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December 26, 2010

Rebuilding Confidence Is A Slow Process

My son has begrudgingly accepted that I’m not going to stop riding, regardless of his pleas. For that I can thank my old trainer, the charming Snowden Clarke, who had coffee with him the other day in Los Angeles.

“He convinced me that you need to ride horses like a crackhead needs the infernal release of crack cocaine,” my son instant-messaged me.  “I’m going to keep trying to convince you to stop, but it’s basically a Beckett-like procedure at this point.” (This is what happens when you send your child to the University of Chicago.)

In other words, Godot will arrive before I give up horses.

So yes, I’m back riding after the fall that wiped out a day of my life. Or trying to. This Winter From Hell, Part 2, isn’t helping. Snow storms, arctic blasts, laminitic loaner ponies. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Not the best way to regain confidence after an injury. It’s like trying to build a sandcastle too close to the sea. Just when you get the foundation up, a wave washes it away.

I’d gotten to the point where I’d actually jumped a small course on Piper, the loaner pony/couch-with-legs. I was so excited by my little victory, I threw my arms around my abundantly patient and cheerful trainer, Gordon Reistrup. It had been a collective effort; he’d worked as hard as I had to get me jumping again.  He was equally happy about our success and returned the hug.  To me, that’s the mark of a gifted teacher—one who can revel in both the small and large victories.

Then Piper started limping, thanks to my virgin pasture and his rotundness. We caught it before any permanent damage, thank goodness, but he’s sidelined until he gets his therapeutic high heels removed. So even though I have eight horses, I don’t have one I can ride. They’re all either too young, too lame, or just recovering, except for Cassie, my 3-year-old OTTB.

Finding The Appropriate Mount

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my quest to discover how to restore confidence after an injury, it’s the importance of the appropriate mount. Cassie, who’d been kick-quiet this summer and fall, now has more engine than I think I can handle. Think is the operative word. Because last winter I’d have ridden her with no second thoughts and handled her just fine. But a bad fall has a way of reshaping your thought process.

When I started riding again, I had to force myself to stop thinking about all the horrible accidents I’d heard about from friends and readers. It was difficult because these were loud and insistent voices in my head. But the more I rode, the quieter and more manageable they became.  I was jumping Piper, riding Cassie; all was well with my world.

Then Piper got lame, the thermometer dipped to single digits, and the voices regained their volume. Part of me wanted to keep riding Cassie to shout down my fear. Then I remembered the sage words of another former trainer, Peter Foley, whose patience is only exceeded by his wit.

“Horses pick up so much from the rider,” Peter said. “If you put your foot in the stirrup, and you don’t want to be on that horse, that horse knows it. You’ve got to want to be on that horse. If you’re terrified, you’re going to be grabbing at and clenching his mouth. That is not sending a good signal to that horse.”

So Cassie has the winter off, while I rebuild my confidence elsewhere. It’s all part of the plan to get me back in the show ring, smiling. “Make good horse decisions,” Gordon has told me on more than one occasion.

I’ve had the good fortune to train with professionals who know how to deal with a case of the nerves when it comes to jumping. I’ve circled in front of enough fences to make a trainer go bald. They always knew how to talk me down from the ledge and get me around a course. These were the people to ask how to restore confidence after injury.

Baby Steps

“I’m a big baby-steps kind of guy,” Peter told me. He owns Woodhall Farm in Aldie, Va., and coached me when I lived in D.C. “I like for things to go in a progression. I start out isolating what you’re nervous about. I try to break it down. I ask, ‘What do you think is going to happen, worst-case scenario?’ If you think he’s going to run and bolt, let’s make sure he’s quiet, so we can take that off the table. If you’re afraid he’s going to stop, we start very low, walking over poles.

“A couple of lessons into it, I’d say, ‘Let’s go jump a pole, then a flower box, then two in a row. You tell me when you feel good. Once each step is mastered, you move on. I check in on each thing to make sure you feel comfortable with each step. Walk. Trot. Canter. Lengthening. Shortening. Trotting over poles. Cantering over poles. Lengthening and shortening over obstacles. When you add those things, you start feeling like you’re riding again; that there’s communication going on; that you’re not just crossing your fingers, hoping you don’t fall off.

“I understand fear. That’s part of the reason I can be helpful. I know what it’s like to get back on a horse after having been off for two months with a broken collarbone. I went slowly. I started with flat work, poles, cavalettis, then jumps.”

Gordon and Snowden also talked about falls they’d had and the resulting trepidation. It was comforting to know that these professional horsemen who can ride anything had also been tapped on the shoulder by Lady Fear. It made me feel a little less ridiculous.

Snowden took a bad fall in 1996 while riding at his Rock Ridge Farm outside of Middleburg, Va. (He’s since relocated to Los Angeles, where he runs Rock Ridge at The Paddock.) His horse hit a groundhog hole and flipped. Snowden lost a day from the resulting head injury.

“I was really rattled and didn’t know where to start again,” Snowden said. “I got back on, and all of a sudden I was a little timid. I couldn’t afford to be timid. So I practiced what I preached. I went right back to basics. I started trotting over poles, to cavalettis, to jumps, to courses, to making harder courses. And I made a diary of it, ‘Am I going too slow? Too fast?’

“When you have an injury or fall, where do you start again?  You go backwards and find your comfort zone, and you start there.  The same way you would with a horse. You bring both back to where they feel comfortable, then you build on that. You get that secure, then take your next step. If it’s only a half-step, great. You always build on a solid base.

“Confidence is easily taken away and difficult to get back.”

The Basics, The Basics, The Basics

The key, according to Snowden, is what he learned as a young boy from Mildred Gaines and Madge Barkley who taught him how to ride at the Madeira School in McLean, Va. “They drilled and drilled the basics, the basics, the basics. Balance and basic horsemanship skills. So we had something to draw on when we needed it. Look at George Morris, you see him out there trotting without his stirrups. It all comes down to the basics. As a teacher you train the basics so you can use them when you need them, and you know where to come back to when something goes wrong.”

It seems many of us riders wrestle with confidence. And why not?  Riding can be a dangerous sport. Or in the blunt words of my husband—who shares my son’s frustration with my addiction—“You could die.”  Check out the thread I started in the Hunter/Jumper forum which now has three pages of often eloquent stories and helpful suggestions:

The bottom line is that riding with confidence is almost as important as riding with a helmet. They both protect us from injury. Too bad they don’t sell it at the tack store, next to the GPAs and Charles Owens.

Jody Jaffe is the author of "Horse of a Different Killer," "Chestnut Mare, Beware," and "In Colt Blood," which have been featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. She is also the co-author of the novels, "Thief of Words," and "Shenandoah Summer." She is a journalist who was on a team at the Charlotte Observer that won the Pulitzer Prize. Her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Washingtonian and Practical Horseman. In addition, she teaches journalism at Hollins University. She lives on a farm in Lexington, Va., with her husband, John Muncie, and their eight horses. She attempts to ride hunters with her trainer, the ever-patient, Gordon Reistrup.