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The first week of owning my new gelding, he bucked me off. 

Looking back, I suspect there were a whole host of factors that contributed to his behavior – a perfect storm of sorts. 

He was still recovering from a trailer ride from Florida – the second leg of it from Ohio to Minnesota traumatizing. He was sore, probably still tired, and didn’t know me from Adam. Plus, I put a saddle on him that hit him in exactly the wrong spots.

Like I said, a perfect storm.

We had gotten on him a few days after he arrived and settled in. Just walked and trotted a bit. He seemed fine – the steady Eddy I was told he was.

So, I decided the next day to hop on him myself. The goal – nothing more than a walk around the ring outside. After two steps under saddle, he started bucking. 

The end result – me on the ground and him in the mare’s pasture after jumping a 4-foot fence. 

Luckily, neither one of us was physically hurt. But… emotionally… well, that’s another story. Sure, I’ve come off horses before. And it has rattled me. 

This time, it was different.

Maybe it was because I was older and believed wiser. I had vetted this horse up the ying-yang and spent over a year being picky in my choices. 

Maybe it was because he was supposed to be safe. He was supposed to be easy (or at least easier than the other horses I had ever had.) He was supposed to be the ever-elusive unicorn in horse clothing. 

Hitting the dirt at what felt like a hundred miles an hour shattered all of that into a million little pieces. 

Suddenly, my dream horse felt like a bad nightmare. 

I’d love to say it was all uphill from there with Ben. 

Sadly, it wasn’t.

We quickly realized this horse had some deep-seated physical, emotional, and training issues that a new saddle and a few pro rides alone couldn’t fix. He needed slow, thoughtful rehabilitation that would take months. 

I needed a big, potentially scary project of a horse like a hole in the head. I had baggage filled with horse-related trust and fear issues. Overcoming my particular twinges of PTSD while Ben exorcised his own demons seemed like a recipe for disaster.

But, this was the horse I had. I felt like I owed it to him and myself to give things a chance.

You never know where your next life lesson will come from.

Giving our relationship and Ben’s rehabilitation a chance is exactly what I did. Were the months filled with blood, sweat, and tears? Yes. Did I want to give up more times than I can remember? Yes. Do I regret sticking with him? No.

Ben has been with me for three years. We spent nearly two of those years helping him become whole and I feel comfortable consistently sitting on his back. 

Why am I telling you all of this? Because what started as a discouraging and painful journey set me on a path to learn and re-learn lessons that I so desperately needed. Those lessons compelled me to create The Focused Rider Planner. They have made me a better rider and a better person… 

… And finally, I’ve decided to share the most important of them with you.

#1: There is power in being present   

Relationships with horses can rip you open inside, leaving you feeling raw and exposed in ways you never anticipated. 

They pick up on every unconscious gesture and act as mirrors for every unspoken emotion. You may be convinced you have your shit together only to find your horse sees right through your carefully constructed way of being. With the flick of a tail, a subtle shy, or a violent buck, they tell you in no uncertain terms, “Wake up!”

The problem is that waking up and staying awake for more than a fleeting moment is hard. Really hard. 

Because being present, requires a degree of vulnerability most of us don’t want to open ourselves up to. It means listening to what our horses are telling us about ourselves and them even if we don’t like what they’re saying. 

Dealing with that kind of radical honesty can be more than a little uncomfortable. The upside to making ourselves present and aware? Maybe, just maybe, we start to appreciate everything we and our equine partners have to offer without judgment (and avoid getting tossed in the dirt.)

#2: True partnership with your horse begins and ends with empathy 

Lip service.

There’s no shortage of it. We banter around words like “lightness,” “softness,” and “freedom of movement” while we keep a death grip on the reins, hang on with vice locked thighs, or jab with spurs at every step. 

Why? Too often there’s a disconnect between ideal and execution. Whether it’s a lack of skills or knowledge, patience, or understanding, we become our own worst enemy and an adversary of our horses.

Stop focusing on the movement, the level, the look, at the expense of your horse, and the relationship you’ve spent so much time working to forge.

These animals are not pieces of sports equipment to be used up and discarded. Driven into the ground. Pushed too hard too fast.

Without looking beyond our own needs and aspirations, this is exactly what they become. And no amount of accolades or envious glances can make up for what’s missing, a true partnership.  

#3: You and your horse are enough

Being enough never seems to be quite enough these days.

Whether it’s smart, funny, thin, pretty, talented, young, old… no matter the adjective we find ourselves constantly led down the path of not measuring up.  Add in a 1000+ pound animal into the mix and suddenly you’re barreling down a slippery slope of inadequacy, shame, guilt, and a whole lot of hair products. 

There will always be someone who scores higher or a horse with loftier gaits… and a better tail.

It’s the nature of the beast. 

Riding as a sport is one of comparison and judgment after all. This means it’s easy to get sucked into the idea that the only kind of validation that counts is the kind with a number or a ribbon attached.

But, you and your horse are so much more than a narrow definition of success that someone else decides. 

Strive to be the very best version of yourself and help your horse do the same. When you do, you may just find you actually start having fun… and the ribbons take care of themselves. 

#4: You can do more than you thought possible

Becoming a stronger, more effective rider takes work. 

Let’s not sugarcoat it. There are no shortcuts, quick fixes, or miracle cures. 

Only time dedicated to mastering the skills that will help you achieve positive results… and a willingness to believe you can improve will get you where you want to go. 

You can improve. Really. But, it means facing those obstacles that get in your way and focusing on the ones you can control.

Whether it’s finding time to ride, getting physically stronger, or tackling a deep-seated fear, look at these challenges as an opportunity to grow instead of excuses that hold you back. Your abilities are not fixed or set in stone. 

Be fearless in your search for new ways to improve your skills. Be open to exploring where the holes are in your riding. And, never feel ashamed to celebrate your strengths.

#5: Commit to the journey not simply the destination

Choosing a path is not always easy. Staying on it can be even more difficult.

There are goals, expectations, aspirations. Meeting them means commitment and sometimes sacrifice. And managing the realities of keeping a giant but surprisingly fragile animal from injuring himself.

The wheels fall off the bus from time to time. You’re left soaking an abscess instead of going to a show or taking a step back in the training instead of pushing onto the next level. 

That hiccup means you may need to change course, take a detour, or even get off the highway for a while. Doing so is part of the journey. Commit to it wholeheartedly knowing where you end up is where you are meant to be. 

Because the road to long term growth is in saying no to short term validation… and yes to the journey.

I continue to take one step at a time and keep track of our progress.

Ben is still with me. I’m riding him and staying firmly in the saddle. We finally found the light at the end of the tunnel. But, the hard work and lessons continue. Keeping track of the wins and gratitudes – no matter how small – help to offset the tough moments when it feels like everything may fall apart. 

When I look back to see where we started, I’m always amazed at how far we’ve come. Sometimes I just need to be reminded. 

You may need to be reminded too.

You can follow Shannon @shannonpetersdressage on Facebook or learn more about her training facility with husband Steffen.

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How a dirt sandwich turned into an equestrian planner and life lessons learned