I didn't ride as a kid. I took it up as a 36 year old working adult. I have come to this sport with a hearty dose of middle-aged worry and fear, and I have heard louder every precautionary tale anyone has ever shared than the fun stories of glorious accomplishment. I take to heart the dangers, and I sometimes still get nervous hours before I even start grooming-- what if today is the day something goes awry?
I have dealt with this fear by being very cautious, but limiting my activities to what I think I can handle, and then (sometimes) pushing that envelope a little wider, just to make sure I'm growing. A little.
As I have pursued dressage, I have had a number of influences in my daily riding life who have, I'm kind of sad to say, only added to my fears. As partner in a dressage-oriented boarding/training barn, I have encountered dozens of riders who have come to dressage because they've gotten too hurt or too frightened doing some other equine discipline, and they're looking for a change for safety's sake. I have watched people take up dressage because they've assessed themselves as over-horsed, and they're looking for something simpler, gentler, to get them over the hump of the too-big, too-wild, too-powerful, too-dominant horse. (I've watched many of them crash and burn with that plan.) Outside the farm, I have a riding friend who is fearless and brilliant, talented and skilled, but to whom freak bone-breaking things seem to happen. She is both model of the amazing things you can do when you just do them, and cautionary tale wrapped up in one. And of course I read about accidents, injuries, freak occurrences of all sorts everywhere on the internet. It's a dangerous sport, and there are lots of folks happy to show you graphic video of just how dangerous it can be.
On top of that, of course, the pursuit of dressage is not for the faint of ego. It's a process of constantly exposing yourself to commentary from the trainer that you're not doing it right. Now, I do believe this-- if the horse isn't doing what the rider wants him to do, then (barring physical limitations) the rider is failing to do something that she needs to do to allow/instruct/help the horse to do that thing. I get that. But for a neurotic brain person like me, the constant admonition to be better at this thing, so the horse can be better, can begin to sound like you suck. You suck. You suck. You suck. You suck...
So all this emphasis and exposure to danger and hazards, added to the concern that every instructor I've ever asked to help me get better has (while helping me get better, yes) made me feel utterly incompetent, and the fear has not gone away. It's probably gotten worse.
So what do I do? Take on the training of a six-month old Morgan gelding. Bring him along cautiously, but constantly pushed by his need to do more, to try more, to keep the brain working in order to keep him out of trouble. And it has gone just fine. Great, wonderful, excellent, really for five years now.
But now that brilliant Morgan brain is bored in the arena, the arena where I feel safe, where I feel like I've put in the time to get what limited expertise I've developed. The arena where I have had my coming-off-a-horse experiences and lived to tell about them, experiences which somehow, rather than quelling my anxieties about things going wrong, have only caused me to say, well, yeah, this time, but surely the next time will be worse... He wants to go out and do more, see more, explore more. All of which I think is fantastic, because, truth be told, I'm bored in that "safe" arena myself.
But still everyday I think I can't do it. I think yousuckyousuckyousuck and I'm really just looking for trouble. But I get up and do it anyway because I love this horse, and he's teaching me things, and I am just so, so proud of him-- his bravery, his accomplishments, his goofy humor. So out we go.
And then he's incredible. He's brave, he's happy, he's forward, he's curious, he's confident. He is afraid the first day of the boggy conditions in the far field, and by the third day, he's actively seeking out squishy areas in which to splash and show off. He is honest and true, brave and wonderful.
And then sometimes he spooks. Today he did his biggest spook to date, a gallop-from-a-dead-stop peel out when he saw something (I have no idea what) he didn't like in one corner of a field. He was ripping for all he was worth, but the turf under his feet gave way, so he was sort of bolting in place-- a cartoon running and not getting anywhere. His powerful undulations under my seat were quite dramatic. It's possible (probable?) that if he'd found purchase, he'd have left town, and I'd have done the Wiley E. Coyote mid-air suspension trick-- hold up a sign that says Yikes! and then fall with a whistling Doppler effect until I splatted on the ground far below.
Or, maybe I wouldn't have...
The spook and scramble was scary in the moment, but I handled it. And evidently I handled it without scaring Sherman. He collected his wits and walked it off, and we went on about our business. Nothing happened. Something almost happened, and it could have been a big mess, but it didn't, and it wasn't. And once it was over, he was over it and on to new things.
Maybe I don't suck. Maybe he's as amazing and unusually wonderful as I say he is, and his willingness to work so well for a rider who sucks is just proof of his amazingness. I don't know how to explain it, and maybe I don't have to. Maybe I just have to keep trusting him, keep working at it, and just trust us to figure it out. Whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing out there, I am so incredibly grateful that I'm doing it with him. He's making me a better rider, and he never, ever says you suck.