FlowerHatLadyRider – Fear freezes the brain

The transition from Luna to Quinny was like a huge leap over a chasm . . . and I didn’t make it across. Luna jumped with me the hobby level eventing courses of Kerava, Ypäjä, Niinisalo and Harju. We even participated in a competition at Harju and placed. I’ll never forget the expression on the competition director’s face when I stood among the placed riders. She must have thought “Oh, one of the riders has her mother pick up the rosette . . . hmmm . . . she’s dressed in competition attire”. Priceless!

I was fearless with Luna. I trusted Luna to take care of me. It’s like one trainer said: “Every time they approach a fence, I pray that Luna catches her mommy after the fence, and Luna does, every time”.

When I started riding Quinny, I very quickly understood there was no point in planning a competition calendar – I could barely stay in the saddle. Quinny is so sensitive and her reactions so fierce, that when my hand wasn’t steady – which happened all the time – or my legs didn’t stay still – which they never did – or my weight shifted in the saddle – which it constantly did, she leaped, spurted, abruptly stopped, bucked, stood on her hind legs and sometimes just had enough and made sure she gets me off her back. And she did get me off her back – every time.

It required quite a thought process for me to overcome the disappointment of not being able to continue competing like I had with Luna. But it also started me on a completely new and different relationship with horses. Quinny gave me a hard time but I soon started to appreciate the little steps forward that we were making in our relationship and came to value them more than the club level rosettes.

I had never fallen off of Luna. I fell from Quinny every week, sometimes several times during a same week. It was always volt forward over the shoulder, landing on my upper back. It was always just a thump. It was a little impressive seeing the front legs as I came down from my flight. For a split second, I was aware that the front hooves were awfully close to my face but Quinny always pulled away from me, so I had plenty of room to land in front of her. I was never sore the following morning. I came to the conclusion that the human spine and skeleton are very sturdy and take a shock well. My daughter laughed and said I should start taking lessons in swimming jumps so I would learn to complete the volt and land on my feet.

Then the first of March 2012 happened.

I was on a jumping lesson. I had just jumped a vertical on the diagonal and was galloping around the end of the manege, making my way to an oxer on the long side. I had just thought what a calm and relaxed canter we were doing, when totally out of the blue, Quinny bucked me into flight. I hit the manege wall and as I landed between the wall and Quinny, her hind leg hit my inner thigh just above the knee – thank goodness it hit above the knee and didn’t crush my knee!

The surgeons at the emergency room paid no attention to the contusion in my thigh, which was bigger than the size of my hand. They were worried about the ruptured butt muscle, the gluteus maximus, and an artery causing severe internal bleeding.

I think I would have mentally recovered from the fall if I had understood why it happened. My trainer saw it happen, but she could give me no explanation as to the “why”. The only thing she said was “You need to jump off before she bucks like that – no-one can sit through those bucks.” Yes, I would have jumped off if I had gotten any warning signs that a buck was coming. I was eating dirt before I knew what had happened. The fact that there seemed to be no reason for Quinny’s reaction made me think that it can happen again at any time. That rooted a strong fear deep into my spine.

Fear takes over the brain

Imagine riding so that you constantly expect something to happen, which will trigger your horse to “fly you into orbit”. That’s what my riding became – being afraid of what it could be that will trigger Quinny the next time. So, I flinched when someone opened the manege door or there was a noise from outside. Obviously Quinny sensed my nervousness, which made her nervous. She reacted to everything happening around us – even to another rider whipping her horse or smacking.

Imagine riding around the manege and thinking . . .

What would it feel like to fallon those stacked cavalettis?

That corner doesn’t look tempting – the cups in the obstacle stands could cause nasty cuts .

The kitchen ladder must hurt to fall on – would for sure break bones –and the boxes have sharp edges.

The wheel barrow is metal but then at least it would fall and in that way give way if I’d land onto it.

What I don’t understand is that it never, not even once, crossed my mind not to ride. However, my trainer ventilated her frustration at my being afraid, shouting at me “Stop being afraid!”. I thought to myself: if only I could just decide to stop being afraid.

It was time to stop and think about how to move on.

Luckily, the opportunity presented itself to have a professional rider start training and competing with Quinny. Fantastic: Quinny could have fun jumping “properly” and competing and I could just do my little thing the in-between-days. I moved Q to the stable where this professional had her horses. Only, she went abroad five weeks to prepare for the outdoor arena competition season while we still had snow on the ground in Finland. I was left alone with Quinny – all alone.

I took a new approach to riding her. I didn’t at all worry about how her head, neck or anything were. I focused purely on myself: keeping my hands still, relaxed and with even contact to the mouth, keeping my legs still, sitting straight. Simple things. I was amazed at how well Quinny responded. All of a sudden, she relaxed and settled onto the bit. I started the work in gait and then moved onto trot. If I couldn’t sit still in trot, I went back to gait. The important thing was to keep Quinny calm. This actually was a game changer to me: instead of, as Andrew McLean calls it “riding the horse into the restraining hand”, I saw in practice that focusing on myself will have the horse relax to form.

Working on my own fear has helped me understand Quinny’s spookiness. Just as fear prevented my brain from focusing on what my body needed to do in the saddle as it concentrated on being afraid and anticipating the worst at all times, when Quinny gets spooked by something, her brain closes to anything else other than being afraid and wanting to flee.

These revelations were the first baby steps towards building the connection of our minds.