That’s me. The me in my fantasy horseback riding lesson: like fearlessness and a hat with a feather would levitate me and a one ton animal off into space.
The happiness I courted was specific: to conquer a fear I’d been carrying around my entire life. But I didn’t just want to conquer it, I wanted to excel.
When I was a teenager, I attempted to conquer my fear of horses by riding. Instead, I got as far as sitting on a horse for thirty seconds. He never even moved. That’s all I could handle. A week later, he threw his owner, who had been riding him for years. That settled it in my mind: some fears weren’t worth a crushed vertabrae.
I’ve spent the last twenty-nine years admiring horses from the comfort of my car. Daily, I drive alongside rolling pastures that dot the Land-of-Bucolia where I live, watching horses graze and toss their tails. The horses seem small and manageable from a distance.
I’ve felt this way before. Several years ago I was riding a wave of successful newness: I’d moved and opened a business so why not try a triathlon? I ran, I rode my bike, and I did the breaststroke in open water while wearing unnecessary goggles and hair protection. Why? Because I never put my face in the water. I’m a quadruple Type A who needs to be in control all the time. And I couldn’t control what lived in the lake.
What if a giant barracuda swam toward my face? What if the Loch Ness monster grabbed my ankles and pulled me under? It didn’t matter that barracuda live in the ocean or that the Loch Ness is lake folklore of Scotland and I was swimming in dime-sized lakes in Connecticut.
Reason didn’t factor into the fear. But, when I mentioned to my friend Jane, an avid horsewoman, that I wanted to try horseback riding again, she said she had been intimidated at the beginning, too and now she loved it.
I wanted so badly to love it.
So last month I called a local stable, arranged for a $45 private lesson, and on the appointed day pulled on my boots. I drove confidently to the stable and instead of driving by, pulled my car down its rutted gravel road. I parked and strode purposefully to the barn, used my whole body to slide the heavy door open and then- I couldn’t move. There were horses everywhere. Being brushed, being washed, winying from their bays. They were huge with massive heads and I imagined a set of horse teeth taking a hunk out of my leg if I attempted to climb onto its back. I defaulted to my safety plan: talk my way out of the lesson, stay in control.
Newly purposeful, I walked carefully around horses to a woman with kind eyes. “Oh, Becky? She’s back through the ring.” I kept going, walking past jumping apparatus and sets of climb-on-the-back-of-horses stairs, to a tiny girl-sized woman.
“Oh, hi! There you are, let’s get Guennie. She’s super gentle and has been doing lessons for years.” I walked with her. This is the moment, this is when I’m going to say, Um- no thanks. I love my vertebrae. But I just follow to the tack room. What is wrong with me- say something!
The next thing I know, I’m wearing a helmet and carrying a saddle. Becky leads Guennie to the indoor paddock and I follow. Oddly, I’m patting Guennie on her mane. Now I’m babbling about the puppy I’ve been training, and now I am sitting on Guennie and don’t remember how I did it. Holy shit.
I’m not even afraid. I am comfortable. I do what Becky says and steer Guennie in circles around the paddock. I learn to stop her and when Becky asks me to stand up in the stirrups and let go of the reins, spreading my arms wide- I do it, and I’m pretty sure I yelp. I sit down and somehow I’m cantoring and then I’m learning to post: up, down, up, down, one, two, one, two. It’s all going great until I start wondering what I would do if the horse bolts, or if I pulled the bit too tight, or what if. . .
“Hey,” Becky says, holding the reins and looking me in the eye, “The people who have the hardest time horseback riding are the Type A ones.”
I laugh out loud. And then I stop thinking about all the things that could go wrong and I just enjoy myself. When the lesson’s over, I help brush Guennie and Becky says, “People think that with horseback riding, you’re 80% in control. That’s wrong. The horse is 80% in control and if you’re lucky, you get 20%.”
Standing in a barn with mud up to my ankles, leading Guennie back to her stall, it hits me that maybe I don’t have to be in control all of the time. Maybe that was my real lesson.
And I drive home, into the sunset.