Who knew that a 34-year-old horse would make the best teacher for a 67-year-old rider?
The GPS told me I was there.
“There” was a Y in the country road. To the left, it meandered. In front of me, a house. Wrong address. If I turned left I had to do U-turn, which was impossible.
It was a lane, not a road, and someone would have to back up a long way.
I went left. Why now? what’s the worst that could happen? I’d have to back up a long way. Far worse things happen.
As I drove, off to the left I noticed a big collection of what looked initially like discarded junk. I could see logs jumbled into a pile. Bales of hay which curved around like a maze. Stuffed animals with their ears chewed off. Big ones.
Like some enormous kid had dropped his favorite plaything in the middle of this pasture.
My impression was Very Large Kid’s sandbox.
Then I realized that this was the obstacle course for riders. Damn, man.
I drove off the road next to the gate. I was early, had time. Carrie, my trainer, was getting tacos. So I explored.
There were water traps and beaver dams, and circular gated areas. Stuff hanging and colored noodles flopping in the breeze and a carwash-like plastic curtain to ride your horse through.
Every single item had a purpose: stuff that startles an untrained horse, and stuff that challenges an inexperienced rider. And both.
Carrie Parker, who is well known in these parts for her training skills, builds them. She put this one together in no time. She put me- with my fractured right pinky toe and fractured middle finger- bareback on a calm mare. I followed her around the track.
I’ve not been on a horse since February, when I was in Africa on extended safari. I’ve ridden for 63 years. AND I am no expert. Every new horse, every new country, new tack or different training methods shoves me right back to beginner status.
This is just one reason I ride all over the world. The only thing, and I mean the ONLY thing I take with me other than my riding gear, is my natural seat. Other than that, the best skill I take from stable to stable is my willingness to not know.
Carrie gave me instructions as I followed her at a safe distance. She didn’t need to watch; she saw how I sat and held the reins and knew I was quite at ease both on a horse and on a horse bareback even with a busted finger and a busted toe. She could hear whether or not I gave the proper instructions and when her horse stepped- or didn’t step- through, onto or over an obstacle.
We set out.
This is what I was reminded of as we walked through the course, with Carrie listening to me, my horse’s feet on the obstacles, and working through the challenges of her course.
- You and I need a mentor/guide/trainer. No matter how old we are, no matter how much we think we know, there is always and forever someone who knows more than we do. Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual. That’s why we lean on those who have sorted out parts of it better than we have. Those folks vary enormously and can be any size, shape, age, color, gender, culture or background. The teacher appears when the student is ready. Woe is the student who cannot understand that the teacher often shows up in very surprising forms, and denies their agency.
- Trust your guide. In this case, it’s not just Carrie. Her horses are well-trained and know damned good and well what the obstacles require. While they can also be both sloppy and lazy, which is the rider’s job to correct, trusting them to help me learn the course and my animal, as well as how to ensure that my mare does only what I ask of her and when I ask it, are all part of building skills. As I build my skills I am far swifter in finding out what my horse is doing wrong, what I am doing wrong, and how to correct what I’m doing wrong, and thereby correcting what my horse is doing wrong. In this way we learn to question ourselves, question our guides, and challenge the journey.
- Push yourself. Regularly. On my second time through the course, Carrie challenged me to take on a much harder obstacle, one that required a combination of balance, coordination and complete and utter attention. Not only did I fail miserably, I enjoyed the hell out of it because of all the myriad moving aspects of the obstacle. It was hard. But the fact that it was hard is the whole point. My horse knew the drill, I didn’t. Each time I lost my focus on part 1, part 2 went out of whack, then part 3 skidded off. It was funny, but it also was precisely the kind of training I love most. When you and I avoid the hard stuff- no matter what the hard stuff is, we don’t grow and expand. Life itself is full of obstacles. When we become far more addicted to comfort, short cuts and hacks, we rob ourselves of the precious juju juice of confidence, competence and capability. Carrie pushed me because she wanted to see whether I could, whether I would, and how I would respond when things went awry. Of course they did. I found it funny, but I also found it exactly the kind of difficulty that I thrive on. A good mentor, a fine trainer takes that as their cue to direct you to even harder stuff. I cannot wait to see what she asks of me next.
- Do it again, and again, until you master your fear. Scary things take on far greater importance and power when we deny or avoid them. Risks rise in false threats when, if you and I work on them bit by bit, they diminish. Yesterday afternoon in the bright October sun, Carrie commented that with all such challenges and obstacles, there’s a process. A way forward. This is what an obstacle course teaches. Whether it’s a side pass to better line your horse smack in the middle of a circle to safely back straight out, or a series of delicate, tiny touches to maneuver a horse to side pass over a tipping teeter-totter ( I didn’t get that one yet) there is always a process. You and I learn those ways forward from our mentors and guides. That applies in every aspect of life, from handling heartbreak to a job loss to a death to rising above our circumstances. You keep trying until you find your way forward, trusting the process, and putting your unique stamp on your particular way through. What you and I really need are the basics. How we apply the basics in our own ways, or find even better ways to pass along, is how we build mastery and pay it forward.
- Celebrate your successes, even the small ones. Yesterday my lesson overlapped two other women, who were also on the course. At one point, Carrie sent me alone to rework the obstacles on my own, but requiring my mare to stop in full before the obstacle and again just after, reminding her who’s in charge. Little kids don’t do that, and training horses can get into the habit of doing things their own way. I worked us through over the bridges and past the whirlygigs and stuffed animals and fake skeletons on the wood brides. My mare balked at times, but we got through all of them without a hitch. This time around was not only much smoother, but I clearly knew a lot more about what I was doing. Both Carrie and my horse had trained me. I celebrated, we cantered just a tiny bit, and I breathed in the rich October air, scented with woodsmoke and colored by the bright red leaves of a Pacific Northwest autumn.
After three lessons, Carrie now has a solid idea of my bad habits. Most are like most riders, when I cross my hands over each other or forget how to do a turn on the hindquarters or get my feet mixed up when asking for a turn. Those delicate mistakes are read by my horse-rightfully, for she is exquisitely well-trained- as errors. She responds to mistakes with mistakes. That’s feedback. Not her fault. Pilot error.
As I am overly fond of saying, you put any damned fool on a well-trained horse and that fool looks like an expert. But put said fool on a banshee, and I have ridden far more than my fair share of same, we’ll find out who knows how to ride.
The latter is only gained going through, around, over, under obstacles, which are inevitable. If you trail ride and you find yourself in a very dangerous spot on a narrow ridge, you really want to know how to ask a horse for micro-changes in direction, calmly and gently, so that you and your steed get to ride another day.
That’s the whole point. Carrie knows what to remind me about even as she plots out our next class. She’s popular for a reason: she’s good at what she does, and she knows how to read and work with all kinds of riders.
I’d never done any kind of obstacle course work other than reining through logs. That’s tough enough. This course is something else again. I watched the other women’s horses inspect the stuffed ponies and scary skeletons. Like us, we have the right to familiarize ourselves with the new surroundings and make sure we won’t get eaten.
Life can eat us, but only with our full cooperation and permission. You and I need good guides, we need guides who watch us with compassion and interest, study us carefully and teach us the skills we need to cope.
But we need to courage to begin. Hiding from the tough stuff teaches us only to hide, to fear more, and to avoid any and all difficulty. Resilience in life is only available through the obstacle courses presented to us all day every day. Our addiction to convenience and comfort, the suffocating and stultifying fears of helicopter parents and those who try their best to remove the very obstacles which would build our confidence are part of why we are where we are today: a nation largely without resilience, patience, personal responsibility, will power, reserve and resolve.
There are plenty among us who do possess those things in great abundance. They are the people who fall down, get up, keep going, and don’t have time to spend hours and days and weeks and months moaning on social media about how life isn’t fair.
As Amelia Earhart wrote in her poem Courage, it’s about facing the day and counting it fair, whatever comes our way. That’s power. That’s resilience.
The resilient ones will figure their way, share it with others, encourage you and me to keep going. Falling and failing are part of the course, part of life, part of the cosmic joke. And they are the single best way to find out how not to do that again.
Got life? Got obstacles. Want an amazing life?
Run the course. You may find you like it out there.