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From Fat, Fearful, and Fifty to Fabulous, Fun and Fearless

By Renee Wahlen Tillema

At InSpire Magazine we realize that the story does not end with the printing of the pages. Even though an article has been written, that story continues. In January, we ran an article about the Fat, Fearful, and Fifty clinic being held at the II Bit Ranch outside of Columbus. This four-month clinic was such a unique event with six brave participants committed to making changes in their riding relationships that we wanted to follow their progress and accomplishments.

The Fat, Fearful, and Fifty clinic was open to both men and women. Participants did not need to own a horse, or even have past riding experience. Each person set their own goals and ways to mark their growth and accomplishments. This four-part clinic began in January and was designed to help people work through anxiety while helping them learn to become a better horseperson, and a more confident and fit person, all while making new friends who have encountered the same issues.

Melanie Lichtfeld, owner of the II Bit Ranch, went through her own experience of “fat, fear, and forty.” Through her love of horses and the support of friends, Melanie was able to rise above the challenges, and become a more confident, fit, and mature individual. She wanted to do the same for other people who may have found themselves in a similar situation, but were unsure how to find a way out.

“I am so touched by the success of each one of the clinic participants to not only reach their goal but most exceeded it by a mile,” Melanie said.

While horses may have been the common bond that drew these six people together, and riding may have been the main focus of this clinic, many of the lessons the participants learned can translate into other areas of their lives.

Teresa Forseth from Columbus has a Paint horse. She came to this clinic after experiencing a few falls from her horse and a few broken bones. Teresa’s goal was to be a more confident rider.

“One of my favorite parts was when we played tag,” Teresa said. “After some instruction, we were told to go play tag. That’s when you don’t think, you just react and do what comes naturally. That was the best for me, otherwise it’s too easy to just think too much. At some point you just need to have some fun.”

Each session of the clinic had a different focus. Horse trainer Pat Fitzgerald of Oregon, Wis., joined Melanie to share teaching duties. Their first meeting as a group included goal setting and a session on vaulting, which is basically gymnastics on horseback. The lesson in vaulting illustrated the need for core strength and balance in riding.

John Lee from Waupun was the only male participant and came into the clinic holding on to some apprehension of riding. His big, black horse has a lot of power, but John also knows the horse has a lot of potential.

“I had lost my nerve,” John said. “I found myself doing a lot of ground work with my horse. With the instruction of Pat and Melanie I ended up cantering my horse both ways. They were very helpful and encouraging. I found this whole group to be very competitive, but not in a corrosive way. They were all very welcoming and I was happy to be here.”

John commented on expanding the knowledge he learned during this clinic. “I lost my nerve and I’m finding it again,” he said. “It’s not quite fear, but to have a horse like I have you don’t want to waste him as a pasture pet. He’s too precious to waste and that’s how I’m going to continue what’s been given to me and go with it.”

The group identified Diane Mader as the clinic participant who had come in with the most true fear. Diane, from Marshall, has a Haflinger horse and had experienced a riding accident a year ago. She did not want to give up her horse, and like John, did not want to waste the talents of her horse either.

“I’m really grateful to have found a place where people want you to succeed and are so generous with their time and attention and instruction,” Diane said. “My peers are also so generous with their advice. This was a great deal of fun.”

Diane plans to recall those times when she felt comfortable and confident in her riding abilities as she continues to work on the challenges in the future.

“When you have a small, competent moment,” Diane said, “that gives me the strength to want to go on and feel that it’s not an impossible dream. I came here to regain some confidence. I didn’t have specific goals like cantering or what I will do. My goals were more like feeling happy when I’m on my horse’s back.”

Some of the clinic sessions asked the participants to step out of their comfort zone. While the massage was a welcome addition to the clinic, the belly dance lessons were received with a bit more caution. John explained that the nurturing environment that had been created helped everyone to let down the walls and learn from the experience.

Dawn Beard of Portage said that the amazing part of this four-month journey has been the opening of doors through this clinic experience. Dawn, who has witnessed numerous “wrecks” with horses, had a goal to be comfortable in the saddle.

“Melanie and the people she associates with are phenomenal in the fact that they will point out when we are mentally in a tight spot,” Dawn said. “That’s the insidious thing about the business of fear, we come up with a multitude of excuses why we can’t tack up and go. There are so many flavors to this. That is huge to recognize in order to keep progressing.”

Dawn recently purchased a new horse, a Palomino mare, and reports that this new partnership is going great.

“I’ve spent a lifetime of holding a passion to own a horse and ride with confidence,” Dawn said. “Melanie is a dream maker because she gets us past those little loops in our head of why we can’t do this. It’s really hard for me to describe how phenomenal it is to empower someone to reach for their dreams.”

Pat McGowen from Black River Falls has a remarkable story to solidify her anxiety around horses. Her husband, Mike, had a riding accident and is now a paraplegic. Pat was understandably concerned about riding even though her husband has continued with his own passion for horses and now is a horse trainer. Mike came to one of the last clinic sessions and showed the participants how he saddles his horse and gets himself into the saddle from a wheelchair.

“I do feel I reached my goal to become a better rider and to have fun when we ride in the Wyoming mountains,” Pat said. “I gained so much confidence in my ability to enjoy riding my wonderful horse, Cisco. Mel and the instructor – along with the other riders – made riding a fun filled experience for me.”

As a way to continue the friendships and connections created, the group gathered up at the McGowen’s for a trail ride.

“Our trail ride was great,” Melanie said. “Pat had a bunch of her friends who she used to ride with join us. They were thrilled to see Pat back in the saddle and her neighbor, who is a bit fearful, asked Pat for help so they can start riding like ‘old times.’ It was heartwarming.”

Kathy Boeger of Beaver Dam also participated in the clinic and was one of the first to join the vaulting lesson and try all the different movements on horseback.

“I think they all raised the bar,” Melaine said. “They all did a lot more than they thought they would do. Where one person had a weakness, another had a strength, it was just a great group. A horse is a metaphor, how many of us have hit the ground emotionally – a divorce or the death of a loved one? It’s amazing the strength of these people you surround yourself with in this program.”

The clinic kicked off in January as a good way to start the new year with a focus on setting realistic goals. The last session in April wrapped up with a safe and enjoyable trail ride as a way to solidify the bond between horse and rider and the new connection between a group of people who have discovered more about themselves and their unlimited potential. This group of six people went from the question – “Are you fat, fearful, and fifty?” to the answer of, “I’m fabulous, fun, and fearless.”

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