Aedín is a small black six-year-old quarter horse mare who was saved from the kill pens last year. When she arrived three months ago to live at our ranch she had not been trained or ridden. In horsemanship terms, you would say she hadn’t been ‘broken’. Broken––such an incisively appropriate term for what we do to horses (and people I would add). In order to feel safe on the back of one thousand pounds of wild horse muscle, trainers notoriously intimidate, bully and manipulate their four-legged companions into submission, rendering them emotionally numb and spiritually bereft. Cowboys call these horses proudly ‘yes ma’am-ers’. I call them a tragedy.
How did Aedín, a gorgeous pedigree elite athlete, slip through the cracks and end up at a kill pen? I suspect, based on what I’ve learned about her so far, because she is not the kind of horse easily broken. She didn’t play by the cowboy rules. That’s why we changed her name from Sierra once we got to know her. Aedín is Gaelic for ‘little fire’, derived from the name of a figure in one of the oldest and richest stories of the Mythological Cycle, a great queen who is a guide through the darkest of battles.
Aedín is indeed a little fire. She’s a combustion engine of energy that’s released when she flies across the paddock, or when she stomps her fury in frustration. Which is why training her and inspiring her to ultimately be my mountain trail riding companion has been one of the scariest things I’ve done. Recently my big project has been to earn her trust, learn her language, teach her mine, create our shared language, and ultimately swing my leg over her back and ride her. We call this ‘starting’ a horse, rather than breaking them.
During these weeks I’ve intimately acquainted myself with fear––the cold-sweat kind, the body-shaking kind, the real ‘I’m going to throw up’ kind. And while I’ve been learning a lot about Aedín, I’ve been learning even more about fear. Whether you are starting a horse, or starting a business, or a new life…starting is scary. So scary in fact that few will dare to do it. Yet, to create the lives we really want to create, we inevitably must face and work with fear.
Starting horses under saddle is not a new thing for me. Back in my twenties and thirties as a professional trainer, I started several young horses, all without much drama and only the odd tumble. I prided myself on being fearless. But now in my mid-fifties, I’m far timider. Perhaps it’s my seasoned sense of my mortality, or that I am more aware of the personal and professional consequences of a wreck (i.e., a horse moment gone very bad), or that I am wiser to exactly how dangerous horses can be. Either way, when––after a mere four weeks of foundational training on the ground––I first put my toe into the stirrup, I thought I was going to pass out with anxiety.
“I’m not going to do it first,” I previously whined to my mentor Keith Meriweather, who is helping me train Aedín. “You go first. You’re the one who knows how to hit the ground.” Keith is a professional stunt rider whose riding lineage goes back to The Spanish Riding Schoolin Vienna. On the outside, Keith is all cowboy. But on the inside, he is an equine Zen master, a true horse whisperer, who humbly conceals his virtuosity. But the horses know. My horses know and will do anything for him because he does not break horses. He inspires them.
“Don’t think of what could happen,” he said in response. “Think about what is happening.” I looked doubtfully over at Aedín who was standing quietly with her eyes half-closed, awaiting me patiently at the mounting block. I took a deep exhale, stood on the mounting block, and feeling as if I was launching off a bridge by a bungee cord, swung into the saddle.
I’m three weeks into riding Aedín now, and here’s what I’ve learned about fear (so far):
- Fearlessness is not necessarily wise or cool – back in the day when I thought I was so great because I was fearless, I was actually careless and naïve. I took risks that not only could have impacted me very negatively but others too. There’s really no badge of honor to be won by aspiring to be fearless.
- Brave is not fearless – it means feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Brave people feel fear and do not let it shut them down. That’s what makes them brave. I’d rather be brave than fearless.
- Fear has important things to say – fear takes very good care of me. It tells me that I need to be alert, keenly aware, and present. It tells me I’m reaching outside of my comfort zone. It tells me to tread mindfully because I am in unknown territory.
- The only thing to fear is fear itself – is a lie, and just really bad logic. Don’t fear fear–– that’s ridiculous. Instead, when it shows up welcome it. Don’t resist it. Fear is a catalyst, a wake-up device to catch your attention. Your job is decoding just what you need to pay attention to and how you want to organize yourself around it.
- Don’t try to manage your fear – a trick I’ve learned with Aedín is to regulate her fear and tension, instead of trying to manage mine. When I do that, the whole system relaxes. How does this translate into our lives? In scary scenarios that involve an ‘other’ (friend, partner, team), if I assist the other(s) to feel regulated and safe, it naturally assists me to be regulated too.
- A stitch in time – be present with your fear (and the other’s) early and often so you are not whipped around by it or reactive to it. The more present you are, the more attuned you are to how to respond to it and can attend to the fear when it is still manageable rather than wait until it gets more inflamed.
- Fear is often future based – we are forecasting failure or demise. As Keith instructed, don’t think about what could happen, think about what is happening. In other words, get present.
- There is absolutely nothing wrong with fear – we are culturally influenced against fear. We are told not to be afraid. We are told fear is bad. The trouble is not with fear, it’s because we haven’t been taught how to be with fear and navigate it. As a result of our inability to be with fear, we have panicked reactions. Mistakenly we point to fear as the culprit, instead of our unskillfulness as the cause of drama.
- Fear is a seasoned response – we become more fearful or timid as we get older, not because we are weaker or more frail versions of our younger selves, but because we are now far wiser. Quit letting ageism inform your narrative about fear, and quit beating yourself up about it.
- Fear requires that we feel unpleasant sensations – We seek to be fearless because it feels better not because it is necessarily a better state. Instead, cultivate bravery by being willing to feel, and be totally present with, the utter discomfort of fear.
- Fear is a sacred doorway – Do what scares you. On the other side of fear is the exceptional life beyond your comfort zone, the life of your dreams: you starting that crazy-idea business, you ending that toxic relationship, you living abroad for a year, you sailing around the world, you living in that tiny home in the forest, you starting that book…
… or me galloping fiery little Aedín far into the backcountry on long adventures that I will remember for a lifetime.