Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Blessi and Chris Cox

Fear is irrational.  Fear feeds upon itself.  Fear is an impassable barrier.  This is a story about fear while riding and it is a very hard report to write so please bear with me.
We are waiting for the demo to begin.  I am trying to
hide behind Blessi and the round pen.

Chris Cox, a natural horsemanship trainer, was looking for riders who had both a serious riding accident and confidence issues for his “Building Rider Confidence Clinic” at the 2014 Northwest Horse Expo in Albany, OR.  (Note: I like to use TTouch/TTeam and Connected Riding training techniques myself and both Robyn Hood and Peggy Cummings have also helped me with my fear issues at previous, more private clinics.)  Since Shannon Lockwood was already going to be riding Blessi at this event, I decided to try and become a participant.  I definitely met the criteria and I was 99.99% sure that Blessi would be calm and steady in this environment.  It would be good exposure for the Icelandic breed and I would pick up a few riding tips.  I was accepted as a participant but reality has a way of confounding expectations. 

Chris explains a breathing technique to help with hyperventilation.
I almost cancelled out several times but the other Icelandic owners at the event and Shannon were very encouraging.  So on the day of the clinic, I saddle up Blessi and go for it. Poor Blessi, Shannon my dressage instructor has just ridden him in the freestyle demo. He goes directly from her free style demo to my demo with Chris with no break. 

Here I am saying "No," "No," "No," to Chris even though
Blessi is saying "Yes," "Yes," "Yes" to me.
As I walk Blessi around the entrance waiting for the clinic to begin, I go into a full blown panic attack. I start hyperventilating sound almost like I am in a Lamaze breathing class.  Joanne, the other participant, who has fear issues of her own, starts telling me funny stories about herself to try and make me laugh.  When we lead our horses into the arena, the crowd of at least a thousand is standing room only.  All I see is this vast sea of eyes and faces staring, staring, staring.  My panic, hyperventilation, and discomfort increases.  Shannon is so concerned that she walks into the arena with me—I think she was worried that I was going to faint—a real possibility at this point.  Blessi seems totally relaxed.
Chris riding Blessi in the round pen.  They are going so
fast that it is hard to get pictures.
As we introduce ourselves and our horses, Chris notes that I am green and clammy with shallow, fast breathing.  He gives me a breathing technique to at least stop the hyperventilating. Take a deep breath, hold it for a second or two, and let it out as if you are fluttering a feather directly in front of your mouth.  (I confirm later that this is what the medical sites on panic attacks also recommend.)  Believe it or not, two deep breaths and the hyperventilation stops! 

We mount up---I am shaking, not thinking, and scared. Blessi is calm, relaxed, and responsive—answering my every cue.  Chris asks me to do some basic stuff (like trotting or tolting) to assess my riding level and I just say "No." (Later, I apologized to Chris who very graciously said that my behavior was typical of a fear response.)  Now I am worried that I am ruining Chris’ demo.  What can he show the crowd if half of his demonstration team is riding in circles, turning green, thinking she is going to throw up, and saying No to every suggestion? 

Chris works with Joanne and her horse.  He checks to see if the horse without a rider will listen to his directional cues from the center of the round pen.  Chris also rides the mare to make sure she is safe for Joanne’s level of riding skill in this high pressure environment. Joanne mounts and with some equitation tips from Chris about rider position and following the movement of the horse, Joanne, who competes in reining,  is cantering without reins or bridle in the round pen.  Chris discusses the importance of core strength in the rider for balance and security.  He also recommends taking lessons from any trainer.  If you have invested so much in a horse and tack, you should also invest in yourself and your training. 

Chris works with Blessi in the round pen.

Now it is our turn.  We spend a few minutes talking—I think Chris is trying to calm me and build some trust.  I also don’t think he has worked much with Icelandics since he thinks they can’t canter.   Chris takes Blessi into the round pen and repeats the process.  Chris then asks me to mount having quickly ascertained that Blessi is a safe horse for me.  I ask if Chris would ride Blessi first and Chris jokes that I just want to see him ride in an English saddle. He hops on and within minutes has Blessi galloping around the round pen. Chris takes his lariat and starts spinning circles in the air.  Ok, since I was stressed at this point, my memory of the exact words used may be off a bit.  Chris calls Blessi a “good horse,” much faster than he had expected, and having a super smooth canter that he could rope from. (This was great since up to this point all the crowd had seen was an old, slow, pokey pony being ridden by a gibbering idiot.)

Chris is coaching me on riding a canter.
I get on Blessi and we agree that I will attempt to canter Blessi for the first time in my life for just a few, negotiated strides.  I am thinking to myself that Chris won’t ask anything that he doesn’t think that Blessi and I are capable of due to liability and bad press.  My fear doesn’t really respond to this argument.   

Here I am trying to get Blessi to canter from a fast trot while
constantly checking on the reins at the same time.
I don't know how to ask for a canter depart so Chris helps by applying some pressure from the center of the round pen.   However Blessi has a fast trot with lots of suspension. Although I am secure in the saddle, I go into hysterics again, shrieking in time to every stride. To continue the natal analogy, I sound like a woman giving birth.   Ok, this is where I really have to decide if I trust Chris.  It would be all too easy for him to push Blessi into a canter and voila, he has coached another fearful rider to conquer her fears and canter.  I have to say that Chris’ timing is low key and supportive to what I am cuing Blessi to do.  This is quite a challenge since I keep hauling back on the reins.  Blessi is obeying my every cue despite my hysterics and trying to listen to both Chris and myself. 

Finally, I break through into a canter for a few strides. It is like flying in a small plane in the clouds with turbulence and then emerging into clear, calm skies.  We are free and sailing away.  Evidently I put get this huge smile on my face. Blessi slows down and Chris tries to encourage me to try again in the other direction.   but I can't--not at this time in front of the crowd.   I really just want to be away from the crowd as soon as possible.  I dismount and Chris gives me a big hug.
Evidently the crowd gave me and Blessi a standing ovation (which Blessi really deserved).  People were crying and cheering.   A fellow Icelandic owner in the crowd overheard people saying "I would buy that horse," "I want that horse," "My mother needs that horse." As we walked back to the barn, strangers come up, some in tears, to hug me and Blessi.  Blessi gets lots of hugs, kisses, and treats from me.  Can horses become saints?  Many thanks to Shannon and the members of the Cascade Icelandic Horse Club for their support!

Chris gives me a big hug.

I have to give Chris credit. He understood what I was going through, gave me total support, and never tired to belittle or force me into something beyond my skills.  However the hard work is just beginning.  This was a good start but to really progress I need to build those core muscles, ride more frequently with intent and a plan, and start riding lessons again.

As I was writing up this account, I was struck by the number of similarities between what I was going through and how horses react when they are fearful—the need for total trust, the need for consistency, the need to build in small steps.  There are so many analogies here. 


Fuzzlizard said...

This touches me so deeply there are tears in my eyes. You are so brave - a THOUSAND people???? Woman, you had every right to die of FRIGHT right there, and instead you got up on your beloved horse and did what you had to do. I wish/hope you could get private lessons with Chris. I love your description of cantering. I had a dream canter ride once in high school and I've always dreamed of getting back to that magic moment when I was the horse and we were flying. :) HUGS and KUDOS to you!! I love your blog!! You are an Icelandic Valkyrie. :)

Blessiowner said...

I am not the brave one. Blessi is the brave one. He breaks all the rules about the rider needing to be the "leader." I just need to be his partner. I am so lucky to have Blessi. And Chris Cox is a wonderful instructor in this area--yes, I would like to take one of his clinics now. However, I have realized that I have a lot of hard work to do--making more healthy eating choices, exercising more, riding trot more than walk, etc.
Thanks for the support!!!

MegF said...

Oh thanks so much for this write-up. Comes at just the right time for helping to encourage me on my own journey. :-)

I am working hard at trying to make myself better and braver. I tip my hat to you and Blessi!

Blessiowner said...

I am so happy that my posting helped. Blessi is really the star--with lots of kudos to Chris Cox of course.