I was a serious horseback rider for the majority of my childhood. I went to weekly lessons, competed in horse shows, and spent as much time at the barn as humanly possible. Partially because I really wanted to be a good rider, but mostly because being with horses was better than therapy. For someone who was never very athletically coordinated — my ability to throw, catch, kick, or shoot a basket has always been suspect — riding was somehow a natural fit. My parents were nervous to let me do an activity that looked so dangerous, until they met Lightning Bug, the sweet, bombproof Quarter horse I eventually leased. He listened when I talked, stuck his nose out for kisses when I walked through the aisle, and kept me safe while I learned to ride. I was a child that was used to making myself invisible. I had few friends at school and almost never spoke in class — teachers would routinely express their frustrations that I was smart on paper and loved to learn, but never said any of my ideas out loud for fear of being wrong — and I was comfortable hiding in my anxieties.
Now, I am in New York, training for a career in musical theatre, a field that requires confidence, precision, and an unwavering determination. I firmly believe that I learned those skills trying to jump my horse over a fence and failing — or falling off — in the process. Horseback riding was the first thing that allowed me to feel proud of myself, to be a leader, to trust someone else not to hurt me (especially since that someone had four legs and weighed a thousand pounds). To be good at this sport requires focus and discipline, but in all my years of riding, I learned the two most important rules: get right back on when you fall, and look up.
When you approach a jump, you have to juggle a million things — the pacing and length of your strides, the height of the fence, your positioning, and most importantly, where the next jump is. You have to constantly think ahead, finding your next jump before you’ve even cleared the first. If you’re stuck staring at the fence in front of you, you don’t have time to prepare for the next one. Trainers give plenty of corrections to help riders improve their jumping, but by far the most common is “look up!” This seems simple. But when you’re speeding towards a jumble of poles and panels and blocks, naturally, you want to look at it. And you should. You need to evaluate what you’re up against. But at the end of the day, staring at the obstacle in front of you isn’t going to get you over it.
Horses sense apprehension. They feel nervousness, tension, and insecurity. Even the most honest, forgiving horses will dodge a fence if they sense their rider looking down at it. It’s important to learn the specifics of steering and proper connection with your reins, but when it comes down to it, your horse is going to go the direction you’re looking. So if that happens to be at the ground, then that’s where you’ll end up, covered in dust and bruises. The first time I fell off a horse, I learned that you have to take control of where you’re going and trust that you are capable of getting there, because fear is more dangerous than taking the risk of failure. And I can tell you from experience that when you clear a jump, that risk is worth it. Once you know how it feels to fly fearlessly, you never go back.
Horseback riding taught me to be responsible, focused, and trusting, but the simple, constant reminder to just look up is what’s stuck with me the most. I make sure to fit in a ride whenever I’m back in town, because it centers me and reminds me of the things I forget so often in the rest of my life. We spend so much time worrying about the obstacles in front of us that we make them impossible to conquer. The longer you look at a problem, the bigger it seems. I am still in a constant battle for self-worth and tend to let my anxieties take over, but I know that staring at the hurdles in front of us doesn’t make them disappear. We have to believe that if we take the risk to be confident, we’ll end up on the other side unharmed. Remember where you’re headed next. Know that you’re on a journey. And as you approach your obstacle, look up. Look up and jump.