On Fear

Photo courtesy of Laura Harris.

Fear. We all have it in one way or another.

In a sport where one is under constant criticism, constructive or otherwise, and constant judgement, putting down the “you are now being judged” cap can be hard. In this beloved sport, we don’t wear our hearts on our sleeves — we tack up our hearts and ride them. Suffice to say, the emotional and mental investment in horses is tremendous, and much like any investment, at times it returns and other times it doesn’t.

Fear is unique to each of us. It may come in the form of a rearing horse to one, a refusal on cross country to another, or simply mounting up after a bad accident for another. And for some, it may be a fear deeper inside that doesn’t want to play with words and be named. No fear is better or worse, and each unkind. But what do they all have in common? They love it when you don’t fight. Fear loves to survey its domain, gain ground, and keep you in the box you’ve made for yourself.

You don’t have to throw yourself at your fear to conquer it, but maybe start looking it in the eye. Give it a name, size it up, form a plan. But don’t let it stop you from being you. I’ve never been scared of a horse or jump. I may have been apprehensive at various times, but horses tend to be the part of my life where I am the bravest. And in the same breath it is where I am weakest. Horses tend to be how I define myself, how I schedule my day, how I budget my money. It’s as if there is a 15th system in my body, the Equinery System, and unfortunately, it tends to be more dominant and demanding. It rules my head and heart.

But what scares me? This. Putting myself out there, opening up, letting the world into my head and heart. Growing up, I was the weird kid; sure I had friends, but I was the kid that would canter not run, that would trot not skip. I jumped the lines on the side walk, and counted my strides even when just walking. Confession: I still measure and adjust my stride walking between pavement cracks. But I didn’t care for the things most kids did. I didn’t care about clothes — apparently mine didn’t fit right. I didn’t care about hair or makeup, which just gets sweaty and messy under a helmet. I lived every day to go to the barn. I lived for any extra ride I could get or an extra horse to groom. Even tack to clean.

All of it has always been stuck on the inside for me. One of my earliest coaches told my mom that she thought I was lazy. That I would only move out of the way of a train just enough to not get run over. She didn’t know how much I enjoyed riding. Luckily, the comment turned out to be inaccurate, or at the very least I outgrew whatever this person thought they saw in me. I later told the old observation to a lesson kid who didn’t believe me. She only ever saw me working, never lollygagging.  I never saw myself the way my former coach did, but it was just the beginning of learning the long life lesson that what you feel on the inside isn’t always reflected on the outside.

I’ve always been one to shrink from the light because I felt unworthy of attention, never a showoff, never good enough, never special. Little did I know it was never about being ‘good enough’ in others’ eyes, it was really about being just ‘enough’ in my own. Being the weird horse kid, I did learn that it is OK to be who you are, but it took me much longer to learn to love myself and be my own cheerleader. In fact, I’m still a work in progress. However, I’m pretty certain this mental struggle is one we all share. It is okay to be proud of your achievements, to acknowledge you worked hard. You don’t have to play small to make others feel better or dampen your accomplishments. It is okay to be happy for yourself, and to allow yourself to be happy.

I both fear success and fear failure, though I feel pretty well acquainted with the latter. But when we let fear control us, we become a slave to it. Each time we find a way to bypass it, avoid meeting it head on, we delay the confrontation. There may be wisdom in finding an ideal moment to tackle the challenge, but we do ourselves a great disservice to stall the fight. I always thought that if I kept my manners nice, my credit good, my ducks in a row, that it would somehow be enough. However, I have since learned, on my journey any way, that the exact thing you are afraid of will show up down the road, no matter how many twists and turns you may try. Avoidance is not a solution.

How do I deal with my fear? Just like my riding, I pick the fear apart. What am I afraid of? Why? What can I do about it? I’m afraid of people, so I tell myself, people are just like me, and I am just like them. That is a place to start. This fear may be silly to many, people who make friends easily, who never met a stranger. But I am not one of those people; I’ve come to accept that fact. I am not a people person, I am a horse person. Not that someone can’t be both, but I clearly have a preference. I talk and listen to horses. That is another step. Let this be the way I connect with others. Isn’t that just what I am doing now?

Also, I’ve learn to reframe. I traded the “I’ll never be good enough” to “there is always more to learn.” I used to think I might somehow magically get worse as I got older, not better. That while I might acquire more knowledge, I would lose feel and physical ability. But, to put it simply, my brain lies to me. Your brain lies too I bet. Sometimes it’s a good lie, like I only have another minute on the treadmill when I can clearly see it’s three. But sometimes it’s a bad lie, and your brain turns mean. Restructuring a thought can help put your brain to work for you. It has for me.

While fear exists to protect us, it can also hold us back. I’m trying to view it as a challenge, a way to grow. Nothing great ever came from being comfortable the clichés tell me. I’ve had to face several of my biggest fears recently and over the years, and while I won’t lie and say it’s been easy, I am stronger for it. I feel like I can take on challenges that once seemed out of my grasp. I’m a different person having gone through the tempestuous nature of personal struggle.

The fight is hard, the fight is scary, but the fight is worth it.

Go Eventing!