Living with fear is no stranger to my world after surviving breast cancer for five years. The diagnosis of early stage invasive breast cancer brought a level of fear I had never experienced before, a dark, ugly presence that was intent on taking over my life. This was an ultimatum I couldn’t ignore. Either I found a way to redefine cancer’s meaning and purpose in my life or it would figuratively and literally bury me. The choice was obvious but it required two things that I didn’t have at the time.
First I needed to find the right horse that I could declare as mine and whose presence in my life would be a constant source of healing and comfort. It had to be a special horse who would be strong and fierce like I needed to be to fight cancer. Second, I needed a new purpose and direction in my life, a mission that represented and mobilized my dreams, passions and values that would allow me to connect with like-minded women, nature, horses and wellness. A few days after radiation treatment in California ended, I headed out to where I intuitively knew I could find both of these change agents. There was only one place to go: C Lazy U guest ranch in Colorado.
I arrived in bad shape. Battered and hurting from open radiation burns covering my swollen breast and with my estrogen levels at near zero, I was riddled with inflammation and arthritis from head to toe.
My frail condition was obvious to the ranch’s head horse wrangler, Bill Fisher when we met the next day to discuss the horse I would be riding. With a keen certainty in his eye, he said to me, “I have just the horse for you to ride this summer.” And with Bill’s words, my post treatment life shifted into a renaissance. That’s when Lady showed up and not a moment too soon. She was an eight year old, gray mare quarter horse who had arrived a few weeks earlier as a new string horse for the ranch.
Lady was a true alpha mare with three gelding groupies, Rudy, Sky and Irish who followed her everywhere, and hung at the gate as I tacked her up every day. She had a powerful influence over the herd of 200. To the ire of Bill and his team of wranglers, she was known to take the entire herd in the wrong direction during the jingles.
She brought a fierce love to our relationship from the very beginning. Our connection was instantaneous and deep. She sensed I was hanging on by a thread, physically frail, and mostly terrified of the cancer returning. Her message was always “I am here, I got your back and let’s get on the trail.”
On the trail, she would signal with her body language where wildlife was and then wait for me to choose what to do. Over time, she knew once we found something, most likely I would stop and want us to both look at it before moving on or in the case of a bull moose standing in the middle of the trail, change our direction.
I rode six days a week all over the 8,000 acre ranch with old and new friends and guests that summer. It was healing in motion as Lady and I enjoyed endless trails and long lopes. But with the close of the season, I had to say good-bye to Lady. After all she was the ranch’s horse and not mine. Or so I thought.
Destiny had a different plan for Lady and me. Through an unexpected miracle, my husband found a way to give me Lady for Christmas that year. It’s his story to tell but the eternal thanks are owed to Leslie and Don Bailey, co-owners of the ranch who made an exception of the heart to override the cardinal rule of never selling a string horse to a guest or member of the ranch.
The three essential truths about conquering fear of riding
At Women in the Rockies, I teach three essential truths about horses and riding that when utilized, reduce rider anxiety and the chances of getting hurt. It is simple stuff. It begins with choosing the right horse for you, utilizing a simple ground work routine with your horse before getting on, and bringing to your horse an intentional calm presence.
1. Start with the horse
It’s essential to start with the right horse and by right horse I mean a safe horse for the kind of rider you are. When I look back, I had lots of years with wrong horses who were spooky, nervous or too reactive or required a trainer several days a week to keep my horse safe enough to ride. Now in my early 60s, I would never ride a horse like that again because as we age our reflexes are slower and our bones are more fragile. Riding the right horse is even a bigger priority if you are managing a chronic illness, stiffness or pain as a horse related injury may take weeks to months for recovery.
Find an older, quiet, well-trained horse that is open to building a strong trusting connection with you. Horses like this aren’t easy to find, but are true gold once you own this kind of horse. They just keep giving back and with time become your soul mates in the journey of aging.
Spending summers on a guest ranch all these years, I have seen first hand the criteria the ranch uses to keep their guests safe. They only have horses that are calm, quiet, trusting and a bit curious. Unexpected things happen on the mountain trails that often we can’t control or anticipate. An older horse that comes with training and experience is a better choice than one you intend to raise as a project.
2. Stay on the ground
Riding an alpha mare like Lady at the beginning of summer, who has been off during the long hard Colorado winters offers challenges. Bill Fisher, a few years ago said, “You know Janet, you would have a better horse if you learned and did ground work everyday before you rode her.” Bill is a man of few words, but his sage advice is based on over 50 years of managing a 200 herd of horses and matching thousands of guests with ranch horses. With his insight in mind, I began the process of learning ground work.
Ground work is the key to moving your horse’s feet both on the ground and in the saddle. There many advantages that come from ground work, but the big one for riders is establishing yourself as the leader with your horse by using your body language to communicate with your horse. Bonus benefits include a soft horse who is a real partner in just about everything you do together.
Ground work can keep you connected to your horse even when you can’t ride. Last summer I sprained my ankle and was stuck in a walking boot. Lady and I did ground work several times a week while my ankle healed. For me ground work is something we do in a quiet place for just a few minutes before heading out for a long trail ride. Her body language as she walks and trots in a circle and bends tells me her general state of being and gives me a powerful tool to shape her attitude before I get on.
For a real education, you might want to observe a Buck Brannaman Foundation Horsemanship clinic this next year. Buck Brannaman is a world-renowned expert when it comes to connecting to your horse through groundwork. Go to http://brannaman.com/bbclinics.html for the 2018 schedule. Most likely you will need to bring a chair, and a hat. Spectating fees are $30/day.
3. Stay calm
Horses mirror our feelings. If we get scared or anxious, they reflect back fear. If we are calm, focused, and mindful, they reflect back those same feelings back too. The easiest way to calm your horse on the ground and in the saddle is to use specific horse communication skills. These skills are beautifully described in book called HorseSpeak the Equine-Human Translation Guide by Sharon Wilsie and Gretchen Vogel.
Sharon Wilsie teaches us that we can all be better riders by cultivating an inner zero and an outer zero when we are with our horses. Inner zero is your quiet place on the inside which allows you to be more present. In my experience this includes slow deep deliberate breathing when approaching and handling your horse. Horses hear our breathing with super human hearing abilities. If we hold our breath, they sense that as “something is up.”
Horse trainer and author Wilsie has a key response for when your horse spooks that I find helpful. Start with saying, “That’s curious” which neutralizes the feelings and fears you are having and gives you and your horse a moment to choose a better response. The idea is to stay calm, present and breathing slow no matter what your horse is doing.
A couple of summers ago, I was working with Ami Cullen, director of operations at C Lazy U and all-around equestrian expert at the ranch. She had a new, young buckskin quarter horse, Trigger tied up at the manger. She brought out the blanket and saddle, and he flew back, fell down and continue to flail about for a few minutes. Those watching held our collective breath, but Ami was all zero. Her body language expressed no reaction to his blow up. She calmly and deliberately waited until he was done, untied him and tacked him up. He quickly pulled himself together and focused in on her calmness and slow deliberate moves. It was remarkable to watch.
A year later using her skills and inner zero, Trigger has become a very sweet horse. What Ami did that day was bring her outer zero skills too. She moved around the horse with planned deliberate gestures. What I have learned is that horse communication is mostly quiet body language. Our horses prefer us to move with purpose, and quiet confidence that signals leadership and that “all is well.”
For information about Women in the Rockies at C Lazy U ranch in September, 2018 go to our schedule page here.