Near Death Experience - an essay
When asked if I ever had a near death experience, I always answer “yes.” Many others tend to answer the same way. Their explanation tends to be because of a bad car crash, which was probably really only a fender bender. Maybe they were hospitalized because of a bad sporting injury, leading to a broken shoulder or rib that “could have punctured the lung.” Maybe they lost consciousness due to an illness, or got a concussion because of a bump on the head – that could certainly kill anyone, if the bump was bad enough. These things happen to everyone at some point in their lives, but did they need CPR? Did they need to be jumpstarted back to life? Did their life flash before their eyes, and did they see “the light?”
Probably not. And neither have I. But, I still consider it a “near death experience” because, were the circumstances slightly different – had I not gotten out of the way in time, or had the fall knocked me unconscious for longer than a couple seconds – I probably would have been trampled to death.
People love being in control. Car sickness occurs because, those who are used to being in control are not, therefore they cannot expect what comes next – will he stop at the stop sign? How hard will he step on the breaks? They prepare themselves for a stop that comes later, or sooner, and this motion (or lack of) throws them off from what they expect should happen – what they would do.
People hate not being in control. If you think for one second you can control a thousand pound animal, I will gladly arrange your funeral for you – no charge.
When I first learned to ride, at around ten years old, I was taught the basics of how to stop a horse and how to get a horse to go. Pull back on the reins – don’t yank! “Ho” – deep. No, it’s not “who-o-o-a there!” Noob. Calm. Deep. That’s how they’re trained to stop. A little squeeze against their ribs will bring them to a walk. Don’t kick or swing your legs like a wild man, not even if you want to canter. You’ll make a very unhappy horse.
This may sound like you’re in control, but a horse is not a car. A horse has a mind of its own. A horse can be frightened, angry, or just downright stubborn, especially if you’re an ass that thinks he knows everything there is to know about horses. A horse can take off at any moment – can be spooked at any sound, or can disagree with whatever you ask. Who’s in control now?
I didn’t learn this right away. I certainly had my share of attitude horses – was it my fault? Probably. Do I blame them? No. Ben was the first to teach me that. Big, black, and full of attitude – no one wanted to ride him. Most of the time, I was stuck with him. Probably because I was the new girl. I didn’t go to school with the rest of the girls – didn’t hang out with them in the tack room or talk to them while grooming. I told myself I was the only one that could handle him without being a little bitch about it – and I was.
When I showed him at my very first show, he was as stubborn as could be. My performance wasn’t flawless, but it earned me a nice third place ribbon. While the other girls pranced around in their fancy show clothes on their pretty white horses who did everything they were asked, I pushed through on big, black Ben in my brand new turtle neck sweater that I’d never wear again. I pushed him around the barrels, around the ring, walk, stop, trot, canter, walk. We weren’t flawless, but I showed every one of those little girls up that day.
That was when I decided I never wanted to show again. Too much pressure, too much stress, and all for a little ribbon. Sure, I could have been great. I could have worked and trained every day, maybe gone on to the Olympics. But, was it worth it? The daily stress, pressure, training. The money, the travel – I knew I’d grow to hate it. Riding wasn’t a professional sport for me – it was a passion I knew I would never lose, nor want to lose, especially over the stress of a stupid show.
I continued my riding at a variety of barns, learning everything I could about horses. I learned to muck stalls and feed. I learned about how their bodies moved and how they reacted to my movement. I learned to steer a horse without using reins, I learned how to fall off a horse, and I learned what a full on gallop felt like and the rush that came with it.
In high school, people awed at my abilities. I grew close to an elderly woman named Karin, the woman who gave me lessons during this time. She helped me take my riding to a whole new level. With her, I learned to do lateral work, I learned to jump, I learned how to half-halt and collect. I started to train horses, particularly two Morgans, Karin (pronounced Corrine, unlike my instructor’s name) and Captain Morgan. Karin had problems with her right shoulder, causing her to be lazy when turning in that direction. She was as stubborn as a mule, as one would say, and never wanted to do anything more than walk.
I spent many days kicking her forward, pushing with all my might just go get her to trot, then into a very wobbly and stubborn canter. Outside of the arena, however, she was a very different horse. I often took her for trail rides, which she proved to me an excellent companion on these trips. Under that western saddle, she hobbled along as if she was meant to be a Mustang. I easily pushed her into a trot and even into a canter, spraying dirt and dust in the air as she one-two-threed down the path. In the arena, however, she was a totally different horse.
Captain Morgan was a much different story. As an abused ex show horse, he was very untrusting of people. No one had dared to ride him since he was purchased, so I spent many days grooming and talking to him. I lead him around the arena and told him about my day. Eventually, the sight of my car brought him trotting and whinnying to the fence. I lunged him in tight circles to study the curves of his body as he walked three hundred and sixty degrees. I extended the circle and brought him to a trot, then a canter, and back to a walk. His position was nothing less than perfect, surely due to his years of strict showing, and he was a beautiful sight to see. He held his head high, his neck perfectly curved into a beautiful collection. His feet never dragged, and he was certainly worthy of anyone blue ribbon.
Our training eventually got more intense. I leaned my body against his back, watching his reaction to the pressure. I threw big, red balls around the arena and watched his ears twitch at each sound and movement. After many long hours and many days of applying pressure to his back and desensitizing him, it was time to ride.
Once I was on his back, his reactions to my commands were smooth. His neck curved under the reins and his legs lifted high with each step. He turned precisely when asked, curving his body appropriately with each loop around the ring. We walked, we stopped, we backed up, and walked forward again, every day, until we were comfortable enough to push into a trot. I posted along with his strides – his trot was smooth as we went around the ring. Eventually, I pushed him faster more, into a canter.
His smooth canter proved what an excellent show horse he was in his past. The three step stride was like flying. Even the bow he learned to do proved what a joy he must have been to watch for the unknowing crowds. He was a magnificent creature being used to entertain the masses of pathetic people, coming around to see horses do mind numbing tricks, like a dog for a treat. It was a shame he was a victim of such a thing, but I was confident we had restored his faith in the human race, and I certainly had his trust in my hands, and he held mine in his.
Of course, not everything can be accounted for when riding and training, especially a once very nervous and untrusting horse. They see and hear things that people can’t always see and hear. They sense their rider’s emotions and sense the things around them. Something spooked him one day – a sight, a sound, a sense – it was enough to panic him and sending him galloping around the arena.
It happened before my brain even registered what was going on. Our trot had been going so smoothly, and suddenly we were going well over thirty miles an hour around an enclosed arena. Through my years of riding, I had been trained for moments like this, and even experienced similar moments in the past. I was calm as I planted myself in the saddle and leaned back. “Ho,” I said deeply. “Ho. Easy now, easy. Ho.”
His ears twitched in every direction, quickly towards me, than back around and pinned against his head. He heard me, but there was no stopping a panicked thousand pound horse. I pulled and released on the left rein, pulled and released, pulled and released, half halting, hoping to turn him into a tight circle until he could turn no more, but he pushed forward, galloping around the arena in an attempt to escape the scary.
There was no stopping him, and I could feel the saddle slipping under me. I had already lost one stirrup, so I ditched the other and prepared for an emergency dismount. I had practiced emergency dismounts before, pushing myself off from a walk and trot. I was confident in my abilities and knew that it was more important for me to get off so as not to fall or have anything worse happen. Once on the ground, I could assess the situation and do what was right – even if it meant letting him run and run until h grew tired.
With both feet out of the stirrups, I dropped the reins around his neck and grabbed onto his mane. I counted to three, then threw my leg over his back and pushed off of his neck.
They say, when faced with a terrifying situation, your brain shuts down temporarily. Many people, when experiencing a car crash, can’t recall what happened as it was happening. They suddenly realize they’re on the side of the road, air bags deployed, and all they remember is screeching and crashing sounds.
I don’t recall flying through the air and against the wall of the arena. I don’t even remember feeling the impact or sliding down on to the ground. I often imagine it as something that happens in a cartoon – slamming against the wall and being stuck for a moment before sliding down like goo.
I wasn’t unconscious for very long. I may not have been conscious as I was thrown towards the wall at unimaginable speeds, but as soon as I hit the ground, I was fully aware of my surroundings, and aware that Captain Morgan was coming around the corner at a full gallop, with me right in his path.
Without hesitation, I pushed myself off the grown and sprinted low towards the center of the arena, kicking woodchips in my wake and catching the ground to balance myself. I stood and watched as Captain continued galloping around, the saddle now completely flipped over under his stomach. My trainer, who was now by my side and checking my damages, realized the saddle had flipped over and that he was now in danger of getting his feet caught in the equipment.
The next time he rounded the corner she stood in his path, arms stretched out to the side, and caught his reins, pulling him around and finally to a stop. I held his reins and calmed him in a soothing voice, caressing his neck as his stomach heaved in and out, his breath short and quick. We inspected the damage and found that the saddle was ruined – leather straps had snapped and it was falling apart. We untacked him and I walked him around the arena, letting him catch his breath and cooling the sweat on his neck and back.
I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel that day. I didn’t need to be rushed to the hospital or be revived. Despite being slammed against the wall, I only ended up with a scratch on my knee and a bruise on my arm. But, I did look death in the face that day. I looked at him as he came galloping towards me at thirty or forty miles an hour and said “Not today, bitch.”