Processing Fear

“The origin of the word “courage” comes from the word “cour”, which mean heart, and it means to completely share your story with your whole heart.” ― Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connections and Courage

I hesitated to write this post… but I am channeling some Brene Brown because I think the topic is one that needs to be addressed more within the horse world. As many of you know, 14 months ago I was in an accident with a horse (on the ground) and ended up with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). In the months that followed, I learned more about myself than I was expecting and maybe wanted to. People had warned me that my recovery would take time, but no one truly prepared me for the work that I was going to have to do and the time it was going to take. 

When I got the ok to ride back in the Spring it was one of the best things ever. I had wanted to be back on a horse so bad. What I did not realize though, was how different it was going to be compared to how riding was before my injury. The first time I rode, I was full of mixed emotions. I was overjoyed, but also terrified. My brain and body were not as connected as they used to be. I had to focus extremely hard to stay straight and not fall off. I cannot even explain the sensations I felt. On the one hand it felt great, on the other hand, it felt like I was going to die the entire time. I ignored these feelings for a few months (thinking I just needed to suck it up and get over it) and then the barn I was at got some baby cows. Bentley was not a fan of said cows and all the sudden was very spooky. I have had Bentley for 5 years… prior to my TBI I could ride his spooks in my sleep, but now it was a whole new ball game. There was significant delay in my body’s reaction and my brain’s reaction. He would spook, my body would adjust and ride through it no problem, and then my brain would panic and tell me I was about to die, but in reality he was 10 strides out of a spook and completely relaxed. Talk about mixed messages. So, once again I recognized that I was fearful, but once again pushed through and told myself to get over it. That worked for a while, but then this September Izzie died and things changed. 

Bentley, Izzie and I were extremely close. Losing her took a toll on both of us and sent us into a pretty challenging time. In grieving her, I was not paying attention to myself. I had started to have some serious TBI symptoms again, but instead of taking care of them, I ignored them. I was 1 year out, I was supposed to be fine. I am a pretty stubborn person, so I was FINE.  I had constant headaches, balance issues and was dropping things left and right. Bentley was also having issues, spooking HUGE at literally everything in the arena/barn. I had no idea what was happening. Our connection was weak and I was terrified to ride. Now what? 

Deep down I knew I was afraid, but there was no way I was going to openly deal with it. I have jumped bareback and bridleless, been the first one to sit on horses, have helped horses get over bucking habits and I could not even walk around the arena comfortably. I felt so gross, what was happening? Why could I not do anything anymore? At this point, the universe decided it was time to essentially force me to recognize and process through my fear, and it was not fun. At all.

This took “practice what you preach” to a whole new level. I have been an equine specialist for trauma-focused therapy for almost 7 years. I was constantly telling people to listen to their bodies and emotions, it was good to process feelings, yada yada yada… but I do not think I truly understood what that really meant until now. 

With the support of my trainer, I took a few weeks off from riding Bentley. Instead, Bentley and I spent a lot of time doing groundwork and I rode the barn’s schoolmaster horses. My trainer rode Bentley. It was just what I needed. Time to process, work through some tough emotions and begin to heal both physically and emotionally. In riding the schoolmasters I learned two major things about myself:

  1. I did not trust the horses because I did not trust the aids that I was giving.
    1. Bentley had begun to ignore my aids because of the wishy washy hot mess of emotion and intention behind them. These horses (Kwazar & Ernie) were tried and true schoolmasters… they listened to the aid regardless of the emotion behind them. I used to think this “push button” affect could be detrimental to the human-horse relationship. It is 100% not detrimental. In fact, it is what put the trust back into the relationship for me. 
  2. I could still ride. 
    1. This may seem rather absurd, but I did not trust my physical body at all. I was having trouble maintaining awareness of my left side and with that did not trust that I could ride if any of the horses took one step out of line… but guess what… I was more than capable. I just needed to believe it. 

In the time that I spent riding Kwazar and Ernie, I put a huge focus on being present and having fun with Bentley. It worked. We rekindled our relationship… we spent it at liberty, with a giant ball, some cones and some ground poles. There was no pressure and we could just be us, feeling all the emotions and working through the ugly. In addition to more of these play sessions, I finally took steps to take care of myself. I went back to a chiropractor and was able to get put back into place to have almost immediate relief. Essentially my neck was stuck and was impacting a bunch of nerves. Not a fun time, but luckily a relatively easy fix with a few visits to the chiropractor. I also started to go to a mental health professional for the PTSD symptoms I was having from Izzie’s accident. Taking the time to take care of me was turning out to be a really great thing. I was feeling better physically and mentally and very shortly, I was ready to get back on Bentley. 

Going from being terrified to ready was a rather dramatic switch, one day I just looked at my boyfriend and said, “I am going to ride Bentley tonight. I have been sitting Bentley’s spooks for 5 years… sometimes even when I was bareback and bridleless. There is nothing that he can throw at me that I can not handle.” and I got on. And Bentley was perfect. In retrospect, not that surprising given that he has been trained (by me…) to give feedback on the emotions of his human, who in this case was me. 

So why do I share all of this?  Because for years I have been helping people process through trauma and fear without understanding the ways fear can influence someone. I also know that everyone experiences fear differently, but if we talk about it more often, we can help each other grow and heal. I am hopeful that if you read this, you can relate and realize that you are not alone or you can learn a bit more as to how fear manifests around horses and maybe offer a listening ear to someone who is afraid. Above all else, remember to take care of you. You are in charge of YOU and YOU deserve to feel awesome and to be who you want to be!

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