Fat to Fit to First Level: An Invitation

“I realized there are a lot of riders like me. Riders who are not young, but still active. Riders who are not thin, but striving to be more fit.” Introducing “Fat to Fit to First Level,” a new fitness and training column by Esther L. Roberts written for riders like her.

I am an obese rider. I am ashamed to be seen on my horse. I fear open ridicule and silent condescension. I fear I will never ever get rid of the fat that haunts me when I stand alone – naked and vulnerable – in front of the mirror.

Being honest is perhaps my greatest challenge in life. I’m not talking about “honest” as in “thou shalt not _____ [insert vice of choice].” I’m talking HONEST. As in, with myself.

For the past twenty years or so, I have learned to lie to me about so many things. “You’re not overly sensitive.” In psycho-parlance, I’m an INFJ-HSP. I know this personality analysis is accurate; back when I was a federal employee, the U.S. government tested me more than once just to make absolutely certain the results were accurate. INFJ-HSP. An introverted highly sensitive person. Translation to horsespeak: Red Mare. With opposable thumbs.

I’ve also become an expert at BS-ing myself about my size. “You’re just a little heavy.” Umm – newsflash – when you’re 5’2” tall and weigh 197 pounds, you’re not “a little heavy.” You’re obese.

And all the resolutions in the world do not change the fact that my paddock boots can’t zip above my ankles. All the clipping out of aspirational pictures – of thin, leggy models sporting the latest riding attire from trendy equestrian catalogs – does not change the fact that my riding breeches are much too tight.

Photos of me right now. They are honest.

Tess McHone of Everyday Beauty Photography

Tess McHone of Everyday Beauty Photography

Tess McHone of Everyday Beauty Photography

When I was eighteen, I remember looking at my size 8 self in the mirror and promising myself I would NOT become “one of those middle aged women who lets herself go.” But today, looking at my size 16 self in the mirror, I wonder where that sassy young woman went and who is this pathetic pudgy creature looking back at me?

I had no intention, back when I was of average weight for my height, that I would someday gain over fifty pounds. (Reference point: that’s a bag of feed!) I am about forty percent overweight! While some folks feel good about themselves no matter what (sincerely, YAY FOR YOU!), I despise myself for “letting myself go.”

I never meant to get fat. I never intended to stop showing or trail riding with friends because I was ashamed of my size. The pounds crept on slowly over these past twenty years, as I was dealing with law school and relationships and challenging jobs with crappy bosses and, well, Life.

I passed up 150 and thought, “I’ll get back there soon; I’m just dealing with so much stress right now.” Then 160 came and went, and I thought, “I’m still fitting in size 10 jeans; it can’t be that bad.” I’ve not seen the 170s in at least ten years. The 180s and 190s were a blur.

Christmas Day, 2016, the scale read 207.0. I wept. I wondered if I should just give up trying to shed all these extra pounds and become one of those thick-and-flabby middle-aged women who wear loose dresses and waddle.

I wondered if I should give up riding.

My first horse, Sam, was a small paint Mustang/Quarter Horse cross. Sam and I shared many happy years together until he crossed the rainbow bridge after a brief, unexpected, horrible illness.

My second horse, Grace, is a bold, elegant, and brilliant mare. Half Arabian and half Mustang, Grace was a fine dressage partner until she was retired a year ago due to a chronic respiratory condition.

My third horse came into my life in the spring of 2014. Kaliwohi (“collie-whoa-hey” –  it’s Cherokee for “perfect”) is a pure BLM Mustang. I adopted him out of the Muskrat Basin, Wyoming herd when he was eighteen months old. He will be five this October, so it is time for him to begin his training.

During this year’s annual wellness visit, the vet said Kaliwohi is overweight — a 7 on the Henneke scale. The other horses in my care are all at an ideal weight, so it’s not like I overfeed anyone. Kaliwohi’s metabolism is simply far more efficient than a tame-bred horse.

When the vet said, “Kaliwohi needs to lose weight or his health will be at risk,” that got my attention. Here is this lovely young horse who is at the right age to begin his training and he needs regular exercise. And here I am, no longer thirtysomething and fiftysomething pounds overweight. I want to ride Kaliwohi yet I wonder if it is a hopeless desire.

As it happens, also in 2014, I read a book titled Losing Weight is a Healing Journey, by Katrina Love Senn. Senn lost sixty pounds and has kept it off for over a decade, all without “dieting.” Senn took the radical approach of giving herself permission to take excellent care of her.

Self-care. What a revolutionary concept!

In order to lose the weight she had so carefully kept wrapped around her own highly sensitive self as a protective shield, Senn conducted a total inventory of her life, from her possessions to her profession, the people in her life, and what she truly loves. She got honest with herself. And she somehow found the courage to change whatever she did not like about her life.

I’ve been on that journey now for two years. I’ve de-cluttered and revamped my job and found ways to quiet (but not yet silence) all the “shoulds,“ “musts,” and “do not disappoints” that hound all us A-type overachievers. I have overcome many of my fears. Except one.

I am an obese rider and I am afraid to be seen on my horse. And I want to do something about this.

Photo by Olivia Attanasio

Recently, I decided to take a baby step towards facing this fear. I rode Kaliwohi in the presence of a trusted friend. One person. With a camera. The start of Kaliwohi’s training journey.

Later, as I looked at myself in those photographs, I resolved not only to train my mustang, but also to face my fear head on. I posted one picture on social media. There are folks of all sizes and shapes who cannot ride anymore. I should be grateful for every day I can get in the saddle. Right?

The response to that single photograph was so positive, it made me realize there are a lot of riders like me. Riders who are not young, but still active. Riders who are not thin, but striving to be more fit. Riders who are not independently wealthy, not riding six-figure horses, and not ready to hang up their boots.

So I decided to roar in the face of my fear. Our fear. Horse Nation has kindly allowed me this column space so I can share my weight loss journey and Kaliwohi’s training journey. I hope you’ll come along with me on this raw, rugged, honest journey towards wellness and wholeness, balance and harmony. From fat to fit to First Level. For me and for Kaliwohi. I don’t know how long it will take. I just know that I have failed my horse if I do not try.

Tess McHone of Everyday Beauty Photography

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