Good day, team.
Today’s challenge is about fear and what to do about it. It’s also the first of many challenges that I’m categorizing as “horse sense.”
What started out as a way for me to overcome my fear of heights has become a doorway into an entirely new presence in my life: horses. Eighteen months ago, I thought that learning how to ride a horse would help me overcome my fear of heights. When you sit on a horse, you are pretty far off the ground. Not only that, but they move. The idea of combining these two things turned my stomach into knots. Still, for some reason, it seemed like the right antidote for my fear of heights.
Over the past year, I have persevered by attending horse clinics and exposing myself to some calm and friendly horses. Last week, I finally took a leap of faith and leased a horse named “Treasure” for the summer. I’m not quite ready to own a horse (it’s a big commitment and expense), but I realized that if I’m going to learn about natural horsemanship, I needed to have a partner to help me. Treasure is 15½ hands tall. She’s black with brown eyes and has a very sweet disposition. She’s a Tennessee Walker, which means she should be a very smooth ride if I can ever get up enough courage to get on her!
Over the summer, I’ll be writing about the horse sense I’m learning from Treasure and our ongoing experiences with each other. Experts say that a horse mirrors its owner, and if that’s the case, I’m in for a journey of self-realization and reflection as well as some lessons in my limitations.
Yesterday, I went out to the stables where Treasure lives and had my first lesson. I was excited. I got up early and decided I would get to the stables 30 minutes early, put on her halter and take her out of her stall to spend some time getting to know her. I arrived at her stall, halter and lead rope in hand with positive expectations. She immediately stuck her nose through the stall door to greet me. She seemed happy to see me, too. With great confidence, I opened her stall door. As I approached her with the halter, she took a step toward me, stuck her head in my chest and wouldn’t back up. No matter how hard I tried to push her back, she wouldn’t budge. With 1,200 pounds of four-legged animal pressing on me, fear coursed through my body. I quickly removed myself form the stall and shut the gate as quickly as possible. Treasure’s ears pricked up and stretched backward as if to say, “What just happened? I thought we were going to do something fun, and now I’m afraid of you.” I stood outside the stall and looked at her while my heart pounded in my chest.
“I can’t do this,” I thought. “What was I thinking? I’m too afraid to learn how to ride. I’ll never be able to train or ride this horse.” I had to take a walk and settle myself down. After walking nervously around the stables for a while, I approached her stall again. She was still standing where I’d left her. We looked at each other. “Who are you?” she asked. She stomped her foot as if to say, “I want to move my feet, let’s get out of here and go do something.” As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t get up the courage to open the stall door again. I stood there paralyzed.
Pretty soon, an elderly lady walked toward me in the barn. “Hi there,” she said. “How ya doin’?” “I’m scared to death,” I admitted. “I’m brand new to all this, and when I went to halter her earlier, I couldn’t get her to move away from me, and it frightened me so much I just rushed back out of the stall and haven’t been able to get back in since.”
“Well, Treasure sure does love attention,” she explained. We stood in silence for many long minutes as my heart rate settled down. “This will get easier over time,” she reassured me. Then she held out her hand, “My name’s Kathleen,” she said with a broad smile. “Good to meet you.” “Gosh,” I said. “That’s my name, too!” As I shook her hand, I felt the waves of fear begin to disappear. “You know,” she said, “I’m in my 80s, and I’ve been around horses since I was 5 years old. I’ve learned a lot from them over the years. I’ve made lots of mistakes with horses, but I’ve learned that it was usually my fault and not the horse’s. You and Treasure will learn a lot from each other.” I pondered this as we stood in the barn together listening to the horses in their stalls.
Later on during my lesson with Kathleen’s daughter, Debby, my instructor for the summer, I felt my fear ebb and flow. Each time my heart rate speeded up, Treasure seemed more upset, more anxious. Each time I calmed down, so did she. There must be something to this mirror business, I thought.
What did I do in my first lesson? I sat on a half-barrel in the middle of the round pen with a bucket of carrots hidden under my shirt. Treasure ran around and around me until she finally slowed down and came over to check me out. She sniffed me and nudged me a bit with her nose and then just stood there making full eye contact with me. Each time she fully acknowledged me with no fear or anxiety, I gave her a carrot. And each time she took a carrot from my hand, she became a bit more confident, as did I. I didn’t bribe her. I just gave her a treat for treating me the way I wanted her to. I congratulated her for calming down and getting to know me. And she rewarded me by getting over her fear and allowing herself to approach me.
You may be reading this thinking, “What kind of horse riding lesson is that? You just sat in the middle of a pen for an hour and let the horse run around you?” But I can’t begin to explain how important that hour was for me. I’m setting a foundation of trust with my horse, and every little thing that happens between us will be a reflection of many more moments to come. As Debby instructed, “You don’t want any surprises with your horse.” I couldn’t agree more. I also know that if I ever do own a horse, surprises will come. The real question is, how prepared am I when they do come?
This week, notice where your fear comes up and how it impacts those around you. Are you being asked to do something you’ve never done before? Are you feeling paralyzed? Maybe you have to have a difficult conversation with someone, and you’re experiencing a mixture of fear and dread. What are you doing to embrace the fear and then move past it? You could take a walk like I did if the fear becomes too much to contain. Or you could engage in a conversation with someone who can help you see your fears from a different perspective. Perhaps you’re lucky enough to learn from someone who’s dealt with these same fears before and can walk you through steps to help you gain your confidence. Does your fear strike fear in others? How can you help neutralize your own fear so that others around you calm down and see that everything is going to be all right?
I suspect that Treasure and I will learn many valuable lessons from each other as the summer progresses. I’ll share more horse sense with you as I learn it.
As Ray Hunt, the famous horse trainer and natural horsemanship clinician, said, “My goal with the horse is not to beat someone; it’s to win within myself. To do the best job I can do and tomorrow try to do better. You will be working on yourself to accomplish this, not on your horse.”
Have a good week!
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