The Wisdom of Fear: Lessons From My Horses 7

The Wisdom of Fear

Thelwell ponies have touched the hearts and funny bones of horse people since I was a kid. This is one of the few Thelwell drawings I didn’t find funny at all back then. This is exactly what my fear looked like! See lots more of Norman Thelwell’s wonderful artwork at

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.

Harley Horse

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?

  1. 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…
  2. 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!
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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

The Wisdom of Fear

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.


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7 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Fear: Lessons From My Horses

  • Penny Simmons

    An inspiring story. I had no idea you had only been riding such a short time. I admire you for many reasons, this story illustrates well one of them.

    • Jodie Post author

      Oh gosh Penny, thanks! And really the riding I did do years ago as a kid instilled bad habits that I’m still getting over. Someone pointed one out just yesterday. The real interesting part is that there’s always something analogous going on in the rest of my life I find. In this case it was that I was using my seat to drive without realizing it. It makes a horse numb to the stimulus, and stiff. I think the metaphor for me is gerbil wheel thought patterns I get on. Let go!

  • Rachel Parris

    Jodie, I cannot believe that I just today discovered your blog! I have only known you through Facebook; and some of the things I saw there did not make sense…until now. I knew about the horses of course, but not the story. I knew there was some connection to rubber duckies, but not what it was. Clearly you were a writer, but I didn’t realize how prolific. I am sort of glad I never saw your blog before. I would have been too intimidated to contact you. I LOVE your blog and will do some catch up reading over time. Your comments on the difference between “self-awareness” and “being present” were very helpful to me. I have been mulling those two things over for some time now, and I think confusing the two. I will think about what you have said. Thank you so much for this post.

    • Jodie Post author

      Hi Rachel,
      Well, it’s certainly a different kind of blog than the one I was writing for!
      I have been hesitant to write about what’s going on. And really just published the first post of this type at the first of the year — held my nose and jumped! And then Meg Cox (!) praised it. Talking about wind in my sails!
      I work everything out by writing about it, so yes, I guess that does make me a writer. But getting a response like this from you (and I can see Jan’s on the page I’m on too) I am just short of weeping to know that it does in fact have value, and resonates with another soul. Wow!

      You may want to read “The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness” by Timothy Keller. It’s real short. It’s Christian based, which isn’t something I usually read, but I found that aspect not at all off-putting. From the back copy:

      In this short and punchy book, bestselling author Timothy Keller shows that gospel humility means we can stop connecting every experience, every conversation with ourselves and can thus be free from self-condemnation. A truly gospel-humble person is not a self-hating person or a self-loving person, but a self-forgetful person

      Especially as women we take everything so personally. And as humans we’re always looking at ourselves and miss so much. One of the many wonderful things I learned from horses is not only to be present, but also to head out to the barn with no agenda. And not to hold a grudge. Am learning. Am working at it! You can see how this benefits relationships.

      Please don’t be intimidated by me. I’m just a silly free spirit who finds a way. About an hour a day I spend forking manure into or out of a manure wagon. And most of the rest of the day I smell like it. “Intimidating”? I think not!

      Thanks so much for writing. Please please keep in touch!


  • Cynthia Brosnan

    Thank you, Jodie for this wonderful message and the step by step plan to controlling the fear. I bought my first horse fresh out of college, a 6 month old Arabian colt who took me on equine adventures for 26 years. The problem arose with the next three horses all of whom were determined to end my riding career. Now, I have a beautiful 16.2 Twalker gelding that I trailer once a week to a boarding/training stable and ride under the tutelage of a patient and intuitive trainer. (I seldom ride at home, the scene of many disasters. I can’t even remember how many times I was bucked off by the next three horses.) She knows my fear and has done wonders in getting me back in the saddle. At 66, Buck’s comment about healing slowly is all too true. My fear has brought me to tears and the nausea was enough to keep my on the ground. I find your success to be truly inspirational and I want to ride more than anything. I love being in the saddle. Aches, pains, even allergies vanish when I am up there. Thank you. I will let you know how this spring and summer goes – after the snow melts!