Mind & Spirit

Facing down fear

Author: Canadian Living

Mind & Spirit

Facing down fear

It's early morning, and the sun is glinting off the dew-covered fields as I make my way to the barn. After creaking open the door, I'm greeted by the familiar sounds and smells of horses. As I head to the stall where my horse is waiting for me, I marvel once more that I'm inside a riding stable, a place I'd never imagined I'd be again.

A child's love of horses
As a child I disliked sports. Maybe it was because I was clumsy at everything from playing soccer to turning somersaults, or maybe it was the result of my overly competitive nature and my frustration when I was anything but in first place. But I knew there was one sport I could excel at. Even though I lived in midtown Toronto, my dream was to ride horses. I became obsessed. I dreamed of the day when I could have my own stallion and race it along a beach, hair blowing in the wind like a young Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet.

For my seventh birthday my mother surprised me with the ultimate gift: somehow she was able to cajole a farmer to deliver one of his Shetland ponies to my party. When the horse trailer pulled up in front of my house, I cried tears of utter happiness. For one whole hour, the pony and I paraded up and down the sidewalks of my Toronto neighbourhood. That summer I attended a day camp in Toronto's Sunnybrook Park where I could take riding lessons.

Tall for my age, my long arms and legs had always made me feel clumsy. But on the back of a horse I felt graceful and confident. The summer I turned 10 I pleaded with my mom to send me to a riding camp in northern Ontario. It was expensive, but I convinced her to send me anyway. Looking back, I imagine she thought it would be good for me to get away from what was happening at home. You see, that July, as I cantered along trails atop a bay-coloured gelding, my 39-year-old mother lay in bed recovering from chemotherapy to combat breast cancer.

The impact of a mother's death
That winter my mother's illness worsened; by spring she had slipped into a coma. On May 27, 1983, she died. My sister Alexis and I were shocked. We had believed in our hearts that our mom was not going to die. She seemed adamant that she would be able to beat cancer. Our younger sister, Lindsay, then only four, probably didn't know what was happening. My dad encouraged us kids to get on with our lives. Dutifully, we told him that we were just fine.

Our lives were meant to resume as usual. Two months after my mother died, I returned to the riding camp I'd attended the previous summer while Alexis continued her competitive gymnastics. That summer, though, I wasn't confident and happy. Haunted by thoughts of my mom's death, I felt different from the other camp kids and wasn't able to make friends. I was miserable. To make matters worse, the horse I'd ridden and bonded with the summer before was no longer there, and the riding instructors were having a difficult time finding me a suitable mount.

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A too-quick leap to adulthood
Late one afternoon, as I attempted to ride the fourth or fifth horse they'd given me to try, I was suddenly bucked off. My instructor demanded I get back on the horse again. This time, the horse charged around the ring at faster and faster speed, and when I realized I was losing control of the mount, a dam of fear and grief broke free within me. I began wailing and screaming my mother's name. Spurned on by my hysteria, the horse began galloping even faster around the ring.

Through my tears, I saw the sea of shocked faces of fellow riders on the sidelines. Unable to stop the horse, l finally flung myself off and ended up in a sobbing, bruised heap in the mud of the paddock. Somehow the fear of dying had gripped me while I was being thrown. Unwittingly, I'd gone from being a carefree 11-year-old to becoming a solemn preteen with an irrational fear of death. Months of watching my once strong and wilful mother lose her battle with breast cancer had left me with a deep-set fear of my own mortality.

Paralyzed with fear
That summer I stopped riding. I began to immerse myself into other hobbies. But despite my inability to conjure up the nerve to ride, my love of horses never abated. Every few years, I'd get back up on a horse. The first few minutes would be fine, but as soon as I started to trot, the fear of losing control would take hold. Was the horse going to take off on me? Was I going to fall? And most importantly, was I going to die? I'd immediately gather my reins and slow the horse to a walk. I was much more comfortable that way.

As I grew up, the image of myself as a horsewoman was filed away in the back of my mind. I excelled in other, nonathletic pursuits, such as interior design and magazine editing, but found that anytime I would try to learn anything that involved speed, such as downhill skiing, that same fear would grip me when I started to feel like I was losing control.

Opportunity knocks
In the fall of 2004, something changed to kick-start my life again. In my job as editor of Canadian Home & Country magazine, I attend a lot of photo shoots in beautiful homes. That October I attended a shoot for a living room makeover at Irish Creek Stables, a horse breeding farm and riding school near Cambridge, Ont. After the shoot ended, I sat with the owner, Liz Lewis, in her cosy kitchen and was cheered by a whistling kettle. As Liz poured mugs of tea, I mentioned that I used to ride. I casually told her that I'd had a bad experience when I was 11.

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Deciding to face the fear
Liz asked if I wanted to go for a ride. I tentatively agreed; after all, my heart could never resist a horse, and even though I was scared, I couldn't pass up the opportunity. I mounted Striker, a stunning chestnut thoroughbred cross that seemed miles high, and rode awkwardly around the paddock. So many years had passed since my mother had died, and riding felt strange to me.

As the horse moved forward, I felt out of sync with him. Once again I was overwhelmed with a sense of fear that I would fall. Then a dog darted in front of us. Striker shied and I fell flat on my back. Tears welled in my eyes and I felt devastated. Scared and weeping, I waved goodbye to Liz and drove home. I was bruised and it was humiliating to think that once again, I'd fallen off a horse. Back in Toronto, there was a phone message waiting for me. It was Liz inviting me back to her farm. "Don't worry," she reassured me. "It happens. We'll just try again."

As I drove to Liz's place the next week, I questioned why I was trying to ride again. But as I saw the paddocks full of horses, I had a turning point. I realized that I really wanted to ride. I loved horses. I have always loved them. I was now an adult who could make my own decisions, and I could just as easily be hit by a bus as be killed by falling off a horse. And Liz's confidence in me helped me find the drive to choose to ride again. I marched into the barn and asked Liz to please help me.

Developing confidence and finding joy
The weekly riding lessons have been a journey for me. Some days the total absence of fear while I'm riding makes me so happy I could burst. Other days, I'm so scared that all I can do is sit on the horse and walk it around the riding ring. Then Liz rides beside me and we talk. Before long, the motion of the horse becomes soothing and my fear ebbs away. Liz inspires me with her deep connection with the horses. I've slowly been developing confidence and am happy to report that riding is getting easier every day.

There have been some surprising and delightful effects from the riding lessons. Riding is great because it's healthy to get outside in the fresh air and exercise. But my decision to conquer my fear has inspired confidence in other areas of my life. I've made a deeper commitment to my friends and family. I find myself open to trying new things, from learning kickboxing to trying to water-ski. Most importantly, I have made a conscious choice to find joy in every single day. Whoever said, "Get back up on the horse" had no idea how meaningful that phrase would become for me. With Liz's help, riding again has helped me deal with the fear of death that has haunted me since I lost my mom. I am finally breaking free.

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Mind & Spirit

Facing down fear