn't do it. I rode one of them once - one that David has since competed to advanced level. It would have been a fantastic opportunity, but I was utterly rigid; the moment I got on him and couldn't do anything. My body went into meltdown and I was terrified. I couldn't even have told you what I was scared of happening. For me, my fear is not that easy to pinpoint - it's more of an instinct that I can't control.
David found it funny. I was labelled a 'wimp' and he just let me get on with it. His wife, Serena, took a slightly more philosophical approach and told me not to be ashamed of it, and that I should just do what I'm comfortable with. If I don't like riding hot horses, then I shouldn't ride hot horses - simple as that. But there was a part of me that still couldn't help feeling embarrassed by my inability to conquer my nerves.
When I bought Echo, I had really mixed feelings. I had been given a coloured cob to train by David and Serena, and we had done very well. When I am confident, I am capable of riding reasonably effectively. I bought Echo because I had loved this cob so much and thought that she was the type of horse I could train myself. Interestingly, I had never been too worried about backing the young horses at David's. This could be because I only ever had to do the initial work - the backing and first riding. There was very little expected of me, other than to do what I was told. I also found that horses, when started correctly, are usually very obliging in the first few rides. If they are going to act up, it is usually when they have worked out what is going on and I rarely kept the horse for that long.
When it came to teaching Echo to be lunged at David's, I was really nervous. She was my responsibility. The future of my riding career rested on what I taught her then and that thought terrified me. David saw me with her on the first day there and said, 'You'll never ride that horse.' This had a strange effect on me: on the one hand, I was crushed - perhaps he was right... But on the other, I was incensed. I WOULD prove him wrong - no matter what!
Again, the first few times riding Echo I was fine - I knew the processes, I had someone helping me and I felt safe. What terrified me was the next stage - the riding free - the combating of any problems I was faced with. Was I up to it? What would happen if I mucked it up? This was my horse - I would have to deal with it. None of these were gripping fears, but were certainly concerns at the back of my mind.
So this post is about fear. About my fear that engulfs me at certain moments when I am on a horse. Ever since Hattie I have been nervous of hacking; nothing specifically happened with her out hacking, but it goes back to that feeling that ultimately, no person can ever be totally in control of a horse. It all seems more real and worrying when out in the open countryside. I am a self-confessed control freak and I don't always know what my horse will do.
Last week, I took Echo out for a wander around the cross country course to cool down after a particularly intense schooling session. She had not gone well and I was feeling angry - not at her, but at myself. We got into the woods at the end of the main route in and Echo was striding out nicely. Starting to relax, I began to enjoy myself and forget the irritation of the schooling. We had just turned a corner, when I felt Echo go rigid and shoot forwards from under me. I took a stronger contact instinctively, and tensed up myself. I turned round to see what it was and realised that a big German Shepherd (belonging to the yard owner) was wandering around in the trees. I relaxed; of course this would scare her. However, she didn't relax - she got even more tense, feeling like a coiled spring beneath me. I turned her, so that she could look and see the dog, but she obviously couldn't - she could only hear him rustling.
It's at moments like these that I realise that my horse doesn't totally trust me. All those lovely idealistic perfect horsemanship books say that the horse turns to you to be the leader at these moments, but nothing I could do would get through to her. When I turned her back to the track to walk on, she had wound herself up so tightly that she felt as if she was going to explode. This is when the wall comes down. I freeze - I don't know what I'm scared of - it's probably a combination of things, but my vision goes blurry and my heart races. I become utterly focused on what the rigid quivering horse underneath me is thinking and I can't make myself ride through it. So I jumped off.
The moment my feet touched the floor, I was deeply ashamed of myself and thoroughly angry and my complete ineptitude. Furious, I tried to lead her forward, but she was now even more wound up than before. Believing that I had been wrong to admit defeat, I went about trying to mount again, but she was now spinning round in circles, probably trying to get away from this crazy woman clinging to her side! I had just got into the saddle, when I realised that in front of us was a big group of people cross-country schooling, going fast up a hill and over a jump. By this point I couldn't cope. Anticipating her reaction, I jumped off again and led her back the way we had come. She pranced at my side like a stallion (although I couldn't help but admire the elevation in her hock action!!) and I raged silently to myself. Why was I so stupid? Normal people wouldn't have got scared. I am such an idiot.
By the time I got back on, halfway back to the yard, I was in despair. Perhaps I didn't deserve a horse like Echo if I couldn't even stay on her when I got tense. How will I ever take her to a show if I can't ride the moment she gets upset? Theses were the thoughts running through my head as I returned to her stable.
It was interesting, then, to listen to John talking to one of his students about fear at the weekend. He claims that he is not naturally the bravest rider, though he has competed in major 4* events. I asked him how he managed it and he said by working at it. He said something that I have been thinking about ever since: a brave rider is not one that doesn't see the danger. I can't remember the exact wording of the second half of the sentence, but it was something along the lines of 'it is somebody that works to get around that danger'. He said that it isn't wrong to be scared. He also said that I shouldn't be angry with myself if I have to get off - if that is what I need to do in that situation.
I really don't know. I look back with such fondness at the time when I was a gutsy kid, up for anything, but when this fear hits me, it is as if a cloud has descended and I lose control of my limbs and my breathing. It doesn't happen often, but fear is a funny thing and I wonder whether there really is any way of combating it, or whether I will be haunted by it for life.