Rio Retreat Center logo

What A Horse Taught Me About Fear and Self-Doubt

October 6, 2016

By Andrea Sauceda, Internet and Social Media Director at The Meadows

It was 116 degrees on the June day my new co-worker Erin and I went to meet The Meadows’ Equine Therapy program directors for a demonstration. It was also our third day of a week-long new employee orientation process, during which we did whirlwind tours of all The Meadows’ programs and talked with staff about the incredible work they were doing.

I would never have admitted it to my new boss, or to anyone, but I was feeling quite disoriented during this orientation. I had already managed to forget my wallet at home after leaving for the airport, had a little “scrape” with the rental car, gotten lost in Wickenburg twice—which must seem impossible to anyone who has been to the tiny, desert town. (In my defense, it seems that even Google Maps has trouble navigating it.)

I had a six-month-old baby at home–my second–throwing my household into joyful turmoil. My husband and I had just bought a house and the closing was getting very complicated, prompting multiple panicked and urgent text messages per day from him and my realtor–none of which I could answer right away. Plus, I now had this brand new job and wanted to try to at least appear like I had it all together in order to make a good impression. Plus, I was dealing with some “stuff.” Emotional stuff. Stuff I’ve always tried my best to pretend I wasn’t dealing with.

(And, did I mention that it was 116 degrees outside? I’m Midwestern. We don’t do “dry heat.” We like our summer air to be so thick with humidity you can drink it, thank you very much.)

I had both been looking forward to and dreading this equine therapy session. I was intrigued by the concept, and wanted to learn more about it, but was also worried about the degree to which the “experiential” part of the therapy would apply to me. I was kind of hoping I could just hang out in my comfort zone, from which I like to keep things more observational and less experiential, for better or worse.

As Erin and I walked across the dusty parking lot toward the dusty stables, my fear and dread began to grow. I silently said this little prayer:

“Dear God or Whatever: Please let this demonstration be a demonstration only, requiring no participation or interaction from me. The last thing I need right now is to be made a fool of by a damn horse. Thank you! Amen.”

We were soon met by Molly and Anne, who introduced us to the horses, explained to us the ins and outs, and the whys and how’s of the program.

Then it was demonstration time.

“So, we’re going to have you guys do an exercise with Ernie here,” Molly said.

“Shit,” I thought.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to, but if you do want to step on up,” Molly said.

“But, can I really opt out?” I thought. “How is that going to look to my new boss and new co-workers? No. I have to do this. And, I’m going to have to pretend to be a good sport about it when this horse drags me across the stables and everyone laughs. YEAH, I SEE THAT EVIL LOOK IN YOUR EYES, ERNIE.”

The task was to stand behind the horse holding two rope reigns, steer him down a short path, get him to turn around some orange construction cones at the end of the path, and come back to the beginning.

Erin, who had grown up going to horse camps as a child, graciously agreed to go first. And, Ernie was… not exactly cooperative. He wasn’t impossible by any means, but it was clear that he didn’t want this whole thing to be too easy for her.

“Oh my God,” I thought. “If Horse Camp Girl is struggling, what does this mean for me?!?! This is going to be so humiliating. What are these ladies going to think when they see how much this horse hates me? I wonder if this will end up being the worst equine demonstration participant they have ever seen.”

Then, it was my turn. I stepped up and took the reins. Anne gave me some instruction which I didn’t hear at all because I was concentrating very, very hard on not freaking out.

I took the reins and shook them. “Okay, Ernie. Let’s do this,” I said.

Ernie began walking. I said, “Thank you.”

He walked some more and I said, “Thank you.” (Note: I think you are actually supposed to say “giddy up” or something? A cowgirl, I am not.) He kept walking, and I kept saying “thank you.”

Finally, we got to the scariest part—the end of the path, where I was supposed to make him turn. I started scrambling to recall any useful bit of information from the instructions I didn’t listen to earlier. “Which one makes him go right?!?”

But, to my surprise, by the time I made a decision as to which reign to pull, Ernie had already made it halfway around the curve all on his own.

“Thank you,” I said.

Once we’d made it back to the beginning, I handed the reins back to Anne. Molly said that she didn’t think she’d ever seen that exercise go so well for anybody.

“How were you feeling before you started the exercise?” Molly asked.

“Umm.. Scared, I guess? I was sure it was going to be a disaster. I was sure I didn’t have whatever special kind of presence and authority horse people have and that he was going to give me a really hard time…”

“So, what happened, then?”

The smart aleck part of my brain—the part that likes to make sarcastic jokes as a defense mechanism against pesky feelings and whatnot—wanted to say, “Well, obviously, what happened is that I am a natural! Like, the Michael Jordan of horsemanship!”

But, what I heard myself saying before I could stop myself was…

“Well…um…this is weird, I guess? But, I think he knew I needed help.”

And, then the worst possible thing I could imagine happening right then, happened. I started to cry. Just a few hot tears, streaming out of the corners of my eyes, but still. I tried to hold on to those tears so hard because I was trying to be a professional dammit, and I halfway succeeded. I was standing there, listening to Molly, gritting my teeth and hoping it looked like a smile, and crying and hoping it looked like I just had some desert dust in my eyes.

I spent the rest of my week at The Meadows—and the rest of the past year—returning to this incident and wondering why I had such a strong emotional reaction after only a few minutes of equine therapy. I still am not sure I fully understand, but I do know this—that one brief experience with that horse, drew into sharp focus many of the self-defeating beliefs I have and have always had about myself. It made me realize how often I face a challenge or difficult situation in my life by…

  • Assuming that I will fail.
  • Assuming that others will be embarrassed on my behalf or ashamed of me if they see me failing.
  • Assuming that showing emotion equals failure.
  • Assuming that others will not understand if I need help.
  • Assuming that others will not forgive me if I need help.
  • Assuming that needing help equals failure.

I wish I could tell you that these realizations have eliminated all the fear of being vulnerable I’ve carried with me throughout my life—a fear that I think is closely tied to my bouts with depression. But, as they often say at The Meadows, “It’s a process.”

I do think I walked away that day, at least a hair less fearful of showing up and being seen than I was before. And, each day since, I’ve gotten another hair or two less fearful. Today, I was finally fearless enough to write this essay—though not without a few days worth of self-doubt and agonizing, and a last minute pep talk from a couple of friends.

If you’re struggling right now, don’t be afraid of what people will think if tell them you need help. Sure, there’s a stigma out there for people who struggle with mental illness or addiction, but the people in your life who love you are going to understand. And, they are going to want to support you so you find the help you need, and instead of feeling ashamed of you, they are likely to be proud of you for having the courage to take charge of your life. Plus, there are many wonderful therapists out there and treatment programs like the ones at The Meadows available to help you. Keep holding on to the reins, but let them steer.

And, thanks again, Ernie.

What’s Your Story?

Now that I’ve shared my story, I want to hear yours. What does being #fearless mean to you, and to your recovery? Tell me in a short essay (500 words) or short video (2 minutes), and I may feature you on our blog or Facebook page!

Email your submissions to [email protected], or share them on Twitter and mention @AndreaSauceda in your tweet.

If you submit an essay between now and October 31, and we publish it, you’ll receive a special gift!

Also, the intake specialists at The Meadows are happy to answer any questions you might have about treatment options or workshops available to you. (Trust me. I’ve met them. They’re great.) The right program or intensive may help you overcome the issues and false beliefs that have been preventing you from living fully and authentically. Call 800-244-4949.

If you’re interested in trying out equine therapy, check out the Spirit Quest worshop.