Small and Horses: How Not to Be Afraid
On his birthday this year, Jonah organized a horseback ride. Everyone quickly agreed to the excursion, including me. While as a kid, I was terrified of horses, I began to feel drawn to them about a decade ago. When I’m in France I volunteer at a horse rescue; and last spring, I spent one day in a communications workshop that featured horses, plus an afternoon in the corral with a horse whisperer and several of her horses. Over time and with exposure and proximity, I have begun to feel much more comfortable in the presence of horses, who no longer feature in my nightmares, as they once did. But, as I realized on our drive down to Manchester Beach to begin our ride, I haven’t yet experienced what it feels like to be astride a horse.
By the time we arrived, I was feeling just a bit short of terrified. No matter how many images I conjured of Titanic, my favorite horse in France, whom I brushed weekly and to whom I sang French children’s songs, I felt as if my body were vibrating with fear. Even seeing the line of horses, waiting patiently by the long trailer, heads down, their tails flicking away flies didn’t quell my anxiety. As we waited to mount, I looked at my granddaughters, and knew what I had to do. But I couldn’t shake the feeling of being trapped, forced to do something for which I wasn’t prepared.
“Who wants Caddy?” the guide asked. “He likes to hang back, in the rear.”
“I’ll take him,” I volunteered, figuring that with Caddy, I wouldn’t have to worry about being hemmed in by other horses, as I had once been as a kid on a ride in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. That time, my horse had protested the crowding by suddenly dropping to the ground—with me in the saddle!
As I swung my leg over Caddy’s back, he seemed gigantic—and the ground so far away! I felt my fear mounting, my whole body buzzing with anxiety. At that moment, at the pitch of my near-hysteria, I remembered to think small.
I began concentrating on Caddy’s coat, for which he was named. From where I sat, I could gaze at his neck and mane, which varied from a lustrous dark chocolate to tawny and cinnamon, luminous wherever the sun shone on him. His mane rose and fell with the wind, waving far to the right, then settling back down on his neck until the next gust sent it undulating. After a moment I felt my tension ebbing, and as I continued to gaze at Caddy’s neck and mane, I felt more and more drawn to this beautiful horse, until without thinking, I lowered myself toward his neck and began stroking him. “You’re a beautiful horse, Caddy,” I whispered to him. “And your name fits you perfectly.”
At that moment, the line of horses began moving, and with the first lurch of my body, my fear spiked again. Even as I write this, I can feel the tension rising in my chest into my throat, forcing the air up and toward my mouth, where the only relief is in a scream. Just as the scream felt inevitable, I knew what I had to do: Stop resisting and concentrate on Caddy’s and my movements. Let your body move with his, I told myself. Feel it deeply.
My body open to Caddy’s every step and twitch, I felt the two of us swaying together, forward then back and to the side, forward and back and to the other side. We were riding along the ocean, the sound of a gentle surf accompanying me, as the waves rolled softly in, then broke, rolled in and broke.
After a while, Caddy and I were moving with the ocean and the surf, all of us swaying and rolling, rolling and swaying, the line of horses just far enough in front of us that the universe consisted of my horse, the ocean, and me, all now moving in unison, my body purged of all fear.