Regaining Courage; Getting Unstuck
By Betsy Kelleher
When fear gets lodged within us, we cannot be a horse’s confident leader. I know from experience. Ever since Lady spun with me six years ago, that fearful memory got stuck in my head like a menacing image refusing to fade. I even wondered if I would qualify for post traumatic stress disorder!
I remembered the thrill of competitive trail riding, Fanny and I going 30 miles in about four hours, racing together over varied, beautiful terrain. Seems like another lifetime, and it was—thirty years ago when I was a lot younger! Fanny was strong minded like Lady, and her energy was even more intimidating, but I rode anyway. And now I was terrified to walk a horse down a one mile road?
I had ridden Lady for eight months before that day she spun when a big truck passed. We had worked through several discussions as to who was in charge and I felt confident it was me. But afterward, I chose to ride her only in the arena, avoiding the road. After witnessing Lady’s actions with our gelding one day, I kept her separate from other horses, fearful she might deliver a fatal kick. And even though I knew better, I often tossed her another bite of hay to keep her from pawing in her stall. Do you see what happened? Because of my fears, I allowed Lady to take charge. And now I had to answer the question: do I own Lady or does she own me?
Yes, I’ve written about this issue before, but I learned something new this year during a Horse Fair seminar on Riding through Fear, by Jeanne Lambrecht, PhD. I thought all along I was taking steps to overcome my fear, but some of those steps only let me avoid the thing I feared. Avoidance, she told us, actually increases fear. By having someone else ride Lady on the road, it let me see that someone else could control her when a truck passed by, and it helped Lady as well, but I wasn’t doing it myself. For too long, I used someone else’s courage to avoid rebuilding my own.
This insight has taught me a life principle. We have situations with others too, when we learn to get along by avoiding conflict. But avoidance doesn’t solve the problem. It merely postpones the inevitable. Fear itself is not bad; it can be a helpful warning! But if we habitually avoid those things we fear (whether dealing with a horse or a person who is difficult or different), we avoid the opportunity to grow. Resolving any situation often requires a plan, as well as the help of a friend or counselor (or riding instructor).
I can’t stop getting older and more cautious, so I extend my comfort zone within safe boundaries. Sometimes I’ve had to push myself to go out the driveway and down the road to the first mailbox! Using a “Spookless CD” last summer helped more than anything else to build my confidence, and I intend to work with that again. I also try to expose Lady to big tractors and trucks at a safe distance whenever possible. When my husband gave his mare away several months ago, I moved Lady to Ginger’s old stall, further down the line. Now when she paws, it’s easier to ignore her. I’ve also begun putting Rocky and Lady together in the paddock. I am determined to take ownership of this headstrong mare and rebuild my courage to ride her outside the arena!
Courage is not the lack of fear; it is doing something in spite of fear. Though intimidated by my first horse’s strength and energy, my strong desire to ride took me past my fear. If you don’t have a strong desire in whatever you do, you may never reach your goal. Success calls for perseverance! I was obsessed back then with the excitement of competitive riding and my desire for Fanny to win. Now, I just want to stay safe!
Lady’s strong instinct of survival prompts her to want to run away from objects I know to be harmless. So I ask her to obey my wishes, even when she feels fearful. I need to instill trust and confidence in my leadership, as I help her face her fears. I must learn to BE her courage.
I believe that our courage is rooted in faith in God’s sovereignty. No, I don’t believe my faith will keep me from ever getting hurt, even though God has often protected me in the past and I am very thankful! But God’s Word contains many references urging us to have courage, and His Word has power. I need to memorize a few of those verses, like Psalm 31:24: Be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart, all you who hope in the Lord.” One who believes fully in the great power of our God can rely on that power at work in his own life. II Timothy 1:7 affirms that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”
I have decided on a personal three point plan for this year. I share it with the hope it might help someone else as well. One, to trust God for guidance and wisdom, and spend extra time in His Word to strengthen my courage. Two, to establish a better relationship of confident leadership with my horse. And three, to replace those negative fear messages inside my head.
From now on, I am working to replace fearful thoughts with positive images. When I remember how Lady spun, I will remind myself that I stayed in the saddle. The horse fair seminar taught me that fear focuses on the future. We fight fear by staying in the present moment, by being aware of positive details instead of worrying about negative possibilities. It might help to say out loud that it’s a beautiful day. Or I can joke about how dirty Lady’s mane is! But I will stay in tune with my horse, being aware of her responses to various objects along the road. I will keep her attention by asking for a leg yield or a sidepass now and then, or a circle. I will seek to drown out those inner voices of fear with a positive focus on the simple enjoyment of riding my favorite mare!
I am finally making progress. Recently, I rode Lady all the way to the edge of the woods a couple times on that private trail by our barn. I rode alone, and I rode without fear. I was also able to get Lady past that scary corner of the barn just before going out onto the road. I thought she anticipated something around the corner, until I heard one day the echo of her clopping hooves on the driveway! Now, I am able to get her past that spooky echo, past the second driveway, and even the third. She stopped at one point, clearly telling me she did not want to go on, but I urged her just a short ways further, to a point we hadn’t reached before. For a moment, I asked her to stand quietly in the middle of the road. I waited until she stopped fidgeting, then praised her with a good rub on her withers. Without panic, I looked down the road to the end of it a mile away. Someday, this year, we will get there.
(Originally published in the May 2011 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)