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Getting Right Back On That Horse

A couple weeks ago Maddie fell off her horse during lessons for the first time. She was shaken, but basically unhurt, and I led her out of the ring and immediately helped her get back on. She was a bit apprehensive but fine to go back to it, and when we left I was so proud of her for getting right up and getting back on.

Then came the next week’s lesson, where everything fell apart.

Last weekend Maddie tried to ride, and spent the entire lesson with tears streaming down her face. She was so afraid of the other horses – she’d fallen off when another horse spitefully came over and kicked her own horse, who then shied away – that she had a death grip on the reins and jumped in fear every time she got close to another horse. Maddie came home that day ready to quit horseback riding, one of her passions.

I persuaded Maddie to take a private lesson this week, to give her a chance to work in the ring without other horses threatening her, to take time to work through her fears. She agreed and we went yesterday morning.

Maddie seemed fine as we got ready to go, but getting in the car she began telling me, “Ow, my stomach really hurts.” Now, in Maddie this is not Code for “I’m faking a stomach ache so I don’t have to do this)”; for Maddie it’s Code for “I am so stressed out my stomach really hurts.”

But still she pressed forward, determined.

Maddie’s teacher saddled Maddie’s favorite, gentlest horse, and we walked into the stables together.

At which point Maddie promptly ran to the parental viewing area and dug in her heels, refusing to get closer to the horse.

Maddie knew her fear – that she’d get kicked, or that her horse would get kicked – was completely irrational with this horse. But there it was, and she couldn’t get past it. She finally came over to the horse, breathing him in and taking her time, then consented to walk to the ring with him, then get on, then start walking around the ring.

Baby steps.

Maddie spent half an hour walking around the ring, her instructor walking with her the whole time and chatting nonstop, keeping up a constant stream of conversation to keep Maddie diverted. And Maddie kept coming back to, “I don’t know why I’m afraid! I’m so angry that I am!” Which is my daughter in a nutshell.

Maddie wasn’t afraid of falling off: she was afraid of not being able to control everything, and thus not knowing what would happen next. I think if someone said, “Your horse is about to drop you,” she’d be fine. It was the not knowing that was killing her. Maddie learned a hard lesson two weeks ago: that horses are independent beings, and that Maddie is not immune from accidents, and that you cannot predict what will happen or stay in total control all the time.

It’s going to take Maddie a few weeks to process this.

Half an hour into Maddie’s lesson she was done: she couldn’t ignore any longer the fact that there was another horse grazing OUTSIDE HER RING who might walk over, jump the fence, come up to her and kick her. So when she announced it was too much for her, the instructor simply led her out of the ring and said, “No big deal –we’re done for today then!”

So we’re out of group lessons for now, instead doing privates while she works through this thing. And to the outside world it might look like I’m willing to pay a rather significant sum of money to make sure my princess keeps moving ahead in private lessons – to get the spoiled child back into her fancy horseback riding sessions – the truth is, there’s no sum of money that I wouldn’t give here – not to keep her in lessons, but to help her learn to work through her fears. This, I think, is one of the turning points of her life that she will look back on and see how it shaped her. And she can look back and think, “Yeah, I fell off a horse when I was 8 and it scared me so much I quit and didn’t ride again for 20 years and now have trouble with hard situations”; or she can look back and think, “Yeah, I fell off a horse when I was 8 but I worked through it and my mom was patient with me and I learned that I can do hard stuff, and I have it within me to work through those tough situations.”

I’m going to do whatever I can to give her the chance to say the second thing.


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