Sunday, November 4, 2012

Overcoming Fear

                                                by Laura Crum

            I got a good lesson in overcoming fear the other day. From one of my best teachers—my son. It taught me something that I kind of already knew, but watching my son go through it really made it clear to me. I thought maybe others would get some insights from this experience, so here’s my story.
            Those of you who read this blog may remember that my son’s bombproof older gelding, Henry, had a minor meltdown last summer. Here is the link to that story.
            Ever since that day, my son has been afraid to gather the lower field—the scene of Henry’s meltdown. When we gathered the cattle my kid would decline to go down the steep hill where Henry slipped and just wanted to gather the upper field.
            I gave some thought to this. I know a lot of people would have made the child go right down to the lower field the very next gather. You know, get right back on the horse that bucked you off…etc. But that didn’t feel right to me. I was perfectly aware that Henry was very unlikely to have another meltdown, and once we had gathered the lower field successfully my son’s fear would probably disappear. But I also thought it was important to let him make his own choices.
            So for a couple of months we just gathered the upper field and let the others gather the lower field. I didn’t put any pressure on my kid—just let him make his own decision. And he consistently said, “I don’t want to go down to the lower field.”
            So, OK. I felt that I might be a little sad if we got to the end of the roping season and my son had never overcome his fear of going down there, but I also thought it was not a big deal in the overall picture. My kid is riding several days a week and enjoying himself. That’s enough for me. I’m not going to pick it apart.
            And then last week we were a little short handed. The cattle have been difficult to gather lately. We started out that morning, and of his own accord my son said, “We’d better help them gather the lower field.”
            I said, “OK,” and I let my kid choose the way down the steep hill—and I noticed he chose a different route from the one where Henry had slipped back in August. But I didn’t say anything about it.
            We got down the steep section and we had a bit of work to get the cattle out of the lower field and through the gate. I noticed that my kid kept reassuring his horse, “Easy, Henry, just take it easy.”
            Henry was doing just fine, as he usually does.
            Once we got the cattle though the gate the herd made a break in the wrong direction and for five or ten minutes we were all charging about at the high lope up and down the hills and through the trees to get them turned. I hung back a little, so my son wouldn’t feel out of control and carried along by the crowd, but he charged about with the others, a big grin on his face. Clearly he had forgotten about being afraid. And that made me smile.
            We got the cattle in with no real problems—my kid was a big help. He knows exactly where to be—I no longer have to tell him when to move up or when to back off. He’s learned to read cattle and the herd dynamic really well. And he has clearly overcome his fear of gathering the lower field—without me doing/saying a thing. And that taught me something.

I think all of us who ride horses have to deal with overcoming fear at some point or other. For me, as for many others, this wasn’t as much of an issue when I was in my twenties and thirties. But I took a break from riding in my early forties to have my baby and raise him, and by the time I returned to regular riding, when I was about fifty, I wasn’t nearly so brave—or so skillful. It’s a common phenomena, and much is written about it on various horse blogs.
            Most of us who love horses strive to overcome our fear enough that we can keep riding and doing the things we want to do. At the same time, a lot of us can acknowledge to ourselves that we very sincerely do NOT want to get hurt. And I think everyone in the horse world knows of folks who have been hurt very badly due to a riding accident. Sometimes these accidents seem very preventable, sometimes they are something no one could have prevented. My husband says horses are like motorcycles; it’s not a matter of whether you’ll get hurt, but when, and how badly. Gee, thanks.
            I haven’t been badly hurt in my life with horses—ever (knock on wood). I’ve been dumped, yes, but the worst that came of it was I had the breath knocked out of me. So my own fears are not based on any sort of personal trauma, but rather the very realistic knowledge of what CAN happen. Cause I’ve sure seen a few wrecks in my time. Nonetheless, my fear has stayed in the rational camp, and I have made logical choices to reduce my risk (I bought myself a gentle, solid trail horse and I don’t compete at high risk/high speed events any more). And, in general, I don’t feel much fear/anxiety when I ride. I’m not afraid my horse will dump me…I do worry a little about meeting the unexpected dangerous situation out on the trail, or a horse falling. And I’ve learned to deal with this anxiety not by forcing myself to do what I feel uncomfortable doing, but rather by allowing myself to be OK with NOT doing what I don’t want to do right now and waiting until I do want to do it.
            This approach has helped me a lot. I have actually ridden down my driveway and stopped at my front gate and allowed myself to feel that I was a little too anxious for a solo trail ride that afternoon. Maybe it was windy, or I could hear a chain saw or dirt bikes up on the ridge—or I just felt anxious that day and not up to crossing the busy road which I must cross to get to the trails. And I gave myself permission not to go trail riding—since I didn’t really want to—and just to ride in the riding ring instead. And I found this worked for me.
            Soon enough the day would come when I had a whole hearted desire to get out on the trails…what little anxiety was there was much less than the urge to go. And on that day I went trail riding with a happy, uncluttered mind. So this is the approach I used with my son. I think I can say that it worked really well for him, too. When he was ready to go back down to the lower field, he did—and it was a totally positive experience.
            So there’s my little insight for today. Sometimes forcing ourselves through fear is not the best path. At the very least, it’s not the only path. Sometimes making space to feel what we do or don’t truly WANT to do and allowing ourselves to honor this feeling, can lead to choosing our risks with a free and uncluttered mind. I honestly think we make better choices this way.
            Any thoughts?

PS—I just found out that my publisher has reduced the price of my most recent novel, “Barnstorming,” for two weeks only. From now through November 15th the book will be $2.99 as a Kindle edition. After Nov 15th it will return to its former, rather pricey amount (I think 9.99). So now is the time to pick up the Kindle edition of “Barnstorming”, if you are interested in reading this story. It is the last book in the twelve book Gail McCarthy series, so if you want to read the whole series on Kindle, grab Barnstorming now, because I don’t know if the publisher will ever reduce the price again. Coincidentally, this book is about overcoming fear, as well. Here is the link to buy this book.

For those who are curious, Barnstorming centers on a trail rider’s worst nightmare—someone is targeting solo equestrians in the hills near veterinarian Gail McCarthy’s home, and Gail must find the killer before she becomes the next victim. Lots of trail riding adventures in this book.

Also, the series as a whole covers twenty years in the life of one woman-- horse vet Gail McCarthy. In the first book she is thirty-one years old and just beginning her career—the series ends when she is fifty—and there are many twists and turns over the course of the dozen books. If you enjoy horses and mysteries, there are lots of hours of reading fun here.

Cutter and Hoofprints, the first and second books in the series, are currently on special for 99 cents as Kindle editions, so you can give them a try with very little downside.  And again, if you do want to read the whole series on Kindle, now is the time to pick up Barnstorming for a reasonable price.


Martine said...

That's a really helpful post Laura. You've put into words what I've been practicing these past few years without really analysing it. I'm doing things at my pace, when I feel ready for them, and I'm not letting anyone rush me.
Too bad I didn't figure this out thirty years ago!

Dreaming said...

Thanks for the tip about Barnstorming - it has been delivered to my Kindle :))
I enjoyed reading your post. I like how you chose to let your son walk his path - literally and figuratively!
I think that having a job to do on horseback helps both the horse and rider, by providing a different focus.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Martine. I feel exactly the same way. When I was younger I often let myself be pushed (by trainers, peer pressure...etc) into doing things against my own judgement. I don't do this any more...but just like you, it took me a long time to figure it out.

Thank you, Dreaming. I hope that everybody who would like to read Barnstorming gets this tip. I have to admit that I would not care to pay $10 for a Kindle edition, and can totally understand why others would feel the same way. Hope you enjoy the book--let me know what you think. I love reader reviews, and if you have time to post one on Amazon, I will be very grateful.

And I totally agree that having a job to do on horseback is a huge help to both horse and rider. When I was training young horses, I "made up" jobs to do and tried to take the made up job seriously--and it really helped both the horse and me to stay calm and focused--or so I thought.

How Sam Sees It said...

I'm going through that right now. I broke my foot earlier this summer when a horse stepped on it - it's a long story, but it wasn't the horse or my fault. Now that I'm back with them, I find I have a fear of being around them on the ground. I'm doing baby steps too.


Laura Crum said...

Sam--Ouch! I have a friend whose horse stepped on her ankle in just such a way that she had to have a skin graft. No fun.

I think its even more important to take "baby steps", as you say, and stay inside your comfort zone, when something truly traumatic has happened.

Alison said...

i reviewed Barnstorming back in . . heck, who can remember at my age. Maybe Laura you can find it? It was a good review.

And yeah, I am already anticipating some healthy jitters when I finally get this book done and get back on Relish.

Anonymous said...

It's called listening to the little voice in your head. I tell my(non-riding) kids that if the little voice tell you no, LISTEN, it might save your life or at least save you serious injury...

Unknown said...

Good for letting him the time and place to face is fear. It's far more empowering that way, IMHO

And if there is anyone out here who hasn't read Laura's series, got on it! I'm about a third of the way thru and strongly recommend it!

Laura Crum said...

Alison--I remember your review--thank you! I'm pretty sure all the reviews were back in the spring when the book came out. And you know, I bet Relish is just the same as if he had no time of. Sunny and Henry are like that.

Anon--I totally agree with you. Thanks for the comment.

Thank you, Breathe. I'm really glad you are enjoying my mystery series. I have very much enjoyed your stories on your blog--I feel we have a lot in common in how we view life with horses.

Susan said...

It's called intuition, the little voice inside that keeps me safe. When I don't listen to it, I get in trouble. When I do listen, everything works out well.

Promise said...

The hardest thing I have dealt with in terms of fear and horses is when I came off during a jumping lesson in December of 2001 and went head first into the arena wall. Amazingly, I didn't have a concussion, but my helmet was cracked and the wall was moved a good 2 feet from its original location. I also broke my wrist in 4 or 5 places trying to catch myself. Stupid instincts!

Since I had to go to the hospital with a potential concussion (and a wrist I could barely move), I wasn't able to get back on right away and my wrist was so painful for several weeks that I refused to ride and cause myself more pain.

But the longer I waited, the less I wanted to get back in the saddle...and boy was I nervous when I finally made myself go to the barn! (In this instance, my mom saying, "Well, if you're not going to ride her, then we'll have to sell her. I'm not paying for a horse you're not riding." both hurt my feelings and helped me get over it.)

I had trouble putting the bridle on because of the restrictions on hand movement caused by the cast, and that made me worried about what I'd be able to do once I was on Promise's back. But, my instructor had been schooling her for the 3 weeks I'd been laid up and even though I had tacked her up, she schooled Promise for quite a while that day, so I was able to get on, walk around and then do some light trot work to slowly start rebuilding my confidence.

I was 17 and still bounced pretty well, so it didn't take long for me to get my confidence back, but I still maintained a subconscious fear of the gate we'd been jumping that night. Nothing I did to distract myself (singing, humming, counting strides, etc) got that mare over it if I was in the saddle - but she jumped it just fine for my instructor.

Laura Crum said...

Susan--That's a good way of putting it. Though I must say, in the case of my kid and his horse, Henry was very unlikely to have given my son more grief. Rather than it being case of my son's intuition warning him not to go down to the lower field, it was more a case of dealing with fear, pure and simple. However, I have often listened to my intuition about a situation and been glad I did. And I've ignored it (especially when it comes to people who gave me an edgy vibe) and been very sorry.

Promise--I think when there's been real trauma its much harder to get through the fear. Your story is a good example of the thing we all (I think) fear--getting badly hurt. In my view, you are a real trooper to have worked your way through it as well as you did.

Francesca Prescott said...

You were right to let him find his own way in his own time. People who say you have to push through the fear (or the pain! I've heard that so many times, even speaking about their own horses) are either insenstive, clueless, or bullies (or all of the above!). He must have been so proud of himself when he managed to overcome his fear, without the emotional pressure of someone being on his case.

I quit riding for seven years after an accident. I didn't think I'd ride again, but the day came when I wanted to get back in the saddle. I don't think I've ever enjoyed riding so much as I do now.

Laura Crum said...

Cesca--That is a great story. Helps us all to realize that we CAN come back after a riding accident that truly hurt/scared us.

Mona Sterling said...

I'm pretty intimate with my fear these days and I couldn't agree more about giving yourself the space to do what you can do on any given day. Last year, I was about to sell my horse because I was so terrified of her. Instead, I have taken it one day at a time and have gone from needing my instructor IN the arena NEXT to me while I ride in a 20 meter circle (too afraid to use the whole arena because my horse was spooky) to riding my horse outside by myself. Sure, we've only ridden outside of the barn/gate area once and it was only five steps down the road but until recently I had NEVER ridden my horse outside. Allowing myself to take as much time as I needed to move past my fear state gave me the courage to start giving myself goals to move towards things I want to do. Thanks for the reminder that it's okay to take your time.

Laura Crum said...

Mona--That is exactly what I mean. Sometimes we just need to take our time. I wasn't sure my son would EVER go down to the lower field again, but he did it when he was ready. Good for you for working through your fear as it feels right to you.

Val said...

I like the way you handled the situation with your son. By not forcing him to face his fear, you empowered him to make the choice when he was ready. I suspect that this had a stronger effect on his self-confidence then other options.

I was on a young horse that fell when I was 14. I was not hurt, but that pretty much blew my mind. It never occurred to me before that a horse could fall just like a person. That scary event has not prevented me from riding, but it still a very useful experience and healthy dose of fear that has kept me safe for years after.

Laura Crum said...

Val--A horse falling is my biggest fear. I had one go down with me unexpectedly from the slow lope when I was about 30--it was in a nice groomed arena. The horse stumbled, went down to his shoulder (at which point I came off, on all fours) and then somersalted. I still remember scrambling as fast as I could on all fours to get away from his falling body. The horse and I were both just fine, but like you, I never forgot. That memory keeps me alert--and I don't lope horses on a completely "thrown away" rein any more.