Dear Katrina and Eliza,
(For everyone else who's reading this, that's Katrina Love Senn of "Losing Weight is a Healing Journey" fame and Eliza Sydnor Romm of world-class dressage horse training fame.)
Katrina, three years ago, I saw a tweet. One simple tweet. About a woman from halfway around the world who had lost sixty pounds, kept it off, and seemed to have her entire world together, all without stressing over calorie counting, self-loathing for any mistakes, or guilt for eating chocolate. I read that article about you, bought your book, devoured your book, and reached out to you for some personal life-coaching. WOW.
The biggest obstacle for "successful" women is we are so busy trying to live up to our personal version of "success" we ignore any negative emotions - like pain and rage - until they pile up so heavy (50+ pounds, in my body's case, and at least three tons of emotional baggage) that we collapse under the burden. For some women, this happens in their twenties. For others of us - and it's no cause for pride, believe me - it takes decades longer for us to break.
The healing process is unique to every individual. Some folks seem to fix things quickly and enjoy life anew. Some, like me, seem to climb out of the massive hole of negativity by our fingernails, one bloody inch at a time.
You, Katrina, have held my hand and my heart every step of the way, always so patient and encouraging. You BELIEVE in me as ME, not as whatever version of me other folks would wish I were/am/could be. Bless you for that. THANK YOU for that.
You've taught me so many things, but the most valuable thing is this: "You don't 'owe' anybody anything. The only thing - the ONLY thing - you 'HAVE' to do is: Breathe."
Eliza, three years ago, I entrusted a very special young horse to you. Bentley. And you backed him beautifully and trained him perfectly. Like you do every single horse you ride. You're an amazing talent and teacher and I wish I could study with you each and every week.
I remember you treating each horse as a business partner instead of a spoiled pet. You were always kind, but you obviously felt you had a job to do, and so did the horse, and you respected both jobs and, in return, your mount respected you. It was amazing to watch you work a horse with kindness and efficiency; I learned what "schooling" a horse really means.
I remember watching you swiftly and efficiently clean the bridle after every single ride. For those of us who didn't "do" Pony Club growing up, I had no idea why you were doing this, but I came home and looked up a lot of things online, and learned and learned and learned. I had no idea how much I absorbed from watching you with Bentley and the other horses you had in training at that time, until recently . . .
This is my mustang, Kaliwohi. Collie-WHOA-hay is how you say it. Kaliwohi is a Cherokee word. It means "perfect." Kaliwohi came to me out of Wyoming when he was eighteen months old. I had the winning bid at a U.S. Government Bureau of Land Management (BLM) online auction. I had placed no cap on the bid; I would have gladly paid far more than $135.00. Kaliwohi is now four years old, so I am starting to teach him to carry me on his back. Being four is so challenging sometimes! The horse has to learn to balance with a rider on his back, but, more importantly from a mustang's perspective (they are SO sensitive, in a good way), he has to make the mental transition from, "I do nothing but eat/sleep/grow and get loved on" to "oh! now I have to focus and be disciplined and learn and really listen and think!" That's not to say Kaliwohi hasn't had his kindergarten learning - he knows to stand still for the farrier and the vet, to stand for a bath, to lead and turn and stop and all those "baby" lessons. But now it's different. Now, I'm riding him.
My first horse, Sam, was a rock-solid ride who never put a hoof wrong, never even shook his head in frustration, for the entire time we were a partnership. Sam was like a beloved old pickup truck - not fast, but oh-so-reliable. My second horse, Grace, is not an old pickup truck at all. Grace is more like a Maclaren - an elite sportscar with gears to turn on a dime. Thankfully, Grace also has the brains of a genius and the heart of a saint. Grace is now retired from riding; the reason would take a whole different blog post, but it is because of her health. So these days, all she has to do for me is, quite literally, breathe.
Riding a horse well takes 100% focus, 100% of the time. Horses are amplifiers of one's soul - if you're uptight, they're gonna be more uptight. If you're angry, they're gonna reflect that tension. Horses reflect whatever you're hiding inside.
Horses are mirrors of the humans who train them. Grace taught me this. Katrina helped me dig out a lifetime of buried 'stuff' so I could get clear enough inside to ride a wild mustang well. Kaliwohi - being a mustang - is as pure a mirror as you'll ever find. And I want to train him correctly, in every sense of that word.
Eliza, you have no way of knowing this, but every time I work with Kaliwohi, I hear your voice. The "chirrrrrup" you use to increase energy to a horse so they pick up the pace. The "prrrrrrrr" you use to deflate the energy and slow them down. I see in my mind's eye the moment you were working a young, huge, dark bay warmblood mare on her transitions between trot and canter. She bucked at one point, and in my fear-filled state back then, I was both shocked and thrilled when you simply spoke to her, "nope; let's try it again." You exhaled like a master yogi, took the mare three trot steps, and, right on your cue, she picked up a lovely, relaxed, forward canter.
That's got to be one of the finest teaching moments I've ever seen, and one of the finest teaching mantras I've ever heard, no matter what species the student may be.
"Nope; let's try it again."
There was no discipline for the buck, other than your soft hands asking her to come back down to trot and your supporting legs asking her to keep moving forward and straight. No shame that the horse made a mistake with you in the saddle. No fear that anyone would judge you as a poor rider. No anger that the horse wasn't perfect every time every time every time.
My shame for my many mistakes in this life. My fear that everyone judges me and I am always 'less than' and never quite 'good enough.' My anger that I am not perfect.
This morning, Kaliwohi had a few "moments." Trying to figure out his shoulder balance so he could lunge on a circle with a relaxed, forward trot. Skittering sideways under saddle because of whoknowswhat - a leaf, a bird, the mythical horse-eating dragons that surely hide behind every bush in a mustang's mind. One actual spook today - that took him up and over the dressage rails and full-ahead several strides as he asked in his horsey way, "Should I panic? Can I trust you, Mom?".
A lifetime ago, I would have hit the deck. A lifetime ago, such antics by a 4-year old, very powerful semi-feral animal would have overwhelmed me with fear and sucked the confidence right out of me in one of those, "what do I do? what do I do? what do I do? I can't do this! I'm a complete failure!" horrible negative vortexes that we "people pleaser" types are notorious for spiraling down.
But today, this day, this "I'm not where I want to be yet but I have come oh-so-far on so many levels" day, I stayed on. My legs stayed soft. My hands stayed soft. My seat stayed deep. I was relaxed - genuinely relaxed. Focused on working a young horse. Focused on him having a positive experience, and both of us having a positive outcome.
I exhaled my fear as my young mustang jumped the rail and bolted three strides, so he, too, could exhale fear and stop.
He stood there with a question vibrating through his wild soul. "Isn't running way what I'm supposed to do when I get afraid, Mom? Shouldn't we be running even now, Mom?! MOM?!"
I breathed in the fresh morning air and replied to his questions with a soft hand as we turned around to repeat the exercise, "Nope; let's try it again."
Thank you, Katrina and Eliza, for helping me grow, heal, and become the best rider I've ever been. And tomorrow, I will be better still . . .
p.s. - I want to dedicate this post to Peter and Trina Campbell; both of whom taught me (some years ago) the fundamental riding premise that one must be able to clearly communicate to the horse where each foot of the horse goes. Each. Foot.
p.p.s. - and yes, now I wipe down my equipment after every ride, just like I saw Eliza do. Not only does it make tack maintenance much easier over time, but, to my mind, clean tack shows respect for my horse and our partnership.