Not long ago we had a new student sign up for lessons. His main goal was to be able to sit on a horse with confidence. For most of us that sounds like it would be a fairly easy goal to accomplish. For this youngster his anxiety was so overwhelming it was all he could do to just go in the arena and stand by the horse. Not next to the horse but close by the horse. After witnessing his angst, we realized this was going to be a process instead of a normal set of lessons.
First, we tried him with our oldest horse 35 years old Laredo. Laredo, we thought being a tenured horse in our program would be the perfect choice. Instead Laredo was more concerned about getting back to the barn for dinner. Any of Laredo’s movements shattered his confidence. Eventually, we chose Whiskey for our new student. Perfect match! Whiskey doesn’t like to move much and if she does it’s not going to be fast! The second lesson was just attempting to pet Whiskey and hold a brush, possibly brushing her on her neck from time to time. Baby steps, we had to keep reminding ourselves, baby steps.
Soon we had the 3-step mounting block nestled in close to Whiskey’s side. The plan was to have our student stand on the 2nd step to start brushing Whiskey’s back and rump areas. He would climb down from the mounting block and take calming breaths. When he felt ready he would climb back up and start brushing again. At times he would talk to her quietly, sharing his thoughts and pet her nose. This was very endearing to watch. It’s like she understood everything he said to her. She knew how hard this was for him.
His grandmother asked us to have Whiskey tacked up for the following lesson. His mother was going to be able to come and she hoped he would want to show off and maybe get on the horse for her. He came out to the arena with his mother. She was so excited to possibly see him get on the horse. But the pressure was too much. We decided to break it down into steps for him. Initially, we had him standing on the mounting block putting his foot in and out of the stirrup. Let’s do that 20 times. Done! Okay, put your foot in the stirrup and put your weight in the stirrup by standing up in it briefly. Next take your weight out of the stirrup and come back down to the mounting block. He wasn’t at all sure about that! We demonstrated it for him and he realized it wasn’t going to be that bad. Let’s do that 20 times. Done!
This next lesson proved to be so close but yet so far away from being accomplished! First of all, Whiskey is a saint! She just stood there for all of this up and down business! He practiced his standing up in the stirrup 20 times so we decided he should try swinging his leg over and sit in the saddle. NOPE! So instead, HE broke it down into 2 steps! His mom was standing on the off side of Whiskey holding her hand up above the saddle. He would swing his leg up and over tapping her hand with the toe of his shoe then bring his leg back down to the mounting block. He must have done this perhaps 30 times. We told him how difficult this maneuver was and that it would be a lot easier for him to just sit down after he swings his leg over!
Now we have arrived at his last lesson for the session. He got out of the car with so much confidence and sharing with anyone in earshot that today he was going to sit on Whiskey! He kept telling his mom, “I really am, I really am going to do it!” The energy was electric, everyone was ready and we so hoped he would be able to do it! He marched into the arena walking right up to his horse and gave her a couple of pets on the nose while telling himself he was going to do it.
Whiskey was standing at the ready along with her horse handler, 2 side walkers, his mother and HorsePower volunteers. Standing outside the arena were the other parents of the other 3 students that were part of his class. Oh, did I neglect to share that he was part of a group lesson? Yes, and the last 5 lessons had been done at the far end of the arena by the parking lot where his grandmother and grandfather could stand at the arena rail close to him and help him with encouraging comments of support. Now getting back to his moment of truth, was he able to accomplish his goal? Yes!
He marched up and onto that mounting block, slid his foot into the stirrup and did three toe taps into his mothers waiting palm. On the 4th time, he swung his leg over and sat down in the saddle! He sat there beaming with a smile big enough and bright enough to light up a darkened sky! His mother was in tears, people’s hands are over their heads clapping and hollering in support of this tremendous moment. The 3 riders that were riding in the arena stopped and applauded their friend’s success. It was amazing! He rode Whiskey around the arena one time around each direction. But if that wasn’t enough, he asked if he could participate in the games on horseback with the other students! He was a rock star and he knew it!