Getting Back in the Saddle

Getting Back in the Saddle

By Nicole Miller

The temperature outside is flirting with triple digits and the heat index is well into the triple digits, so I thought I’d sit down and write a follow up to my article from last summer. It’s too hot to do much else!

As a quick recap, I’d gone to a clinic with my horse, Peter, at the end of July 2022. Five minutes in, we parted company, resulting in a broken leg. (For me, not Peter. Just to clarify.)

As I close in on the one year mark, I thought I’d share my journey back to the saddle in case it’s helpful to anyone else going through something similar. Because it is a journey. This is probably a longer read than necessary, but here goes…

Initially, I really wrestled with what to do. I’ve never experienced a gut-wrenching fear of getting back on a horse. But, there I was. I had to remind myself that it was early stages of recovery, I was not capable of making any sort of long-term plan or goal, I simply had to focus on healing.

For an active person, this was not easy. I couldn’t do much of anything but wallow in self pity and contemplate the ‘what ifs’. It was very frustrating.

I was fortunate in that my physical recovery was fairly quick. I started physical therapy about three weeks after the incident and rapidly moved from walker to cane. But, as a woman in her 50s, I came face to face with the reality that when you’re ‘vintage’, your body doesn’t come back like it used to. Neither does your courage. Yes, I could walk. Slowly. Stairs? That took quite awhile. Physical recovery was somewhat complicated by a wonky knee on the other leg, which made things interesting for the therapists. And not being able to do anything very active – let me tell you, that’s not good for the ‘bottom line’, if you know what I mean: those extra pounds are NOT budging.

Psychological healing is another matter entirely. In the first couple of weeks, I wanted nothing to do with horses. At all. This was new for me as I’ve lived and breathed horses since, well, forever. I decided I needed to face this. As soon as I could shimmy into the golf cart, my husband drove me the five minutes to the stable so I could pet Peter and feed him some cookies. The first few times, I literally struggled with fear to do that much. I did it anyway. And I did feel better afterward.

At that point, I recognized that it was time to deal with this fear a bit more head-on. Positive self-talk is helpful only to a point. On the advice of several people, I obtained a copy of the book Brain Training for Riders by Andrea Monsarrat Waldo . It was helpful. I’m not going to give a glowing endorsement of the book because that’s not my purpose here. But, I will say that it offers a lot of practical advice which helped me move through the mental stages of this recovery.

I came to understand that I had to call this what it was – fear – and allow myself to have those feelings while understanding where they originated. I also had to recognize that fear isn’t the final outcome: I can deal with it successfully even though it may always be there. I had to realize that there is no schedule for this – it takes as long as it takes and as many steps as it takes, including what may feel like backsliding. And sometimes I’m going to “fail”. There is no prescription for getting back in the saddle; it’s going to be different for everyone.

These were hard concepts to swallow. But also rather liberating. Giving myself permission to be afraid, to recognize that fear, understand that it exists, and know that I have the tools to get through it was extremely helpful. But, it doesn’t happen overnight.

As soon as I was able to walk reasonably steadily with a cane, I wanted to groom Peter. I had someone on hand to assist and to pick his feet for me as I was not able to do that. The first time was a bit scary because I wasn’t sure how he was going to react to me with a cane and lots of insecurities. He was a rock star: he stood very still and seemed to understand that I wasn’t quite right. This was a huge relief for me and gave me a boost of confidence. After that, I went as often as I could coordinate a chaperone. It felt really good to have that time with Peter. I could feel my fears easing although I was still extremely cautious.

When I was finally able to ditch the cane and walk on my own, I took a bold step and started groundwork with him in the arena. I had someone lead him in and out for me, just in case he got excited, but I did the work in the arena. We started working on ‘respect’ for my space and listening to me. I came to realize that Peter needs a very strong leader or he simply isn’t going to pay attention. He’s not going to think on his own, but he will take matters into his own hooves if he doesn’t have that respect for your leadership. He has to be regularly reminded of my space and his place. This was good for me to learn. Our sessions went well. Until they didn’t.

I was working with Peter on the lead line and he stopped to look outside. That’s it. He just stopped moving and looked outside the arena. Cue a full blown panic attack… I’ve never had a panic attack. Ever. I’ve always been well in control of my emotions, so this was very new, very unexpected, and frightening. I had to talk my shaking self off of the cliff so I could lead Peter back to his stall.

What now? I sat down and allowed myself to acknowledge my fear. And then I congratulated myself for acknowledging the emotions, talking myself out of it with the tools I’d learned, and finishing what I started. But, I realized that I’d have to be aware that this could happen again, so I must prepare for that. I went back to the book to review the tools for this situation.

As I continued ground work with Peter, I could feel my confidence return. When I had to fight myself from climbing on him bareback, I knew it was time to get back on a horse. I just wasn’t ready to ride him yet. So, about six months after the accident, I got on a friend’s patient and kind gelding and allowed myself to be led around the arena at a walk like a child. It was humbling, but I needed that type of introduction in order to determine how I would feel emotionally (and where I was going to hurt after injury and not doing anything for six months). It was a good experience. Dismounting was literally the hardest part.

At that point, I decided it was time to schedule a riding lesson on a school horse. “Jackpot” was an extra large girl – some sort of draft cross – with a sweet disposition and the turning radius of a city bus.  We only walked and trotted because I wasn’t ready for a canter. The first couple of trot steps made me cringe in pain, but it got better as my muscles found some memory. I did a couple of lessons on Jackpot and then a couple lessons on a more ‘dressage friendly’ mount named Isabelle. My physical and mental limitations dictated what I did in each lesson, but I was happy to note that I was not afraid, just very cautious.

I was finally ready to get on Peter. I wanted to ride Peter. I took this as a huge success that I wanted to get on him. When I finally did, I expected a lot more fear than I felt. I was comfortable. It felt like I belonged there. It was a relief.

I’d like to say that it’s been all daisies and sunshine since I climbed back on Peter, but that would be a lie. I continue to have moments of fear, but thankfully no additional panic attacks. I have given myself permission to get off if I feel uncomfortable or to have grooming days if I’m just not feeling it. And it’s OK for me to feel that way. While it may seem foolish, this was a big shift in thinking for me because I have always just powered through. I feel more relaxed with this approach. There is no guilt because I’ve given myself that permission already. There is no agenda I have to stick to. Our progress will be dictated by how things fall into place.

Thankfully, I have a patient coach who has been riding Peter and working with him to keep him in shape. That’s been beyond helpful for us both. However, it’s also brought up another thing to deal with: my worst insecurity since I got him has been that I would ‘screw him up’. My coach had to do a lot of ‘re-education’ while I was unable to ride. I’m so grateful for what she’s been able to do for us – Peter feels great! I am, however, struggling with my personal feelings of inadequacy. She’s far too tactful and kind to tell me that I messed up a good horse, but I’m exceptionally gifted at negative self-talk: so I’m learning to tell myself to shut up and move forward. This is hard, especially now with muscles that don’t want to cooperate and stamina that is limited – it’s very easy to focus on the negative. My new goal is to do better and continue on with the improved foundation we have in place thanks to my coach’s efforts.

What’s next for us? The decision I’m facing now is what I should do about competing. I probably shouldn’t even be considering that at this point in time, but I can’t help it. I volunteer at shows and I want to be there with my horse. At the same time, I don’t. I really don’t know what our competition future will or won’t look like. I’ve given myself permission to not show anymore if I don’t want to. I don’t have to: I’m not going to the Olympics, probably not even Regional Championships. I’m so far away from my goal of a Bronze Medal, I doubt it’s even realistic anymore. 

And, that’s ok. I don’t have to make that decision today. I want to continue to progress with Peter. I want to be a better rider. I want to bring out his talent and teach him ‘stuff’. But mostly, I want to enjoy my horse. 

And that is a huge win considering where I was a year ago!

If I had to offer any advice to someone coming off an injury it would be: take it slow. This is a journey and there is no one path to healing mentally and physically. Give yourself some time, don’t make rash decisions, and give yourself permission to say ‘no’ to horses. Knowing that you don’t have to will give you some space to decide what you want to do. If you decide to keep on, literally take it one step at a time. There’s no shame in ‘baby steps’. Seek out professional help, books, online resources and groups if that is what it takes to help you. You’re not somehow ‘weak’ if you seek help – even though you’re a horse person who is used to just taking it in stride and working through injuries. You’re also not alone. Coming back from injury – especially as a mature adult – is a big deal. Recognize that and remember to be kind to yourself.

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