FMNMBH: Sweating Blood

Alyssa from Four Mares No Money asks: What has been the most fearful moment you have ever experienced with a horse?

Excellent question, and I have been pondering this subject all week and still can’t think of one specific incident. (My panic is more sort of drawn-out; it seems to like carrying on for months, albeit limited to a particular horse in a certain situation). There have been quite a few moments of absolute, dry-mouth, wet-pants kind of terror, those slow, cold moments when seconds crackle through frozen time and there’s ice in your very veins.

One of the worst ones was when Arwen gave my ex-boyfriend a rather nasty kick. I thought my heart had stopped; things got bloody. Luckily, there was no serious harm done, although he has a lifelong dent in his calf muscle to remember why dating a crazy horse chick wasn’t an awesome idea.

Then there was the time three or four years ago when I was still teaching and one of my students plopped off Skye. I had told him four thousand times not to pick his hands up going up a hill but what do I know? Of course, he picked his hands up and toppled off backwards; Skye trotted merrily off saying that she’d told him so and had no sympathy, and the poor child was totally winded and couldn’t move for several seconds. I thought I’d just killed my student. Luckily, once he got his breath back and I had screamed at him for a suitable period of time (just kidding) he was totally fine.

And who can forget the time Arwen threw Rain off and broke her collarbone? Yes, once my brave grey mare was a terrified two-year-old filly. Admittedly, we were riding in the dark, on a hack, bareback, with Arwen’s first foal at foot, and everyone was already on the freaked out side when the old dog ran under Arwen’s feet and she completely lost her mind. Poor little nine-year-old Rain landed straight on her collarbone and broke it. It mended flawlessly, except for a tiny bump in the bone that she likes to brag about, but it was still quite a panicky moment.

My own worst moments ever have usually involved stallions because I am terrible at them. Nothing like looking up at a pair of shod forefeet waving over your head. The time Achilles bucked me off onto my head was particularly nasty, but I think the rides after that – with the memory (or, rather, lack thereof) of the fall fresh in my mind – were much more frightening. Yet with the love of  the King, breath by breath, I’m working through it; for perfect love casts out fear.

Ah, and of course there was the time I was holding a Quarter Horse mare and the Mutterer was trimming her hooves. I know everyone loves Quarter Horses and they are sweet and docile and wonderful, but I have yet to find one that I truly get along with, possibly barring Chrome the little stallion. This mare was being somewhat cantankerous, which wasn’t a problem until she leapt backwards into another QH mare. The other mare kicked her, she leapt forward, I didn’t manage to stop her and she landed on the Mutterer’s foot, breaking it. Somehow it’s always so much worse when it’s an apparently invincible person that you look up to that gets hurt.

But I think the moment in which my heart sank the lowest in the shortest amount of time was one memorable incident a few months ago when two of my clients (one on a Friesian and one on Reed) and I went for a hack. I was riding a mare who has a bad past, but the two of us were getting along all right and I felt it was time to go for our first hack. I will admit to some trepidation when the client leading the outride decided to pick the route that led to an unfenced field near the main road, but figured that we’d just stick to a walk anyway and the mare had good brakes. Famous last words. We were just fine right up until we turned back. The Friesian broke into a trot; his rider, who had been struggling for months to get him more forward-going, delightedly let him trot faster and faster; my mare started to fret and I was just about to ask if we could walk when the Friesian suddenly realised that cantering was a thing and took off like a shot. Reed plunged joyously after him and my mare totally lost her mind. One moment we were trotting and the next all I could see was that familiar blur of mane, sky and ground that is the trademark of being bucked off. I redoubled my death grip on the reins and hit the burnt stubble shoulderblade first. I am ridiculously lucky in that I usually roll when I fall, but this time I only got halfway before the reins (which I was still clinging to) yanked me under the mare’s feet. I saw hooves come down in front of my face and decided to let go. When I got up, the Friesian and Reed were distant specks on the horizon, my mare was galloping across the tar road with her flapping stirrups making her wilder each minute, I was absolutely covered in soot and my day had just gotten a whole lot worse. As if the other two rapidly vanishing horses and riders weren’t enough, my mare was galloping down the main road with cars swishing heedlessly by, blind with panic. Seeing that catching the mare was going to be impossible on foot, I wandered after the other riders, trying to shout in a nonthreatening way so that they’d notice I was no longer with them.

By God’s grace, it all ended well. The mare finally got off the road and thundered along the verge all the way to her stable, miraculously not hurting herself or causing any accidents. The other two riders noticed my absence, managed to stop their horses and milled around in bewilderment wondering where my horse had vanished to. The farrier saw my mare gallop into the yard and (with commendable presence of mind) got in his car and charged off in the direction she’d come, so I didn’t have to walk quite all the way home. The Mutterer refrained from ripping my skin off for scaring him, although I think he was rather tempted, and made unhelpful comments about how terrible I looked while I tried to get the soot off myself.

The mare’s confidence has been entirely restored, as has mine, the soot washed out of my work shirt and I no longer ride with Friesians unless I have a quiet horse under me. But every time I head off towards the unfenced field, I am most helpfully reminded by everybody that the idea is not for my horse and I to come home individually.

Gethsemane

I shouldn’t be afraid.

Because God gives us a spirit not of fear, but of power, of love and of a sound mind. Because perfect love casteth out fear. Because fear not, neither be afraid, for I am with you, saith the Lord. Because of the still, small voice that whispers, “Be of good courage, dear one.”

I don’t want to be afraid.

Because I have something better than fear in me. Because I have no real reason to be scared. Because I have a higher calling, and fear is an obstacle in the pursuing of that calling.

I can’t afford to be afraid.

Because I am a child of God. Because to live a pure and holy life is to be fearless. Because fear is not of Him.

I am afraid.

Because when I was twelve years old I thought I was invincible and I tried to break in a stallion thinking it would be a walk in the park. I did it, too. I mean, he was rideable, eventually. But he scared seven kinds of snot out of me in the process. The physical pain was minor and healed in days; the mental scars linger many years later. He was the first horse that truly frightened me beyond the standard beginner nervousness and he drove me to tears more times than I can remember. And I failed him. I failed him, I failed his breeder, I failed his owner, I failed my trainer, I failed my God, I even failed the person I sold him to because I sold them a horse that I could have made better than I did. I could have, if my hands would just stop shaking so hard I could barely hold the reins.

Even years later, I’ve always been haunted by the memory of that black stallion. If I had him today, he would be doing dressage shows. He didn’t even do standard stallion misbehaviours – he just did standard young horse misbehaviours. If I had him today I could school him in eight weeks. Because today I am stronger, better balanced, more experienced; I would have pulled up his head and given him a whack and he would have cut it out.

At least, if I had no confidence issues, that’s what I would do. Currently, there are certain horses – always the ones that remind me of him – that turn my usual cool, calm professional self into a trembling beginner. I can’t handle them. It’s like I instantly forget what I know about horses.

I fight so hard.

I try every trick I know; I breathe deep through my diaphragm, I use a firm tone of voice, I force myself as much as I can not to use jerky movements, I wear a helmet even on the ground to make myself feel safer, I force myself through my comfort zone as hard as I can, every single time. Every. Single. Time. I push until I break down and freeze and in that moment those horses know they’ve got me, know that their leader does not have the confidence to lead them, know instinctively that they have to dominate me or die because in a horse’s mind that is how it works. Only the strongest ones lead. So they walk all over me, and learn nothing, and I fail.

Over and over again.

I am afraid.

I fail.

And that’s okay.

Because God, Who is the only One that really counts, knows everything that goes on inside me in those times. He knows how hard I try. He knows the shame I feel. He hears the desperate prayers. He knows – and how true, how true it is – that the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. And that is how my God saved the world; with weak flesh, and willing spirit. Sweating blood and weeping tears. Broken. Crying. Too afraid to be alone.

He knows what it feels like, even better than I do.

There will be no fire-and-lightning miracle. There will be no sudden change, no roaring spirit suddenly bursting loose inside me and banishing all fear forever. There will be no overnight makeovers of my soul. But day after day, millenium after millenium, into all eternity, there will be the God Who knows what fear is, Who has felt it, Who has irrevocably and utterly and triumphantly conquered it. For it was that same willing spirit with the weak flesh that went as a lamb to the slaughter and saved the world forever.

So I walk hand in hand with the King of Kings. One day at a time. No more pushing until I break. No more pride. No more peer pressure. Just the King and I, and His marvellous, deadly, heart-changing creature, the horse. One session at a time. One positive experience at a time. His arms around me, His encouragement, His eternal love. For He knows – He knows, He believes – that the spirit indeed is willing. And if the flesh be weak, let it be weak; for His strength is made perfect in my weakness.

If this is Gethsemane, then it is not long before the great conquering. There will be no giving up. Glory to the King.