I have heard it said that the only way to learn to ride a horse is to ride a horse. The only way to learn to play a guitar is by playing the guitar. That practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. And perhaps from a technical, muscle memory perspective that’s true. But when it comes to doing anything that involves another being there’s far more to consider than simple, technical proficiency.
When I decided to give my horses their voice and stop using any kind of force, coercion or bribery to get their cooperation, I discovered that our vocabulary was so limited as to be frustrating. How on earth could I get anything to happen without making it happen? How could I inspire a horse to want to do things with me? I found it difficult to remain patient, to feel like I failed and keep coming back to try again.
This mission to find my own way sent me down a path of self-discovery. I had to dig deep. Getting to know myself meant I had to find ways of upping my game that didn’t necessarily involve horses. I had to find ways to rip the perfectionism out of me because perfectionism breeds impatience. There is no room for impatience in a relationship built on trust.
I had to test myself. Learn how I respond to challenges, to fear, to failure. And ultimately what it feels like to overcome, succeed, and be rewarded for my effort.
My first big lesson in facing my fears and being rewarded came in an unexpected way.
The shallow wash was dotted with cottonwood trees, their canopies gradually vanishing into vividly striped canyon walls. Glimpses of golden leaves snaking across the landscape of twisting red rock canyon country pull me in. I have to see what’s around that first bend!
Bundled up against the brisk autumn breeze Steve and I eagerly make our way down the forage choked, barely used trail to the mouth of the canyon. It feels wild, unimproved, just the way I like it. Steve is skeptical about what lies ahead, how far we’ll be able to go. I don’t care. I want an adventure!
Picking our way through the dense undergrowth, it isn’t long before we reach those slick rock walls that narrow the canyon. There is water here. Water in the desert is always magical and we feel blessed by the golden leaves, the water and crisp fall air. The winding stream bed cuts deep swaths through the sand as it twists and turns through the canyon bottom. Before long the stream cuts off our passage.
Just beyond we can see the deeper canyon country beckoning. The walls are higher, the cottonwood trees more densely packed, glimmering gold in the sun, the rest of the canyon hidden around the first big bend. Tantalizingly close.
The stream here cuts steep and deep into the sandy canyon bottom. Sheer walls of crumbling sand drop straight down five feet to the water. We could shimmy our way down and wade through the water but it’s hard to tell how deep it is and we’re unprepared for getting wet. Just a bit too cold for that to be desirable and after all, it isn’t like we HAVE to see this canyon on this day. It isn’t life or death that we cross the stream. We can turn back now.
Fortunately, some industrious person had found two beaver cut young cottonwood trees and laid them across the gap to form a makeshift bridge. The trees are small so they laid two across, one for each foot, making it oddly more challenging to balance on. Never mind that they sway and bounce the farther out you go.
As Steve bounces nimbly across I wait until he reaches the other side before I begin my own transit. I used to do this kind of thing all the time and never thought twice about it. Imagine my surprise when, two feet out, I find myself frozen in terror. Seriously. Frozen. I can’t move and I’m starting to panic. Walking back across, Steve holds out his hands and I find that I feel more secure in my balance when my hands are touching his. With his support I am able to back off to the starting side, catch my breath and calm my racing heart.
What the heck!?
For the first time in my life I stand looking down that canyon seriously considering whether or not I can handle the unknown that lay ahead. How many stream crossing are there? How treacherous might they be in comparison to this one? Which really isn’t that treacherous it just seems that way in this moment.
After calming down and considering our options I decide to give it another try. Steve crosses ahead of me and comes part way back, holding out his hands for me to touch. It’s just enough for me to feel I can trust my balance. Phew! I am across.
We encounter many more stream crossings, none as challenging as the first. Shallow water, shallow shore lines, rocks to step on or water low enough to wade through.
Every new bend in the canyon reveals another wonder. This turns out to be one of the most magical places I have ever experienced!
As we explore, I take every opportunity to work on my balance like a kid using available obstacles to practice my skill. Industrious beavers have left behind downed trees of all shapes and sizes that provide ample opportunity! By the time we return to that first crossing it’s so easy it’s hard to believe I’d been so frozen before.
I thought a lot about that incident in the coming days. What if I had given up and walked away? What if I had let my fear make me turn back? When I thought about the experience we had and what I would have missed it struck a deep chord. Life lessons come when we least expect them and this one was a big one.
That experience catapulted me into a huge period of personal growth where I worked through a lot of old baggage that I hadn’t even realized was holding me back. As all that baggage fell away I moved forward in other areas of my life. Letting go, among other things, of my need to find legitimacy through approval or certification by someone I felt was more qualified than me. Instead, embarking down my own path where I let the horses and the world around me guide me.
It wasn’t the first profound lesson and it won’t be the last.
Only by finding myself, by understanding what I’m capable of, have I been able to access the kind of clarity and confidence that inspires horses to join me. It’s not easy to give someone else a voice if you haven’t found your own. Letting go of perfectionism was easy once I woke up to the depth of connection available when I allow myself to be fully immersed in my experiences. Finding my voice meant opening myself up to be inspired by life, not just horses.
I still find inspiration and opportunity in the strangest places. Each new experience teaches me something more about myself and how capable and resilient I am.