If you’ve ever been told to “get back in the saddle” or “get back on the horse that threw you,” you’re familiar with these pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps idioms. These words of encouragement used by equestrians and non are meant to inspire tenacity and courage for any situation that life bucks us from. But what happens when the saddle you’re trying to get back into is a literal one? Equestrian Kristina Lotz has been trying to answer this question since 2007 when she was thrown from a horse, suffering debilitating injuries. The answer came in the form of a gypsy mare named Merida.

Merida the bitless Kristina Lotz ITMCA
Learning to conquer her fears, Kristina Lotz has done a lot of in-hand work with her horse, a gypsy name Merida. Photo credit: Cambrie Caldwell Photography

The Fall

“The horse was for sale,” Kristina recollects, “I was trying him out.” Kristina was a barrel racer, and very passionate about the sport. She was riding a prospective new horse at a barrel racing event when she had gone around the third barrel and she and the horse were what’s called “running home” toward the finish line.

“I don’t know why,” Kristina says. “I will never know why, but the horse started rodeo bucking, head-between-his-legs bronc bucking, and he got me off on the third buck.”

Kristina landed on her pelvis and broke it in three places. Riding since age five she had never fallen from a horse or even broken a bone. “I didn’t get up,” she says, “I had to wait for the ambulance…”

Merida Jog in the Park OSF 2019
Kristina is wearing a jacket she made for a horse show at the 2019 Oregon State Fair, which was celebrating 100 years of horse showing. Atop her head is her grandmother’s hat she wore to honor her grandmother’s 100 years of life. (Kristina would like the readers to know she normally wears a helmet when riding. This was a special occasion). Photo credit: Brent Lotz

She was in the hospital for a week, a wheelchair for six more, and then a walker, crutches, and a cane. After her accident, she was not able to walk unaided until six months later, but the PTSD may be what had the most lasting impact. “Just the idea of a horse sent my body into a fear-stricken panic,” she recalls. “Clammy, heart-racing, can’t breathe type of panic.”

Kristina asked her mother to sell the horses on the farm she grew up on, sold her large collection of Breyers, and even got rid of her collection of first edition The Black Stallion books – all hardcover. In a full rejection of horses and everything that had to do with them, Kristina and her husband left for California for a fancy job in the sun and a house with neighbors.

Five years passed and Kristina never told any of her California friends she was a “horse person.” But she was slowly realizing that it was too hard to maintain the front: she had equestrian blood. “I really didn’t know who I was without horses,” she says, “I tried to fill it with dogs, but it was not the same.” Then Kristina did her own version of running for home and went back to the farm.

The Get Back Up

“I decided I would get a mini horse because it’s tiny,” she shares. “I can’t ride it. It’s cute. And it still smells like a horse. Somehow it tricked the fear and it didn’t trigger the PTSD as bad because it wasn’t the same thing. I wasn’t on its back, it couldn’t buck me off, and I found that I could get around that fear and still do something with a horse. There was part of me that really, really wanted to get on a horse, and part of me that really, really did not.”

By 2016, love had mounted fear, and Kristina began searching for another horse to ride. She knew Norwegian fjords were a calm breed, and she found a beach ride place in Oregon that had a couple.

She recalls that first ride though, body wracked with fear, heart racing, visibly shaking the entire ride. “I was wrestling in my brain,” she says, “like I was having a war with myself. Part of me knew I had ridden horses thousands of times without incident. The part of me wanted to bail. But that type of fear freezes you. I probably couldn’t have jumped off if I had tried.”

Kristina Lotz Merida The Bitless Bolender Horse Park
Kristina rode Merida in the 2020 IMTCA Regional Qualifying Challenge at Bolender Horse Park in Silver Creek, WA. She found many ways to show her horse during COVID, sometimes even virtually. Photo credit: Cambrie Caldwell Photography

And the war continues, every time Kristina mounts a new horse, tries a new skill, or rides in a new spot. Anytime it’s an unknown situation, fear tries to steal its way back in. She doesn’t let it though, because she is brave.

Merida the Bitless

Enter Merida. Merida is a 13.3 hand gypsy cob. Gypsy’s hail from “across the pond” (the U.K.) where they are a dime a dozen, but in the United States, rather rare. Merida is gentle, steadfast, eager, and one of Kristina’s best friends.

Kristina found Merida and was offered the opportunity to purchase her. “I’ll never forget where I was when I got the text saying I could buy Merida,” she says. “I know it was a blessing from God. And everything since then has been as well.” That was in 2018, and since then, Merida has helped Kristina conquer her fear. “She stays calm even when I am not,” Kristina adds. “It made a world of difference. And I’ve done things that I never thought I would do again in terms of riding. And new things, like archery, that I never thought I would do.”

Together they are conquering the competitive world with a bond that transcends fear and all of the baggage that comes with it.

Merida the bitless Kristina Lotz woodbrook hunt club
Kristina and Merida had a great time jumping at the Woodbrook Hunt Club. They entered the Handy Foxhunter class for non-members and Kristina shares that those were some of her favorite ribbons to earn. Photo credit: Kristina Lotz

Kristina rides and shows Merida bitless, meaning without the piece that goes inside the horse’s mouth. In the equestrian world, there are many feelings about this style of riding, but for Kristina and Merida, it’s what works. “There are people who don’t want bitless riders to compete with bitted rider, or even at all,” she says. “Some believe there is lack of control, others think it goes against tradition or you can’t get the horse to do all the things you need to without a bit. I am trying to prove that wrong, to pave the way for others who want to ride bitless.”

And she is well on her away. On Merida The Bitless’s social media page there is a long list of awards they have accumulated in the last few years in many disciplines including English/Western pleasure and equitation; hunter under saddle; recreational and competition trail; jumping; and even mounted archery, in costume no less. A few of their “big wins” include the 2020 World Wide High Point, pony division for the International Mountain Trail Challenge Association (IMTCA), two-time ambassador mare for the Gypsy Horse Registry of America (GHRA) and 2019 Horse and Human of the Year for the International Registry of Bitless Equestrians (IROBE). Driving is their next adventure. And of course, Merida is always eager to show off her cool tricks. “Just being in the saddle again is the biggest win,” Kristina shares. “I feel like ‘me’ again.”

Merida the Bitless Kristina Lotz Donida Show
The Donida Farm in Auburn has welcomed Kristina and Merida riding bitless at their schoolings shows. They won both the trail high point and the 18+ adult high point at the schooling show in December 2020.

When Kristina is not hard at work as the Publisher of ThurstonTalk, she’s probably in the arena working with Merida, lately on stretches and activities that will help her prepare for her upcoming foaling in July.

“She’s pretty impressive,” Kristina says of Merida. “I give it all to her. She gets all the credit.”

Follow their adventures on Merida The Bitless’s Facebook page or Instagram.

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