What are you afraid of?

Trying to learn to ride a horse at fifty-something is daunting at best.  I’m quite sure that I break more easily than I did when I was ten, and the idea of ending up in a body cast isn’t appealing in the slightest.  That said, I don’t seem to have any particular fear of falling.  So, why do I seize up with anxiety at the very thought of climbing up on Captain’s back?

I never took riding lessons as a child, but I vividly remember the percherons.  Molly and Bob were the two working draft horses that belonged to Gordon Shiffter.  When they weren’t hitched to a plow, they lived on the steep, rocky side of a mountain that was Gordon’s back yard.  His farm and his mountain were tucked away in a little corner of Appalachia called Mutton Hollow (pronounced “holler”), where nobody had indoor plumbing and a dollar was hard to come by.

Gordon had a daughter about my age.  Cheryl and I took every possible opportunity to heave ourselves up onto the backs of these tall and massive horses.  We’d be barefoot and covered in summer dirt, riding without so much as a halter and rope, let alone a saddle.  Long stretches of dirt road wound next to the creek, and we’d meander along on those gentle titans without a care in the world, drinking in the green and giggling over something foolish.

One of those summer days, we somehow ended up at a farm where they trained race horses.  There’s a picture in a family album of a horse race that everybody went to.  It took place on a wide, dusty back road; just these local guys, racing their horses like their urban counterparts drag racing down Main Street.  Well, we ended up at that farm, and the next thing I remember is being perched on the back of a sleek thoroughbred and walking around on the training racetrack.  It was glorious!

I was ten – maybe 12 years old, feeling fancy and graceful up there, until one of the boys popped the horse on the rear and whooped.  The horse took off like he was running from the devil himself.  Faster and faster that horse ran, and I hung on for all I was worth, tears streaming into my ears from the force of the wind.  Crouched over that horse’s neck, all I could see was the white whir of the inside rail as the red clay exploded under pounding hooves.  Funny thing is, I had no experience of fear at all.

I don’t have any idea how I got that horse slowed down to a walk, but I do remember the cheers from the boys that had gathered around!

Forty years later, I’ve been a horse owner for nearly a decade.  I’ve taken in rescues, tended to abscessed hooves, bandaged wounds, fed, cared for, and loved my horses.  But none of them have been broke or sound to ride until I found the Captain.  Here’s his story if you need to catch up.

Captain is so gentle, so well-trained, so docile and intelligent, that if I’m ever going to learn to ride, he is the horse to do it on.  The vet adores him.  Sue, the woman who comes out to the farm to coach me says that he’s worth 10 times what I paid for him.  I’d have to agree.  So, what am I afraid of?

I crawl up onto the mounting block, and insist that he stand still while I mount.  So far, so good.  I’m relaxed, happy, and comfortable.  Sue says it’s about time we leave the round pen and take a walk around the pasture.  The anxiety starts rising, and by the time she’s opened the gate, I can feel my legs shaking with fear.

My pasture is very hilly, almost terraced in places.  I stay up near the barn where it’s flat, and practice turning in large circles and stopping.  Stopping is good.  My familiar pasture is suddenly looking like a vast and terrifying down-hill slalom course where I shall surely die.  Captain stops and sighs.  I think he may have fallen asleep.

Sue marches half way down the hill and shouts, “Ride down here, Hun!”  – her long-ago British roots evident in the “Hun”.  I breathe.  I “relax”.  Here we go!  Captain inches down the hill, mindful of the shaking sack of human terror on his back.  “DON’T LOOK DOWN!” shouts Sue.

We arrive at Sue’s position, then finish the circle and go back up to the barn.  “AGAIN!”  Round and round we go, and little by little, I’m feeling less anxious.  Sue is encouraging, but she keeps saying that I should stop looking down.
Am I?

Finally, after about five round-trips in each direction, I’ve had enough.  I feel like I’ve run a mile while having a massive anxiety attack.  I dismount and lead Captain over to the hitching rail on the premise that I need some water.  Mostly I just want my legs to stop shaking.

Sue walks up and says, “You really have to stop looking down, Hun.  It’s terrifying you!”  I stop and think about that for a moment, and I tell her that the strange thing is that I have no fear at all of being that high up or of falling.  Hmmm…  Then it comes to me that what I’m so afraid of is that I will ask Captain to step somewhere that will cause him to stumble.  I’m not worried about me, I’m worried about him!

“It’s a horse,” she says.  “He knows how to walk around and not fall down.  You let him do his job, and it will make yours a lot easier.”

Horses are great teachers if you take time to listen.  My childhood with horses was wondrous.  My childhood with parents who demanded that I parent them taught me to be responsible in the extreme for everyone and everything around me.  If something goes wrong, it’s ultimately a failing of mine, right?  Oh, dear.

I could feel my shoulders dropping slowly down to a more normal position.  I’d been wearing them as earrings just moments before.  Captain snoozed while I sipped water and contemplated this.

After a while, I loosened the girth, pulled off the saddle and hoisted it onto the rail.  When I’d taken off the bridle and eased the bit from his mouth, Captain shook, and instead of wandering off, he raised his head and rested his chin on my shoulder for a moment.  It felt like a hug.

TheCaptain I
All photographs copyright ZenDoe

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74 Comments on “What are you afraid of?

  1. Loved this. I rode a lot as a child and I’m touched that your fear turned out to be for Captain and not yourself:-) Actually I’ve just booked to go for a one hour pony trek with a friend of mine, a gift from me for her birthday. I haven’t ridden for about 5 years, so I’m very excited!

  2. Yes, horses know how to walk and not fall down, but I would caution you that they should not be asked to walk across railroad trestles because they can’t see their feet. But as an adult, you already have sense enough to know that. I learned this as a tween, and I was so very lucky not to have a horse with a broken leg. I shake now as I think about it.

    Captain sounds like a lovely gentleman. You will be enjoying going places with him soon.

    • Railroad trestles?! YEEEKS! Mercy, my stomach fell through the floor reading that. But you were a kid and didn’t know. Just glad you both made it. Captain is a great guy, and having been a police horse, he’s literally bomb proof. I’ve seen him spook only once, when the neighbor fired a huge, loud gun. He jumped a little, but didn’t move his feet.

      Thanks for the encouragement about “going places with him soon”. I’m looking forward to it!

  3. Many years ago I went for riding classes. Just 12 classes. Other side of town. Made it enthusiastically every morning at 5:00 am on my completely unreliable moped. I still feel good that I got a chance to ride, got to spend time stroking the dear creatures, got to admire their long-lashed limpid eyes, got to feed them a little snack at the end of class every day. . . I love reading your horse stories, and I love the way you commune with them. And I fully believe he was reassuring you with his hug.

    • Oh my gosh!! Riding lessons at 5:00 am?! That was dedication! Thanks for your sweet words, Shyamala.

  4. Wow, I love your writing. I’ve always loved horses but never had the opportunity to be around them much. I always read horsey stories as a child and dreamed that my parents would buy me horse. I got up on a friend’s horse (called Trigger) once when I was about 9. I had only been on his back for a few seconds and the next thing I knew I was sat in the grass in front of him with a sore behind. It didn’t put me off horses though.
    Your childhood rides sound idyllic. Reading about them brought all my childhood dreams back. Just a few days ago I came across a pony loose on a busy road near my house. He was all over the place and it was starting to get dark. I felt sure that he wasn’t going to make it through the night without getting hit by a vehicle. He let me get close to him (I’ve seen Monty Roberts work with horses on the TV and read “The Horse Whisperer” so I fancied that I knew how to approach him). He was so beautiful and friendly but very nervous. I managed to get him down a quieter side road but then a neighbour turned up with a rope. The pony ended up tied to a telegraph pole and I felt like I had betrayed him (at least the neighbour knew enough to make a crude halter). When I went back in the morning he wasn’t there. It turns out that someone had collected him and I saw him a few days later in a field a few miles away with his horsey friends. Thank goodness.
    I would love to learn how to ride. Thanks to your story I won’t be so afraid to try now. Thank you for sharing.

    • Bonus points to you for helping the pony to safety!! Well done! I saw a mule on the side of the road once – a very busy rural highway. Looked for all the world like he was waiting for the bus. I didn’t even have a belt on that I could have used as a halter. Now, there’s always rope in my car. 😉

  5. Gooooooosebumps. “My childhood with parents who demanded that I parent them taught me to be responsible in the extreme for everyone and everything around me.”

    A familiar archetype, dear ZD – unmasked in a riveting story. Thank you. You are a great teacher.

    • Thank you for the thoughtful response, ML. Now, if I can just learn the lesson, and let the horse be responsible for his own feet! 🙂

  6. There must be something special about horses named “Captain”. Captain was the second horse I ever took a lesson on, when I was 12. He knew to stop as soon as he felt I was unbalanced. I never took lessons again after that summer until I was 50. I’m still not much of a trail rider but I do pretty well in the ring.

    Thanks for your “like” on my blog–I enjoyed reading your story!

  7. besides the whole written piece of your fear, riding, confidence boost and love gift from Captain, I identified well with your describing your position as ‘wearing your shoulders as earring! It made me laugh!

  8. My first equine experience I had a friend slap my horse on the rear. I went flying through the air to land with a “whump”. The speed must have been terrifying, but I’m glad you didn’t get hurt. Horses are amazing companions!

  9. I understand where you are coming from, Zen. Captain’s hug – I swear it sounds like a gesture of assurance that you can trust him. He, afterall, trusts you. And that is what we do when we climb on the back of our horse – place our trust in them, to the extent that we know what they are capable of.

    I’ve climbed back on, shaky legs and all 🙂 knowing the risks. I worked with a trainer for a handful of lessons to regain my confidence. (An experienced rider could have done the same for me.) And I remind myself – I can trip on a step, slip in a puddle, end up in an accident without a horse near me. Enjoying my passion is worth the risk involved. I make the concession to a riding helmet due to barn policy – and because the last time I flew off a horse my head was 3 inches from a gigantic rock. 🙂 No harm, just a nice reminder…

    And my motto, as I recraft my life: The only difference between excitement and fear is attitude.

    I love your stories and am so glad you are taking the time to learn to ride Captain. You will find your balance. 🙂

    • Wow, what encouraging words! It’s so true – I could get hit by a truck or anything at any time. I’ll remember that! Oh, gosh, that sounds horrible! LOL! really though, thanks for the courage!

      • lol – I didn’t mean to make it sound like that. My odd way of keeping risks in perspective. (Yes, I do work in epidemiology, so I have “fun” reviewing trends in safety, diseases, etc. – )
        Gosh – one of my sisters broke her ankle walking on her daily 5 mile walk. Slipped on ice. Several years later is still not fully recovered. I will take my chances on the horses…

  10. Thanks for sharing this, and a big congratulations! Somehow I feel like Captain was thanking you for trusting him!

  11. Dear Zen Doe, you have done it again, after going back to your reference about Captain’s story, I find myself in tears, I’m so glad you found each other, and now this post, so human, so wonderfully expressed, to finish with a hug from Captain, your teacher, your best friend, is perfect.

  12. Beautiful 🙂 I was smiling when I read this post. Our horses are truly the best teachers there is 🙂 I’m happy for you!

  13. Thanks for this and for the reminder to relax into the fear. I sighed, reading this. Another lovely post, ZD. 🙂 I could use some time down in a holler right about now.

  14. So enjoyed reading this. I had similar riding experiences in adolescence. Never any lessons, but lied about my “ability” and was given a spirited horse — who literally ran away with me. It was definitely an example of the fearlessness of the young, stupid, and ignorant for me!

    Captain sounds so sweet, ZD. And he’s beautiful. Loved the story about your ride. Got a chuckle out of your shoulders as earrings … Gentle gesture from Captain post-ride. Precious

    I am off to read Captain’s story, via your link.

  15. I so love this story. Thank you for sharing. Fear of doing things is something that I struggle with from time to time. The broken bone scenario runs through my mind too while practicing some of my asanas. I should be teaching by now but fear has frozen me in place. Thanks for reminding me that I can push past that fear and do what I love. Namaste

    • Hi, KP and thanks for reading. Isn’t it something how we can be so frozen in place by fears that aren’t even really clear to us? Go for it!

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