We all arrive at fear with real and imaginary experiences that are as unique to us as our DNA.
Unlike any other marathon, fear has no common starting-place, no midway point of motivation, and no perceivable end, but if we can gain succour from refreshments offered along the way, we can survive. If we can hear the shouts of encouragement through the deafening cacophony of self-doubt, we have hope. Moreover, if we can accept that our personal best is simply putting one foot in front of the other, we’ll stay the distance, and the absence of a finishing line will become irrelevant.
What are your greatest fears? Mine are incapacitating illness, living without Mark, and I’m fearful when riding my horse. I have not listed them in order of greatness.
Life without Mark is self-explanatory. Being incapacitated means I don’t want to helplessly linger on the edge death; I want to say a quick “Goodbye”, grab my coat, and leave while you still have something bad to say about me.
My most closely guarded secret is that I’m a fearful rider; I could never say riding frightens me, so is there a difference between feeling fearful and frightened, and where do these feelings originate?
I love my horse with all my heart, I love riding, and the joy it brings is like nothing else in the world. Yet, every time I climb into the saddle, all pleasure is obliterated by the voice of fear screaming relentlessly in my head. It tells me I have just signed my own death warrant. Like a spit roast over an open fire, my fear rotates continually, basted by terror and dread. The juices are so intensely flavoured I can taste them dripping down the back of my throat.
So what do we do with fear? I can’t predict what fate has in store for Mark, any more than I can arrange my demise as a speedy episode between breakfast and lunch. However, there’s surely a way to restore the equilibrium of riding my horse?
The fear has been with me for many years; I just chose to ignore it. Ignorance was bliss but it wasn’t constructive. Mind and muscle memories have replayed past events so many times in a vain effort to warn me of the peril, that what started as a feint speck of anxiety has become an overwhelming stain of panic.
When I mount my horse, I breathe deeply, and focus mindfully on my actions. I smile as my body lightly greets the saddle, and sigh like a granny settling into her favourite chair. I thank my horse, check my girth, wriggle my toes, shrug my shoulders and thank my horse again. All is good.
Lightly and politely, I ask my horse to move off. Bruce responds (as always) with a quick snatch of the reins, and a wobbly hind step as his dodgy hip adjusts to my weight. We both breathe through his momentary anxiety, and I thank him again for his compliance, and for being him. We walk down the track to the arena, his steps are guarded as unshod hooves tread on stones, and he re-sets his balance to negotiate downhill with a slanting camber. We’ve done this hundreds of times, and don’t deviate from his favoured route, arriving at the arena in the correct place to neatly open the gate, enter and shut it behind us with well-executed sidesteps and turns.
We begin our swinging, relaxed walk up the long side of the school towards the top, and as Bruce raises his head and pricks his ears to better see the horse grazing beyond, I feel my hands tighten, my face redden, and I’m like a stuck pig in a slaughterhouse, with the blood of fear oozing from every orifice. I have a lucid moment of trying to regain composure, before the panic in my gut rises to meet the panic descending from my eyeballs. I start to sing aloud, and Bruce’s ears flick back to me, as the familiar words of ‘Ten Green Bottles’ follow him around the school perimeter. He walks mechanically forward as if I wasn’t there (which I’m not), and I try to let his solid body soothe me. My panic swirls around, before joining forces with a heartbeat that’s faster than speeding time. It’s a gamble whether I’ll implode or explode, and I grit my teeth awaiting the outcome.
“Breathe…breathe…green bottles…” I gasp “hanging on the wall…” gasp “if breathe breathe green bottles…” gasp “should accidentally fall…” two gasps and an outbreath “and there’ll be nine green bottles” outbreath “hanging on the frigging wall”.
Throughout all this, I smile and pretend. My stoic horse rubs his nose on his knee and pretends; the critical fault-pickers who watch surreptitiously would never know how much each ride costs. When I’ve put myself through enough penury to prove we’re both ‘ticking over nicely’, we halt squarely to dismount, and as my leaden legs reach terra firma, the frustration of my feeble fear kills me slowly once again. I can’t even manage a walk around the arena. Its been a year since we ventured out of the farm on horseback, and two years since we trotted. Once I’m standing on the ground, Bruce shakes himself from head to toe, ridding his body of my burden, and rests his nose on my shoulder; he knows a placatory peppermint will follow the litany of apologies.
Where did this fear begin? In the beginning is the only answer. Countless horses over countless years have done things that scared me, but I always coped with whatever they did. Bruce added his substantial weight to the fearload; from the start, he had an unpredictable streak that belied his steadfast appearance, and when he accelerated from fright to flight quicker than I could anticipate, it took a chunk of courage to sit still. When I recall the events without emotion, I clearly see I coped competently, if not entirely effectively, but fearful feelings cloud logic. I’m not frightened of the horse; I’ve managed the worst he might do. What frightens me is the feeling of fear.
My confidence waxes and wanes with the stages of my treatments, but I recognise the real Me differs from the chemotherapy-induced wraith, who wouldn’t dare put foot in a stirrup. I no longer have anything to prove, least of all to myself and in a skewed way, fear reminds me I’m still alive. Perhaps its time to accept that fear is as much a part of riding as limbs aching the next day? My fear is mine, and I’m grateful for the reminder not to do something dangerous, but like an auto-immune condition, fear doesn’t know how to stop. So is the answer to work on its responsiveness and not its potency? A stronger bit is never the answer for a horse, but perhaps walk-halt-walk transitions would work, direction not correction? Partnering Bruce began when I learnt to sit still, breath and trust, instead of trying to control with dominance; as simple as it was difficult. Could fear be diluted by guiding it to a place of acceptance, rather than obliteration?
Today I’ve shared my secret, aired my fear, and I feel lighter. Life is a work in progress, and perhaps by keeping our enemies closer than our friends, we can chose when we visit them, instead of having them hammer on our door demanding entry. My horse, my ride, my fear. My choice.