equine therapyThis blog is the third in a series describing a personal accounting of a healing experience with a horse, and is also an excerpt from my most recent book, ON THE BACK OF A HORSE: Harnessing the Healing Power of the Human-Equine Bond, now available on Amazon.

As I slid the saddle onto his back, he reached back to nip at me as he always did.  He had worn the saddle many times before in preparation for being ridden, and his attitude was always a bit bothered, as if to say, Fine I’ll wear that silly thing, but it had better be grateful for the ride. I put the bridle on, and pulled the reins over his head. Then, giving Nimo a pat on the neck, I walked him out of the grooming stall, and into arena.

My better judgment might have told me to lunge him first to get some of his energy out, but today, I didn’t care. In a way, I wanted to spit in caution’s face. Perhaps that’s what I was doing riding a 3-year-old stallion for the first time with no helmet on, and no one around should I have gotten hurt. But I had to know right now, if I could trust him. I had to know if I was really as bad as I felt. If Nimo didn’t accept me – if Nimo hurt me then that would be my answer.

His neck was arched upward, one eye rolling back in my direction. He was puffing himself up, making his small frame huge for me. I put my foot in the stirrup and placed a little weight in it.  He immediately tensed a bit, raising his head up even higher – every muscle rigid, as if preparing to take off. He didn’t move, though, so I put a little more weight in the stirrup, and lifted myself off the ground.

Again, he tensed, keeping his eye fixed on me, but he didn’t move. I was now off the ground, halfway on, but without having swung my leg over his back yet – always the telltale moment for a young horse: not only does he see your leg disconcertingly from the eye on the off side, but, there is also a moment where you are unbalanced, and thus, easily dislodged. This is where most riders come off, as the horse bolts upon seeing your leg come over his back, and you are not yet balanced enough to stay with him. There is just no easy way to do this. Try to go too fast, and you will scare the horse; go too slow, and you extend the amount of time during which you’re unbalanced. But right now with Nimo, there was none of the usual debate in my mind.

Usually, having done this many times before, I will wait for the horse to tell me when he’s ready. Horses have a way of letting you know that you can be on their back. Their eye will soften, the posture will relax, their head will lower. Looking at Nimo’s eye, for the first time in my life, I had no idea what was going through a horse’s head.

Was it because I felt as though I could not be trusted, that I couldn’t tell what he was thinking? Or was it he himself just too distant in this moment to be readable. Somehow in that moment – as I perched half on his back, about to give up any chance of jumping safely back to the ground – it didn’t matter to me. Nor would I have reacted any differently had his eye clearly signaled anger or fear. Riding Nimo was the biggest challenge in a career of riding horses. I had waited long enough, reverent enough of my own fear. And fear, like caution, had done me no good. So I swung my leg over.

Nimo immediately tensed even more, and looked back at me, both eyes rolled. He could go in any direction – there really is no way to predict, when a horse is so tense. Normally I would have had to remind myself not to tense, too. But not this time. There simply was no energy left for that kind of worry. And I didn’t care whether I ended up on his back or in the dirt.

Settling softly now into the saddle and dropping my leg entirely over his side, I slowly searched for the right stirrup. Nimo kept his eye on me, but his head was tilted to the left. Had he seen my right leg come over? I put the reins in my left hand and stroked his neck on the right side with my right. I thought about gently pulling the right rein so he would have to notice my right leg and give me some idea of how he was going to respond. And on any other day, I would have, instead, I gave him a nudge forward with my legs.

Photo by Mike Baird, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.