It wasn’t and isn’t mine, I didn’t create it, I simply inherited it. Which made it mine.
What am I talking about? Fear.
I had ridden horses into my twenties, when I finally accepted the fact that I absolutely did not enjoy the reality of riding. You see, I was afraid to ride. Not at all afraid of horses, just afraid to ride. I had to let the dream go.
About now you’re thinking, “I know where this is going”: The thing we fear the most just may be the thing we need to pay attention to.
Love at First Sight
Fast forward 20 years to find me driving my Mom to look at a horse for herself. I didn’t want to go look at horse, but I had neglected her since moving into my new/old house I was renovating, so off we went.
Hank was the quintessential old-type Morgan horse, the breed of my childhood. Sweet, calm, and gorgeous. As we talked with the owner he was loose, could have munched about the grassy ring, but stayed right by us. Dear, dear, dear. And did I say gorgeous?
As we got in the car to leave, I made my one and only remark, “That is my definition of ‘horse’.”
I repeat: I didn’t want a horse, never wanted to ride again.
The next day Mom called. “Jodie you own a horse.” Now, my Mom is known for doing spur of the moment nutty things, but this one took the cake. My life was packed chock full already with a more than full time job, travel, and my Butterfly Roof House in which I was starting a new life, my life.
Not to mention the fact that I was scared to death to ride. Oh, I already said that.
Hank the Hunk
Hank arrived at the barn where Mom was boarding her miniature horses. In addition to being gorgeous, and dear, and sweet, he was as quiet as a horse can be while still breathing. Nothing bothered him. What they call a beginner’s horse any child can ride.
The first few times I rode, Mom led me in the ring. Led us in the enclosed ring! For my first “trail rides” she led Hank just outside of the ring. On the horse that moved slowly, and never took a wrong step. I was nervous every time I drove to the barn. And ecstatic when I dismounted.
The next thing I knew I was designing a barn to complement my Butterfly Roof House and bulldozers were creating a ring and a pasture from my 6 ½ acres. The Butterfly Roof House had become The Butterfly Roof House at Tucked Away Farm complete with Hank the Hunk and three miniature mares. Horses, the most unexpected and the best thing that ever happened to me. Though it took me a long time and gallons of tears and hours of queasiness and lots of, “Why am I doing this?” to understand that.
A second horse arrived on the scene. As soon as the next “Mom’s horse” stepped off the trailer she gasped, “He’s huuuuuge!” Put two horses under the Jodie column.
As Damn Yankees Harley was an unknown to us: a Tennessee Walker. Who, so I quickly discovered, paced. Not the smooth gaited stride Walkers are adored for. No, a jarring, horribly uncomfortable gait.
I started out sitting on Harley praying that he would just, please, please take care of me. And he did. It didn’t help that as a Tennessee Walker his regular walk is faster than my friend’s horse’s trot. Eventually I got used to it. (On the ground I loved it. “Finally another being who walks as fast as I do!”)
Slowly I progressed in the ring and then to riding outside of it. One day as I ventured to loop around by the lake below the barn, off the track around the pasture (the “Peripherique”) which had become my expanded safety zone, I found myself not looking for boogey men in the bushes. In fact, I was enjoying the lake, looking for birds, and humming. Eureka!
When we got to where I always told Harley to turn back up to the Peripherique he looked to the left instead, where the trail continues away from my place, then nodded his head toward me in a question, “Shall we?” I replied by softening my body, with a “Yes.”
He knew. He knew I was ready.
See Harley had been everywhere and done everything. So I had nothing to fear in him. The demons were in my imagination.
What’s so amazing is that as I have gained confidence he has let up on the baby sitting. It’s almost as if he’s asking me to take the leadership role.
Horses want to feel okay. Prey animals, their flight instinct reigns supreme. Although it’s not quite that simple. Horses live within a herd. And within that herd is a hierarchy. The top horse isn’t usually the stallion, as one would presume. It’s a wise mare. She earns her position by being trustworthy. Each horse in the herd looks to the lead mare for guidance. If she says blink you blink, and I mean now! Horses just want to feel okay. They want to follow the lead mare. Which is what Harley wanted all along: for me to be leader, to make everything okay for him.
How Did I Do It?
Knowing fear is unfounded is one thing; doing what you fear is another. Ni magic wand will wish it away. So what did I do?
- Just do it. If even for 5 minutes. I got on my Harley horse every day I possibly could. Each night I went to bed thinking “I’m going to ride down by the lake today” Each morning I came up with a million the-dog-ate-my-homework excuses. But each and every day possible I made myself “just get on.” If I could just get on him in the ring and walk around a few times, it was a step, and if not a step forward I wasn’t sliding back. Funny thing is, once I got on and got absorbed in it, 5 minutes became 20…
- Sing! When I got my nerve up to ride around the outside of my pasture, the “Peripherique”, I fought my body to unclamp. “Breathe!” I forced myself not to perch forward. Every other minute I had to remind myself. And I sang. “Mary had a little lamb, little lamb…” I betcha Harley can sing it now too. Yes, lying in bed the night before, I would think “Harley is so good and so trust worthy, I can go around the lake tomorrow.” But tomorrow would come and I would find my nerves had returned, so rather than not ride I would go around the Peripherique again that day. #1 above: Get on the horse every day possible!
- And when I did make a step back I didn’t beat myself up. At first it was difficult but then I decided even if today I was too scared to ride around the upper pasture as I had planned the night before, I got on and I rode around the Peripherique, or rode bareback in the ring. Hey, I was riding!
- There’s no schedule; this is no competition. If all I can ever do is ride around my property, hey, that’s more than I ever imagined I could do.
- Visualization: We’re going to ride down that hill and this is what it is going to feel like, the horse under me, my seat unclamped, following Harley’s movement side-to-side. The feel of the sun, the smell of the wet earth after a rain… It works for big athletes; it works for us.
This one I don’t recommend:
It takes a good deal of physical courage to ride a horse. This, however, I have. I get it at about forty cents a flask, and take it as required. ~Stephen Leacock
Self-Awareness vs Presence
As it turns out, that’s the tool I used to fend off the fear; being present. It isn’t easy, especially where fear is involved, but bit-by-bit…
Each of those items listed above do two things: turn down the self-awareness burner, and ratchet up, little by little, the state of being present.
The ability to be present is a trait I admire above many others. It’s the ability to be totally there. It’s an amazing gift for a human being to give another. As it turns out, the horses are helping me develop that ability. Because they live only in the present. Period.
The opposite is self-awareness. On many of those early rides I literally could not see or feel beyond my pounding heart. I was a human clamp. My senses were totally shut down. I couldn’t unlock my body. Blinded by fear? Yes, I know what that it.
My first baby step in being present was accomplished by distraction, singing a nursery rhyme. The singing got me past that place at the bottom of the pasture where Harley always got fast and pacey, choppy. I didn’t jump off as I had many times before. I made it back to the barn on Harley’s back, so I was “present.”
And then, as I was relaxed enough — or maybe more accurately a little less clamp– I became absorbed in the actual riding. Harley was pacey, which is a horribly jarring, two-beat gait. So I spent hours and hours walking him at a nice steady four-beat gait to rework those neuron paths and muscles to circumvent the two-beat wiring and get his smooth gait back. Mary’s Little Lamb became a 1-2-3-4 mantra.
Along the way I started to observe how Harley was feeling, I noticed his breathing, I could feel when he braced, I could feel when he softened. You see, I was becoming less aware of myself and in doing so, I become present. For him. I was able to listen to what he was telling me. It became a two-way conversation. And that opens the flood gates for the dance.
Finding the Wisdom of Fear
Fear is neither friend nor foe. Fear just is. It doesn’t go away. It just goes into retreat. I slide back some, but don’t let it get me down. I keep going. Then I make more steps forward than I did back. As Kristen Lamb wrote in a fabulous blog post, “Unexamined fear can be the hamster wheel of doom.” I’m not trying to conquer it; rather I’m staring it in the face and not letting it conquer me.
They say nerves heal real slowly. Lots of things about us heal real slowly.
― Buck Brannaman, The Faraway Horses: The Adventures and Wisdom of One of America’s Most Renowned Horsemen
The trick is to see the emotion of fear as a wise guide, not a stop sign. More cautionary, as in “There’s something to this you need to address.”
And so, there is wisdom in fear. Embracing my fear has taught me and shown me things I never would have known about myself or others otherwise. Never would I have gained that wisdom had I not swung my leg across a horse’s back again. And stayed on. Because staying on has been the letting go I needed. In my case Winston Churchill’s famous quote,
There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man. ~Winston Churchill
has proven absolutely true. I have become more human by becoming more equine.