If you saw me ride today, you’d never believe I was once terrified of getting on a horse. And yet, it took every ounce of courage I could muster the first time I put my leg over the back of one. There are some things worth risking life and limb and for me, the chance to ride a horse was one of them.
I was about 9 or 10, on vacation in Tennessee or West Virgina, someplace at least 8 hours drive from our home in Chicago. My dad thought it would be a great idea to pull a travel trailer with a ’63 Chevy station wagon (this was 54 years ago) jam packed with everything necessary for a week on the road including 2 adults, 5 kids and a hyperactive beagle. We would camp along the way and spend quality family time together in a space just a little larger than the average horse stall. Sounds like fun, right? I can’t honestly say I recall the details of what it was like sharing tight quarters with my parents and four siblings, but what I do remember is the day my dad offered to take me and only me for a horseback ride at a nearby stables. He knew how much I loved horses and that one of my favorite books was Black Beauty. I’d rarely had a chance to see horses up close, having grown up in a suburban neighborhood of townhouses that all looked the same with tiny fenced yards just big enough for a swing set and a dog.


The stables was out past town down a country road lined with trees. I remember the driveway had one of those big signs hanging in an arch over the entrance to the property with the name of the ranch seared into wood. The smell of hay and manure, so familiar to me now, brought me to a place I’d seen only in my imagination. My dream with horses was to one day run through the open fields of a pasture, covering ground faster than anything I could do on foot. I’ve always loved to move to music and riding horses was my idea of meeting nature’s perfect dance partner.
As we approached the barn I could feel my heart beating faster. I was so excited and especially happy to be spending time alone with my dad. When  I looked over at the horses tied along a rail, heads hanging low, tails swatting the files, it finally hit me, I’m going to actually ride a horse, then OH MY GOD, I’m actually going to ride a horse! What was I thinking? The guy in charge explained to my dad how the the horses follow one another on the trail and all I had to do was hold on to the horn-that thing sticking out of the front of the saddle. There was no other instruction, no safety demonstration, no helmet. Just get on and ride. I imagine this is how many people of my generation learned to ride and must have been where they came up with the famous NIKE marketing phrase-JUST DO IT!
The whole ride was a blur.  For all I know, we rode through mountains and valleys, forged rivers and jumped logs.  My most vivid memory is of the horn of the saddle. Flat on the top and covered in leather at the stem and base, it was just the right size for a 9 year old to tightly wrap her hands, hold her breath and wait for the whole experience to end. I was terrified of falling off. And when it was over, I couldn’t wait to do it again knowing that someday I would own my own horse.
How is it possible that I was so terrified, yet so excited to have been on a horse? Because fear and excitement are two sides of the same coin. The body feels the same when scared as when excited. AND,  everyone has fear! It’s what you do with it that matters. If you’re interested in pushing yourself and taking risk, then plan on being scared. As Steven Kotler explains in his book,  Art of Impossible, A Peak Performance Primer, “We naturally pay attention to the stuff that scares us.”
That day, preparing to ride for the first time,  I heard that holding the horn would keep me from falling off and that’s where my focus went-ALL OF IT! After that I could take that extreme focus and use it to my advantage. Each time I took a lesson on a horse, the memory of that first ride came flooding back through the familiar physical sensations of fear. It was important for me to recognize the fear but also remind myself of the successful ending ” and you survived Cathy.” The experience was not as bad as I thought.  Eventually I realized  I could handle a little discomfort if it meant I was able to be in the presence of a magnificent creature and feel the freedom of riding horses. It helped if I emphasized the excitement or saw fear as a helpful emotion that got me to pay attention to what I was doing…to rethink and relearn what fear means.
I didn’t start taking riding lessons formally until just before my 30th birthday. Each time I felt those same feelings of fear-heart racing, palms sweaty, shaky knees. I also felt an amazing sense of accomplishment and joy at being outdoors in nature moving in rhythm with my partner, the horse. I had to practice and practice, careful not to push too fast or too far past my comfort zone.


Kotler says the more you head in the direction that scares you without going past your skill level, the quicker you  will”amplify” attention, learn more and remember the lessons of your experience. And the more practice you get in facing your fears the greater your ability to remain in control even in the most chaotic, frightening situations.  Remember, it is the older, more experienced mare that leads the horses  because as one who has faced difficult, scary moments and learned from them, she is the most qualified for the job. When we learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable, we too can go further faster.
Confront your fears, push past your comfort zone just enough to create focus for learning while avoiding overwhelm that shuts down curiosity and learning. Remind yourself of the times you handled fear and came out stronger on the other side and the amazing skills you learned. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE taking risks and become comfortable being uncomfortable as you change your relationship to FEAR.


So if you see me riding the Wave (that’s my horse’s name) and I’m occasionally looking down at the saddle (I ride English, so no horn), you know that there’s still a part of me  that is nine years old and on her first ride-a little nervous but mostly EXCITED and having a ball.


 What is your FEAR practice? Do you avoid risk or do you take the feeling of “pay attention to this, it’s important” and use it to focus on the lesson it is teaching you?  Do you get excited about taking a risk or do you dread the thought of it? Learn to MASTER YOUR FEAR at your next Life Lessons with Horses session.