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Joanna Thurman-Baker’s dressage blog: it is incredibly hard to make your mind forget a trauma

Hi all and welcome back!

As I write this, our yard temperature gage is showing 38 degrees. Our yard is like a sun trap and when heatwaves roll through the valley we all become vampires and hide inside. It makes for early starts, long siestas, late finishes and endless ice creams. But apparently most people like the sun, so I mustn’t complain.

Life here feels like it is sliding back into normality again after a long lockdown, with clinics at the yard, entering a few shows and being back out teaching. We were super happy to hear that the cancelled Winter Championships are back, as it gives Juliette and Apollo a chance to gain more ring experience in the advanced medium and prix st georges tests. I am hoping to get back out myself to a few shows with Sirocco and take Simba to his first show too, but I won’t be holding my breath as many of our local venues are shutting down again. Perhaps this year is better off as a training year anyway as the dreaded ‘C’ word continues to cancel most of our plans…

If you’ve been reading my blogs for a while, you’ll know about my accident last year. For those of who don’t, here’s a quick recap (imagine this a season recap on Netflix if you like!).

In July 2019, I got on my then four-year-old Dolce and within moments he bucked and catapulted me skyward, resulting in me fracturing my lower spine and having a grade four slip to the vertebra. I then spent eight weeks out of the saddle and in a lot of pain. I didn’t feel back to my normal self until around February time this year.

Dolce afterwards went off for some training, but it quickly became clear that he was very cold backed. So we investigated further and found he had terrible kissing spine. He then had surgery to remove the top of a vertebra and eight ligaments cut.

Joanna Thurman-Baker

Fast forward to July 2020. After a winter out on the hills, Dolce came back into work in February and did a lot of rehab work in-hand with my wonderful mother, who is truly an in-hand genius. With his back then strong enough, he was ridden again. But this was with other riders — I couldn’t bring myself to get on.

I suppose I was suffering from a sort of PTSD that would turn into severe anxiety. I could close my eyes and vividly remember the feel of him bucking, the smell of the arena, the sudden gust of impact and the gut-sickening pain that followed. Perhaps I’m being over-dramatic (after all, people fall off all the time), but for me, this was how it felt. I also had a good long year to dwell on it and I let the fear fester. I would lay awake at night, staring into the dark wondering, how I would ever get back on him. But I knew I had to — he’s my horse and riding is my job.

So while Dolce was being ridden by other riders, I would analyse every step. So far, he has been a real angel and hasn’t put a single toe out of line.

Joanna Thurman-Baker

After a few months of him being ridden, I spontaneously decided to got on. It was a sudden decision that I think tricked myself into forgetting what I was doing, and I was obviously fine up there and had a little plod about. Great, I thought — I’ve cracked it! Now I can just ride him as normal. But as we all know, you take one step forward and 10 steps back. After that initial burst of bravery, I then went back to being pretty terrified of him.

This was (and still is) possibly the biggest challenge in my career so far.

Riding down the centre line at Europeans or riding grand prix tests in front of hundreds of people is but a walk in the park compared to the nerves I feel about Dolce. Some days I have a complete melt down — one particularly bad day I stood crying and shaking in the arena with him for 20 minutes before forcing myself on, then had an awful ride and got off crying again. He didn’t do anything wrong though — it was all in my head.

But I’ve learnt that it is incredibly hard to make your mind forget a trauma. Unfortunately there is also nothing anyone can do to make the situation easier for me. This is something I have to overcome myself, with my own head. But I can’t let fear win and as one lovely person told me after I had my biggest meltdown — I can do anything I put my mind to. Which is completely right; when I am in the right frame of mind, I can ride him happily and I get off buzzing with excitement! Riding is a muscle memory for me and I don’t think I ever give myself enough credit for it — I can actually ride pretty well and my body reacts to the horses without conscious thought, so once I’m in the saddle I’m fine. It is just the getting into the saddle that is my biggest hurdle. But I am determined! Each time I successfully ride him is a major win, making me feel more comfortable and safe on him. Little by little, I will overcome this and regain my confidence. Riding is what I love after all, and I can’t let the fear of falling prevent me from flying.

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So, if anyone reading this is in the same situation as I am — you have to believe in yourself. If I can do it, you can do it too.

This is just the beginning of mine and Dolce’s journey. He really is a genuine, kind-natured horse with bundles of talent and the engine of a jumbo jet. And if I can release that talent he has to fulfil his potential, well… what a wonderful story we will write together.

That’s all from me for now,

Joanna x

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