Photo by Lisette Verwoerd on Unsplash

What taking a real risk looks like, and what it does for your confidence

Simon Kenyon, our guide, rode out into the churning, chocolate water of the Mara River, bullwhip in his right hand. His bushy red hair shone in the midday sun, which glinted off the backs of several hippos. They were eyeing us balefully from downstream.

We had to cross. There were nine of us total, with the two guides, all of us astride horses. This was the Mara North Conservancy, 74,000 acres of prime game viewing land, where Offbeat Safaris has a camp tucked away. From there, our small group had progressed each day to view wildlife from mating lion pairs at night to journeys of giraffe galloping off when startled by our appearance.

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Now was the acid test. For people who are accustomed to riding, and comfortable allowing their horses to swim ( and most are quite good at it) this is no big deal.

However, the Mara River is home to many hippos, whose massive jaws and sharp incisors have shortened many a hapless life. They are superb swimmers, very aggressive and highly territorial.

Yet we had to cross.

One of our group, a Swiss woman I will call Jeanne-Anne, was terrified. She had reason to be. The water was swift and deep in places. Also, hippos weren’t the only problem. Crocs, notorious for sneaking up on their prey from below, are adept at dragging animals many times their size to a watery depth. That we couldn’t see any in the froth was meaningless. They could be anywhere.

Our other guide, Megan Hodgson, calmly gathered up our must-stay-dry items into her dry bag. Then we watched the river.

Simon walked/swam his horse out to mid-stream and cracked his bullwhip. It was loud as a gunshot, and the downstream hippos immediately backed away. He waited a moment and gave us the go-ahead to start across.

Right then another hippo surfaced farther upstream to our right, closer to the rocks.

Jeanne-Anne was nearly frozen with fear. Her day job was as a sales rep for a huge corporation. This was far beyond her comfort zone. Her hands were shaking and her face was bright red. Meghan comforted her, and told her to follow close behind as she led the way across.

The river cleared of hippos, at least that we could see, we launched into the water, steering our horses’ heads upstream and pushing them with our heels whilst holding tightly to a leather strap that was attached to their powerful necks.

They churned forward, at one point suddenly losing touch with the ground. Water gushed into our boots. We held strong, Jeanne-Anne getting encouragement from Simon and Megan.

All of us were scared, but no one more than Jeanne-Anne.

Yet moments later she was on the sand on the other side with the rest of us, dripping, our boots full of river water. She grinned shakily.

“You did it!”

Jeanne-Anne looked a bit shell-shocked. But she had done it.

Photo by Lisette Verwoerd on Unsplash

It honestly doesn’t matter that the horses are well-accustomed to this crossing. It also doesn’t matter a whit that the guides have done it hundreds of times.

What mattered was that Jeanne-Anne had never in her life even attempted such a thing.

It’s one thing to sign up for a horse riding safari to see animals at close range. It’s one thing to read about crossing a river. Like a student about to leap out of an airplane for the first time, all that theory goes out the window when the reality of what you’re about to do hits you right in the face like the 80 mph wind on jump run.

The following day, after a night marked by a thunderstorm and a lion’s roar first thing in the morning, our party rode across the open grasslands for a lovely lunch in a wooded area.

Shortly after lunch, we had to cross the river again.

This time we had an audience of three Maasai boys watching us from the far riverbank as we approached. Again, Megan gathered our dry things, and Simon crossed the river. Another large adult hippo was upstream and two more downstream, but his horse had to swim a longer distance. The steady rain the previous night had likely increased the volume of water, so the horses would have to work harder and swim further.

Jeanne-Anne was still nervous, her face a bit red again, and her eyes just a touch pinched. Her hands shook, but she was ready to ask her solid little bay to bear her across to safety.

Simon crossed again just to make sure, both guides with bullwhips at the ready. Then Megan urged us in. I felt my horse, Nutella, dip below the surface. My feet left their stirrups. The heavy waters pulled at my body like millions of hands. I held Nutella pointed upstream and grasped the neck strap hard, pulling myself back onto the saddle as she regained her feet on the riverbed. Jeanne-Anne was just to my left, focusing her entire self, willing herself and her horse across.

And cross she did. A rushing, terrifying river, full of hippos and possibly unseen crocs, her horse having to swim partway. This desk jockey and sometime rider successfully maneuvered her horse to safety both times.

By herself, with encouragement and support, but by herself.

The Maasai boys applauded.

In side conversation with Simon at lunch, this guide, who has been with Offbeat some ten years now, offered that perhaps his favorite part of these adventures is watching someone like Jeanne-Anne do something she never ever would try otherwise, and come out the other side with a wholly different level of confidence. Indeed, just after she crossed the second time, Jeanne-Anne was almost laughing with a combination of relief and delight. In her heavily-accented English, she was marveling at how she had done it, she really had.

This is how we change how we see ourselves. How we rewrite our narratives.

In this article from Forbes,

Want To Build Your Confidence? Take A Risk!
Confidence is like a muscle. If you want it, you must develop it. And once you have it, you must continue to exercise…

writer John Baldoni explores what risk does to confidence-building. While you may not want to ford a dangerous stream by horse in the middle of Africa (although I do highly recommend it, but kindly know how to ride first), the point is to push a limit.

In this particular case, and part of the very real challenge, was that failure probably wasn’t a viable option. Simon and Megan have both done their time in the streams and seen plenty of danger. That is, of course, part of their confidence, having made mistakes, corrected them and gotten out alive. They know what can happen, and they also have used failures to build their skills.

Jeanne-Anne was justifiably pleased with herself. On adventures like this, there’s always a mix: people who do this kind of thing regularly, then those for whom it’s a huge stretch. Often they have no clue how much of a stretch until they face a stretch of rushing chocolate river, full of seen and unseen dangers.

This event rewrote a part of how Jeanne-Anne sees herself. What she does with it next is up to her. But taking a risk, especially one that involves your physical safety, opens a completely new doorway to yourself. For her, it was in many ways a calculated risk since we had two competent guides and well-trained horses to ensure her safety.

But I can guarantee you that she wasn’t thinking about any of that the moment her horse’s hooves touched the river water.

How does this become a touchstone?

Years ago I was in an exchange with a young manager up in Seattle who was despairing about a situation he’d found himself in. He had shared that he had once climbed Kilimanjaro. So have I. I reminded him that most people could never do such a thing, and to remember the tremendous sense of accomplishment that he felt. How literally and figuratively on top of the world he was. How he could draw on those strengths again, as he once had. I could hear the smile in his voice when he took a moment and then said,

I had completely forgotten what that felt like.”

Because we do.

The Forbes article points out that you and I have to continue to push our boundaries enough so that we are uncomfortable. It’s the regular challenging of those boundaries, our willingness to suffer failure and embarrassment that build our skills and confidence. If we only climb a mountain once in a lifetime and never do much else the next sixty years, it’s awfully hard to keep going back to a fading memory to bolster your confidence. Sometimes you risk at work, or at love, or take a leap into running your own business. Those waters can be as full of crocs and hippos as the river we crossed.

Fail or succeed, like Jeanne-Anne, you’ll never be the same again.