Ever since I said I would name my next blog post, Woman on a Mission, as an update to the 10-year-old article I re-posted last Monday called Jumping off the Pendulum: In Search of a Balanced Life with Horses, I have regretted it! I knew immediately, that before I could tell you about my current mission … I would have to address what happened in the intervening years and address a few difficult truths.
If you know me, you will know that I DIDN’T find the balanced life with horses that I was looking for. Owning that with honesty could take a book (I’m working on it!) as well as a boatload of time and money for a shrink - and this is just a blog, after all!
Regardless, the importance of sharing honestly has been made more imperative to me, by the confluence of three things.
The first, is a feeling I got when I read that old blog post about why I chose to retire. Again, it is just a blog, not a book … but there is something noticeably absent in it that leaves me feeling like a counterfeit.
The second element in my confluence trifecta, is that I just finished Tik Maynard’s book, In the Middle Are The Horsemen. In it, he recounts a time in his life he spent searching out learning opportunities from the world’s top horse people. In doing so, he doesn’t just relate the parts that make him look good; he dares to question himself, his motives, and his ego, when it would be so much easier to tell us all about the difficult hard asses he worked for and how they just couldn’t be pleased. Tik’s book reset the bar for me in terms of honesty and self-reflection.
And finally, I have been watching the Land Rover Kentucky Three Day Event, twenty years after my last ride there on Speed Axcel, and I am haunted by a memory of a conversation with Jimmy Wofford that I never had the guts to share.
Turns out vulnerability is contagious, as well as essential to connection and growth. Now how can I glitz over a painful section of my past and let you think something less than my truth?
While this isn’t the place to unpack ALL of what went into my decision to retire from sport, or what lead to my retirement at fence 18 on the cross-country course at Kentucky and our long walk home, there is room to share that aforementioned conversation with Jimmy. It was after all, very brief.
Jimmy Wofford; former coach of the Canadian team and one of the world’s best horsemen; is known for not mincing words and for getting straight to the point. When I ran into him after our unsuccessful ride and asked for his feedback about what he saw out there on course, he cut to the chase. “You want to know what I saw? I saw an adrenalized rider”.
He was being kind. What he meant was, I was riding scared, and he could tell. Fear was at the wheel that day, and I tried to make up for it with adrenaline.
When it comes to fear, there is a fine edge to ride. No one out there pushing their limits, isn’t dealing with some level of fear; fear of failure, fear of missing a distance to a jump, fear of falling, fear of looking bad in front of others, fear of letting down their supporters.
Lesley Grant-Law recently told me that a dash fear is what makes us brilliant when tackling a daunting cross-country course! It sharpens our reflexes and brings us in tune with our instincts.
But when does the ‘amount’ of fear we feel, tip our nervous system into a state of
fight (aggressive, adrenalized, ‘over-riding’), flight (pulling on the reins, interfering with the flow) or freeze mode (abandoning our horses when they need our input)? How do we work through it? When is it too much to overcome? And what is the difference between working through fear in sport … and the creative discomfort of producing subjectively judged work as an artist, singer, writer, or speaker? Are the terrors the same? This is something that I will continue to explore, as we look at how we are ALL the same, despite outside appearances.
As someone whose outside appearances can often be looked upon as ‘brave’ - whether galloping over fences or sharing my vulnerabilities in my writing and speaking gigs – I feel it important to admit that I deal with fear all the time!
What you are witnessing, is NOT fearlessness. It is doing something DESPITE fear and trying not to let fear take the wheel and limit my life’s choices. I don't always succeed!
As you now know, fear was at the wheel when Speed Axcel and I galloped out of the start box in Kentucky, whether it was apparent to anyone but Axcel and Jimmy. And why? Because our lead up to the event was far less than ideal and I felt underprepared. This is a recurring theme in my life – I would show up and commit to doing things that in the end, I didn’t always feel prepared for, and
preparedness is the best antidote for performance anxiety.
Fear was also at the wheel when I retired from sport, handed over the keys to my happiness, and ran into the arms of my savior, Alex B Wilde.
I wasn’t prepared for life outside of sport or equipped with the skills and confidence I needed for healthy relationships. Riding was really all I knew. Of course, time would prove Alex to be far from a savior, but is that his fault? No one should be put in that position. Looking to someone else to be brave and make the decisions I was unwilling to make laid a shoddy foundation for our relationship, just as the shiny red roof we put on our cottage couldn’t make up for the instability of the shifting sand it was built upon. And how do you go back and fix it without both partners agreeing to a serious excavation and bringing in the heavy equipment? You don’t. Someone in the position of ‘savior’ often wants to remain in that position and will do whatever it takes to keep you in a position of needing one. I had to leave.
I think it is safe to say, that this foundation of fear is what took everything down. It led to not trusting my voice, to never earning the respect of the man I married or the boys I was raising, to the loss of our business, our marriage and eventually, to the catastrophic loss of my health. The years it took for us to go through bankruptcy, lose our properties and separate took their toll. It’s one thing to feel occasional performance anxiety, but another to have your nervous system stuck in fight/flight/freeze mode 24 hours per day for years on end. That shit will kill you!
In July 2019, at a workshop in Montana with world leaders in equine facilitated trauma therapy I learned how being stuck in that nervous system state not only leads to disease, but also prevents our sense of safety and connection and undermines all our relationships, including our connection with horses. While horses had once been my source of connection and refuge, and my talent for calming sensitive, traumatized horses defined me … a little Mustang at the workshop named Cimmaron showed everyone there that this was no longer my truth, no matter how much I pretended otherwise. In this
way, fear stole my very identity. You can hear more about that on my upcoming podcast.
Thankfully, at the same time as Cimmaron outed me for having lost my magical touch with horses, I also learned that we could hack into our own nervous system to regulate ourselves out of fight/flight/freeze mode and into a state of coherence and calm, and that furthermore, we could help co-regulate another being. Apparently, all was not lost and this was something I could learn to regain.
At this workshop aimed at trauma therapists, we were introduced to Polyvagal Theory, the science behind our emotional regulation systems, and how we transmit emotions through our energy fields. We were then taught emotional regulation methods which we practiced with technology from HeartMath, that could actually measure our state of emotional coherence with a tool called the EmWave. We used it alongside the horses, whose feedback showed us time and again that they were repelled by humans in a dis-regulated, chaotic state (which shows up on the monitor as a red light) and attracted to us when we were fully present, and ‘in the zone’ (which showed up as a green light). The moment we went from red to green, horses would show signs of acknowledgment and a willingness to approach and connect with us. Learning to harness this ability was the basis of what people in the helping profession needed to create the sense of safety and connection necessary for their clients to thrive after trauma.
As we were practicing these techniques and I felt a shift, I put a few things together. In an ‘a-hah’ moment, I realized that if my underground current of fear – a nervous system running in alarm mode – could be felt by a horse and was preventing me from connecting with these animals I had formerly had such an affinity for ...
could it be at the core of what was missing with so many riders who struggled to develop the ‘feel’, timing, instincts and connection they were longing for with horses?
In the years since writing my previous blog Jumping Off the Pendulum: In Search of a Balanced Life with Horses, I had been driven out of the horse industry because of an incongruity I could not answer to; a riddle I couldn’t solve. Watching the eager dreams of so many horses and their owners turn into something sour, something rough, something scary, even, was heartbreaking. NOT, the riding of their dreams! The model I was working within at local stables couldn’t bridge this gap and the school horses suffered in a way I could no longer condone. Since I couldn’t see a way to change it, I didn’t want to be a part of it, and I quit teaching.
My Dad is an equine veterinarian and he and I talked about this conundrum about whether 'feel' could be taught, and how, for years! At a time when adult amateurs are taking up horse sports in droves, in this era when horsemanship is no longer passed down generation-to-generation, and with the demise of once popular horsemanship clubs, there was a chasm of lost knowledge. Over the years, we had observed a decline in the general understanding of horses and their care.
In this unregulated industry where anyone can hang a shingle and start a riding lesson business, unsuspecting newbies to the sport were being taught things that went against the basic nature of the horse. At the entry level to Horsecraft, where most horses and riders live, ignorance was being perpetuated and horses as a species were more poorly understood than decades earlier. With so many disparate ‘methods’ being sold, no industry standards to follow, and a general lack of understanding of the species, keen adult amateurs need a way to access this lost knowledge and build a frame of reference from which to read horses and the professionals who work with them; a tool to help them make informed choices.
In answer to that, my father and I are building a course of all the things horses wished humans knew before throwing a leg over them or taking up the reins. We aim to help humans understand how horses think and what they need to be happy; to build a bridge of knowledge and tools, enabling modern-day horse lovers to cross the chasm left behind when the art and science of good horse craft was no longer passed down from generation-to-generation.
Knowledge of the species is definitely part of the answer … but even with all the knowledge in the world, all the money and time to invest in lessons … I knew there was often still a gap.
Some riders still struggled with developing the instincts and the ‘feel’ they witnessed come so naturally to others. For some, the sense of safety and connection they were looking for when they started their journey with horses, was still frustratingly missing.
And here is where that ‘a-hah’ moment in Montana comes back in!
I am now convinced that today, when so many people struggle with stress, PTSD, mental health and lack the ability to be fully present and aware, the answer to developing the ‘feel’ and connection they are looking for lies in the skills my mentors were teaching to the trauma therapists at their Connection Focused Therapy workshop.
Turns out, horse people need to know how to control our energy before being accepted as trustworthy leaders with our horses. Moreover, it is central to the ability to accessing our instincts, and to developing ‘feel’ as a rider.
This ability to self-regulate and co-regulate is something that ‘natural’ horsemen seem to have in spades – those people who seem like ‘Magicians’ in the horse world.
As a former ‘Magician’ myself, I now realize that if it was something I could have, lose and re-gain with practice, it can be learned and attained by those frustrated ‘Muggles’ in the world of Horsecraft, too.
Shortly after my training in Montana I was hit with a breast cancer diagnosis. I didn’t know it at the time, but the tools I learned there were also what I would need to recover from my upcoming life shit-kicking – the trifecta of cancer, chemo and covid 19.
Throughout my recovery from cancer, I had time to study and since then I have become a certified HeartMath practitioner. I also used HeartMath techniques and their EmWave tool to get a grip on my own nervous system. I used it experimentally well beyond the scope it was intended for with positive results, as I rebuilt my life and reconnected with horses.
Now, I am happy to say that although Fear is often present as I extend my comfort zone and dive into new waters, it no longer has the wheel!
As I rebuild my life, I am a woman on a mission! On a mission to spread the magic of Horsecraft, and to help others overcome fear and find joy in their shitstorms. Turns out, they are all connected! Stay tuned for my Podcast to find out HOW!