Well, first of all, I didn’t fall off. I managed to stay mounted while my horse galloped up and down the mountains near Zion Canyon National Park. In the pitch dark.
Over the hours of the ride, which were both exhilarating and terrifying, a lesson I badly needed to learn was driven home.
I am an energetic control freak with a vivid imagination. Those qualities are assets when planning a holiday dinner for thirty, a multi-city vacation, writing a blog post, speaking before a large audience, or caring for multiple infant and toddler grandchildren together. The results will be creative, organized, smooth, and stress-free.
But a control freak with a vivid imagination suffers madly when there is airplane turbulence, when awaiting a loved one’s medical test results, when a child’s cell phone goes to voice mail one time too many.
In other words, when the control freak must cede control. And the vivid imagination takes over, making a beeline for the most frightening, far-fetched possibility.
My husband, Mike, and I love to go horseback riding when on vacation. We’ve ridden in Mexico, in the hills of the Galilee, on volcanic trails in Hawaii, and on mountain paths in the Canadian Rockies.
Although we have ridden many times in many places, I would still consider us nothing more than advanced beginners. Most of our rides have been of the “nose to tail” variety, a low-skills hour or three on a walking horse.
This ride, this eight-hour experience at Jacob’s Ranch near Zion Canyon, was going to be different. It would include trotting, loping, and galloping. Jumping over downed trees. A ride beginning in daylight and ending in moonlight. A ride up into the mountains in the dark.
My husband was so gung-ho to do this that I could not bear to disappoint him. I tried to quiet my overactive imagination as I signed off on the consent forms outlining all the risks. As if I hadn’t thought of them all already.
We spent the first hour or two selecting our horses and getting them to bond with us. My choice of horse was easy. I asked the young cowboys (‘wranglers’) which horse they’d use for an eight-year old kid. I ended up with Ranger, a sturdy, sweet, even-tempered horse. I felt sheer delight when Ranger followed me around the training ring.
“The horse knows how to read you,” the wranglers reassured me. “Just trust the horse.”
With that, our riding party headed out: me, Mike, two young wranglers, the sixty-something ranch owner, and four millennials, two men and two women, co-workers at a recreational marijuana farm. You could say this was a diverse group.
The first couple of hours of riding were thrilling. We moved along as a loosely organized group, the horses trotting amid the spectacular scenery. I quickly adjusted to the faster pace, remembering how to ‘post’ to avoid bouncing in the saddle.
I gasped the first time my horse leaped over a downed tree. By the second time it felt fine. The anxiety was still there, but it was mixed with a bit of confidence that I was rising to the challenge.
We stopped for dinner over a campfire and to await the rising moon.
“Next comes the fun part!”, the ranch owner crowed. “We’re gonna ride up into those hills and it’s gonna be like nothing you ever did before.”
He pointed toward the silhouetted mountains, growing black in the fading light.
I knew this part was coming. I also knew that there was no way out of this experience except through it. It reminded me of how I felt the first time I gave birth. No way out. Gotta see it through to the end.
The moon rose, giving off an astonishing amount of light. We mounted our horses and rode toward the hills.
Do you know how a horse climbs up a steep hill? It runs as fast as it can. The first time Ranger took a hill, I held on with everything I had. Both of us were panting when he reached the top. Then he climbed another hill, another, and yet another, until we were high above the desert floor.
Now the mountain blocked the moonlight. We galloped along in pitch darkness.
I could not see anything. Not how high we were, or how narrow the ledge was that we ran on. Nothing. It took everything I had to stay mounted on the horse, every bit of my physical strength and mental effort.
In that moment there was no room for my vivid imaginings.
In that moment, terrified as I was, I did the thing that I had to do, the thing that is so hard for me to do:
I ceded control and trusted that everything would be ok.
We rode until we reached a gathering point, bathed in moonlight, overlooking the desert floor far below. I was the last one to get there, but I made it.
Mike and the rest of the riding party were euphoric, stoked, filled with adrenalin. I looked at Mike, looked out at the vista, and promised myself to never forget this moment.
The ride down, as Ranger descended the steep hills, was about as challenging as the ride up. I could see very little and had to trust the horse to get me home. He did.
What has preoccupied my mind ever since is the feeling that a lesson was delivered to me in the most visceral way possible. I believe that life presents us with opportunities for critical learning. The lesson is presented again and again until we learn it. Or don’t.
Longstanding habits of mind are not easily altered. But if we want to change badly enough we can do it.
The next time I’m tempted to let my imagination run away with me, I will remember what it was like to be on a horse that was running away with me.
Focus and trust were what got me through.
Focus and trust got me safely home.