I don’t have a conscious memory of my first time on a pony, but I do have a photo. In the blue-tinted picture, I am three-and-a-half years old and sitting astride a shaggy, black steed named Cricket. I’m sporting a red bandana, and the look on my face says it all – this is love. My younger sister is perched behind me wearing a bright yellow sweatshirt and a much less enthusiastic expression.
As I grew older, my love of horses grew with me. By the time I was twelve, I was taking riding lessons. I even got to have a pony live at my house for the summer. “Little Joe,” as he was called, was anything but. Fat and full of attitude, his favorite pastimes included pinning me against the side of the barn, doing a military crawl under the paddock fence (in order to get to the “greener grass” on the other side), and orchestrating midnight escapes that resulted in my whole family running up and down our long driveway in our pajamas, trying desperately to coax the naughty pony back to his stall with carrots and buckets of grain.
When I was in my early thirties, I took up riding again. As an adult, I developed a whole new appreciation for the equestrian arts. My younger self had been caught up in the romance and adventure of riding a horse – but my older self became fascinated with the nuances of communication and cooperation that are the true foundation of good riding.
About a year-and-a-half ago, I mounted up again after nearly twelve years out of the saddle. I had started my daughter on lessons, and being around the barn proved too much of a temptation for me. Though I was a little nervous about my first lesson in a long time, the rangy thoroughbred I was paired with (Traveler, who has since moved on to the big pasture in the sky) turned out to be very accommodating. More importantly, once I’d settled into the saddle, all my years of riding came right back to me.
Horsemanship is called an “art” for a reason. Though it requires a great deal of athleticism – strength, balance, agility, and flexibility – it’s more about developing an intuitive “feel” and building a relationship with your horse. The most advanced riders make the act appear effortless, but there is actually a subtle and unceasing dialog that takes place between horse and rider. It’s about pushing past fear so you can experience moments of flow when it feels like you and the horse are one. In this way, riding has a lot in common with writing.
··• )o( •··
Seeing Past the Romance and Embracing the Hard Work
Falling in love with horses is easy, especially when you’re a pre-teen girl who already loves animals. The idea of riding is full of romance. In our daydreams, riding is easy. You imagine flying bareback along a stretch of pristine, sun-kissed shoreline – the wind in your hair and the sound of hoofbeats pounding in the sand. The idyllic experience is full of harmony and ease and a kind of magic. Or, maybe, like I used to do when I was a kid, you imagine that you have a one-of-a-kind connection to horses that gives you special abilities when it comes to taming the wilder ones. Oh, how many times I wished I could be like Alec from The Black Stallion.
Writers often fall under a similar spell. We swoon over the idea of writing and all the trappings of the writing life – vintage typewriters, cool software, beautiful notebooks, well-stocked libraries, and cozy writing nooks. We are enamored with the image of The Writer as artiste. Instead of daydreaming about galloping along the beach, we picture ourselves scribbling in a Moleskine notebook as we stroll along the Seine, keyboarding our third bestseller from the corner seat in a chic coffee shop, or accepting accolades (and hefty commission checks) for our breakout novel.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying the romance of either riding or writing. I’m all grown up, and I still daydream about communing with wild horses and sequestering myself in a room of my own to write to my heart’s content. Romance and daydreams are healthy and helpful. They keep us always falling in love and inspire us to keep going even when the going gets tough.
But, whether you’re getting a leg up into the saddle or into a story, you have to realize that romance will only take you so far. Just thinking about riding will not make you a good rider. Likewise, just thinking about writing will not make you a good writer. At some point, you have to step beyond your romantic notions and get your hands dirty. Your budding romance must blossom into true love if it’s going to survive the long, hard road ahead.
Because, make no mistake, both riding and writing demand a lot of hard work. There are no shortcuts to mastery in either pursuit, and there’s a lot less glitz and glamour than you might assume. When I come home from a lesson at the barn, I’m covered in dirt, sweat, and horsehair. I smell like manure, have dust from the riding ring up my nose and in my eyes, and I’m tired and sore from head to toe. But, it’s a good tired. I may be exhausted, but I’m also exhilarated. I feel grounded and accomplished.
I feel much the same after a good writing session (sans the dirt and horsehair). Instead of working up a sweat wrangling a 1500-lb horse around the ring, I tax my braincells wrestling words onto the page in a messy and imperfect process that is anything but romantic. In both cases, I have to love the hard work of actually doing the thing as much as I love the idea of doing it.
Committing to Consistent Practice
On a related note, both riding and writing require consistent practice. My daughter rides as well, and we are both the kind of students who show up no matter what. Rain, snow, excessive heat, bone-chilling cold – we’re there. Only the most extreme weather or illness keeps us from our lessons.
Whether you’re trying to master horsemanship or storytelling, you will learn faster the more you practice. While I’m not 100% sold on Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, I do believe that the more you do anything, the better you’ll get at it. It’s just common sense. You get more comfortable, gain more experience, and learn from past mistakes. You also start to dull the edge of any fears you might have.
Getting Over Your Fear
As a child, I was a mostly fearless rider and, come to think of it, writer. I had few preconceived ideas about how things were “supposed” to be, and I didn’t fully grasp the consequences that might befall me if I did something wrong. I also, I think, benefitted from a youthful ability to deny that anything bad would ever happen to me.
Lots of things can go wrong when you’re in the saddle. Horses can spook or shy at pretty much anything including unexpected sights, sounds, and even scents. When frightened, they might jump sideways, rear up on their hind legs, or bolt and take off at a gallop. Apart from reacting to their own fear, sometimes horses just don’t feel like cooperating. You might, for instance, be on your approach to jump a fence and suddenly your mount decides they don’t feel like jumping and slams on the brakes. If you’re not prepared for such an eventuality, you risk being thrown right over your horse’s neck. Other times, you might just lose your balance and, through no fault of your mount’s, tumble to the ground.
Clearly, there’s a lot to fear.
With writing, the fear is less about bodily harm and more about vulnerability. As writers, we fear being ridiculed, called out as frauds, or exposed by what we share. We are afraid that we’re doing it wrong, that no one will care, and that everyone will see us fail. We worry that we’re not getting better, were never any good, and will never be published. These fears don’t involve bumps, bruises, or broken bones, but they are at least as scary.
With both horses and words, the best way (the only way!) to push past your fear is just to get up in the saddle and do the thing you’re afraid of. Gallop that horse, jump that fence, publish that blog post, submit that story. You will never talk yourself out of your fears. You have to work your way past them by facing them again and again until you eventually realize that not only are your worst fears rarely realized, even when they are it’s never as bad as you imagined it would be.
I’ve fallen off many different horses over the years. I’ve fallen off while jumping and while walking around the ring after a lesson. I’ve been stepped on and bitten, crushed against fences, and nearly kicked. And you know what? I survived. In my writing life, I’ve been critiqued cruelly, told I’m not a “Real Writer,” and fired. And you know what? I survived.
Whether you’re riding or writing, making mistakes is part of the process. It’s like the old cliché says – When you fall off your horse, you’ve got to dust yourself off and get right back in the saddle. Same thing with writing. Never let an unkind word or a rejection keep you from picking up your pen or hitting the keyboard. Just get back in there and keep wrangling those words.
Learning the Language
In riding, you use your “aids” – hand, seat, weight, and voice – to communicate with your horse. These are the foundational elements of the language of horsemanship. A good ride depends on your ability to use your aids effectively both individually, and in hundreds of complex and subtle combinations. This is how you “talk” to your horse and give instructions about speed, direction, bend, flexion, and position.
In a way, riding really is like learning to speak a new language. I never cease to be amazed at the complexity and depth of the “conversation” that I can have with a horse simply by shifting my weight, changing my leg position, or altering my grip on the reins. With enough practice, the transitions become more fluid and the communication becomes more efficient and effective. It also becomes more beautiful to experience and to watch. Ultimately, neither horse nor rider is “in charge.” We are partners, collaborating and cooperating. We support each other – the horse supports me with its strength and back, I support the horse with my guidance, leg, and hand. We complement each other, each relying on the other’s strengths to attain our shared goal.
You cannot expect to ride well if you don’t spend time learning how to use the aids that allow you to converse with your mount. These are the basics. They seem so simple as to be almost negligible, but they are the core of everything else you do when on horseback. The most advanced riders in the world use the same exact set of tools as the beginner. The difference is in how they are applied.
It is the same with writing. We all have the same words to work with. We all learn the same foundational tenet of grammar and usage. We all have access to the same set of basic instructions on story structure, characterization, plot, tension, conflict, etc. The tools are the same for each and every writer, the difference between a first-time author and a literary master is only in the skill and experience with which those tools are applied.
Take the time to learn the language. Understand that even the most complex story can still be broken down into those basic, foundational parts. It’s like watching a flawless dressage performance in which horse and rider appear to float through their movements, and understanding that even that level of perfection is created using the same basic tools as any other horse and rider. It’s both humbling and inspiring.
Finding Your Balance
Balance is critical in riding. You must find a point of equilibrium from which you can not only maintain your own position, but can also influence your horse’s. You need to be firmly seated so that you can use all your aids to communicate effectively. If you are out of balance and send conflicting messages, your horse will become confused and even frustrated. For instance, if you’re using your leg to urge the horse forward, but your lack of balance causes you to simultaneously pull back on the reins, your poor horse literally won’t know whether he’s coming or going. The result: you’ll get nowhere, fast.
Balance is also an important component of writing and of the writing life. In the craft, you must learn to find your balance in your story so that you can tell it well. You must learn to balance forward momentum with tension and balance one character against another. You must also learn to balance your writing with the rest of your life – family, partner, parents, work, friends, other interests and obligations. You must learn to balance your schedule so that you have time and space for everything, and you must learn to balance and ground yourself in your writing practice despite the many distractions that will come into your day.
Balance is, as they say, a verb more than it is a noun. In both riding and writing, balance is something you do, not something you acquire. Whether you are talking about being in the saddle or nurturing your writer’s life, things are always shifting. You need to be able to shift with them in order to keep your seat under you.
Listening to Your “Muse”
Riding is, though it may not look it, a very active pursuit. The rider is never on auto-pilot and neither is the horse. They are always communicating. They are always listening to one another. A good horse and rider team can “read” each other without even trying. They are always observing each other and responding to each other. The balance is always shifting, back and forth.
Despite the precision with which horse and rider can communicate via the aids, there will always be a certain mystery that exists in the relationship. Anyone who has ridden for a long time will tell you that there is something more at play in a good ride than the physical aids. Over time, horse and rider establish another line of communication, something less tangible but just as powerful. It’s almost as if, on some level, they become one, the boundaries between their intention and their movements dissolving. All the hard work that the team has put in transforms into what appears to be an effortless dance.
So it can be with writing, when you find yourself in a state of creative flow that takes you out of your head, so to speak, and in which you almost “become” the story you are writing. In these moments, when the words come easily and almost unbidden, you are reaping the reward of all your long hours of practice and perseverance. This may feel like magic, but it’s really just you tapping into your own creative genius via all the work you’ve put into pushing past your fears, learning the language, practicing, and finding your balance.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.