Editorial: Feeling Like a Beginner

“Learning to sail — in which I feel like a total idiot daily, clambering around the boat while getting cracked in the head by the boom — reminds me of just how long it took me to get to my current level of easy familiarity in the barn.”

Photo by Kristen Kovatch

For lots of us in the horse world, we’ve moved past the “beginner” stage — many of us might be beyond stages completely at this point, in it for life, not really remembering those early days at all, well-established and comfortable in our horse lives. I hope that most of us continue to seek new knowledge, better ways of horsekeeping and better methods of training and riding.

In my horse life, I’ve had plenty of recent challenges in the past few years that have encouraged me to continue learning and continue broadening my horsey horizons: I got into draft horse showing, I moved to self-care board on a family farm, I adopted my first OTTB and hopped on a steep learning curve of training and horse management. I’ve learned a lot in just the past year, and I’m sure I’ll continue to learn more as I go. For this, I’m grateful.

But these experiences are still within the familiar realm of horses. I might not have known the proper ring etiquette initially for showing a cart horse; a major lightbulb went off this spring when I realized exactly what true contact felt like and how much my Thoroughbred had been seeking it — but all of these lessons were through that equine lens, a way of viewing the world with which I’m quite familiar. I’m breaking new ground, yes, but it’s still in the same old field.

Photo by Kristen Kovatch

Last week, a family member from my husband’s side of the clan was in town. A lifelong lover of sailing, he had starting saving money from his first job at age eleven (by coincidence, or perhaps not, that job was picking corn and strawberries at the same family farm where I now keep my horses) and by age fourteen had purchased himself a Sunfish, the perfect user-friendly starter sailboat for a boy growing up on the shore of the large lake that cuts across the middle of the county.

Having grown up myself with fond memories of cutting across the saltwater bay in New Jersey with my father in a Sunfish on our annual summer vacation “down the shore,” I was eager to get a sailing lesson from Uncle Jim, after which he promised we could use the Sunfish ourselves and soon be cutting the waves and racing the wind ourselves. My lesson with Jim took place on a lovely afternoon with a brisk breeze and the sound of the water and wind was exhilarating as we zig-zagged across the lake.

Jim flew home with his family the next day, leaving the boat pulled up on the rocky beach for us to come down and use whenever we liked. So that the lesson “stuck” in my mind, I made sure to head down that same day, 24 hours after my quick introductory lesson, to get the boat set up and head out on the water.

Forty-five minutes later, after much frustration, bickering and some frantic Google searches on a smartphone, my husband and I had the boat set up (ish) and shoved her out into the water, awkwardly flopping aboard, colliding in slow motion with the dock, running aground on the other side of the cove and getting whacked in the face with the boom several times apiece. At one point, my husband somehow managed to pull the entire boat over on top of himself. I’m pretty sure I heard laughter from the pontoon boat at anchor a few hundred yards away, its occupants watching our struggle under the pretense of fishing and drinking beer.

Eventually, we got things set to rights, as far as we could tell with our extraordinarily limited experience, and glided slowly out to the middle of the lake where the breeze promptly died. My husband paddled us back while I operated the tiller, the sail luffing sadly over our heads.

Jim was of the self-taught camp — he had studied a sailing manual in his youth, but then figured that the best way to learn was by doing (a school of thought that I largely agree with, in most things). This is somewhat of a feature of the entire family — my husband learned to ride essentially by simply not falling off in his youth, clinging to the backs of a slow parade of Quarter horse types that his grandfather purchased and brought home to the farm.

And while I appreciate this school of thought, and am currently listening to the breeze in the treetops just itching to get the boat rigged up and back out on the water, I also know that I’ll be picking up my own sailing manuals, talking to some experienced sailing friends to get some lessons, and seeking to educate myself about the best ways to maintain the boat, keep myself safe and always be improving.

At the same time, this experience — in which I feel like a total idiot daily, clambering around the boat while getting cracked in the head by the boom or ducking frantically as the sail swings aimlessly about as I lose the breeze yet again — reminds me of just how long it took me to get to my current level of easy familiarity in the barn. Yes, at this stage in my horse life, I can confidently say that generally, I know what I’m doing — but we were all beginners once, putting the bridle on crooked over and over again, learning the right way to stand while picking feet, toddling about on the backs of saintly horses who put up with our lack of balance.

If you’ve read this far and still consider yourself a beginner horseman or horsewoman, carry on. Stay persistent. Never stop learning. Anyone can embrace this life if they love it enough — and remember that there’s a world out there where you are the expert, whether it’s cooking a great meal or navigating corporate finance or something in between. If you’re a “lifer” like me, I challenge you: find something out of your comfort zone, a place where you feel like a total beginner. Remember what it feels like to struggle, but to know that if you want something badly enough, you’ll work until it’s within your reach. We’re all beginners at something.

Go riding!

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