Of Riding, Fear, and Bravery
I am not fearless.
Even after training two horses from the ground up, some dark fantasy strikes me every time I swing into the saddle. I picture myself tangled in barbed wire, impaled on a jump standard, or lying in the sand with a broken neck. My memory is happy to call up the times I’ve been stepped on, thrown into jumps, smashed into walls, and bucked off onto cement. And my body reminds me of all those incidents with a collection of aches that only worsen with time.
Even as a kid I was risk-averse. I was the one afraid to canter, terrified to trail ride, too fearful to take the big jump, and would collapse in on myself when an instructor pushed too hard. But the drive for perfection kept me going, and I continued to learn, read, and ride, even with fear digging its claws into my back.
Suddenly it’s been twenty years.
Now for every one of those moments where fear ruled me exist a hundred that were the opposite: keeping my seat through a spook and realizing it was no big deal, being the first on the back of a horse I trained myself, swimming beside my horse at the lake, or galloping through an open field with my arms spread like wings.
But even now—I am afraid.
I eventually grew restless after the sale of my mare last fall and started taking jumping lessons. Halfway through my first lesson as the instructor put up the jumps, it was time to come clean.
“I’m nervous,” I said. It was my first jumping lesson in more than fifteen years. Every time I approached a fence the lizard part of my brain wanted to grab mane, shut my eyes, and cross myself until it was over—because that’s the only kind of courage I know. Hang on, get through it, and eventually the fear will retreat.
But the instructor didn’t respond the way I expected.
“You aren’t riding like you’re nervous,” she said.
Either my riding was better than I thought, or I’d become a master of lies told with my body.
By my third lesson, just last week, I found myself on a big, scopey Thoroughbred borrowed from the barn owner for the second time, trying not to piss myself every time I pointed him at a jump. He was forward and game, but soft in my hands and seat even when he rushed or got a little goofy with his head. Still, every tiny crossrail felt like a mess. My release wasn’t in a consistent place, and my nervousness and anticipation often drove me ahead of the motion. Even as I grew more confident my equitation still seemed sloppy. The voices in my head asked why I bothered to try.
I’ve done this with my writing too. Crippling self-doubt makes me work to be better, but it also once caused me to quit for years. And at the root of it is always fear—the fear of not being good enough, particularly when I’ve done my best. It’s disguised in a certain level of pragmatism. There will always be someone better than me, and less fearful than me, because that’s how the world works.
One of our last times over the tiny crossrail, one of the other riding students snapped a photo. She caught us right at the peak of the jump, in the moment where nervous anticipation had ended and my vicious cycle of self-criticism had yet to begin.
When I saw that photo, everything changed.
My head is up, my heels are down, and the horse has a proper release. We’re flying and it’s beautiful, even if it wasn’t perfect, even if I was scared. And because I was so afraid of making mistakes, of not doing everything right, I missed the magic of those few airborne seconds even though it’s right there in the picture.
Being brave isn’t closing my eyes, tossing away the reins, and hanging on for dear life and praying I make it. It’s certainly not quitting before I can fail or succeed. It’s trotting to the jump with my head up. Breathing. Finding stillness. Keeping my eyes open. Seeking improvement, not perfection. Knowing that the next jump will be better.
From now on I will be brave—and imperfect.