Courage the Cowardly Rider

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

– Nelson Mandela

No one likes to admit that they are afraid, yet fear is something we all experience. Whether it is a fear of roller coasters, spiders, or cantering on a loose rein – fear is something that connects us all. I have often associated my fear with inadequacy. However, being afraid is not what is most important. We cannot control when fear creeps into our minds. What is important is being afraid and doing the thing that scares you anyway. While we cannot control fear, we can control our reaction to fear and whether we allow that fear to hold us back or use it as fuel to propel us forward.

Apollo & I

Falling off of a horse for the first time is something that all equestrians fear. As an adult, the fear of falling is 10x stronger than it is when you are a child. For months the idea of falling off of my horse made riding a stressful activity. I became frustrated because I could rationalize how something I loved so much could be causing me such anxiety. The first time that falling off became a constant thought in my mind, I was riding a beautiful Percheron gelding named Apollo. He was big (about 16.3/ 17 hands), strong and powerful. He was a trail horse and was used to going walk/ trot with beginners on his back. When I started riding him and doing ring work, he hated it and would drop his head and crow hop. Looking back on it now, he was big and lazy and his crow hop was honestly not that scary, but at the time it felt like the biggest buck in the world. I remember during one of our rides, I was so afraid to push him into the trot that I got off and had a friend get on him for me. He crow-hopped once with her and she didn’t feed into it and then they trotted a few laps as if nothing had happened. She got off and handed me the reins and promised me I would be fine. I got back on, asked for the trot, and the minute he dropped his head I brought him to a stop and we spent the rest of our ride walking the arena while everyone else trotted and cantered laps around us. I got off of Apollo feeling defeated and weak and on my drive home the only thought that went through my mind was, “Maybe I’m just a shitty rider and this sport isn’t for me.” Never one to throw in the towel too quickly, I watched as many training videos as I could find and made a plan. Fast forward to a few months later, four of us volunteers at the barn I worked at took our horses out on the trails. The horses were all a bit energetic, so we picked up a slow steady trot. One of the Connemara ponies in front took off in a complete gallop and all of the horses got riled up. Apollo dropped his head and gave a few good kicks and head shakes in excitement, unseating me in the process. With one foot out of the stirrup and my body leaned completely to the left, I was one solid buck away from coming off. I gathered my reins, found my stirrup, laughed out loud, and pushed him into the canter. It was one of the most exciting rides we had. Only after we got everything under control and back to the barn did I realize I wasn’t shaking and I wasn’t scared – I was excited and I had had fun! The time I took to address my fear, build a bond between my horse and I and to push myself made all the difference.

Falling off of Ziggy

While I never fell off of Apollo, I fell off of the next three horses that I rode – I even fell off of my new horse Bear while dismounting! Every time that I have fallen, I made sure I wasn’t hurt and got right back on. As a person with anxiety, I’ve learned that my brain makes scary situations twice as scary as they actually were. Getting back on and pushing myself to go again helps me to keep things in perspective. Instead of allowing my brain to create the narrative that my horse threw me off and that it would happen again, I know I fell because I asked for canter because my lower leg wasn’t steady. Assessing my role in the situation shows me that I ultimately have more control than I think. I have had a lesson horse duck her head and toss me because she was in heat. While her being in heat was outside of my control, there were many ways to assess the situation to see her resistance to my aids coming and to learn what to look out for. Falling is a part of this sport, and it isn’t a question of IF you will fall, but WHEN. Fear still creeps in when I ride, even on horses that I know are steady eddies and that I am familiar with. Fear is a part of life, what I refuse to do is allow that fear to control me. The joy I find in riding is greater than the fear I have of falling.

Getting back in the saddle after two months off due to the COVID quarantine was scary. The entire drive to the barn, my stomach was in knots and it felt like I was showing up for my first lesson ever. I didn’t ride Bear, I rode my old lease horse Jackpot who was my confidence-boosting steady-Eddie old man. Although I trust Jackpot and know him well, he also had two months off so I was tense and nervous and afraid. I even had the shameful moment where my trainer made me dismount and she hopped on. When I got back on, she held the reins and said, “We aren’t in a rush, we’re doing this because you enjoy it.” The minute I was able to get out of my head and just focus on being on a horse again our ride improved. We focused on flatwork and walk/trot transitions and while that is nothing groundbreaking, acknowledging my fear and pushing past it is the ultimate victory. Using my fear as the fuel to try something new has made not only riding but anything else that I find scary a rewarding experience. On the days where I feel as though I cannot get past the fear, I remind myself that I am more afraid of not going after the things that make me the happiest, than I am of going after them.

No stirrups & no hands with Jackpot

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