Going your own way can be a difficult thing to do. It takes strength to be different and hold your own views and beliefs. Being a horse owner or rider within the equine world can be challenging if you find yourself breaking away from the norm. The horse world can be a vicious place and livery yards can be terrifying for anyone who holds any social anxiety issues. Mix some social anxiety with a want to do things differently and you get into a tough situation.
Socially, I am not great. I am introverted and socially anxious, meaning I often fear being judged and seek to avoid situations that may cause judgement against me. I also took an alternative path off the horse riding road, and ended up somewhere beautiful. I am, however, aware that not all horse people would agree with me, and therefore have opened myself up to judgement, and my, don’t horse people like to judge!
I had ridden and looked after horses the traditional way for years, but it was when I got my own horse things changed for me. Having a young horse gave me a break from the riding side of horses, and I believe it is here where my opinions on horsemanship turned. I was aware she’d had a pretty bad start in life so I wanted the best for her and I found that I just enjoyed spending time around her. I would sit for hours with her in the field, spend plenty of time grooming and going for little walks and started to really get to know her. She taught me a lot about understanding the horse, building a trusting relationship and enjoying the things horses have to offer other than riding. It was this time here, where I was unable to ride, that things started to really change for me and when the time came to start her ridden education I wanted to use what was kindest, because after getting to know her as an individual and building a bond, I didn’t want to cause her any discomfort or ruin the relationship we had developed. I opted down the bitless route, and have never looked back.
However, I remember well the feeling of self-consciousness regarding the subject. I recall an interaction I had with the livery yard owner, where I used to keep my horse; she saw me starting out riding my mare and came over with the question “do you ride western then?”… Slightly stumped and bewildered, I believe I mumbled a “err no, well.. hey.. what?!”, to which she replied, “oh, why haven’t you got a bit in her then?”. I thought it was a strange thing to say, but I remember that I couldn’t actually bring myself to explain the real reasons why she was bitless, as in my mind I could tell the yard owner would think worse of me, would question my reasoning and impose judgement on me. So I simply told her that she has a very small mouth and was harshly bitted in her previous career as a harness racer, so I was just giving her a “break”. She accepted this and walked away, but looking back I do wonder what she would have said if I told her that I believed it was a kinder option and had gone deep into my true reasoning. I was doing bareback and bitless riding at this point, and would often head to the yard in the early mornings to do things with my horse before anyone arrived to see what I was doing. This is the way I coped in order to avoid judgement and uncomfortable situations; instead of tackling things head on, I tend to hide away.
I didn’t stay on that yard for long, for various reasons, and moved to yard where I spent many happy years, and somehow obtained another horse. It wasn’t all plain sailing as there are always some people who have to cause problems, however for the most part I enjoyed my time there. There was an indoor school and they had some rules on its usage for insurance purposes. I very clearly remember asking if it was ok to ride bareback in the school, to which it was. It is strange the way some interactions imprint into your mind, especially when you feel anxious about them. Why was I worried about asking such a thing? Again, it’s that slight worry about being different and therefore being judged. Once everyone on the yard had seen me riding bitless and bareback, and I had battled my way through answering the usual questions I did feel happier about riding in front of people and I was happily riding out with others without judgement. I still kept my groundwork quiet and to myself, as I was worried about what people would think. I was aware the things I do may have looked “silly” to the horse person who just tacks up, rides and does little more with their horse.
It was during my time at this yard that I started getting into bridleless riding, and I was very aware that this was something really quite different compared to traditional horse ways and the ever increasing devices and equipment used for riding. I therefore went back to old habits and would ride only when I knew people wouldn’t be there. Due to the lighting in the indoor school, I found 9pm to be quite a good time, that or very early in the mornings before anyone arrived. My first bridleless ride was late in the evening, it was dark outside the arena and no one else was around. I took the bridle off and my horse popped a small jump for me. It was perhaps one of my happiest moments.
As my horses and I developed, I remember that my confidence in what I was doing developed and some early mornings I actually started hoping someone would arrive and “catch me” as my horses were being so responsive and wonderful to ride. It took me a while before I felt confident enough in myself to ride bridleless at a time when people were on the yard, and it took even longer for me to feel a sense of pride in doing so. I always felt quite uncomfortable, as though others thought I was just being irresponsible or dangerous. Once people had become used to me and what I was doing, I felt more comfortable riding in my own way. I even started to ride other people’s horses in this way and I started to receive some admiration for my horsemanship. The confrontation about what I was doing, which I had been hiding away from for so long, actually made me believe more in myself and I found the slightest support from a few others would help me deal with criticism.
Despite the good times, I moved from the yard to a private field, where I have again collected more horses somehow. Being away from the normal every day horse world has helped me to be more confident on the path I have chosen, and seeking support from others who share similar views has helped me to believe in myself. I am now very open about how I ride, I don’t hide the fact I ride without tack, and even encourage people to come and watch myself and my horses working together.
Now, as I teach horsemanship and bitless riding, I find my clients often suffer with the same worries that I used to have. The fear of being different and being judged for that difference, and having to find the strength to do things your own way can be exhausting. It is hard when you have to concern yourself over what others think. I take on the supportive role now with those I teach, as I believe the smallest encouragement can override the feeling of being judged. I believe if you push on past the rocky beginning, the confidence in what you are doing will develop, and as you progress and feel a sense of pride in what you are doing the worries about what others think will start to fade away.
For so long, I hid away and avoided confrontation over my way with my horses because of a fear of being judged. The anxiety this caused me led me to find ways to conceal my thoughts and what I was doing, and by hiding away I was able to continue the way I wanted to. Whilst this worked for me and did indeed serve its purpose, it is not ideal and will not help with developing the belief in yourself. Having the support of other horse people is invaluable and if that means moving around until you find a yard you are happy at then so be it; there is nothing worse than arriving to see your horse with a sense of dread as to who will be there. Obtaining support from others could also mean finding like-minded horse owners locally to meet up with.
My advice to those who are heading down a different route is to be strong, believe in yourself, and believe that the way you are going is the right way. The rest of the horse world may follow the main road, but your path is filled with more beauty and more rewards. Once you take that turn, try to avoid looking back to see others wondering where you are going, and just enjoy the journey. Seek support from others following their own paths and find strength from your horse and knowing you are doing right by them.
Ellen Cochrane – Gaia Horsemanship.