Getting Back on the Horse: Literally and Metaphorically
We hear from many sources from Ram Dass with his seminal Be Here Now, to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now about being present in the moment. By now, we are well-versed in the benefits of mindfulness and the awareness of what is right in front of us. We know that living in the past limits our potential and worrying about the future inhibits our behavior. But every once in a while it is helpful to look back, to acknowledge growth and expansion. This is especially true with regard to healing after a break-up. I wrote this piece nine years ago. It serves not only as evidence of my own progress, but as a reminder of the value of resilience.
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In the last several months, I’ve taken up horseback riding. Until recently, I had had a single experience on a horse when I was 17 on a camping trip in upstate New York with my high school boyfriend. Let’s just say that it was short-lived and ended with the horse running back to the stable after nibbling my feet. I asked for my money back.
My mother is a classic New York Jew who believes if you perspire, you are working too hard and should immediately return to the air-conditioned salon to dine on chopped chicken liver and cucumber sandwiches while reading a good book.
I was never what you would call an athletic kid. It’s not that I wasn’t fit. I danced from the age of three—ballet, modern, and tap. I was raised by intellectual, artist-types. My mother is a classic New York Jew who believes if you perspire, you are working too hard and should immediately return to the air-conditioned salon to dine on chopped chicken liver and cucumber sandwiches while reading a good book. My father is a tenderhearted, philosophical Norwegian. His Scandinavian stoicism allows him to endure root canals without anesthesia and shovel snow in little more than a T-shirt, but somehow that stoicism didn’t make its way into his workout ethic. My parents could not have been more loving and supportive, but they did not push the sports.
In my 20s, I discovered yoga and hiking. In my 30s, I started snowboarding and kayaking. In my 40s so far, skiing and horseback riding. Though I have slammed my body against the mountain numerous times by “catching an edge,” what happened yesterday morning was far different.
It was about the ninth or tenth time I’d been riding. I was alone with David, who has been on horses his whole life. He is English and a retired polo player as well. We often ride with our kids and take it easy, trotting with an occasional canter if one of the horses decides to cut loose. This ride was intended to let us run. We were riding horses that we often ride; he was on Twister and I was on Cherokee. After a little warm up, David took off and I followed. He cantered ahead of me. Cherokee was reluctant to go and being inexperienced, I didn’t force her. Recognizing we were falling far behind, she decided she’d better catch up and she picked up her feet. We got a good pace going, but when she lost sight of the others, she broke into a full gallop. It was faster than I had ever ridden and it was magical.
This time, when Cherokee took it from canter to gallop, it was smooth and graceful. For a moment, I got lost in it. I was flying.
One of the things I have learned is that you have to hug the horse with your legs. Standing in the stirrups, your lower body must be engaged as if it is part of the horse, providing an independent suspension system. With my very limited experience, I am very comfortable walking and trotting, but as soon as we start cantering, I become conscious of every nuance of the motion and how my body feels in that moment, making sure I stay balanced. This time, when Cherokee took it from canter to gallop, it was smooth and graceful. For a moment, I got lost in it. I was flying. We caught David and Twister and took a breath.
Palos Verdes has a bridle path covered in mulch. It winds around behind “horse properties” and through some commercial stables. It’s beautiful, even on a grey morning threatening rain, as it was yesterday. When we reached a straightaway, we decided to run some more. Again, Cherokee and I watched our friends disappear in front of us. I stood up and pressed my heels into her ribs. She responded and started to run.
This would be a good place to acknowledge that there is a tremendous amount of trust required to get on the back of a horse and ask it to gallop away. I am not sure I really grasped that until I was in the saddle doing it. I can’t think of another experience in which my wellbeing has been in the hands (or hooves) of a living, breathing being with whom I can’t even have a basic conversation. Feeding her a few carrots as the ranch hands saddled her up is not the same as if I had been able to share a few laughs over a beer, or at the very least, discuss the weather.
So there we were, running on the path and I felt her stumble. My mind raced. What was I supposed to do?
So there we were, running on the path and I felt her stumble. My mind raced. What was I supposed to do? I remember being told to put my feet forward and flex them so if she went down I might project forward and land on my feet rather than my head. It’s mostly a blur, but I do know this. She recovered her footing. I did not. I was thrown to the right and lost my left stirrup. For a short time as we were galloping along, I thought I might be able to hoist myself back up into the saddle. I was hanging on with everything I had and trying to figure out how to pull back on the reigns to slow her down. But it was happening so fast, and I was sliding further off-center. There was a definitive point at which I decided I’d better bail if I wanted to have an ounce of control in how I was going to fall.
I can’t believe I am falling off a galloping horse.
I was shocked at the sound my body made as it hit the ground. If I was going to try to describe it, I’d say it went, “thud.” The impact was hard enough to knock the piss out of me…literally. And then the pain. I couldn’t form words. I moaned. Apparently I had yelled for David on the way down because he was riding back towards me asking me if anything was broken and if I could move all my parts. It took me a minute to be able to answer him. For one thing, I hit my head really hard. I was smart enough to be wearing a good helmet correctly. I also know how to fall: Tuck and streamline your body. Whatever you do, don’t stick a limb out trying to break the fall. The only thing you’ll break is that limb. So after wiggling each identifiable body part (intentionally), I got up. No permanent damage. My ribs are sorely bruised and I’ve got some road rash (or mulch rash), but I am lucky, and made some good decisions on the fly. A stronger rider would not have gone down. But given the particulars of my situation, I believe I did as well as I could. At least that. I got back on Cherokee (who was standing over me looking concerned) and we rode back to the stable.
In the day and a half since the accident, I have thought about the next time I ride. Suddenly the phrase, “getting back on the horse” has new meaning.
Early this year I ended a ten-year relationship. In an overarching kind of way, I am happy and healing and thankful to have my life back. As is normal, I continue to work through feelings of hurt, betrayal, disappointment and anger, the legacy of which tends to surface in facing new relationships. A classic dilemma: How do I surrender to vulnerability? How do I know that the person I am entrusting with my emotional safety—my heart—is not going to stumble along the way, throwing me so far off center that I have to bail. The parallel is not lost on me. In some respects, I had been riding a creature with whom I couldn’t have a basic conversation.
In the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I will be riding again. I am sure I’ll find some challenging moments. When I first break into a canter, I will have to fight the urge to associate that sensation with the feeling of falling. The memory of the pain as I hit the ground will be tangible. The thing is, I don’t plan to give up riding horses. I could analyze the fall over and over and try to figure out what went wrong and what to do differently. This kind of reflection—like therapy in the wake of a break-up—is helpful, or even essential to progress. But in the end, it’s about applying what you’ve learned by putting yourself in the very situation in which you were once hurt. And so…I will get back on the horse. Hopefully, he will be more solid and I will find new strength and flexibility.