I was riding Zen, my 3½ -year-old Quarter Horse filly. My thoughts were far from Zen-like, however, as she’d just come up under me in a high rear—so high that I matter-of-factly thought, “She’s going over.” I felt oddly calm considering I could be injured or even killed if she fell over backward.
Fortunately, instead of falling, Zen sat down on her rump like a dog. I kicked my feet free of the stirrups and slid down that rump, landing on my back in the sand, my head cushioned by the safety helmet I always wear.
Shadow of Doubt
Zen looked back at me as if to say, “What are you doing there?” We both scrambled to our feet. I put her through some groundwork, then remounted. I repeated what I’d been attempting just before the rear: from a walk, strike off on a left-lead canter. This time it worked and I finished the ride uneventfully.
I returned up the hill from my arena to the barn, thankful I was only shaken, not hurt. I was in my late 50s and had so far avoided any major physical traumas throughout decades of riding. The thought of being seriously injured scared me. A lot.
The next time I asked Zen to transition to a canter, I felt a pain—an actual physical pain—in the middle of my chest. It persisted, too, but only when I wanted to canter, and only when I was on Zen. Turns out her rearing had in fact injured me, only in a way I hadn’t realized at the time.
How could this happen? I was an experienced rider, and accustomed to riding young horses. I’d come off a horse plenty of times over the years and had never lost my nerve before. I wouldn’t call myself a bold rider—not for me the highest jump or speeding down trails. But I was an experienced, competent rider.
Could it be my age catching up to me? Or the fact that Zen was supposed to be my dream horse and possibly the last one I’d own? I’d thought we’d go into old age together.
My trainer tried to help. She had me repeat to myself, “I love to canter. I love to canter.” That always brought a rueful smile, because actually I do love to canter. But still I felt that pain. She also had me ride older, well-trained horses. I had trepidation before cantering them, but no pain. It was only when riding Zen that I felt actual, pain-causing fear, and I didn’t like it. Competent riders are not afraid to canter!
A couple of weeks after that rearing incident, Zen again stopped and started to rear during a walk-to-canter transition. This time, though, I was prepared. I drew her head around to one side and kicked her forward. Amazingly, she never tried to rear with me again.
In fact, she became quite a nice mare—curious and normally calm. Eventually the recurring pain in my chest went away for good. But I continued to feel dread every time I cued her to canter. And, truthfully, riding had stopped being fun. There was so much right with Zen that I couldn’t see what was wrong: our relationship. I just didn’t trust her, which meant she couldn’t trust me.
Throwing in the Towel
Close to Zen’s 8th birthday, she turned up lame. X-rays showed a congenital defect, a crooked cannon bone that was already remodeling. I shed tears over it, then found a new home for her as a companion for another mare. Which meant it was time to go horse shopping.
I now have the perfect horse for me. Handsome Bill is a Haflinger gelding—short, calm, and agreeable. I would never even have considered finding another horse if Zen hadn’t turned up lame, and I now know how wrong that was. Sometimes throwing in the towel is exactly what you need to do. And if I hadn’t had to give up Zen, I might eventually have thrown in the towel on riding, instead.
Now, that is a frightening thought.
Dianne Chapman McCleery is a wife, mother, and grandmother who lives on a small ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Ione, California. She volunteers for the county animal shelter, teaches natural health solutions, loves to write and paint, and rides her Haflinger, Handsome Bill, as often as she can.