Every equestrian has one horse, maybe a couple, maybe more, over the course of his or her career, who changes the game. Pandora was my game-changer; soul-opening and bone-shattering.
Pandora was the only horse who ever took riding away from me by injured me badly enough to prevent me from getting back in the saddle for an extended period of time. In doing so, she also gave it back - taking a step back from riding allowed me to reevaluate my passion for riding, and re-prioritize my approach to it. I came back to riding with a clearer mind, an open heart, and a refreshed attitude.
I'll never know what set her off. She'd always been a spooky mare, but it was usually a little sidestep here, a jolt forward there, reactions to noises, shadows, her imagination even, but they were generally minute. She'd been going along nicely for several months, walking and trotting off the longeline, although we usually began on the line because she would start out stiff and skittish, then relax as we went along.
I had finally reached a point where she didn't intimidate me. I knew she would startle, but I knew it wasn't anything I couldn't handle. I had broken plenty of babies in my day, and she wasn't fully unbroke-she had been ridden before me. On the ground, she was so sweet, and we had such a great connection, but under saddle, something always irked her.
We had walked for maybe a few minutes on the longeline with Marie on the other end, we changed directions, and she exploded. Leaping and bucking, bucking and leaping. This was no ordinary spook, and every time she landed and I came down on her back, it scared her even more. I wasn't coming off - she got most of the way around the circle bucking before we went down. I was in the process of realizing that while she wasn't going to buck me off, I wasn't going to be able to stop her either, and I was going to have to bail before she decided to leave the arena. Just in that moment, in the split-second that I wasn't 100% focused, she either twisted out from under me or tripped, and I went flying.
The wind was knocked out of me pretty thoroughly, but I checked to make sure I had all my teeth (I did) and turned my head to see that Marie had caught Pandora (she had). "I'm fine," I said, "just give me a minute. I'm getting back on. I'm fixing this." Marie was stroking a shaking Pandora, speaking to her in a calming tone, in her charming, German-accented English. Whether the horses were naughty or nice, she always spoke to them in English.
I tried to push myself up, but my arm wasn't working. It didn't hurt until I looked at it. My hand, relative to my arm, was upside down and at a right angle. "Marie, my arm's broken," I said very matter-of-factly. "We're going to have to go to the hospital." Looking at my arm, I thought wow, that should hurt, and only then did it start to.
I have to hand it to Marie for how well she handled everything. She immediately brought me Rescue Remedy drops and an anti-inflammatory, and some stale gummy bears to chew on for the pain. She put the horses away, fed the others so we could take the truck (or bakie, as they call it down there), left the dog at the house of a friend in the nearest village, since he couldn't come with us and she lived closer to the horses than we did, and brought me ice in a towel from her house. Another friend gave us directions over the phone to the correct hospital in the nearest city, almost an hour away, and Marie drove, even though she wasn't legally supposed to. In the village it never mattered but in the city it might. She helped fill out my hospital forms, wiped the blood from my scraped face off my chest, since it was making the male nurse blush, helped me undress and put on a hospital gown, held my hand while x-rays were taken (by far the most painful part) and then sat with me all afternoon while I was loopy on whatever the doc prescribed me until I could go into surgery. She felt like a friend of 20 years instead of someone I'd just met.
But none of that is the point. I had had riding injuries before, broken bones even, but nothing I had to go to the hospital for. Never had I been unable to get right back on the horse (although there were times I probably shouldn't have). I had several more weeks of traveling before I returned to the US, so by the time I came home, it had already been a month.
The first time I went back to the barn where my horse was leased as a lesson horse, I cried when I saw Jet. To be there with him, unable to ride, hit me so much harder than I had anticipated and I broke down. I didn't want to teach lessons - I told my boss and colleagues that it was because I didn't think it looked good for me to be teaching horseback riding with an arm in a cast that I had broken while riding. But really, I didn't want to teach others to ride when I couldn't ride. I didn't even want to be around horses when I was so helpless and useless. Weeks went by, and my frustration turned to panic, every time I thought about starting to ride again.
I would go to the barn where Jet was leased and watch other students ride him in lessons. Eventually, I would get on after their lesson and walk, maybe trot a little, but it took the entirety of the hour-long lesson for me to convince myself to do so. I didn't ride him by myself, telling everyone it was because I couldn't tack up but in truth I couldn't bring myself to try. I finally did one day, after a working student offered to tack him up for me while I stood by, feeling like the kind of snobbish rider, requiring a personal groom, that I hate and vowed never to become.
Jet had been for sale for a long time. I had bought him as a sale project, and I wasn't particularly attached to him. I would rather have sold him and used the money to travel than stay and keep having to take care of him and pay his expenses. I had finally ridden him once by myself when he went up to Wyoming on a purchase trial for a few weeks, and I was convinced he was going to sell. It sounded like the perfect fit, a great family, an ideal situation for him. Jet, however, didn't think so. He didn't do anything wrong, he just didn't click with the little girl. He wasn't aggressive towards her, just indifferent, and she didn't dislike him, but she didn't love him. So he came back. I wonder what the deciding factor for him was.
One of my clients had an older, schoolmaster Andalusian named Poderio, and one day after his lesson I asked him if we could go out on the trail. I still had a cast on my arm but I insisted I would be fine, although I needed help getting tacked up. I spent several weeks riding with him on Saturdays, convincing myself internally not to panic when I got on, knowing that this was a horse I trusted implicitly, and eventually it got a little bit better, going from walking to trotting and trotting to cantering, building my confidence while my horse developed a hay belly living in the pasture I had moved him to when I decided not to return to my job at the riding school.
But I was still terrified. As a professional, it was frustrating, knowing that I should know better but unable to quell the panic. I would longe Jet every day, and wouldn't ride unless there was someone with me, usually my mom, who would hold Jet while I got on and even walk with me for a little while. Then she would get on afterwards and fearlessly trot around the field, and Jet tolerated her bouncing seat and tugging hands with the patience of a schoolmaster. But he still made me nervous.
Many days my mom couldn't be there, and it was just Jet and me. We did lots of groundwork-things I knew he knew how to do but I hadn't done with him since he was young(er) and barely broke. Training-wise, he didn't need groundwork. He had always had great ground manners and immeasurable patience, as quarter horses do. But the groundwork solidified our relationship. So did barn chores; he had always been boarded somewhere where someone else did the feeding and mucking, and now it was all me, three times a day, spending time with him without necessarily riding him. The previous summer I had had 9 horses in training, plus Jet. When he was the last horse at the end of the day, it became a chore, an obligation, and not something I enjoyed. I think we resented each other without realizing it. Now, when I showed up to feed, he was happy to see me, and when I mucked, he would nuzzle me and seek attention. I brought him carrots and applies, which before had always run out before I made it to him at the end of the day. I would brush him for hours, like I would have done when I was a little girl. Sometimes I would just sit in the pasture while he grazed and we would enjoy each other's company.
Half a year has flown by. I have a massive scar on my left wrist and I can't bend it very far, but I'm otherwise myself again. Jet has become the horse I always wished he was and never thought he could be. I teach little kids on him. He's a rock-solid trail horse. I take him camping. My mom rides him. My friends ride him. He went from a green-broke horse I was given because no one wanted to ride him, to a schoolmaster anyone can ride. He's gone from having no brakes to being so lazy sometimes, the smaller kids can't keep him trotting. He's gone out of his way to take better care of me than he needed to, always calm and patient, because we finally know each other well enough to be in tune to those needs.
Breaking my arm and taking a step back from riding forced me to start all over, from the ground up, and somewhere along the road that took me down, I became reacquainted with my horse, and by extension, with my passion for riding. It's not about winning ribbons, it's about connecting with your horse, and the goals you set as a rider don't always have to be focused on the show ring. I don't know when it happened, or how, but at some point over the years, among hundreds, if not thousands of horses, I left my heart behind. It feel so great to ride with my heart in it again!