By Cara Tsombakos
Galloping a horse through a wide-open field has never made me scared. Soaring over jumps atop their back has never made me think twice, nor has handling the large and unruly animals on days when they couldn't be bothered to be handled. Certain foods, on the other hand, still send my mind into full-blown panic mode.
I can't totally pinpoint the reason for the anxiety that used to plague me with every bite I took. I was worried about my body changing and was haunted by the messages that diet culture instilled into my brain. I knew it was illogical, but you can't "logic" an eating disorder away. I descended full-speed down the ruthless and slippery slope of starving, wasting away, hating myself. The irony was not lost on me that my greatest fear was a daily function, yet the animals that scared so many were my refuge.
I teach horseback riding to small children. Most of them are fearless (as kids tend to be), but some have a bit more self-preservation and openly object to my pushing them to take the next steps. Trotting, for example, is a faster gait that a student will experience relatively early in their riding career. It is bumpier and can be jarring for a young rider that is just starting out. When I feel that the student is ready to feel the trot- and that the horse is on the same page as I am- I will ask the student for their permission to encourage the horse to "trot on". Oftentimes the answer is a resounding "Yes!!", but occasionally their eyes will bug out of their heads and I'm met with a firm "No." When I ask why, their answer is always the same:
"I'm too scared."
I would never force a student to do anything that they are not comfortable with, however, it is my role to gently push.
"It's okay to be scared," I reply.
They usually ponder this. They are coming in from an outside world in which they are told "Don't be scared!", or, "You have no reason to be scared!" by a well-meaning adult, to which they can quickly rebut, "But I am." They have hit a wall; this is a round-and-round conversation that no one is going to win. If I were told, "Don't be scared, it's just a bagel!", the perpetrator would likely be wiping cream cheese off of their face for the remainder of the day. The idea that our fear is illogical is disempowering and, quite frankly, bullshit. Fear exists for a reason, but it does not have to put a limit on the way we live our lives.
At this point in the lesson, the student will often give me a little smile and nod. They have accepted that they will be afraid of going faster on the horse, but they trust that I will keep them safe. I gently ask the horse to trot on, staying close to the student for moral (and physical) support. We trot a few steps and then I bring the horse down to the comfort and security of the walk. "I am SO proud of you!" I gush to the beaming child. "You felt the fear and you did it anyway." This is typically the part of the lesson where the child smiles and sits up a little taller in their saddle, feeling proud of their accomplishment; and then ask to trot again!
I sit down to the challenging meal plated in front of me. I feel the fear in the pit of my stomach, the sweat on my palms, the beat of my heart. I am not angry at the fear; I do not try to squash it, to drive it out, to cuss it away. "It's okay to be scared," I exhale to myself. I am the child about to trot for the first time, putting trust in something greater than myself that I am going to be okay. I take a bite, smile, and sit up a little taller.