The Absence of Fear

I got to ride two weeks in a row, something that hasn’t happened in ages. It’s great to have some consistency, to be able to build on successes and feel my strength returning. I also rode Jasper again, and having the same mount a few times in a row is something I’m really liking right now. There’s the riding where you’re working on yourself and not having to adjust to a new horse’s quirks each time out gives you to space to do that. Of course, I’ve always said that riding lots of different horses makes for a stronger and more versatile rider, so I’ll likely want to switch it up next time or the time after that.

I wrote last week about how the anxiety about performing well impedes performance, and that was in my thoughts again this week as well. We had a lesson in the crowded indoor arena despite the unseasonably warm weather because the flies were swarming in an apparent last hurrah before the cold wipes them out. As I walked Jasper around the busy ring, I looked out over all the other riders and horses, normally a sight which could cause at least agitation if not outright anxiety, and felt nothing but calm. I noticed that something was missing, and then quickly realized that what was missing was fear.

There are a number of external factors that would contribute to my feelings of calm in this situation on this particular day. Familiarity with some of the other riders in the ring and riding a mount that I know well and trust. Having a newfound body confidence; knowing that my muscles, stronger now than they have been in a long while, will respond to my commands when I need them. I also certainly can’t discount the flood of relief that came with my man’s return from being away; the incredibly reassuring realization that we are Home for each other and so wherever we go from here it will be all right as long as we’re together.

But there’s a kind of fear that can live inside the body no matter the external circumstances. The kind that even when you’re safe in your bed and there is objectively nothing troubling happening can still reduce you to a shaken wreck. That fear, the anxiety that has built up over time through negative experiences and the eating away of confidence that regret about so many of life’s choices brings–that fear was, for the first time in a long time, absent. It has suffused every area of my life, but I see now in its absence just how much it has affected my riding. Riding is a scary and potentially anxiety-producing activity, fraught with physical danger. It’s natural to feel some fear; it would be unsafe not to have the kind that goes hand and hand with respect for the strength and tolerance of the horses. But all the rest? The fear that I’m too old and not good enough and too out of shape and the thing that I love doing the most won’t be available to me–that is useless. The fear that I’m trapped in work and a lifestyle that has never been suited to me–unacceptable. I can’t sit around spending all my energy desiring change and simultaneously fearing even beginning to try to enact it, so that’s stopping now. These are the anxieties that Huxley wrote about getting in the way. And without them…what an incredible difference. How much space there is inside of me, how much flexibility and movement and acceptance; how much openness there is to experience and to learning.

I feel like this is a new starting point for me. In life, but particularly in riding. There was nothing in my lesson that I looked at with worry, with a feeling of “can’t”. I even thought about riding Sparkling Gal again–my riding buddy was on her after her original mount, Malcolm, turned up lame–and felt confident and game. The presence of fear in my life has been like an artery-clogging plaque, narrowing my worldview and my ability to apprehend life to such a thin, unsatisfying stream. The absence of fear leaves open the space for everything.

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