“Do one thing every day that scares you.”
“And he’ll do it in five, you think?”
I am staring down a line of fences set up by my coach, shading my eyes with one gloved hand and holding a braided pair of leather reins in the other. Secretly, I am thanking the intrusive late afternoon sun for disguising my expression of concern and self doubt as one of simply squinting into the sunlight. I’ve been on a losing streak lately and I am anticipating another hot mess, but the knowledge that this anxiety is going to negatively affect my ride only amplifies it. I roll gently upward as Ed, my mount, casually stomps at a pestering insect.
After my coach affirms that yes, he’ll do the first line in five strides, I ask, “You think I should trot in or canter in?”
I am buying time.
“Do whatever you like!”
My endless cycle of inner chatter makes the lazy Georgia heat seem ominously quiet in comparison. I am distinctly aware of the sound of cars passing on the nearby highway. Moments later, we are gliding forward at a rhythmic canter. I am looking at the first fence at an ever shrinking angle, and then there it is ahead, 7 strides out. No wait- 8? Crap. 5? Yes, 4 now. 3. 2. 1– “Oof! … Left behind.” I scramble to awkwardly throw my hands forward rather than yank on his mouth, abandoning all hope of a decent release. Next fence: “Sorry, Ed. Jumped ahead.” Our rapidly deteriorating canter renders the third jump pretty ugly, too, but if I’m lucky I’ll get one decent fence somewhere in the course, purely by the grace of God-or Ed.
And so it goes. Fear has ruined my course. Again.
Sometimes equestrians learn lessons the easy way: our instructor yells “Don’t stare at the ground!” and next time, we don’t. And sometimes we learn the hard way. I am a slow learner. Many heating pads, hot baths, and high dosage ibuprofen pills have sacrificed their lives so that I could learn not to jump ahead of the horse.
Failure – falling off in particular – is a cruel teacher, but it’s a teacher. Ironically, the best thing for riders who are terrified of falling off is to simply fall off. It teaches them that A. They’re not as great as they think they are; and B. It’s usually not the end of the world when they come off a horse. After all, if you’re not making mistakes and/or falling off every now and then, then you’re not really riding.
However, as instructional as these “improvised dismounts” and other general failures can be, they can also teach even the most accomplished riders something else: fear. Whether you break a bone or you simply repeatedly mess up your distances, fear of doing either again can be haunting.
Fear, from a survival standpoint, is one of the most useful tools in existence. Your body naturally wants to preserve itself, so it warns you away from things that are dangerous. Don’t poke that bear with a stick. Don’t eat that thing with razors sticking out of it. Still, there is a common law amongst equestrians: “If you fall off the horse, get back on.” Riders are faced time and time again with the struggle of unlearning the painful lessons of their past that their survival instinct desperately wants them to remember. Instead of absorbing our internal instruction of “Don’t do that again!,” we must instead recite: “Do it differently this time.” That said, everyone knows that “doing it differently” is far easier said than done.
What am I afraid of when I am staring down a fence? The answer is that while I am mindful of staying on the horse (especially over fences), I am far more concerned with screwing up the course. And when I go into a course with that mindset, guess what? I screw it up. But the beautiful thing is, I can try it again. My fear might conquer me the first time around, and maybe even the second and the third, but horses are forgiving, and as long as you don’t make their job too hard or uncomfortable, they’ll let you take another shot at it.
So after my ugly course, I bring Ed back to a walk and head back over to my coach on a long rein, biting my lip and wiping the sweat off my brow. Determination has set in, leaving little room for fear. I brace myself for the tongue-lashing that I deserve.
“Go try that again, and do it differently this time.”