Anyone who has ever been on the back of a horse has had one (or more) of those “Uh-Oh!” moments when you really aren’t sure how things are going to unfold… Perhaps if you are a trainer or a lifelong rider, you don’t have those moments anymore. I have been riding since I was about 9, but I still have those moments, especially on my relatively new acquisition, Finn. He’s not a Steady Eddie and it is anybody’s guess where we’ll end up at any moment in time.
My Arabian, Kadeen, provided many of those moments as we were becoming a team. Now, I am quite relaxed on him and I think we could tackle anything. We have traveled many hard trails and had more than a few glitches along the way, and because we trust each other and have hundreds of miles under our belt, we operate as a unit. That is not to say that we are immune to accidents on the trail… of course not! What I am saying is that there is little my horse can do (absent unforeseen variables in the environment) that will rattle me. A turkey blowing up under his belly is one of those weird things you can’t predict, and there is clearly great potential for injury when accidents happen. But the horse himself is pretty much a known quantity.
Handling life’s curveballs
I am not a person that rattles easily. I make up my mind what I want to do, and I do it. However, I have encountered some significant challenges in my lifetime. Veterinary school was one of those challenges. It was 4 extremely difficult years, preceded by 3 extremely competitive undergrad years. It was a means to an end, and not something I would ever care to repeat. I had classmates who loved academia and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but I didn’t! But I had always wanted to be a vet, and nothing was going to stop me.
After having two children biologically, my ex-husband and I adopted several children. Those children came with significant emotional baggage and we were not at all prepared for the challenges of parenting them. I needed support and understanding as I struggled with my kids, and the adoption agencies could not or would not provide what I needed. So I started a local support group which grew into a national nonprofit. Running that organization derailed my veterinary career for a significant period of time, but it was totally worth it. I am no longer the Executive Director, but the organization is thriving and helping parents all across the country. I persevered, and while there are many aspects of that experience that I wish had turned out differently, the challenges I faced helped mold me into the adult I am today.
In mid-September I took scuba training, which begins in a pool. After completing the pool course, the scuba candidate must complete four open water dives. For my upcoming birthday, my boyfriend took me to Nassau to complete my certification. I didn’t find the pool course to be particularly challenging. As I mentioned before, I don’t rattle easily, so I really didn’t anticipate any problems in doing my open water dives. I was SO wrong.
The first day, we had to do 2 relatively shallow dives. The water was fairly clear, and we were in a cove so the sea was not rising and falling much at all. Even so, as we exited the boat and prepared to make our first descent, I realized I was really sucking air! I was very wound up. I returned to the boat and stood on the ladder for a few moments, trying to compose myself. Eventually I was relatively okay, and I followed my instructor and the other trainee down to the bottom of the ocean, about 18 feet. We completed the two dives without incident.
The next day, we left the sheltered cove and went out to the open sea. The boat was pitching and heaving, and I was seasick before we even arrived at our first dive destination. I am sure anxiety played a role in my stomach distress as well. We were instructed to exit the boat (no small feat with it rising and falling about 4 feet with each wave) and head to the red ball that was the mooring for the drop line that disappeared into the deep water. The deep MURKY water…
GET ME OUTA HERE!
I started down the line. My mask took in some water and I tried to clear it, but not well and not successfully. I was really, really getting anxious. I signaled to the divemaster that I wanted to go up. He signaled, “Clear your mask”. I signaled “UP!!!” He repeated “Clear your mask!” And then he took hold of the back of my BCD (buoyancy control device/vest) and positioned me horizontally in the water and commanded me to SWIM! So I did. But boy was I stressed. Eventually, however, I did regain enough composure to head down. We went to 60 feet!
Calm, cool & collected
My boyfriend videotaped much of my lesson. As he was watching and taping, he saw the other student signal the divemaster that she was out of air! Alan first wondered if it was yet another training lesson, but he soon realized it was no drill. The other student, the divemaster and I were all just inches from each other when this occurred. I hadn’t seen the “out of air” signal, but I did see the divemaster calmly hand the student her alternate air supply. Next, I watched him retrieve something from the ocean floor and replace it on her original regulator.
It turns out the mouthpiece had come off of her regulator, which clearly affected her ability to get the oxygen! She remained incredibly calm and I was extremely glad that it wasn’t me that experienced it, given my already shaky state of affairs. We surfaced, and the divemaster said to me, “Are you comfortable?” I said, “Relatively!” Not comfortable, but not willing to abort the plan. Watch the video carefully at the beginning and you can see her signal “Out of air!”
I completed the last dive, but by this time my stomach was a complete mess. As I surfaced, I couldn’t decide if the pitching sea or the pitching boat was a better place for my heaving insides. I decided to head for the boat, but before I got there, I tossed my breakfast and fed a few fish. I did feel better after that!
Ultimately, I earned my certification. I do plan to dive again, but at least for a while, it will be in shallower, calmer, clearer water. And NOT so deep. I don’t need to see the wreck on the ocean floor at 80 feet, at least not until I get more comfortable with the equipment and more confident in my skills.
Getting back on your horse after a serious accident
So what, you might be asking, does this have to do with horses and riding? Although I have never experienced this, I know there are people who have had serious wrecks on their horses, and their subsequent fear makes it a struggle to return to riding. I know there are people who ride horses they don’t trust, and that creates a constant state of anxiety about what will happen next.
Some of my friends who don’t have confidence in their own riding abilities or their horse’s behavior try and manage their anxiety by managing the environment. That is simply not possible! To be safe on your horse, you need to trust your skills and your horse’s willingness to do as you ask. If he’s NOT willing, you need to return to the basics and establish the level of trust and respect that is necessary to make your mount as safe as possible. I had to remind myself of this fact this past summer when I realized I needed to spend some significant time in the round pen with Finn. He didn’t respect me, and he wasn’t safe on the trail.
Plan ahead and be prepared!
When you are 60 feet underwater, you had better know what to do if something goes wrong. You need to be able to remain calm and use your brain. You should NEVER be diving without a buddy. (I now ride by myself but I do have an emergency tag on my saddle and on my person so at least I have information about me and my horse available if we have an accident!) And perhaps most importantly, you should not plan and execute dives that are beyond your skill and comfort level. I was with the divemaster, so even though I was stretched to the limit, I was safe. But in the future, I will plan shallower dives, and although we are certified to dive alone (with each other as our buddy) Alan and I have agreed to always dive with a divemaster.
If anxiety is affecting your joy in riding, be proactive about solving the problem. Your anxiety makes your horse anxious. (Anxiety underwater makes you suck a lot of air and totally shortens your tank time!!)Take riding lessons. Return to the training basics with your horse. Plan easy trail rides that help build your confidence. But don’t quit!