Fear and Loathing in Horseback Riding (Or, Being a Big Chicken and Getting Over It)

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This fall I’ve been horseback riding every week, sometimes even twice a week, and it’s become the thing that I need to do in order for everything else I want to do — writing, creating, thinking, strategizing, designing — to go well. I don’t create anything except experience when it comes to riding. I don’t have any major ambitions with riding other than getting better at it and enjoying the company of an equine friend. By ruthless productivity logic, it doesn’t do anything for my life or my goals on the surface. And yet if I don’t ride out, my days feel overstuffed, rushed and cloistered in a way I don’t like.

But I’ve been thinking about the “inner work” of riding — the way it makes you focus in a total yet relaxed way, or how to communicate with another creature in a subtle, direct and profound way. Lately, though, I realized how riding is about confronting fear. Every time I go out for a ride, there is always a moment where I feel some fear — and I always have to make an effort to get over it in order to get what I want.

Fear, of course, is a very basic human emotion, along with anger, joy, disgust, surprise and sadness. It’s also one that we mask with other emotion words: anxiety, panic, uneasiness. No one likes to admit they feel fear, so we use those more “acceptable” words to talk about it. But deep down, they have fear at their core.

There are big and little fears in life, and big and little fears in riding. It comes from something as simple as having to put a halter on a horse you don’t normally deal with, or something big like riding a horse you’ve never ridden and trusted before — and who knows, today might be the day it will try to buck a rider off. I have a lot of primal fears when it comes to riding and being around horses sometimes, like being thrown off and having my face stomped upon, or falling off from a hard canter and breaking a limb. I have a fear on being on a horse that freaks out and I can’t control it or calm it down. I know, at some point, I will fall off, because most people who ride will at some point. It’s a question of “Is this the day?” and will I be able to stay calm and loose even when it happens.

The interesting thing is, the goal of riding is not to be “fearless.” Fear in this case is a sign that your intelligence is functioning — it’s acknowledging the real possibilities of what you’re doing. It’s a sign that you respect the creatures that you’re riding and know what they’re capable of. The fear you feel is part of your ability to predict and anticipate, which are great abilities to have in life and work. The trick is acknowledge and honor your fears, and then master them by developing a trust in your skills and abilities.

Just this past weekend, I was riding out in the field with my trainer, who was on a new quarter horse at the barn. He’s generally well-mannered and sweet but hasn’t really been ridden in three years by his previous owners. And out in the field, he decided to take the opportunity to lie down and roll around — with my trainer still in the saddle. Sounds cute, but having a one-ton creature of muscle rolling on top of you is highly dangerous. She had to disengage from her stirrups and roll off fast, and then try to deal with the horse himself. And of course, do it very quickly.

She’s highly experienced and managed the situation with calm and grace and good humor, and got the horse to calm down quickly, but there’s always that moment in riding where something can go really, really wrong. Doesn’t matter how long you’ve been riding or how experienced you are, or how well you know your horse. Or even if you’re on the calmest, doziest horse ever. Something unpredictable can always happen. Or a horse decides its saddle is bothering it and decides to “scratch” it by lying on the ground.

You can choose, of course, to stay at a walk, or never go out in the field, or just ride the same old horse you always do. You can choose not to try new things. You can choose not to ride at all. Of course, you don’t want to be heedlessly reckless — if you’re going to jump, you’d rather do it on a horse you trust and work well with. You can’t just leap into hunt or jump seat until you’ve reached a certain level. But at some point, you just have to acknowledge your fear, take a deep breath and trust that you can manage it if something does happen. And then you just have to move forward and do it.

Which is, of course, what you need to do in life all the time, whether it’s telling someone what your true feelings for them are, asking for money, sending a query to an agent, or telling your sweetheart the truth about what you really, really want. The nice thing about adding riding to the mix of life is being able to say to myself, “I cantered like a mo-fo last weekend — I can do this little thing that for some reason fills me with great trepidation.” It’s like a weekly exercising in confronting fear and being just a little bit braver than you were last week. It’s definitely made me more aware of those little moments in my non-riding moments when I feel fear bubbling up and tickling in the back of my mind — and better about not denying it or minimizing it. And of course, just moving on and moving forward despite it all. Riding sometimes crazy horses puts it all in perspective.

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