The Best Lessons

I’ve started my first short story. As daunting as writing fiction is, I have already glimpsed a silver lining. I can take the experiences I’ve had and fold them into each other. I can extend them, shorten them, imagine them and demolish them, all to create a different narrative, or several.  I can create a story of what else could have happened, what might have happened, what didn’t happen, or what I wished had happened, to characters I’ve created through myself, others I’ve met, or haven’t yet.

It’s all available.

I had this thought and immediately felt empowered, all this newfound freedom at my fingertips.

The world is my canvas.

I just have to create it now.

Yes, I just have to create it now.

My euphoria quickly skidded into the brick wall of anxiety. My mind went blank. But I continue to write anyway, even if it resembles a cow pie in the middle of the page, loose word piled onto loose word. The writing is painful. It’s like  having to think about, and practice daily, putting your heels down after you’ve been riding for a few years already.

Don’t we ever get to move past that?

Worse, this feels like having ridden for a couple of decades, only to realize you’ve missed a very fundamental lesson along the way. Relearning the right way is much harder than learning it right from the beginning.

Training a young horse, a blank slate, comes with less challenges and frustrations than retraining one that comes with bad habits, skills, or experiences. There is a long period of undoing when faced with this. A trainer has to remove the tools from the toolbox, and put them back clean, in order, with new tools added, and old, useless ones removed. It’s a long process and not for the faint of heart. I’ve put what tools I have in my own toolbox, and it’s up to me to find order, and to fill it with what’s missing.

I decided triage was necessary  before I lost heart. I’ve started something that looks to be big in size, its completion a long way off. It doesn’t resemble a short story whatsoever, but more of a novella…or a novel perhaps.  This blog today is an  attempt at what Natalie Goldberg considers “the results of kindness.” She says [of writers], “We have to build slowly. This is kind consideration.”

I don’t think I’ve begun the Great American novel like she intimates of many budding, ambitious writers, but I’ve taken the leap from blogging to something that looks to be 50,000 words at completion. It feels like a wide chasm that I don’t fully comprehend yet, that which  I’ve crossed in the process. Playing through with smaller works of writing is kindness to myself.

More practice.

Heels down.

Rinse, repeat.

Natalie Goldberg recommended using “I remember” as a writing prompt to ignite short daily practices.


I remember….

The first and only time I rode a cutting horse as a kid. His name was Hank. He was a chestnut quarter horse stallion. I was scared of stallions. Weren’t they forever wild? Exempt from taming? Yet the adults were throwing me up, into the suede bucket of the saddle perched on Hank’s back. It was a lot of firsts for me that day. It was the first time I had ridden a stallion, the first time riding a cutting horse, and the first “real” western saddle I’d been in since riding a Shetland pony as a young kid, not knowing how to tighten the cinch properly, the saddle sliding off the second time, and last time, I used it.

Our neighbor took me to ride Hank. He belonged to her trainer, Vicky. They were both about the same age, approximately fourteen years or so older than me. That was twice my age, so in my mind, they were a whole lifetime older.

They put us, Hank and I, in the round pen, a dozen metal gates pinned together, at the end of the indoor arena. Hank was much bigger than the little Arab I rode at home. He was “Hank The Tank.” He jogged politely around the perimeter of the round pen like a pro, head down and round, not picking up the bit whatsoever. Hank was nothing if not polite. I just tried to stay quiet. Even in my ignorance, I knew Hank was much more educated than me. I tried to follow his lead.

Be polite.

We were jogging along when my toe got caught against the end of one of the gates. It pulled my foot back. I kicked Hank by accident. He bolted forward and I lost my balance, my torso falling back like a sail pushed hard by a gust of wind. Hank leapt forward, again and again, as I fell back, again and again, clutching the saddle every time. I pulled on the reins and Hank slammed to a stop, all four feet together. He was shaking in anticipation.

I was shaking because I was scared shitless.

The trainer opened the gate into the round pen, grabbing Hank by the rein. She tried to act cool, to not alarm the scared kid that was me. I jumped off. I was shaking with fear, but I was also weirdly exhilarated.  This, a new feeling, an exciting feeling, for a kid new to horses. I would find out much later exhilaration is the other side of the same coin as fear. This double-edged feeling would become a common occurrence in my time Eventing, and one I always cherished.

Riding Hank remains one of my favorite riding experiences of all time. As I think back, I remember some of the best teachers I had, before I knew horses were our teachers. Hank was one of them, even in that single ride. Also in Texas, there was Chunky, too. Chunky was a Shire cross who competed to the preliminary level before turning to straight dressage, up to Prix St. George. Chunky taught me a lot of things, the first being “don’t judge a book by its cover.”

The fat boy could dance.

Chunky then taught me what proper dressage felt like. He taught me what an authentic connection with the reins and the horse’s mouth was like, and what true balance and self-carriage felt like in an educated horse.

I spent a lot of time on Chunky, and regretfully when on my own, without a lot of breaks in our work, so desperate was I to find the hidden treasure of riding well,  to make my legs do what they were supposed to do, to implore my seat to operate independently, softly. It’s time in the tack to get there, and Chunky showed up every time. I was indebted to him when I broke through the other side of my limits, but I didn’t realize at the time, he paid the price every step of the way for my own knowledge and growth.

It wouldn’t have happened without him.

I can but hope I paid it forward to all of the others that passed through my doors since my time spent with Chunky, the ones who were misunderstood, broken-hearted, or confused. I hope the horses of the past see their contribution to the horses of the future, not for what they did just for me, but for all horsemen. They are our greatest teachers.

I remember them, and I salute them.



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