Preface: I wrote this piece last summer when my Mustang, Chase, was injured for a second time. I intended to post it on one of the blogs, but filed it away instead. Since reviving this site I’ve decided to share it in the hope that it will resonate with someone else who might be struggling. Sometimes things that seem inconsequential can feel personally profound.
Something changed in me this year. For many it will seem petty in this current world of crises and woe; but for me it is at the core of who I have been throughout my living memory. For the first time in my remembered life I cannot imagine myself on a horse. This is not to say that I do not want to ride, or that I haven’t sat on a horse four or five times this year. I specifically cannot conjure an image of myself seated in the saddle when I am not actually there. I cannot remember what it feels like to ride, I cannot visualize even a fantasy so familiar as galloping along the beach. I can imagine horses, but I cannot place myself in the saddle.
For some who struggle with visualization, this may seem a small issue. I have always had a rich imagination and a strong ability to visualize. As a child I imagined myself in all sorts of horse adventures. I could feel that first ride on the Black Stallion, or sail over those obstacles on The Pie. Once I had horses to actually ride, I would think about my next lesson and I could feel what it would be like. When I began competing, it came naturally to imagine riding that Dressage test or course of fences and being able to feel it before it happened. Even as I went through a period, in mid-life, when I was focused on my job and not actively riding, I would still visualize what it had been like to ride a pirouette or jump an oxer. Now I cannot even visualize my last ride.
I know how this happened. It is the result of a dream that has been dying a slow death over this past decade. It started as a plan to return to the competition world. The dream was not to achieve great accolades, but rather to just develop enough of a reputation to return to teaching. In my small way, I wanted to help keep the flame of classical horsemanship alive. I wanted to help others understand their horses better. It was a plan with a long view. My goal was to have a small string of schoolmaster horses when I retired from my job and start teaching as my main post-retirement activity. Through a series of catastrophic injuries, theirs and mine, my two trained horses were retired before I could even get them off the property.
I downsized the dream to borrowing my mother’s horse for the occasional clinic or local show. He was our only rideable horse at the time. Not as far along as my retired horses, he is a lovely little Appaloosa who would not outdo the fancy warmbloods but would give me a chance to show my style of training. Awards would not be the goal, but there was hope that I could still eventually attract a few people who would want to learn. A series of serious injuries to both of us left me with one string of six months riding as the only result in eight years.
Realizing that two of us sharing one horse was not practical, I realigned the dream again. I would look for a nice horse who was broke enough for both of us to ride. When both horses were sound, we’d be able to return to trail riding – something we’d missed for many years. If one of the horses was injured, we’d still have another for us to ride in the interim. With luck I could attend the occasional clinic to get myself out there. I had a lovely warmblood colt growing up, so the future could have more promise – but another riding horse would give me a chance to stay in the game until that day happened. So, I found a lovely Paint mare who turned out to have a little talent as well. I imagined developing her in Working Equitation, a discipline more suited to her than Dressage, and one I’d wanted to try.
Again, a series of injuries to each of us made the training stop and go to the point that I had only three rides on her in total. Now, I’m struggling to keep her sound enough to enjoy time out in the field – any thought of ever riding her again is gone. As for the young warmblood, he became the challenge of a lifetime of working with challenging horses. With me not able to ride any seasoned horses, it was unthinkable that I would start him under saddle – and two of the three horses I’ve sent out to be started by someone else came back disasters, so that was not an option. There is no longer any thought that he will be suited for even clinics, let alone competing.
Last year it was time to reset the dream once again. By then all thought that I would ever teach again was buried. I just wanted to ride. Forget clinics or shows, I just wanted to sit in the saddle and walk through fields and forests. So, I set out to find a Steady-Eddie that would allow me and my mother to return to the trail. I found what seemed the perfect candidate online – except that my “15.3 hand dead-broke family friendly ranch horse” (as advertised) turned out to be a 15.1 hand shut-down barely broke Mustang. I was facing another retraining project. However, as we lived and worked with this horse, there was a glimmer of hope. He came out of his shell and had a lovely personality. It turned out that he also had a fair amount of talent – lovely gaits and a natural ability for jumping. Sure, he was small, but the idea of clinics and shows, just for fun, came back into view. I could envision him reaching upper-level training, just for fun, and maybe doing some Working Equitation after all. The dream got a small reboot and upgrade.
Then he got hurt while turned out. Two months off, but it seemed to not be major. The injury healed, we slowly started back to work and all seemed well. Then he came back in from the field with a repeat injury on the same leg. It was the decade-long pattern continuing! And that’s when it happened – I stopped being able to imagine myself in the saddle. I’ve tried several times to will it to happen (something I never had to work at before), but it will not come. Even as I am now slowly bringing the Mustang back to work, I cannot imagine ever sitting in the saddle again.
What I puzzle over is not how it happened – that has been a result of the slow passing of each dream. What I struggle to understand is what it means. Have I given up? I don’t feel like I have. I still want to ride, even as I no longer feel hope for a future of more than the occasional ride. Is my subconscious protecting me? Perhaps there is simply a block on any more imagining of being in the saddle so the disappointment becomes diminished? Whether you believe in God, the Fates, Karma, or some other guiding force, it is hard not to feel as if someone is trying to send me a message. Maybe this is just the final “Forget about it!” since I have not taken any of the numerous hints over the decade? As implausible as this last option sounds, my mind cannot help wandering there and wondering.
I will likely still plod forward working with Chase, once he’s healed. We will be starting from scratch with a long road ahead, so a lot can happen – good and bad. But hope clings to life long after dreams have died. Even those facing far more dire challenges will say they have hope. It is that flame, however tiny, that keeps us alive.
Afterward: Seven months have passed since I wrote this piece. I no longer have to imagine sitting in the saddle again, as I am now riding most days. Progress is slow, having lost most of the last year and still working on gaining the trust of my Mustang, Chase – but there is progress. I have indeed stopped dreaming and I cannot imagine anything beyond where we are at this current moment. Perhaps a mixed blessing? Maybe the dreams will return someday, in some form. For now, I am just enjoying what I have, which is an amazing bond with a very special horse. More about him in a future post.
Be good to your horses!