Horse and Rider Soaring (Together)
I WOULD have thought it was a great day for a horse show. Banners fluttered and buckles gleamed as competitors and spectators milled around the arena. Jake and I entered the ring, and the world grew still around me. We cantered smoothly through the jump course until we turned to the blue-and-white striped fence: an oxer, high and wide. I saw immediately that Jake would hit it wrong - he wasn't going to have enough room at the takeoff. I tried to compensate, but Jake's confidence suddenly deteriorated. He stopped dead in front of the jump, sending me flying. I landed on the other side, where we both should have been.Skip to next paragraph
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I groaned for my wounded pride as I lay on the ground, waiting for the show officials to look me over before I got up to brush off the dirt. I went over to my horse and wondered if he and I could forgive each other for these increasingly common foul-ups. I wasn't sure. This competition had done nothing for our relationship.
We didn't start out as a great match anyway. When I met Jake, he needed a firm and experienced rider, and I wanted a steady mount. Each of us soon realized there was little guidance to be found in the other; after a few weeks, Jake began to test my strength. I think he just wanted to know where I stood. Fair enough.
OUR mismatch grew dangerous, though, when Jake began to refuse at fences. As this pattern continued, his hesitation at high or unusual jumps filled me with anxiety.
The communication between horse and rider can be continuous and powerful - not quite telepathic, rather some curious mixture between instinct and sheer mental anticipation. Crude physical commands belie the complexities of mood and confidence that accompanies them. Sitting on a horse, a rider not only feels what the horse is doing but how the horse is feeling - whether the day is tiresome or a pleasure, and whether the task at hand is begrudged or welcomed. This communication was evident to me on good days, when Jake would bombard me with a rakish good will, and I him with affirmation of our spirited adventure. Yet when our confidence started to falter, we were unable to reassure each other. Strange jumps were met with a stop or a dangerous lunge. Trust was scarce.
I was tempted to blame Jake. Many horses had no trouble clearing challenging fences in competition. Even my trainer agreed that Jake took advantage of me, and that I should show him who was in control. I began to grit my teeth before fences in order to throw over Jake mentally. Although this tactic sometimes worked, I felt bitter for it, as though I were contributing all the effort. Fortunately, it only took one lesson to turn me from blaming my horse.
One weekend, Jake and I traveled out to an important show. In the stabling area after the competition, I encountered a volatile dark bay who earlier had been disqualified from a speed jumping competition because of three refusals. From Jake's stall, I nervously watched as the rider approached and beat his tethered horse. The rider abused him verbally, too. If the horse didn't understand the words, he got the message: This person is in control. Although the bay stood at 17 hands and could have broken his ties, he flinched and skittered until the rider was finished.
I knew that whatever pipeline of communication had existed between the two beforehand was welded shut then. While I never had hit Jake like that, my blame was festering. And though Jake forgave readily, he would remember an angry rider.