Faith thru Fear

horseback riding on gravel roads

Riding Gravel Roads

It finally happened!

That nagging worry at the back of my mind found fulfillment. My worst fear became reality.

…and it was okay…

I’ve been riding Knockout over a year, now. Sometimes I’m able to ride as often as three or four times in one week.  Other times I go as long as three weeks between rides.  I figure I’ve averaged about one ride per week…which means I have about 60 rides on him

We have made amazing progress in 60 rides!

Knockout has matured from a green-broke, frightened, spooky, flighty colt to a pretty reliable young horse.

My progress has been no less remarkable in my own way. I began riding Knockout as I was recovering from cancer treatment and my physical strength has returned as we worked together.  I have learned a lot about horsemanship and relationships.  I have learned a lot about myself.  I have faced a few fears and overcome a few insecurities.

The first time I rode Knockout I was scared. Cancer treatment was quite an ordeal, and to be honest I was feeling pretty fragile.  I didn’t trust my own lack of strength or my ability to recuperate.  But I was determined to ride him.  So, I thoroughly disked the arena to a nice smooth carpet of thick soft dirt, and climbed in the saddle.

That first ride started out pleasant enough. We walked around the arena both directions a few times with no mishaps.  I asked for a trot and Knockout sprang into a gallop.  Startled, I pulled back…and Knockout promptly bucked me off.

I stood up, dusted myself off, realized I wasn’t hurt…smiled…and remounted.

That buck-off was the best thing for my confidence. It showed me I wasn’t as fragile as I’d come to believe.  I could still take a fall from 14 hands into soft arena dirt without doing any damage.

Knockout and I have done around 60 rides since then. We’ve come a long way in learning to relax under saddle.  We’ve done a lot of work on transitions from walking to trotting to loping to stopping to backing…and every combination thereof.  And we’ve developed a relationship based on clear communication, mutual respect, and mutual trust.

There’s a limit to that trust, though. Knockout is still a prey animal and prey animals are prone to flight.  That first ride was not his last time to bolt or buck…nor was it my last time to panic and mishandle a situation.  We’ve had several opportunities to practice the one-rein stop.  We’ve also had plenty of opportunities for me to practice relaxing and going with him when he startles.

The startles are now much less frequent. They’re much more controlled when they do happen.  And I respond much more calmly than I did previously.

Overall, at this stage, I consider Knockout to be a pretty solid young horse…and us to be a pretty solid team.

Yet, I’ve still retained this nagging concern at the back of my consciousness. What if Knockout bolts in thick woods?  How would we deal with an all-out runaway situation through thick trees and low-hanging branches?

It’s not a pretty picture…and no matter how much I tried to plan for it I had trouble envisioning a happy ending to that particular scenario. Out in the open, I have time to respond and room to maneuver.  I have options like turning a big circle or performing a one-reined stop.  On a narrow trail through thick forest, there is neither room nor time for any of that.

So I dealt with it the best I could…by trying to minimize the risk of it happening. Riding the gravel roads, we practiced transitions over and over, going from a walk to a canter…from a canter to a full stop with backing…from backing straight back to a canter.  We practiced over and over, building muscle memory…building confidence…so we were both more comfortable with speed and with sudden application of the bit at speed.

Yet the nagging doubt at the fringe of my consciousness still nagged…because I knew practice while we’re both relaxed and focused is not the same thing as a real life bolt on a terrified horse who believes he is fleeing for his life.

Yesterday morning we had a really nice ride down the gravel roads. Knockout wanted to turn up a trail running through a pine thicket and I decided to go with him.  We rode about a quarter mile or so down the trail and all was good until we came to a place where the trail runs between two large oak trees with low hanging branches covered in dense foliage.

I reached my right hand out to move a branch aside and Knockout startled at the sudden movement of the leaf-laden branch. Normally, this would not be a big deal…normally I would lightly check him and that would be the end of it.  This time, though, Knockout’s startle carried us deeper into the thick foliage, moving and rustling the entire branch.  To Knockout, it must have seemed as if the whole forest had suddenly lunged toward him in an attack.  My light check was ignored and Knockout plunged forward…crashing us both thru the pair of low-hanging heavily-leaved oak branches…with lots of added movement and added rustling.

As Knockout leaped into a run, I thought, “This is it! This is that runaway ride on a terrified horse through dense forest!”

My next thought was, “Keep your seat! Keep your seat, stay calm, and ride it!”  Which was followed by, “We really need to stop!  Now!”

Firmly grasping the reins in both hands, I took a deep seat in the saddle and pulled back to ask for an immediate stop, “Whoa!”

For a split second, Knockout sat back on his hindquarters. For just a split second, he responded to my cue to stop.  But in that split second I felt his energy gathering for another leap forward.  Experience told me that next leap would either be a terrified bolt through the bit or a bucking fit to escape the pressure of the bit from the front combined with that terrifying ‘predator’ chasing from behind.  In that split second, I realized Knockout was trapped between a rock and a hard place with adrenaline-fueled energy that was going to release somewhere.

In that split second, I dropped all pressure from the bit and gave Knockout plenty of slack in the reins.

Knockout leaped forward again…as he landed and brought his hind hooves under himself, I took another deep seat in the saddle, leaned back, and drew the reins in, “Whoa!”

Again, Knockout sat back on his hind quarters. Again I released pressure, putting plenty of slack in the reins.

And we walked off.

That was it. Three leaps…two whoas…and it was over.  The catastrophe was averted and we were once again calmly walking down the path through the pine thicket.

I smiled, leaned forward, petted Knockout’s neck and told him what a brave horse he is for trusting me enough to follow my direction even when he is terrified.

As we continued the ride home, my smile grew as I realized my worst fear had become reality…and together we had handled it just fine.

Yesterday, my confidence grew just a bit. I believe Knockout’s confidence also grew.  We were both scared, yet we both chose to listen to each other and to trust each other…and we learned that together we can handle tense situations just fine.

Sometimes, we have to experience our worst fear becoming reality in order to take the next step in building confidence.

Sometimes, we have to experience our worst fear becoming reality to take the next step in building confidence. Click To Tweet

I’ve had plenty of life experiences that seemed catastrophic at the time. Loss of loved ones…a failed marriage and subsequent divorce…child custody battles…a 20 year employer closing their doors…cancer diagnosis…

And you know what? Through every one of those situations, God has proven Himself faithful.  He has been my constant friend and companion thru every difficulty.  Through those difficulties, my faith in Him has grown and our relationship has deepened.

When our worst fears become reality is when the relationship is given a chance to be tested and proven.

 

How about you? In what areas has your confidence grown through seeing your fears become reality?

 

Balk Bolt Buck

knockout round

A very relaxed horse at the end of the ride

The last few weeks, I’ve been working with our five-year-old gelding to relax, slow down, and smooth gait transitions. Knockout is a sweet-natured young horse with good confirmation and an excellent pedigree. However, he tends to be tense during rides which can lead to issues.

Last weekend, following a stormy Friday night, our arena was too muddy for riding. So I decided to take Knockout on a trail ride through our back pasture and woods.

In general, Knockout tends to be skittish with woodland trails and water crossings. I assume his west Texas raising didn’t provide much opportunity for either.

Saturday morning we started out. The 8-inch rainstorm left creeks swollen and trees dripping. Needless to say, Knockout had ample opportunity to feel stressed…and I had ample opportunity to ask him to relax.

Knockout tends to respond the same to each stressful obstacle, whether a fast-flowing creek, a low-hanging branch, or a tall vine. First, he balks. He looks for an out…an alternate path. He may try to turn aside, or he may try to turn around. At this stage, his goal is to simply avoid the stressful situation.

As I continue to hold him to the course and nudge him forward, Knockout’s next strategy is to bolt. Basically, he concludes that if the obstacle cannot be avoided, then the next best thing is to get past it as quickly as possible.

Initially, I allow some level of controlled bolting. While I won’t allow him to totally flee the scene, I don’t mind him picking up to a trot past a ‘spook’ then dropping back to a walk. Over time, however, I expect him to take these things in stride without the need to change speed.

Since he was particularly nervous this morning, I decided it was a good time to work past some of his fears.

I picked out one short stretch of trail that he was especially stressed about and looped back over it, working on relaxing and walking calmly. After several cycles, he was calmer, but still had specific trail sections he tried to rush past. So, I began stopping and backing him up each time he broke into a trot. I backed him up to the location he spooked, and dropped the reins. When he tried to step away, I interfered then dropped the reins.

The first time I brought him to a full stop beside a ‘spook’ Knockout responded with an attempted buck. It wasn’t anything malicious, just a natural response to the situation. He was nervous and frustrated, seeking release for pent-up energy, and it came out in a buck. Fortunately, I was ready and caught it quickly. I interrupted the buck then dropped the reins.

Once Knockout relaxed in the full-stop and ceased trying to buck or step away, I prompted him to continue down the path. Before long, he learned what I wanted and relaxed quicker.

By the time we’d circled through the same path about twenty times, Knockout was able to calmly walk the full path. I could literally feel him relax and cease resisting. We continued a very relaxed ride back home and ended on a good note.

As I thought about Knockout’s lesson that day, I realized he saw three possible responses to a tense situation. As he saw it, he could either balk, bolt, or buck…and if the first didn’t work he’d try the next.

My task is to teach him another option…to believe…to simply relax and trust me. That’s not an easy thing. When his fight-or-flight instincts tell him to balk, bolt, or buck, it’s not easy to trust me enough to simply relax.

Now I’m wondering.

How often do I respond to stressful situations with balk, bolt or buck, while God is asking me to believe…to trust? Click To Tweet

How often does the Holy Spirit whisper, “Fear not. Peace, be still. Have faith. Trust in Me,“ as I frantically look for an out or throw a fit?

And how many times do we circle back around to repeat a lesson I haven’t yet internalized?

Lord, please continue to be patient with me. Help me learn to face stressful situations, not with fear, but with confidence in you.

 

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Wild Flowers, Redeemed Life, Tell His Story ]