Fear is something I see every day. Not so much in myself (more on that in a sec), but as a teacher of amateur people, many of whom either aren’t young or started riding as adults or both. It’s been a companion of mine throughout my teaching career, and it was one I didn’t really understand in the beginning.
Flash back to about age 26: I was on a client horse, a normally quiet and civilized one. I was in my indoor, and I closed my leg and my seat at the same time to close him up a bit. Instead of doing that, he stood straight up on his hind legs. I did not fall off. He landed, I drove on, and he never did it again. But for the first time in my life, when I looked at his belly button in my arena mirror, I was flooded with fear.
I grew up riding some naughty, naughty stuff, including quite a few who liked to walk on their hind legs. Why was this time different? I don’t know. But it was, and it was bad enough that I actually had to spend some time talking it over with a sports psychologist.
It’s been a while since I was 26 (ugh). Since then, I’ve been launched, I’ve been stood up with, I’ve been injured. I’ve done my job and lived my life, and I’m here now, mostly not scared and certainly a heck of a lot smarter when it comes to handling horses that I suspect might be thinking bad thoughts.
In 2020, I ate dirt three times: Once almost exactly a year ago, when a very civilized client horse just tripped and fell down with me; once while trying a 3-year-old for sale; and then in December when, in a fit of spectacular stupidity, I slipped off a slippery cooler when a horse shied. The 3-year-old actually wanted me to fall off (I got back on, and he tried to do it again!). The other two were just dumb accidents. None scared me. None hurt me.
Then came “The Day” last month: I got on a young horse, who was standing like a statue even when the horses in the field next to him were being degenerates. I walked off on a long rein, talking to a working student candidate about how good he was, and how impressed I was that I could just get on him while the horses were being morons in the field. We walked into the arena, and he just exploded. I held on for a while and then landed on my backside. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t get up right away. It was extremely not fun.
Mercifully, I didn’t hit my head, and I didn’t break anything. And I wasn’t actually afraid then, either. If I could have gotten back on right then, I absolutely would have. But I couldn’t get back on, not for a few days, with how swollen and sore I was. Also, I had to travel up to Ocala to see a sale horse with a client (P.S. You know what’s super cool after sustaining an injury? Sitting in a car for four hours each way.)
So, it wasn’t until several days later, still pretty banged up, that I went to work dressed to ride. I got on Elvis, who was his dependable self, though sometimes he can do silly little things like kick at my leg or stick. Every time he did it, I braced—not because I was afraid of eating it, but because I was afraid it would hurt. (And it did, I was right!)
I got on Puck, who’s so physical, and found I just couldn’t be there for him, so we puttered around in posting trot for a hot minute, and that was that. Next, I had a bit fitting appointment for Helio that required I ride.
And then I got on the young horse.
I longed him for a second—because I’m not that heroic—but truly just a second; he was absolutely himself. I got on, and he was absolutely himself. I rode around, and he was absolutely himself. And truly, I wasn’t all that afraid. I’m an experienced horseman, and I know that was a terrific horse who had one super, super bad day.
But the difference between how I felt before I got on and how I felt after I dismounted was worlds apart.
I was, to be frank, kind of a schmuck before I got on. I was in pain, too, which does bad things to my headspace. I was quiet and withdrawn with my staff, and weak and sullen with my first few horses of the day. I did not teach amazing lessons that morning. I was not a good team player. I was a mess.
And then I rode the kiddo around, and it was like the weight of the world fell off my shoulders. He was himself, from the first minute: He was the horse that I trust, the horse that I routinely putter around on with my phone in one hand and the buckle in the other. Not Pony Club-approved behavior, for sure, but he’d never given me a reason not to trust him.
Now, I will hold onto this one reason not to trust for a while, even though he’s been foot-perfect every ride since.
I’m just the tiniest bit slower to put my leg on with him. I hold my breath every time he takes a big canter stride to try and get his big baby shoulders out of the way. I hold my breath when I get on. And then I self-flagellate for a while, because I know that, as a horse, he’s sensitive to my energy, and that if I want to stack the deck against him, being nervous myself is a good way to do it.
And here’s the hard thing. I am a professional rider. A good one. A relatively brave one. I ride some weird stuff. I rode a lot of very sketchy stuff as a kid. And year by year, I’m just a little less brave … particularly when unchallenged. And in general, I’m the bravest right after I’ve fallen off.
So, this one’s hit a little hard. Normally when I’m pitched, I dust myself off, get a little pissed, and hop back on with something to prove. This one hasn’t been like that. I’m not really happy with this part of me. I’m not really happy seeing that ballsy 20-something who wrangled the rogues slowly slip away.
But fear, I’ve come to know from sports psychologists, and from watching my own students, is a funny thing. Calling it what it is—a fair thing, really, given that we clamber on 1,000-plus pound animals bred to be flighty and powerful at the same time—makes it just a little less awful. And then I go through my checklist: I am actually good enough to do this. I am fine. I have been fine before, and I will be fine again. This horse is a good horse. I am not out over my skis on him. I have good help and a deep toolbox.
It was a moment. It was a bad moment, but it was a moment, and not one I created. And I am here to tell the tale.
And then, it gets just a little easier to put my leg on and my butt down. (You know, once the swelling goes down.)
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis and her own string of young horses with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook and Instagram.