And facing it down.
Lately, it seems every time I ride Kaliwohi, he finds some spot to “boo” at, and I don’t like to feel fear. Fear of harm is instinctive in every human. While, as horsefolk, we realize the occasional “unplanned dismount” may happen, so far I’ve not come off Kaliwohi, and I’d really like to keep it that way.
When my young mustang – who is quite a powerful, athletic horse despite his own overweight issues and semi out-of-shape muscles – decides to spook, it makes me really uncomfortable. I have to talk to myself, second by second, to make sure I don’t tense up and amplify his fear, which would only escalate matters in a negative way.
I want Kaliwohi to be a laid-back, bomb-proof horse, just like my very first horse, Ginalii Sami (Cherokee for, “my friend Sam”) was. Sam (a mustang/quarter horse cross) and I were best friends for twenty-six years, and in all that time, Sam never even tossed his head, let alone took a step wrong! He never once considered spooking, and I never once came off him. And yet…
When I think back to when I first got Sam, he was two years old and a rather scrawny, narrow-chested gelding, just like Kaliwohi was when he first arrived. But I was a kid when I got Sam, so I never thought about waiting to ride him until “his knee joints close” or whatever.
Excited that my lifelong dream of owning my own horse had miraculously happened, ecstatic kid Esther hopped on young Sam with nothing but a halter and lead rope, because that is all I could afford. I rode Sam almost every day, bareback, and almost every day he walked me under low-hanging tree branches, pulled his head down and munched grass while ignoring his young rider, and all those “baby horse” things that young horses do when paired with an inexperienced rider. Sam and I grew up together and learned together, and God bless him for putting up with my ignorance for many years until I could afford riding lessons.
With Kaliwohi, while I taught him ground manners immediately upon his arrival from Wyoming in the spring of 2014, I opted to wait to back him until this summer, when he is four years old and thus fairly mature in bone structure and brains. This is appropriate and correct, in my opinion, to wait until a horse is four to back him. But it also means I’m starting a full-grown horse under saddle this time.
I have to be the reliable, dependable “alpha” in our “herd of two” whenever I’m with Kaliwohi. My job as his trainer/rider is to give him confidence when he feels fear. This is counterintuitive to my own self-preservation instincts. When Kaliwohi starts to spook, my instincts are to tense up and resist, which then would amplify Kiwi’s tension and resistance. So here’s what I strive to do each time we get in a tough spot, confidence-wise:
- I tell myself to relax and breathe, relax and breathe, relax and breathe. If I’m really tense, I start singing out loud, simply to force my body to breathe.
- I check my own mental focus. Am I distracted? Thinking of other things? Focused somewhere outside the arena? Sometimes I imagine ten-foot solid concrete walls around the arena perimeter in order to force my own focus to remain in the arena and not on anything else. Where my mind is, his mind is…
- I imagine exhaling through my seatbones with each breath, to encourage my seat and legs to stay relaxed, and, hopefully, to encourage Kaliwohi to breathe so his ribcage will release and relax.
- “Straight and forward, straight and forward” – this is the movement I want Kaliwohi to achieve whenever he’s concerned about something. I want him to overcome his instinctive fears and listen to his alpha (me), who (hopefully) is giving him consistent instructions: straight and forward. (Hat tip to Eliza Romm for this wonderful mantra that fixes nearly any squirrely moment!)
- I plan a training session from the ground near an object if it really bothers him. My dressage arena, for example, is elevated on one end, due to tons of fill dirt that had to be added to level an arena-sized spot on my steep-and-hilly East Tennessee farm. The arena’s elevated end, with a fifteen foot drop off, really bothers my young mustang. So I lunge him on that end to give him extra exposure and to let him process all that he sees from that perspective while not having to worry about balancing me on his back or doing anything other than “straight and forward” on the lunge line.
- I sometimes wait to ride until someone else is on the farm. This makes me feel safer, thus I am more relaxed so I can transmit that relaxation to Kaliwohi.
- When reviewing our training sessions in my head, I remind myself that I’m not dealing with a domestic animal. Kaliwohi was born wild. He has a willing heart, a kind spirit (there’s no “fight” in him), and he has extremely strong self-preservation “flight” instincts. I’m not going to overcome those in one day, or three months. Slow, steady, confidence-building training is the key.
Sometimes it feels like I’m not making any progress at all with Kaliwohi, when we ride past the same spot that has spooked him – for no reason, it’s literally a patch of flowers – twenty times before, and he spooks yet again. But I must build his trust with great care.
Before I began this journey, I overate to try and compensate for my own fears or, quite literally, stuff them down. I never wanted to admit that I felt fear, because I was afraid of being condemned as “weak.” These days, I would rather talk openly, write openly, and be deeply honest with myself about my fears, because this is the only way to grow beyond them and become unafraid. I love my mustang. Sometimes his reactive nature makes me anxious. But, working together, we will build trust in one another, one ride at a time.