“I am a rider, dammit.”
This is what I tell myself some days as I tack up the most recent project horse I’ve started riding. There have been times I have had trouble believing it.
As a starry-eyed seven year-old enamored with the film “The Last Unicorn”, I arrived at the conclusion that I, like the lead character, was a unicorn trapped in the body of a human. Eventually, I admitted to myself that unicorns did not exist and that was a silly thing to believe. I exchanged that whimsical notion for another: I was a horse trapped in the body of a human being. By nine years old, I’d abandoned my self-inflicted identity crisis and decided that I just thought horses were really, really cool.
I cast my pom-poms to the side (much to the relief of all parties involved) and declared that I wanted to take riding lessons. My passion was ignited and history unfolded soon after my first joyful lap around the ring on a pony named Charlie. For half an hour every Saturday morning, I was an Olympic hopeful and Charlie was the equine archetype of athleticism and speed.
Tragically, we were trapped in the stubby-legged bodies of a suburban fifth-grader and a slightly bored lesson pony. But I was a rider, dammit!
My identity now is somewhat less defined. My passion for riding ultimately shifted over the years to what is realistic: the simple joys (and frustrations) of bringing green horses through the levels of training that I can manage. The process formally known as ‘growing up’ has increased the scope of my identity- and responsibility. Although I once shook my head in sympathy when former horsepeople told me of how they quit riding, I simultaneously promised myself that I’d never lose the motivation to retain that part of who I am.
But I did.
My hold on my identity as a horsewoman loosened. I stopped competing, pursuing working-student positions, and riding horses for money and/or self-destructive thrills. Every now and then I’d make a noble attempt to reclaim my rightful spot in the saddle, but it never stuck. There are other parts of my identity that the tenacious little pony-rider part of me has to compete with these days: the desire for purpose, social justice, and self-expression through writing. And while I am content to be the person I am today, I have had to make sacrifices to get there. Perhaps the dream of equestrian glory is one of them.
Truthfully, ‘growing up’ doesn’t rob you of your identity. It just continuously reshapes it. You were not born a finished product. Nature does not trump nurture. Your life is a kiln in which your person-hood is constantly being refined and shaped into who you are. Cultural currency plays into this. The environment in which you are raised plays into this. However, the fate of the person you become is ultimately in the hands of the person that you are now.
If there are parts of your identity that you desire to retain or restore (faith, fitness, friendships, childhood dreams), it requires a little conscious effort sometimes – and it almost always requires sacrifice. The sacrifices you’re willing to make define not only the life you lead, but also the character behind that life. Will you sacrifice meaningful relationships for financial gain? Will you sacrifice personal growth for stagnant, comfortable relationships?
I recently lost a job doing work that I loved and felt honored to do. When all of us in the office found ourselves at the end of the road, so to speak, we were discouraged. I personally started doubting myself in the same way that I doubted myself as a rider. Did I lose a part of myself along with that job that I wanted to hang onto?
Coincidentally, on our final day in the office, I got offered a familiar position as a catch rider: bringing a horse along in his training and experience until he sells. I gleefully accepted any form of income that I could. But then the anxiety set in: Is this who I am anymore? Am I cut out to work horses through problems and teach them new skills? Am I even competent enough to do it?
It’s only now, weeks into my work with said horse, that I am beginning to see signs of life in my old identity. I am regaining trust in myself as a trainer as old skills and mindsets return. Yes.
I am a rider, dammit.
[ I am many other things, as well. Who are you? ]