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.
Speak up:7 comments
| TAGS:bravery, courage, fear, horses, jumping, life, writing
On my list of favorite things, fantasy books rank right up there with dark chocolate ice cream smothered in hot fudge. Part of the reason I like fantasy books is because, as one of my critique partners pointed out, many of them take place in a Vaguely Medieval Land Where Everyone Rides Horses Always,* and I love horses. Unfortunately, a lot of fantasy writers aren’t necessarily knowledgeable about horses, which can result in cringe-worthy errors.
Not every writer has to be a horse expert (we can’t all be experts on everything, after all), but the reason getting horse facts right is important is because this is a real life example of what happens when people who know nothing about horses decide to go on an Epic Quest: (WARNING, GRAPHIC PHOTOS). The men responsible have since been charged with multiple counts of animal cruelty. Here are a few useful facts to help avoid common horse-related pitfalls in writing:
- Horses do not whinny and paw all the time to express themselves to humans. Movies are full of this rubbish, and it makes me want to hurl manure at the television. Horses whinny to communicate with one another, particularly when they are at a distance from the herd. They may nicker when you show up with treats, or if another horse is approaching. A horse with a fractious personality may paw if tied at the hitching rail for a long period of time, or bang on the stall door with a front hoof when impatient for his dinner. Beyond that, horses are extremely quiet for such large creatures.
- You can’t gallop your horse all day. The four basic gaits that the average horse has are walk, trot, canter, and gallop. One of the mistakes I see most often is horses galloping over rough terrain or for extended periods of time. It’s definitely possible for a horse to gallop for a few miles, but it’s very strenuous. The absolute limit is about ten miles, and that horse is going to be exhausted at the end even if it started out in peak condition. A brisk trot is a good, ground-covering pace for a long ride, even if it’s likely to make your characters’ butts sore.
- Horses can’t vomit. It is physically impossible. If a horse ingests something poisonous, they’re most likely to colic (get a stomachache). Part of the reason colic is such a serious problem is that horses can’t throw up to get rid of whatever toxin they ate. A colicky horse may lie down and refuse to get up, roll, or bite at its sides. Many horses are also fussy eaters. Unless they’re very hungry, they aren’t likely to eat something toxic that is offered to them (i.e., moldy hay or a poisonous plant).
- Horses eat a lot. You know that saying, “eat like a horse?” It’s true. A horse in regular exercise is probably going to need a minimum of about 10lbs of hay or grass per day. On an Epic Quest, where a horse is being ridden heavily, it would need more than that. Grass is more important than grain, so a handful of oats isn’t going to cut it when your heroes are winding through a treacherous mountain pass for days on end.
- Horses are claustrophobic by nature. Even an exceptionally trained horse is probably not going to want to go into the Scary Dragon Cave, even if it’s the only way to hide from the Impending Stormpocalypse.
- Tying horses by the reins is unsafe. If your characters are knowledgeable horse people, they should always tie horses by their halters. A horse that shies and tries to run away while tied by the reins could do devastating damage to its mouth and even slice through the tongue depending on the type of bit it wears. (A halter is what you put on the horse’s head to lead it, with a rope attached under the chin. A bridle is what you use to ride, and the reins are attached to a metal bit in the horse’s mouth).
- Stallions: just say no. Most colts should be gelded at a relatively young age. There are not that many horses that should be passing on their genes unless they are truly stunning examples of their breed and are also accomplished in the discipline for which they were bred. Stallions tend to be sensitive, hormonal creatures that are 95% focused on breeding the nearest breedable thing. They certainly can make good riding horses, and often compete at the top of their disciplines, but they require consistent, expert handling to get there. Your King or Your Hero should not go charging into battle on a stallion unless he or she is an exceptional horse person.
The moral of this story is that if horses play a significant role in your book, try to keep things at a broad, high level, and fact-check carefully. The best solution is to find a beta reader who is an experienced horse person and can let you know where you may have gone astray. If you’re more the do-it-yourself type, consider taking a few lessons at a reputable stable near you. That said, there’s only so much you can learn in a short period of time. I’ve been riding and training horses for over twenty years and there is no limit to what I still have to learn. That’s what makes horses so magical.
Have a horse question? Drop me a note and I’ll write about it for a future post!
*The lack of diversity among fantasy book settings is a problem in and of itself that deserves another post.