I am a nerd and a creative. I know it. I’m proud of it. I am filled with information that I will likely never use; and information that most people will probably never care about. I can snap a picture or stroke a paintbrush with sure fingers and near perfect hues. The first (knowledge) is what I have always based my self-worth on. The second (art) is what I have always visited outside of the first. They’re two sides to the same coin.
As amazing as those things are, I will be the first to tell you that I have little confidence in most areas of my life outside of those. Mental illness has a knack for being a good thief. It has robbed me of a lot of the creative aspect of my life. It’s there. I’ve just had to find a new way to use it. The nerdy part… That has taken a hit as well. Just not as hard. Between manias, depressions, and recoveries… Between severe anxiety bouts and their aftermaths… I have lost information along the way; or I have a horrendous time retaining new facts. Other times, I have so much information stored in my head from long and rapid reading sessions, that occur during hypomania, that I literally feel uncomfortable and can’t even look at my books. My art- I can’t remember the last time I picked up a charcoal pencil or piece of canvas completely willingly. Why? Because I no longer see the 10,000 things I can create. Instead, I see the 1,000,000 things that could go wrong.
If there is a remote chance of failure or disappointing someone when attempting something- anything- I crumble. If it is something that I can’t learn by reading a book, I automatically feel a sense of panic and self-doubt…
… Well, you can read every book ever written on horseback riding and still not truly “know anything” until you ride and gain experience. And let’s face it, with said knowledge and that of your partner being a 1600lb animal with a mind of its own, the idea can be rather daunting. I wanted no part of it when two of my sisters started taking riding lessons and showing in 4-H. I would go to the barn with them but would do nothing other than possibly pet the horses. Let’s face it- they can be a bit intimidating.
Then, along comes Zoe. You can find Zoe and my story in the earlier blog post “11 Years: Therapy, Grazing, and Barn Selfies.” In the post, I’m straight forward in saying that riding has never been high on my list of priorities. I have always been perfectly content going to the barn, taking Zoe out to graze, and grooming. Beyond that was nothing but anxiety and fear. “What if I make a mistake?” “I really can’t do this; and I’m not going to waste anyone’s time.” This could go wrong. That will go wrong. Between the voices in my head and those of others around [me] for a long time, riding was never happening. I just couldn’t see the benefit of something that brought on a cold sweat.
Debbi (owns the barn Zoe and I are now at) took it upon herself to drag me onto the back of my horse 5 years ago. Once. She managed once that year. It was great! I had a blast, but… it took unit the following year for her to manage getting me up there twice. It stayed at the two or three rides a year until last year when, for the first time, we managed getting the number to that of which we needed two hands to count.
I had decided I wanted to ride. I bought Zoe a pretty bridle and eventually a saddle for myself. Last year we made it up Waverly (the road alongside the fairgrounds where I board), learned to trot AND breathe, and had eyes set on the 4th of July parade. Unfortunately, last year was also one of the most severe manias I’ve ever been through. Riding was put on the backburner as was much of anything else.
This year, I decided, was the year I was going to truly start riding. I had said the same thing last summer, but unfortunately, as I said, mental illness can be a thug and a thief. This May, I set barn goals and everything! The list was a success in itself. No alphabetical order, no categories named, or anything else my typically OCD mind would insist on having. Here was the starting goal list:
Now, I’ll be up front and say that one of these was not accomplished. 4th of July was SO hot, riding in the parade was a no go. Since I can’t control the weather, ha ha, that will have to be put off until next year. That being said, with the help of barn friends, I added goals to the list grand totaling 15. As of about 3.5 weeks ago, this was the list:
When I listed the goals- both the original and the updated lists- it was about just accomplishing the goals. Getting them done. If I could get them done, then I would at least have been able to say that I did it. I was excited about checking off Lot 5 and trotting so quickly, so I added more goals. The same routine as I have always had.
Upon the onset of yet another mania, I all but threw in the towel. Mania=no barn time. When the noises finally started being remotely bearable, I bought cotton balls to put in my ears so that the noises at the barn would be muffled. Michaela, a fellow boarder, was in town on leave for a few weeks, when I went out one morning. She was all about helping me with the goal of Polaris. Polaris is a vocational school right near the barn that has a miniature trail we can ride.
Let me just say: It was AMAZING! I had so much fun! And it wasn’t nearly as nerve wracking as I thought it was going to be. I am now in love with trail riding; and can’t wait to get over there when the leaves start to really change!
The following day I had still been on a confidence high from the trail ride the day before. I have been wanting to attempt riding the whole track all summer, but courage in riding has never come easy. Zoe and I did it… ON OUR OWN. All by myself. I would NEVER have done that before. Not in a heartbeat.
Between the weather, obligations, and the social anxiety being on a mild rampage, getting out the barn hasn’t been possible the past few weeks. Monday it rained while I was there, so Zoe and I hung in her stall. Yesterday was gorgeous out! In the morning and early afternoon, I started getting the staples out of the wood as a start to getting the painting goal finished (and to make Rudy happy). In the late afternoon and evening however…
I got Zoe tacked up around 4:15 and was on her back a few minutes later (we had some stirrup adjustments that ended up needing done). I will be honest- I had been a little leery at first. Not in riding, but in what I thought for sure was just false confidence. Before I even mounted, I knew I was being ridiculous. Zoe didn’t move as I adjusted stirrup or as I lifted myself into the saddle. We rode back and forth in front of the barns a few times before making our way to the track. We went around it a few times. I REALLY wanted to try trotting on the track, but I wasn’t too sure of myself.
On the fairgrounds, where the barn is, the showring is in the center of the track. I led Zoe around until we got to the entrance and continued into the ring. I was happy, at this point, that she didn’t reach down to attempt grass as we went in, ha ha. After riding the rail at a walk a few times each direction, I trotted along one long side. After a few tries on that, we went back to the track. A short trot there as we would go around. Each one a tad longer.
We went off track to ride along the barns for a few passes before I was going to have to get off and leave to catch my bus. Debbi told me she would give me a ride to the rapid station (Cleveland’s version of a subway) if I wanted to keep riding. I didn’t hesitate to take her up on it.
Zoe and I made our way back to the track and showring for a few more go arounds. I took her to the showring first. After walking her along the rails again for a bit, I put her into a trot and stayed in it for all but maybe 15 feet of the ring. I was ecstatic! I was so proud of myself- of us- I told Zoe we had to go around the track one more time. We trotted almost half of a long side of the track. Finally, I took Zoe back to untack and to munch on some much-deserved grass.
I would never have pictured myself sitting on Zoe’s back let alone trotting without being forced. And what’s more? Actually enjoying it! Debbi has had a lot to play in this new found confidence. Pushing me, but also knowing when pushing would do more harm than good. Doing her best to not put me in situations that would set us back. Making sure we always end riding on a good note. Her confidence in me has rubbed off… a lot.
Zoe gets credit as well. She’s my heart horse. I could go into a million and one reasons why it has needed to be her that I was on the back of to start the slow build to where I am, but I will just restate: She’s my heart horse.
The confidence I have gained this past summer in riding hasn’t been secluded to the barn. It has definitely spread to other parts of my life. My therapist has noticed a huge difference in how I handled the two episodes these past few months- I handled them far more on my own than I have [safely]. I’ve seriously started looking into a certification in Equine Facilitated Learning. I am looking forward to all the research into it; and possibly helping others with mental health conditions through the world of horses. Having been able to add riding into my story when I go out for NAMI has felt beyond amazing. Knowing that I have a trick in my back pocket when it comes to the speech symptom of anxiety (riding seems to all but cure it for at least a short time) the hurriedness of the symptom’s approach has slowed.
Mental illness has taken away confidence I didn’t realize I had lost until I began getting it back. Second guessing everything you do, worrying about a bad day being a sign of an oncoming episode, looking for triggers behind every corner… It becomes all encompassing.
Things have been changing since starting to get these goals accomplished. Getting the goals completed is no longer just about getting another checkmark on the list. I want to accomplish them. I want to push myself that much more. I’ve started looking at bareback pads with detachable stirrups. I’ve been saving videos on possible areas to work on in the, hopefully, near future. I’ve already begun a barn goal list for next year.
In the everyday world the change as been noticeable as well. I still tread easily in slight fear of triggers. I don’t second guess myself on a daily basis nearly what I did before. As of late- It isn’t as much all-encompassing as it is a something that I check in on throughout the day. If that makes sense? The new “I can do this” approach I want to take towards varying areas of life is a new concept for me. I love it!
Anywhere someone can find confidence is a place of magnificent importance. Not everyone finds their confidence among hooves and hay bales as I did. Wherever it’s found is a place good for the soul.