Happy, Healthy & Horsey: Fear, Failure and Figuring Things Out

“We horse people also understand failure. Most of us are extremely forgiving of our horses, yet so incredibly demanding of ourselves. No matter how good a ride goes, we will pick it apart in our brain afterwards… Yet we do not quit.”

One definition of “failure” is “lack of success.” Webster defines “success” as “degree or measure of succeeding [to attain a desired object or end].”

When I began writing for Horse Nation in 2017, I confidently stated my goals and definitions of success: I was going to lose 60 pounds and train my Mustang, Kaliwohi, through First Level classical dressage. It is now February 2020. I have lost weight, true, but nowhere near 60 pounds. And I’ve trained my Mustang, but nowhere near First Level.

My greatest fear is the fear of letting others down. Over the two-plus years I have been writing this column, I have often felt like I have let you, the devoted Horse Nation readers, down. The self-condemnation has been dreadful at times, with my inner voice scolding me, “You’re a failure!” “You’re not inspiring anybody!” “You should give up and quit!” “You’re such a LOSER!” (and not in the weight-loss sense). If I’ve let you down, I’m so very sorry. At least I have been honest the entire time.

I refuse to use my injuries (for those of you who don’t remember, read on for details) as an excuse for being unsuccessful. My path to weight loss has not been linear, for sure, and those injuries set me back many months, if not an entire year or more. But I consider that time lost a detour and not a dead end.

Which brings me to now. Now, here, at this moment in time, I have actually regained a few pounds of the twenty-plus I have lost on this journey. This does not make me happy at all. But I promised from the beginning I would never lie to y’all, so there it is.

I recently read about a woman whose weight loss journey took her eighteen years. Yet she never quit, despite ups-and-downs both on the scale and in her life.

I have not quit.

I will not quit.  

We horse people understand fear. We ride thousand-pound animals with minds of their own. If we wanted a risk-free sport, we would pick something else entirely. We also understand fear of failing — failing our horse, our trainer, our team. And yet, we do not quit.

We horse people also understand failure. Most of us are extremely forgiving of our horses, yet so incredibly demanding of ourselves. No matter how good a ride goes, we will pick it apart in our brain afterwards, with countless “I could have done betters” and “I should have done differentlies.”

And yet.

When we experience a “bad” ride. We fail. Yet we do not quit.

When we experience an “unplanned dismount.” We fail. Yet we do not quit.

When we experience an injury, or an unforeseen economic disaster or insert-negative-of-your-choice. We fail. Yet we do not quit.

Late last year, with the blessing of my wonderful editors at Horse Nation, I scaled back the frequency of this column so I could take some much-needed time for quiet introspection. I needed to sideline myself from weekly deadlines so I could get still enough inside to figure out what I truly want to do as regards my interaction with horses. As regular readers of this column will recall, I had a very serious “unplanned dismount” midway through 2018 that took me many, many months to recover from physically and even longer to recover from mentally. That fall destroyed my confidence and gave fear full reign in my consciousness for quite some time.

For a while, I stepped away from riding entirely and focused on my beloved rescue puppy, Beatrice. She is eight months old now and making top marks in her obedience training. I am not afraid (she’s rambunctious but Beatrice could never bolt and launch me at 30 mph into a steel fence!) and we are not failing as a team.

Rescue pup, Beatrice, riding shotgun on the way to obedience school.

Reflecting on our success, it occurred to me that fear induces failure, while confidence supports success.

Fear induces failure. Confidence supports success.

About a month ago, I called my trainer, Cathy Keeton. After riding under her tutelage for a decade or more, I had stopped working with her in 2018 (divorce = restructure one’s finances, can I get an amen?!) shortly before “the crash.” Cathy and I had a long chat about my current physical abilities, about Kaliwohi and about fear, failure and my current goals. After listening for a long time, Cathy asked me, “What is it about riding a horse that gives you joy, Esther? Because if it no longer gives you joy, what’s the point?”

I recalled the incredible success Kaliwohi and I enjoyed after a mere 30 days under saddle, when we rode in a JJ Tate clinic here in Knoxville. I had gone into that clinic with a green wild Mustang, yet we enjoyed every stride and had a wonderful experience. THAT experience was pure joy.

Me and Kaliwohi, 2017, riding in a JJ Tate clinic. Photo by Tess McHone, Everyday Beauty Photography.

Between that clinic and “the crash,” Kaliwohi and I enjoyed some really fine rides. But every now and then, for no apparent reason, my Mustang would blow a gasket and bolt. Every time, until “the crash,” I was able to ride the bolt and get us back on the same page. That crash, though, made me feel like an utter failure as a horsewoman, and it taught me raw fear, as well. The subconscious mind’s self-preservation instincts are strong, and my mind played an endless game of, “what if” that nearly drove me mad for months on end.

After my body healed, and Kaliwohi and I were back together in the arena, we worked well together, but I had some lingering pain after each dismount due to stretching my pelvis open around my rather rotund Mustang. And, as much as I hate to admit it, I also had some lingering fear. “What if he bolts yet again?”

So Cathy suggested I set Kaliwohi aside for a while, start over on a much more narrow horse, and have only one riding goal: find my joy again.

Caleb, rescued from a slaughterhouse auction a few years ago. Photo by Esther Roberts.

Cathy snapped this photo for me as Caleb and I were finishing our first lesson in the round pen a few weeks ago. I am in the saddle again. Comfortable. Without fear. Smiling.


What will 2020 bring for me? More pounds off, I hope. More good rides, I hope. More joy, more fun, more success. I hope. I have felt fear, and survived. I have felt failure, and survived. Perhaps you have, too. Together, we can support each other as we walk this journey towards being happy, healthy and horsey. Join me!