My very first show season on William was at this fun facility in Delaware, OH called The Little Brown Jug. It is famous as a cart horse race track but also hosts a variety of other events, equine and otherwise. This seemingly huge horse park is nestled smack dab in the middle of an Ohio neighborhood. The arenas are lined with countless backyards on one side and a busy main road on the other. While it was generally quiet, I could hear children screaming and playing in their yards, dogs barking and a variety of other “neighborhood” sounds.
While other competitors might have complained about it, it never really bothered me. My time as both student and staff at Meredith Manor International Equine College was full of little challenges and interruptions to horse and human attention. Tractors running up and down campus, snow plows on Route 31 in the winter, loose horses almost like clockwork, people just popping in and out of arena doors, viewing booths, school tours with screaming kids or baby buggies, rattling metal…the list goes on! It was part of our training (and the horses’); we had to learn to tune it out and keep our horses on the aids.
It was almost comical how many outside influences we dealt with. I clearly remember, however, finding one thing I wouldn’t laugh at. William was deathly afraid of the weed whackers (weed eaters for you Southerners) that seemed to run constantly around campus in the spring and summer. The blessed maintenance men who--just doing their jobs--would tear at the weeds outside of the metal sided arenas while we rode. When that string hit the metal it would echo through the arena like gun fire. William would spook and bolt each time. It got so bad that just hearing it start up down campus would make us both uneasy. Unable to ride during these times, I started to get angry. I was mad at the workers for always choosing MY time in the ring, I couldn’t get anything done, and didn’t they have other rings to work on? I was on edge the whole time and my rides on William were becoming bitter.
Looking back now, I realize that my anger had stemmed from fear. I was afraid of the bolting (as any normal human should be), afraid that those watching would think I was an awful rider, afraid I might fall off of William in a broncing/bolting fit. In those moments, however, I only felt the anger. I finally went up to my trainer, a very elegant and composed woman, and voiced my concern about the timing of the lawn care of Randolph Arena. She just looked at me through the viewing booth glass, took a moment before she clicked on the microphone and simply asked, “What are you going to do if this happens at a show? Ride through it, Sam.” The click of the microphone shutting off brought our conversation to a very definite end.
My memory after that is a little fuzzy but I’m pretty sure I scoffed. I am 100% sure I walked away first because scoffing in front of Faith would not have ended well. Regardless, I was incredulous at her response. First of all, what self respecting show management would be weed whacking DURING a show? Secondly, surely there was no way in hell to “ride through” on a horse so afraid of a simple sound. Regardless of my feelings, I had to become proactive in keeping his attention on me. With the down time between show seasons (the North has a much longer off season than here in the South!) I was able to keep using my brain when I would hear something that might set William off. Utilizing exercises like 10 meter circles, swingbacks and transitions ad nauseam we slowly began to “ride through”. It wasn’t perfect but I at least had a tense horse that looked to me before bolting instead of just saying “EAT HER FIRST” and running off. I was still fearful but the anger was gone. I now understood why I was afraid and I had a clear plan for actively chipping away at the trigger.
Fast forward to today: Gallifrey Farm is situated in the middle of a small south Georgia city. There is a neighborhood lining the West side of the farm and a quiet (super awesome) family to the East. For the most part, we are undisturbed in our day to day life. However, lessons can occasionally be interrupted by a speeding UPS driver in a noisy metal truck, 30 mph winds from the coast, 4-wheelers racing up and down our dead end dirt road, U.S. Army Helicopters (Chinook and Apache) as well as actual tank fire (Abrams and Bradley). I failed to mention earlier that to the South of Gallifrey is Fort Stewart’s firing ranges. For me, these sounds were never a problem; it honestly was just another day of training. I was glad for the hustle and bustle because without it “focus training” would be harder.
Of course, now some of my clients are experiencing my “weed whacker”. Fear is turning to anger as they focus more on the cause of the distraction or the distraction itself rather than riding through. I try to steer the conversation from bashing the causes to “what exercises can we get accomplished to relax the horse?” Focus on the horse, not the fear. Be more concerned with what would happen if you don’t put the horse on the aids rather than all the bad stuff that could happen as a result of the distraction. It’s hard, I get it, but when fear takes over, progress stops. We must condition our mental skills like focus, positive thinking and even breathing just like we must condition our muscles. These are skills just like anything else we learn in sports that must be developed, practiced and built upon especially if the goal is to take the horse off farm for shows or clinics.
Everyone is different. I am so stubborn that I pushed right through my mental block of fear over that damn weed whacker and came out on the other side. While that won’t work for everyone, it is important to try different approaches until you find the one thing that clicks for you. Those outside distractions aren’t going away unless you move into a bubble and never leave!
At our first show of the following season at Little Brown Jug, as I was trotting around outside of the square waiting for the bell to enter, one of the lining homes fired up their weed whacker. I kid you not. Will’s ears perked up at the sound but my anxiety did not follow suit. I was able to gather his focus back on us as that homeowner practically mowed his whole back yard with that damn thing throughout our whole test. We won that class and I clearly remember the smirk on my trainer’s face. Ride through, people. Ride through!