One of my best friends and colleagues at camp is on a mission to increase my confidence. She points out to me that I’m my own worst enemy a lot of the time, and that my self-belief can be pretty low. A case in point is my horsemanship work: what I’ve tasked myself with is an enormous challenge, and I think I’m right in saying that I honestly don’t have time to take it as far as I’d like. But when I sit down and think, and allow myself a pat on the back, there is more evidence than I sometimes give myself credit for that I’m making a small dent in it.
Part of my conflict is that I’m not making the time to work on my own horses. I instruct kids for three hours each day, guiding them through new processes and helping them to establish a bond with their own horse. For the first week or two, it all looks like a bit of a hopeless mess – which I don’t tell the kids – but then the fog tends to clear because the stars align when the camper becomes more proficient with their new tools and language, and the horse begins to learn from their consistency. Things look a bit brighter, I shed a quiet tear behind my sunglasses, gather myself together and push them on through a tougher exercise.
By the time I’ve taught three horsemanship classes, two riding classes and done a few more hours of work, I’m less motivated to keep a couple of horses in for an extra hour or two in the evening to work with them myself… until the following day when I become jealous of the relationships my students have with their horses and the cycle begins again. The tipping point came after six weeks of working with my first student, when we had a bad day.
I was piling the pressure on myself to get her and the horse doing a more impressive exercise in preparation for her departure. I knew they could both do it. I knew I could do it. But it wasn’t happening. The horse has gone from confused and uncertain to borderline naughty as he’s gained confidence and figured us out. That combined with the heat of the day, tiredness on my part and a few other factors created a perfect storm of poor horsemanship from me. I lost my cool, kicked myself for potentially setting the whole thing back and went away to lick my wounds.
Throughout the afternoon, I formulated a plan: I knew I had to resolve this quickly, so I kept the horse in after evening feeding and returned to the barn once I’d eaten to have another go. The barn is quiet and calm with no campers around and only a couple of horses still in. There was no time pressure. I had the indoor arena, rather than one of our tiny and partially-grassy outdoor arenas, with the midday sun beating down on me and making things more difficult. I put the halter on the horse, attached a line, took a deep breath and settled in.
Of course, it then all happened smoothly. I got the pattern I wanted. I took a few steps further: I saddled the horse, removed the line and replaced it with my rope reins for the first time, mounted up and moved him around the arena. It was a little tentative and not quite like my other experiences of riding in a halter – which had taken place on an old hand who’s been working in a halter for over five years, as opposed to five weeks – but I knew it was just the beginning. I took it for what it was, congratulated myself for what I had achieved, and thanked the horse for forgiving me.
Once the horse was untacked and in the field, I thought it all through again. I’d figured out how to fix the situation, but I also took a glance further back: I’ve taken a horse from almost zero to being far more sensitive – at the beginning, it took a huge amount of pressure for him to back up, when he’ll now do it from a gesture with one finger – and safe and comfortable to ride without a bridle, but with a lot of intention (I think there’s a huge difference between hopping on your horse bareback to ride him in from the field and actually schooling in a halter – I’d ridden spirals, serpentines and a variety of upward and downward transitions without issues during this first halter ride). And I saw the possibilities. Now, I just have to find the time. And my next horse.