The exercise is a basic one: canter around the outside of the ring, over a single trot pole and then clear a two foot vertical jump. Sarah, Victoria, Katie and I complete the exercise without any fuss, while our riding coach, Cathy, suggests where we can improve. Focus. Rhythm. Seat.
“Remember to breathe,” she says to me. “You’re a bit stiff in the seat.”
“My yoga instructor says the same thing,” I say, grinning.
Bruce follows the same path, but a few feet from the jump his mount, a quarter-horse bay named Dylan, balks and refuses. Bruce pulls Dylan back and tries again, circling to the top of the arena and spurring Dylan forward. Dylan canters toward the jump, but two strides away he puts on the brakes, digging in his rear hooves and skidding to a stop, rodeo horse style. Dylan’s eyes are wide and scared, his body bent inward like a spring, ready to rear and buck.
“Circle him around and come right back to it,” Cathy says, from her position beside the jump. “Don’t let him get away with that.”
Bruce follows her orders but Dylan defies him, pulling up several feet away this time, rearing and refusing to go forward. They try again. And again. Dylan prances sideways. He hyperventilates. He looks like a cartoon elephant with a mouse in his path.
“Walk up to it,” Cathy says.” Just walk up to it. Do not let him back away.”
Bruce tries, encouraging Dylan to walk forward, but Dylan won’t budge past the pole, skittering backward and sideways, at every angle except forward.
“Just walk up to it,” Cathy says again taking a few steps toward them.
“Come on, Dylan,” Bruce urges, his voice firm but kind. “Walk. Walk. Walk!”
Bruce perseveres, using every tool he’s got to move Dylan forward: his words, his legs, his heels, his whole body, digging in and spurring, willing him to move ahead. Dylan relents, moving tentatively over the pole.
“Walk up to it. Walk up to the jump”. Cathy’s voice is like a soundtrack, her constant urging punctuated by Bruce’s grunts and Dylan’s heavy breathing. Dylan edges forward, slowly, slowly, until, finally, he is nose-close to the jump.
“Just stay still. Just stay still. Just stay still,” Cathy says.
She takes another step towards Dylan.
“Just stay still,” she whispers.
Just. Stay. Still.
Until Dylan is standing there. Motionless. She caresses his face and talks to him quietly. She plucks the flowers from the wooden box in front of the jump and shows them to him, puts them close to his face.
“It’s okay,” she says, stroking his neck. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”
They stand together like that until Dylan’s breathing calms, until Bruce slumps back in the saddle, relaxed. Then Bruce leads Dylan back to the track, around the ring in a graceful canter, and over the pole and jump. Flawless.
Imagine if we all did this, approached our problems, the scary things, with this kind of tenacity and calm. With a patient coach alongside us, someone who has been there and can show us: it is not so scary. Imagine if we could step out of our fear, if we could tiptoe up and examine what frightens us: the file we’re afraid of at work, the one that we’re not sure we can handle. The conversation we don’t want to have. The speech we’re afraid to give. Imagine getting up close, and seeing that the story we’re telling ourselves isn’t so solid – like those flowers Cathy held up to Dylan’s nose. They’re just flowers and you’re okay .The scary part is all in our mind.
Meditation works like that. The mind kicking and reeling and bucking and refusing. Meditation allows us to get up close, to examine what, at first, appears terrifying, or maddening, or agitating, but upon closer reflection, isn’t so scary after all. Especially if you have a capable teacher by your side (whether in person or on the page). Meditation is a way in, a way to walk up close and take a hard look.
Dylan finished out the lesson like a champ, clearing the pole and jump effortlessly, over and over again, as well as several more jumps after that. Afterward, Bruce rewarded him, as he always does, with kind words, a generous brushing and many, many treats. Dylan wasn’t cured of spooking by this singular episode. He is still unnerved by the occasional jump or pole or flower, but the difference is, there is a way through. It just takes patience, kindness and a commitment to Just. Stay. Still.