An Independent Seat
Lessons come in unlikely places. Like the dirt you landed in after getting bucked off your first horse for the umpteenth time…
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My first horse was off the track. A dud, they had called her, so her career as a racehorse was cut short. I met her when she was four. She stepped out of an extra-tall horse trailer – tail cocked high and still cropped short from her racing days – at the small, six-horse barn where I learned to ride.
She wasn’t there for me. Sara, at thirteen years old and one year my senior, was horse shopping. I had busied myself milling around the barn, waiting for her two prospects to arrive, along with the buoyant cloud of dust that would be churned up along the narrow dirt road. My memory has never been robust, but I’ll never forget the moment that sixteen-point-two-hand bay clamored from the rig.
A few days later, I’d talk my parents into considering purchasing her. After all, she was cheap. Only broke on the track and a racing dud? To the frugal accountant who was my father, she was a steal. (And to Sara, who tended to like nice things, she was easy to overlook. The other horse, a sturdy chestnut with a shiny coat, was quickly whisked into a life of embroidered saddle pads and bright-white polo wraps.)
My parents would confer with my trainer – was the bay suitable for a twelve-year-old rider? We were both young, both rough around the edges. My trainer seemed to think with proper schooling the two of us would grow up together. Within the next couple weeks, that dud was mine. I named her Athena after a lustful adolescent affair with Greek mythology.
It would take a few months for all of us – my parents, me and my trainer – to realize, no, she was not suitable for a twelve year old. When this tall thoroughbred had arrived at Quail Ridge Ranch, she was underweight, under-muscled and out of shape. With the hefty rations of grain, supplements and regular exercise she was receiving, she was, no doubt, now “feeling her oats”.
My once-nondescript dressage lessons morphed into a laughable kind of English rodeo. (Laughable only because I was never seriously injured; but was still thrown off into sand, dirt, berry bushes, and the occasion railroad tie.) These sessions began with benign circles at arena letters A or C, and ended with me clinging to mane as she bucked and kicked across the arena, head down, back arched, with relentless snaps of her spine to unseat me.
I had no idea how to ride this mare. I was fearful and young and had been used to plodding along on overlay-safe schooling horses. All that being said, I was still a pre-teen girl – a girl totally in love with her horse. After a year of public displays of our signature Pony Club-Rodeo, it was time for something to shift. I left my first barn with my wild mare in tow.
A friend I played traveling softball with convinced me to move to a barn that studied Natural Horsemanship. They studied it like an art, a science, a religion. Picture horses of all kinds, roaming free; people riding bareback, often without reins or ropes; riders taking horses swimming in the lake; people swimming in the lake; horses trailing their people like doting retrievers; dogs trailing behind the horses… it was like an equine commune.
Minus the new horses in training, which were wide-eyed and dubious, everybody seemed content, if not a little crazy, too. But I think that was a necessity. To believe you can form a partnership with an animal that can bite at one end, kick at the other, and has two thousand pounds of creativity throughout the middle, you have to be a bit of a loose cannon. They all were. And here I was, thirteen years old, joining them.
When I first pulled my mare out of the trailer at Moon Valley Ranch, I heard a woman bellowing from one hundred yards away. “Ahh! The bucker!!! Buckers make great jumpers!” This crazy woman would be my new trainer. She never approached and never said anything more to me that day. (Over time I’d find she was much more of an animal-trainer than a people-trainer. But still, she would save both of our lives.) My mare snorted, tail high, and danced around on the end of the lead, as if showing she wouldn’t be tamed.
While Athena went into boot camp – mainly just having a handful of tough women let her “get her ya-yas out” – I had something to learn on my own. At this barn I had been diagnosed as a timid rider. My treatment? They told me I needed to develop an independent seat. In the beginning, I had no idea what this would mean. And even when I understood it conceptually, it would take me almost a year to find.
In their world, an independent seat meant having a clear division between you and your horse. It meant separation between you and the animal’s cadence and temperament, and not letting the attitude of the horse – in my case, my bucking, bolting, whirling mare – throw you (literally and metaphorically). I’d have to learn there is a horse-and-rider; but there is also a horse and there is a rider. Separate beings that can work together, harmoniously.
Finding my independent seat was about building trust in myself. If I could learn to have confidence in my capabilities as a rider, maybe she’d have faith in me as a leader. She could trust me to lead her over echoing bridges and through dense brush, over jumps and through narrow, swinging gates.
Though she was far stronger, bolder and faster, she was still a prey animal. And prey animals look for leaders. Whether following right behind another horse on a trail, an eager nose sporadically bumping the tail in front, or falling into the pecking order when out to pasture, she was always seeking someone to believe in. I had never been that for her. With all of her bucking and bolting theatrics, I more closely resembled a bath toy to a whale.
Over the next few months, I learned to give her enough rein so that she wouldn’t feel confined. So she wouldn’t feel the need to fight me, pull against me, or toss me. Though with more rein was more space for possible hullabaloo. I had to learn that I could bring her back. Confidently, without alarm. I had to give her the opportunity to move quietly underneath me, with plenty of breadth, as well as the opportunity to try again, should she misuse that freedom.
That year I learned more about trust, confidence, partnership and independence than I ever had. And almost twenty years later, I’m seeing the pattern of having an independent seat all over again. I’m noticing it is a breathing entity that lives in and out of the equine world, in ever moment.
It’s the power in not letting the world swallow you. In not getting carried away amidst the things you can’t control, but riding them out. Cultivating a self-trust that may waiver, but never extinguishes. Giving space where space is needed. Having the courage to try – repeatedly. And being able to come back to center, again and again.
My Independent Seat now comes in the form of deep breaths, journaling, yoga, mindset shifts, and perspective. And even though it’s been eight years since I’ve held that mare’s reins, I can sill feel her power underneath me. The power, guts and heart that I came to love rather than fear. And I remember her best when I think about galloping a trail, reins draped loosely about her neck, the two of us sharing a secret freedom.
(Editor’s note: That crazy trainer was right. She turned out to be a great jumper.)