A couple years ago I took part in a one-week preparation class for a riding badge that would act as proof of my proficiency as an equestrian. Each morning for one week we had show jumping lessons - one of the three disciplines that are tested by two judges at the end of the workshop. Being an experienced rider and a young, energetic woman I was too proud to admit to our instructor that while I was very advanced at riding dressage, I had never jumped a complete obstacle course in my life. I thought I could just wing it and make it work because I had a great horse and a strong will. It’s no surprise that after a few warm up jumps, which I actually mastered without a problem, I was told to jump the entire course and ended up falling off my horse only three jumps into the course. I didn’t hurt myself physically, but my energy and positivity suffered greatly.
When self-doubt rolls.. or 'trots' in
What followed was a week filled with terror, nightmares, self-doubts, and many, many tears. I knew there was no way around having to eventually jump the whole course, but the mere thought of getting back on my horse and into the ring was agony. My trainer was gentle with me the first day and let me skip the feared obstacle, but after that, he pushed me to my limit sending me over that same jump again, and again, and again. Every time I steered my horse towards that jump, my heart sank and I felt sick to my stomach. It took everything out of me to ride up to that jump, but I did it.
Test day came and I could hardly walk as I tacked my horse up for the show jumping test. My knees were shaky and I felt sick, but I got on the horse, rode that course with a determination that surprised even myself, and ended up with the highest score out of all eighteen riders that day.
All of my life I had been told to not have fear around horses because they will feel it. Especially when jumping, it is important to not be afraid and to ride towards the obstacles confidently. A horse that feels the rider hesitate for even a second will most likely stop in front of the jump. Looking back at that situation I know that there was no way my horse, Liberty, didn’t feel my fear. I was terrified. So why did he still jump? It took me several years to realize why he did. He felt my fear, but what was even more powerful than my fear was my courage – my drive to get through that course and to the other side of that obstacle. He knew despite being so scared, I wanted to do it, and I believe that is exactly what being courageous is all about.
Facing your Fears
John Wayne has described courage as “being scared to death and saddling up anyway”, and that has never been truer than during that week. Fear in general, whether we classify it at as rational or not, is not necessarily a bad thing. It is there to warn us of possible danger, a threat, or discomfort. It is often an instinct that exists for a good reason. When confronted with such a threat or even just the possibility of an uncomfortable situation, we have three choices: fight, flight, or freeze. Often times, running away back to our comfort zone sounds like the best thing to do. Sometimes we don’t even make an active choice but just freeze, unable to act at all. Finally, there are times where we decide to stay, face what’s scaring us, and fight.
So how can we use fear to our advantage? I have come to understand that instead of looking at fear as a big, formless, and terrifying thing, it is better to look at it the way you look at a road sign. It is there to warn you of something. It alerts you. It exists to protect you from getting hurt. However, just like a road sign doesn’t make you turn your car around, park in your garage, and hide in the house, fear should not be given the power to stop you from doing the things you want to do. Looking back at my show jumping experience, my fear was not completely irrational. I had fallen off the horse on the first day and I could have gotten hurt. My mind was telling me to not jump again because it had ended badly before, and that fear was reasonable, but I wanted to overcome that fear. I wanted to ride anyway because it is what I love to do, and that will to keep going is what courage means.
In the equestrian world, there is a saying that goes, “Throw your heart over the fence and the horse will follow.” This saying can apply to all other aspects of life. Whenever our passion, determination, and love is stronger than our fear and when we find the courage within ourselves, we can overcome hardships, pain, fear, and doubts. We can strive to be who we want to be and accomplish the things we want to accomplish.
A courageous act doesn't always have to be spectacular or monumental. If you are afraid of heights, courage doesn't have to be a jump from a plane right away. If you are afraid of dogs, the first dog to get close to doesn't have to be the biggest one out there. Take small steps, no matter how small they are. What matters is that you take a couple deep breaths, politely greet your doubts and fear like old friends, recognize they mean well, and then gently ask them to move over and clear the path to a happy and fulfilled life.