A few months ago, my friend Jess and I were riding horses together through our local national forest land. It was a beautiful afternoon, the late fall sun giving a warm orange glow to the ponderosa pines and sagebrush, our horses stamping and snorting with the joyful anticipation of a long ride ahead. We trotted by some abandoned metal t-posts, souvenirs from the cattlemen who came before us with their fencing and grazing rights, who used this land to make a living. “I hate riding past these,” she said. “I’m afraid I’ll get my knee stuck and tear my jeans.”
“I’m afraid my horse will come unglued and I’ll get impaled,” I replied. Jess, because she’s a good friend, admitted that such danger was possible albeit unlikely, and laughed at me.
She’s right to laugh. I’m a horsemanship instructor, I know this sort of unruly fear isn’t helpful. I tell my students what I need to remember: Trust yourself; trust your horse.
Riding horses is a delicate balance between anticipation and rest. I have learned over years of riding that if we wish to ride well, we must ride with awareness, wide awake, alert. So I teach my students that. And I also tell them that riders should relax their elbows, stop gripping their horses with their legs, and simply sit deep in their saddles. A scared rider is rarely a safe rider. We must discern the line between worry and awareness, anticipation and dread, rest and sleep. If we can do so, we’re rewarded with the joy of partnership and the adventure of new horizons—there’s nothing (in my opinion) quite as exhilarating as a good ride.
Horses can be intimidating as well as beautiful; reward almost always involves risk. Accidents happen, and horses will bite, kick, buck, rear, bolt, and spook. These behaviors are not hypothetical—they’re how horses are designed. Like my own worry, the horses’ impulses are born from awareness and anticipation run amuck, self-protection bloated and cumbersome with the weight of fear.
After many miles in the saddle, I usually anticipate problems and stop them before they become dangerous. I can see the rear forming in the horse’s mind before it reaches his powerful haunch muscles, the frustrated kick building from brain to body. Then I can stop my horses, I can remind them that worry (in horses we call it “spooking,” which seems appropriate for us too, doesn’t it?) will not save them. I won’t catch everything—as with all worthwhile endeavors, danger is unavoidable. But it’s helpful to remember that fear has never been mitigated because I allowed myself the luxury of imagining tragedy.
I think one of the reasons I’m attracted to horses is this tangible, everyday discernment; faith with boots on. Anticipation is essential to safety. A quick reaction time can rescue a dangerous situation and reform it into a mere hiccup. Anticipation is a skill, but with horses, letting anticipation become unbridled anxiety has real-world costs. My horse knows what I’m feeling, I can’t pretend to be tough and unbothered in order to keep them calm—I have to be truly calm. If I can acknowledge my worries but not allow them to rule me, if I can be alert to my life without assuming there’s a trap or a predator around every bend in the trail, then I get the benefits—not the burdens—of every ride. Riding horses has taught me faith in action.
Faith Despite the Dangers
I have grace for today, strength made perfect in weakness. I’m not a savior, it’s not my job to be omniscient. Good anticipation is about joy and trust and is a powerful resting place. The faith I long for rides with wisdom, at rest, aware that nothing is certain but grace is sufficient.
We live in a risky, fearful world. Danger is unavoidable, it’s spooky, sending chills down our spines. Danger is here, in t-posts and snake-bites and mountain lions and steep terrain, in a thousand fearful bogeys we haven’t even thought of yet. Danger is here, in sickness and politics and job loss and upheaval. Fear and danger are present every day, whispering to us on the breeze, prodding us into trembling, lurching uncertainty. They tell us we have to protect ourselves, that our worry is insurance, not liability.
Despite the dangers I know are real, I want to live in a secure, anticipatory faith. I am looking ahead, to open skies, to ponderosas dancing in the wind, to joy. For I know that mountain sunsets and breathtaking gallops require endurance and discernment, that trust and hope are hard-won habits of the heart. Every day I find a balance between anticipation and rest on the back of my horse, and every day I get closer to finding that hard-won peace for my heart as well.
Cover image by Clint McKoy.