Fat to Fit to First Level: The Third Horseman of William James

Esther quiets some personal anxieties and makes the decision to take her mustang, only under saddle for 30 days, to a local dressage clinic, building confidence for both her horse and herself.

Kaliwohi – relaxed and forward! Photo by Tess McHone of Everyday Beauty Photography

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” So writes American philosopher William James. I believe his words are spot-on with regards to weight, fitness and training our equine partners.

Last week, my local GMO (Group Member Organization, the local dressage club affiliated with the USDF/United States Dressage Federation) put out a call for fill-in riders for a much-anticipated clinic with JJ Tate after some planned participants cancelled.

After only a month under saddle, I knew Kaliwohi and I were hardly ready to leave the farm, let alone ride in a public clinic! But I also hated for my GMO to host such an accomplished horsewoman as JJ Tate and not have the clinic full. So, after confirming Ms. Tate would teach even a green bean team like us, I decided to follow my new mantra – #GrowBOLDnotOld – and ride in the clinic.

This decision itself was a huge victory for me. Old me would have argued, “you’re too fat!”, “you’ll be humiliated”, “everyone will be rolling their eyes and thinking, ‘thank god I don’t look/ride like HER!’” New me won the victory by positive thoughts like, “even if Kiwi just trailers well and walks around a new property, it will be a successful building block in his education.”

We had an afternoon ride time, thus half a day to either get ready or get anxious. “Old me” defaults to anxious. I knew I had to find new ways of thinking and acting in order to calm my nerves. Horses are mirrors of our own emotional state. They are pure amplifiers of whatever we are feeling or thinking. And I wanted Kaliwohi to have a calm, focused, positive clinic experience. “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” Hmmm . . .

Overeating certainly would NOT help matters. I planned my food intake on Saturday carefully so I would have energy for the ride yet not feel overstuffed or bloated. I planned out what I would wear, including colors that would boost my confidence (e.g., dark breeches) and be comfortable (I opted to ride in my paddock boots, so I could feel Kaliwohi’s sides better).

Saturday morning came and I was ready to go early in the morning, but my planned “leave the farm” time was about 10:30 a.m., so I had some time to fill. Whenever butterflies of anxiety tried to flutter in my stomach, I found something else to keep my mind occupied, like fold laundry or mend a blouse – something focused, productive and not food-related.

Katrina Love Senn has helped me tremendously when it comes to managing self-sabotaging anxiety. One of her coaching tips is to write out a note targeting whatever I’m hoping to accomplish with these three endings: “Doing X perfectly is possible!” “Doing X perfectly is easy!” “Doing X perfectly is fun!” So I wrote out a note and stuck it on the dash of my truck:

Riding perfectly is possible!
Riding perfectly is easy!
Riding perfectly is fun!

For this outing, I defined “riding perfectly” as: a) not coming off, b) not bouncing on Kaliwohi’s back and c) maintaining some semblance of control of direction over my young horse.

Working with JJ Tate on hind engagement. Photo by Tess McHone of Everyday Beauty Photography

Earlier in the week I had emailed the clinic hosts and asked about the availability of a stall or small paddock where Kaliwohi might hang out for a few minutes and absorb all the new sights and smells. They very kindly offered an airy round pen sitting atop a grassy knoll. The pen gave my mustang a panoramic view of everything going on at this busy breeding facility, including the covered arena where the clinic was being conducted.

While Kaliwohi took it all in, I did some deep breathing exercises, “breathe in success; breathe out anxiety.” I imagined how it would feel to complete our ride successfully. I imagined Kaliwohi being a calm and willing participant in the learning process. I reflected on all the tiny steps Kaliwohi has successfully learned during his first month under saddle.

One of the finest articles I’ve ever read on how to practice is by Penelope Trunk. I encourage you to read it and ponder how all those tiny moments of practice and preparation can translate into training your riding partner. The article has been a game-changer for me as I started Kaliwohi under saddle.

I presume the clinic auditors and Ms. Tate had no clue what to expect out of a captured mustang, under saddle a month, in his first off-farm event. Neither did I, honestly, but I focused only on my breathing to remain relaxed and give Kaliwohi every opportunity for success, one new thing at a time.

I led him all the way around the arena both directions. Ms. Tate was lovely – so supportive and eager for me to do whatever it took to give Kaliwohi the time he needed to process all the stimuli.

Walking Kaliwohi around the indoor before mounting up. Photo by Tess McHone of Everyday Beauty Photography

Mounting up took some time. Kiwi was pretty amped up, so I used natural horsemanship techniques to get him focused on me and on the mounting block. Ms. Tate understood what I was doing and she encouraged me to “just do what you would do with him at home.” That made so much sense, and all my anxiety melted away with this thought: It’s a training session like any other.

Soon I was in the saddle and talking to Kiwi the way I do at home. “Just relax and reach into the walk, nice forward marching stride . . .” Then we picked up the trot: “Need your right shoulder, fella . . . focus on me (when someone entered with their large dog) . . . it’s not a wolf, Kiwi – I say it’s harmless, so it’s harmless, just focus on me and trust me . . . oops, sorry, pal – I fell forward during that transition – my fault . . . need your left shoulder . . .” and so on.

The photographs illustrate how well Kaliwohi’s clinic ride went. He tried so very hard to stay focused. JJ Tate gave us lovely comments, both about Kaliwohi’s ability to focus so well on his first off-farm event and so early in his training, and about my horsemanship skills. I was – and am – over the moon happy about finding the courage to participate in this clinic with my mustang.

Clinician JJ Tate with Esther and Kaliwohi after a great “green bean” clinic experience. Photo by Tess McHone of Everyday Beauty Photography

What you DO makes a difference.

Go riding.

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