The past is a foreign country.
We can apply these concepts to ourselves with our horses, as we try to upskill, overcome difficulties and move forwards.
We bring SO MUCH SHIT forward with us-we ALL do it. Our brain is programmed to make us do this, as part of its primary role in keeping our dumb asses in one piece for (hopefully) seven or eight decades. But think about it-how many of you have had one or more past bad experiences with a horse, which now define your present and future in the saddle?
If we can logically break down some of those bad previous experiences, and properly, fully understand the component parts of what went wrong, we can learn from it in a more positive way. This allows us to let go of the hearsay and the heaviness, and we can let ourselves off the hook a bit.
Here’s an example. This is a true story, which remains one of the most shaming and humiliating things that has ever happened to me.
Years ago, I worked for some people who genuinely changed my life for the better. Part of my role was to bring on young horses, and through this I was given a four year old gelding to produce on a bit. At this time of my life, I was young, ambitious, driven, single focussed and so, so hungry (metaphorically AND literally-big up koka noodles). I wanted to get to the top, and I worked myself to the bone 19 hours a day in (misguided, ridiculous) pursuit of the mountain top.
I also had a crippling perfectionist mentality-pretty common in neurodiverse disorders such as mine, and in sportspeople whose ambitions become a little too suffocating. I was two for two. Competition for perfectionists becomes a way to define your worth, to measure your efforts and to quantify your value on this Earth. Perfectionism can be very fucking dangerous. Over time, the pendulum swing becomes so severe that you totally lose your ‘centre’. When you are defined by a type of competition that also involves an animal with thoughts, feelings, and a mind of its own-things get even more complicated.
And so it was that I found myself at an RDS qualifier, on the aforementioned bay gelding. I thought I was pursuing the dream the right way-selfless sacrifice, endless hardship and so on. The horse was insanely talented, but he also happened to be completely fucking deranged. He remains in my top 3 all time most difficult and dangerous horses I have worked with. He was liable to do ANYTHING, without any warning. He mostly reacted to life as if he was on the Serengeti without a rider, and that included his behaviour when being ridden. However, I didn’t have a queue of owners waiting to put me on made 4* horses. I took whatever I was offered to ride, and I didn’t think there was any other way to learn.
And thus it was that we made it three quarters of the way around a very testing course. I had (stupidly) begun to think ‘this is going surprisingly well’.
And then it happened.
The horse got fed up of being normal. He decided to turn left in mid air over a fence, which had another fence beside it at a right angle. Turning left created a an impromptu corner fence out of two large hedges, which were underneath a huge, mature parkland tree. The horse somehow fitted under the tree. I did not. I got hung by my throat from a large tree bow. The horse fucked off across the Kildare countryside, and I fell to the ground, bleeding from my neck. I looked up, and I saw lots of people from both Eventing and showjumping along the ringside. Some were staring. Some were laughing. Many hadn’t seen it happen, but they aren’t the faces you remember in those moments. I have never felt so ashamed, so useless, so incompetent, so humiliated or so embarrassed, before or since. It has come close a few times, but not to that degree….thankfully.
I found myself embroiled in a stand up row with a paramedic. The horse was mental, and would cheerfully gallop straight over anyone trying to catch him. He had already caused mass disruption at an event earlier that season, when he buried me and broke my nose in the dressage warm up. He created havoc for the dressagers, tried to mow down a few people in the lorry park, dicked around in the showjumping area and then eventually-after 40 minutes-let himself be caught. Fast forward to the paramedic after the tree episode, and I wasn’t in the fucking humour for his Elastoplasts and suggestions of a neck brace.
Eventually, I caught the silly bastard of a horse. I loaded up and drove a few miles. And then I pulled in on the side of the road and I sobbed, broken heartedly.
So. Now, fifteen years later, what is my perspective?
I guess I feel a bit sorry for old me. To be so doggedly in pursuit of a career in Eventing was admirable, but I needed someone to take me to one side and say ‘you can’t get there from here’. I did my best but I made a lot of moronic decisions. I was a shitty person, too. By the time realisation began to dawn, it was too late. Life took me on a different path-a much better, truly amazing path-but that path was further away again from the life that I had given every part of myself to, since I was
15. It took time to make peace with letting that part of myself go. I’m still a bit lost in my horsey life, if I’m honest.
I learned so much from this chapter. I began to understand that mastering the psychopath horse doesn’t teach you how to ride a good horse well. Over time, I began to identify and understand my perfectionist nature-these days, I don’t care about my scores. Now, I only care about the connection with the horse. I care about training the horse well, with understanding and empathy. I care about the horse trying it’s best, even if that means a 50% test or six poles down.
These days, competing no longer defines my value. Competing is also no longer comfortable for me, although I do still love it……usually retrospectively. I hope in time my confidence will come back a little bit, as I work out where my place is now. I no longer carry shame and disgust at myself if things don’t work out. And that alone is a wonderful thing.
‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’