Early morning. Dark outside. Treadmill whirring. I'm halfway through my warmup when *ZING!* Pain stabs my forefoot. It's familiar. Dreaded. My old demon, Metatarsalgia.
This isn't a running injury, per say. In my case, it's a chronic condition caused by an unfortunate genetic cocktail of bunions, arch construction, and long toes. (Seriously? Long toes?) Most of the time, I keep it under control with custom orthotics, stiff-soled shoes, and an anti-inflammatory diet. But occasionally, it flares.
We all have something, don't we? Whether it's periodic acute injuries or aggravated chronic ones, there will also be times when pain gets in the way of our goals. As I sit here with my foot wrapped in a frozen clay pack, I realize that age and experience have improved on my skills when it comes to maintaining fitness while managing injury.
Here's what I've learned:
#1 - Know When to Fold 'em
Kenny Rogers was right. Sometimes, it's better to give up than to push through.
When my metatarsalgia attacked mid-run, I seriously considered finishing my planned workout anyway. It was only a recovery run! Just 4.5 miles of undulating hills! Maybe if I stretched my forefoot a little? Nope. Ran with my toes curled? Nope. Ignored the pain? Sure.
Right on cue, my online trainer started saying things I already knew. Ignoring our bodies' whispers will, eventually, force them to shout. What could have been a minor injury requiring a few days off may blow up into a serious problem that decimates race plans and wipes out months of gains. He was right, of course.
Sadly and brewing with frustration, I did the hardest thing. I stepped off the treadmill.
If you've ever been an athlete on a roll, you know it is terribly difficult to give up on a workout. You feel like you're violating your own commitment. Cheating. Wimping out. But think about it: Isn't it better to sacrifice a few miles today in order to avoid a month of missed runs? To skip those final few bench presses rather than taking several weeks off to nurse a nagging shoulder?
When injury strikes, base your decisions not on the workout in progress, but on the longer term. You'll achieve higher training volume overall by backing off early and recovering quickly than you will by pushing through. Injury will always call your bluff.
#2 - Focus on What You CAN Do
We left my tale of woe with me stepping off the treadmill mid-run. I was worried. I was irritated. And, I was prepared to shift gears. Instead of heading for the shower, I limped across the gym and switched my running shoes for cycling flats.
When we're hurt, it's really easy to bask in our misery. I'm going to lose so much fitness. I'll never be ready for my race. This sucks. What if, instead, we got creative?
It's perfectly possible to train around most injuries. Get specific about what you can't do (in my case, push off my left forefoot) and find challenges that don't involve that movement. If you can't run, maybe you can walk or cycle or swim. If you've tweaked your elbow, you can probably still squat and lunge. Sprained ankle telling you standing balances are out of the question? Skip the vinyasa yoga and do hatha instead.
You might even make some gains while you recover. For example, cycling has long been hailed as a beneficial cross-training modality for runners. (Now I have time to do more of it!) Even if you don't gain, you'll minimize loss. Research demonstrates that training your uninjured bits helps preserve muscle even in immobilized limbs.
#3 - Maintain Your Usual Routine
On a related note, sticking to your usual workout schedule ~ even if you're changing up the activities ~ has benefits of its own.
Have you ever noticed that, despite initial resistance to taking a break due to injury, our natural tendencies toward laziness still kick in? "I can't run right now" has a way of morphing into "I'm going to binge Netflix and eat all the Cheetos." Don't do it!
You've worked hard to establish habits and routines, so stick to them. I hopped on the bike again this morning at my usual running time and pounded out a HIIT workout. After lunch, my strength workout is still on the docket, though I'll be working around a hamstring that I pushed a little too hard on Wednesday.
Even if your injury (or illness) really is severe enough that you can't do an alternative workout, still set aside your usual gym time to focus on your health. Use the time to stretch or read up on current research about your chosen sport. Alternatively, engage in a contemplative practice. Research has demonstrated real mental and physical benefits from mindfulness activities such as meditation and prayer, regardless of whether they are secular or religious in flavor.
Keeping your usual schedule will help you remain focused on getting back in the game instead of letting the sofa steal your success.
#4 - Actively Treat the Injury
Speaking of focus, there's a big difference between resting and recovering. Sure, rest is usually an important part of recovery, but there's so much more you can do than sit back and wait for your cells to repair. Depending on the nature of your injury, taking an active role in your recovery may even make the difference between a complete fix and chronic problems.
Don't be afraid to enlist a professional. The right practitioner (whether in sports medicine, chiropractic, soft tissue therapy, functional medicine, or whatever) is one who understands your goals and has the knowledge to help you return to full function. If you have that person's number in your phone, consider dialing it.
Of course, there are a lot of common sense steps you can take on your own. Get out your ice packs, foam rollers, and therapy balls. Soak in an epsom salt bath. Modify supportive devices, if applicable. (For me, that meant adding temporary forefoot support to my usual orthotic, per my podiatrist's direction). Tend to localized and systemic inflammation using compression, more ice, extra sleep and diet.
#5 - Eat Even Cleaner
Oh yes, diet.
It can be especially tempting to treat ourselves to junk food when we're injured. Self-medicating with food is common, including among athletes facing the depressive tendencies that accompany setbacks. The problem, of course, is that these "medicating" foods are usually pro-inflammatory choices like pizza, mac & cheese, or cookies.
Instead, try to stick to food that really does contribute to healing. You choose quality fuel to support your training, right? Wouldn't your damaged body appreciate quality building blocks even more?
Personally, I've upped my veggie and fish intake while staying away from inflammatory foods like grains and sugar. At the very least, it helps me mentally to continue treating myself like an athlete rather than a slug.
#6 - Stay Positive
It all boils down to positivity, right? The mental game is at least half the battle, and all the strategies listed above contribute to it.
Personally, I find that curiosity and positivity go hand in hand. Recovery is an opportunity to explore new activities, read some research, and get creative. You really can maintain your athletic mindset throughout your recovery and out the other side.
Bonus Tip - Take This Advice to the Barn
Oh, horse people: Don't miss the crossover application to our furry friends! Having an injured horse can be just as frustrating to having an injury of your own...and it can also offer just as much opportunity.
If your horse is laid up, look for ways to spin his down time to your advantage. Work on a low-activity training issue, like accepting the bit, touching ears, or picking up feet. Learn some physical-therapy "tricks" like carrot stretches. Bond over extra grooming and hand-grazing in the sun. Get in some extra steps on a slow handwalks.
Whatever you do, don't let an injury lay waste to your time or ambition. Recalculate your route and keep going!
It was 1980s human potentialist Marilyn Ferguson who said, "Fear is a question: What are you afraid of and why? Our fears are a treasure house of self-knowledge if we explore them"
I don't think the real horseman exists who hasn't been afraid at one time or another. Author Mary Twelveponies breaks the fear of horses into three, common categories:
I've felt all three at various times, usually more than once and sometimes for extended periods.
But the others...they must be faced squarely, evaluated, and addressed. Through education. Through creativity. Through graduated exposure. And sometimes, through good, old-fashioned "getting back on the horse."
Fear is a question: What are you afraid of and why?
Originally published in The Barb Wire, May 29, 2011
For the first thirty years of my life, I didn't consider myself an athlete.
I was the kind of kid who preferred books, animals, and blackberry picking to any kind of team sport. I had good parents who made me try all the things: kiddie soccer, basketball, ballet, softball, swimming, track. I liked some better than others, but nothing stuck. By the time I hit high school, I had no interest in trying out for any kind of team.
In undergrad, I became what I'd call an "exerciser." I jogged or went to the gym, maintained a healthy bodyweight, and had no trouble meeting the demands of farm life. I rode horses and rowed rafts and spent a lot of time outdoors. I even completed a half marathon once, but that was mostly about running away.
For the first time in my life, it dawned on me that I felt like an athlete.
An athlete! Me!
But...was I really? My only official sport was endurance. Try as I might, I couldn't get comfortable with the notion that distance riding, in and of itself, was what made me an athlete. In truth, endurance riding was one of the easiest wilderness challenges (physically speaking) that I was engaged in at the time.
I also noticed that, for whatever reason ~ advancing age, cumulative injuries, chronic illness, family responsibilities ~ a lot of riders made it through distance events on grit and knowledge, despite an absence of noteworthy fitness.
That's not a moral judgment; it's just a fact. And it made me consider: If someone who doesn't especially condition herself can do as well or better than a fit person in the same event, then simple participation in that event does not make me an athlete.
Back in my "exerciser" days, I was reasonably fit. But I didn't intentionally train to improve my physical stamina and skill to better engage in sport. I wasn't an athlete yet.
On the flip side, one of the athletes I respect most, ultra runner Tommy Rivers Puzey, recently spent months in a hospital bed, enduring a grueling race against a rare cancer. He could scarcely open his eyes, let alone run, but he was an athlete still.
That said, I think it's fair to say that fitness and athleticism do tend to correlate, especially over time. An athlete may not appear fit at a particular moment, but he or she will usually manifest change in that direction as months or years go by.
Indeed, this sport is special because it allows non-athletes of all ages to play a thrilling, glorious, risky, challenging game. It is a gift from the horses, really, that most of us cherish and none of us deserve.
But what if you do want to approach riding as an athlete? What does that look like? What does it mean? What would it cost, and what might you gain?
We equestrians have a way of getting prickly about the physical demands of our sport. We brag to our officemates about pushing wheelbarrows and hefting oats. I've even heard riders compare posting 25 miles to doing squats for hours at a time. (To that one, I'm just going to say it: If you really believe that, sister, you're either posting wrong or you're squatting wrong, or both.)
Ouch. I know. Ouch.
I'm not saying that endurance riding isn't hard. It is. It takes knowledge, persistence, and courage. Riding 100 miles in a single day hurts like hell. But I'll bet it doesn't hurt like doing about any other sport for the same length of time. (Except maybe golf. Or baseball.)
Hell, I'm middle-aged, short, and about as genetically average as it's possible to be. I can't imagine running or swimming or rowing or sailing or cycling or climbing for 20 hours straight. But even I can ride that long.
Being an athletic rider means that I eat well, I sleep lots, and I cross-train hard. Hard enough to build my body, my character, my feel. Hard enough to honor the effort with which my horse honors me.
I run for my horse. I lift for my horse. I stretch and fuel and recover so that I can be there for him ~ really be there ~ in the dark hour on the mountain when it's just the two of us surging over unseen trail, my hands in his mane and his body in my mind, melting together into a single, sweat-soaked creature that is worthy of being called Us.
What kind of rider are you?
There's no wrong answer, as long as you're fair and inquisitive and kind.
If you happen to be the type who wants to be an athletic rider (or even if you're just athletic-curious), the upcoming series of posts on Building a Better Rider is for you. Over several weeks, we'll explore how endurance riding benefits from running, strength training, yoga, and nutrition. (In case you're wondering, it has almost nothing to do with weight loss.)
You can follow The Sweaty Equestrian on Facebook, or use the little form in the right-hand sidebar to subscribe and never miss a post.
Earlier this afternoon, Stacy Westfall offered a webinar that resonated with my own preoccupation of the month: Setting Goals and Overcoming Obstacles. I glean nuggets from Stacy every time I hear her talk, so I jumped at the chance to attend. Here are my notes:
Stacy started out with the obvious question and answer: Why set a goal? Because, as Zig Ziglar famously said, "If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time."
It still rings true, doesn't it? If we don't even try to get what we want, we are essentially choosing to live without it.
Then why do people stop trying?
Stacy Westfall on Failure
Stacy observed that the most common reason people stop trying is failure ~ either fear of future failure or the pain of past failure, or both. Sometimes, this fear is so crippling that people give up.
Anyway, Stacy suggested that anyone struggling with goal setting take time to explore their past failures. Are those failures getting in the way now? What could you do differently next time?
She also encouraged listeners to examine their own thoughts and judgements regarding their failures. A question she asks herself is, "What am I making it mean when something isn't going as I wish?" The meaning we impose on failure is often more impactful than the failure itself.
Stacy Westfall on Change
Next, Stacy explained that changes is uncomfortable because our brains are hardwired for all things safe and familiar.
Sometimes, it helps just to understand what is happening at a physiological level. If nothing else, we might give ourselves a little grace and be in a better frame of mind to try again. We can also anticipate when diversions are imminent and strategize to stay on track.
Stacy Westfall on Dreams
Stacy threw out a couple questions to help listeners define their dreams:
Stacy observed that they are really the same question. Are they? I only partially agree. To me, #1 is more freeing on the dreaming front, while #2 offers a dose of reality that somehow makes the dream itself seem more courageous.
Stacy Westfall on Overcoming Obstacles
Prior to the webinar, Stacy provided a workbook to help listeners plan for overcoming the obstacles that are an inevitable part of goal-seeking. (I believe the workbook is still available for free on her website.)
Each failure, then, leads us to an opportunity. We may need to gain knowledge or build skills, or simply pay more attention to practical ways of planning ahead. "Understanding and accepting failure as part of the journey," Stacy said, "frees up my mind to be present."
And being present ~ not hung up on the past ~ is key to starting again.
Can you believe it?
For most of my life, I rejected the notion of New Years resolutions. Surely anyone who was serious about a goal wouldn't wait until January 1, or their birthday, or even Monday! I still feel that way, actually. Nevertheless, my fortieth decade finds me rather more contemplative as winter solstice whispers past and the calendar turns.
In recent weeks, podcasts have been keeping me company while I slog through farm chores in a foot of melting snow. I've been listening to Stacy Westfall, making a second pass through her year-end series on past and future goals.
My brain must work a bit like Stacy's, because her thoughts on the subject usually resonate. I've spent considerable time pondering her list in Episode 159: 5 Steps to Blow Your Own Mind. You should really give it a listen because her delivery is so thoughtful, but here are the bones of it:
Stacy Westfall's 5 Steps to Blow Your Own Mind
I found this an excellent structure on which to hang my rumination about what I want to accomplish in 2022. My mind went to the usual places: fitness, horses, productivity. And, as Stacy predicted, I got a little tangled up in the "what" and the "why."
Have you ever noticed that your initial assumption about "what" you want to do is actually a manifestation of your "why?" Realizing this may lead to a reframing of your "what." Stacy uses the example of a goal to ride your horse bridleless. Perhaps, in exploring your "why," you discover that what you really want is more effective communication with your horse. You might then adjust your goal to reflect the desire for effective communication instead of bridleless riding.
For me, this iterative way of considering "whats" and "whys" dovetails nicely with Episode 162: Leave Room for the Magic. In this one, Stacy talks about our tendency to either lose sight of our dreams in the mess of nuts and bolts that it takes to get us there, or else never implement the nuts and bolts because we're too busy dreaming.
I'm still parsing out my whats and whys, my outcome goals and process goals, my dreams and my nuts-and-bolts. Only some of my goals (the ones to do with horses) have those Disney-style dreams attached. Others (the ones to do with fitness) are typically in service of being able to chase the horse dreams and other lifestyle benefits. It's interesting to think about.
I'm not just thinking, though. I'm also embarking on the nuts-and-bolts implementation. Ever notice that you can start on a road trip without knowing your exact route? As long as you know your general direction, you can make progress while you research the details.
One step at a time, right?
By the middle of July, all the talk of tough 100's and buckles had my attention. Too many years have passed since I made it to all the rides, rode all the days, dreamed all the dreams.
Yes, there was one thing and another. Injuries (me), syndromes (horse), fires (house), change (career). But now I have ~ god willing and the crick don't rise ~ two sound horses and a fairly cooperative physique.
I also have the realization that I've kind of let myself settle. Settle into the ease of conditioning when I could (which is to say, not enough) and prioritizing other things.
There was a time when I simply couldn't get my head around how people could be content to do only a handful of rides per year. They wanted to do other things, too. Go to family events. Travel. Garden. Whatever.
I didn't understand it then, but I understand it now.
I've always been the hot or cold type. I'm in or out, on or off, black or white. In attempting to find a healthy balance between trying hard and accepting things beyond my control, I managed to put myself in the unfamiliar gray zone of half-assing it. Unfortunately, in this sport, half-assing it isn't enough.
Tired of sitting on the sidelines with a not-quite-ready horse, I decided to buckle down.
Step one was to identify my highest priorities. Here they are, in no particular order:
Step two was to make sure my partner was on board. I told him what I wanted to accomplish with the horses, what it would cost in time and focus, and how I intended to balance that with other priorities. His support meant I could proceed without guilt or resentment.
It still looks like that, and you know what? It's working. My days are very, very full, but they are also very, very satisfying.
While cleaning paddocks or sorting hoof boots, I often listen to Endurance Horse Podcast. I've been struck lately by the tenacity of riders who stuck to their dreams despite family, health, and economic challenges. Some of them slogged through years of setbacks, but eventually they found a way.
They are who I want to be when I grow up. So today, I buckle down.
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It’s February already! How are your 2021 goals coming along?
We all know how common it is for early enthusiasm to wane in the face of everyday life. Ambitions bow to apathy, and soon we find ourselves saying, Well, I’ll start on that next Monday. Or next month. Or next year.
And yet, some people manage to do great things. Whatever “great” means. They lose 50 pounds, ride 100s, raise kids on their own, finish triathlons, write books, recover from illness, step away from the rat race, master public speaking.
“Great things” are the things that matter to us, as individuals. Are we making them happen? Today, are we doing something to make them happen?
Like Rivs, I’m a big fan of process goals.
Want to get that challenging filly trained? Spend some time with her every day – even if you can’t ride, at least get out there and pick up her feet an whisper in her ear.
Want to run a 10k? Lace up your shoes and go outside – any pace, any distance – just get out there. Everything counts.
Want to lose bodyfat? Choose to cook salmon instead of ordering takeout tonight. Not for the rest of your life, but just tonight.
If you’ve fallen off the wagon on some of your 2021 goals, so what? Hop back on. Zoom in from the end goal to the process. Doing something hard doesn’t mean every step needs to hurt.
Today is the day to replace inertia with momentum: Just do something. Then, keep doing that.
The only key is consistency.
Happy New Year! We made it.
I still say 2021 won't magically change anything, so hop on over and join the challenge if you haven't. Then come back, because I want to tell you how excited I am to be embarking on a new year. It feels like an adventure. A happy one. And I haven't felt this way in a long, long time.
I started last year as a pile of emotional rubble, having spent the previous six months under a wrecking ball. I had just enough energy to hope for a decent ride year after several disappointing ones...and we all know how that turned out.
Still -- call me a fool -- I find myself ready to hope again.
I hope to get fitter than I've ever been, get my new mare legged up to multi-days, solidify the foundation on my challenging filly, and make something useful to you out of this website. I'm a little scared to take it all on, actually. It means the world to have you all riding alongside.
Some of you are undertaking physical challenges: weight loss, 10K runs, obstacle course races. Some are cutting back on alcohol, giving up smoking, or decluttering their homes. Some are facing fear of riding, making dietary changes, building muscle. Some are focused on a first LD, others on Tevis. Some are building businesses, recovering from surgery, tackling horse training challenges. Others are embarking on a year of rest and recovery, of letting go and letting the current carry them. I know from my 2020 exactly how hard that can be.
All are wondering how we'll fit it all in and whether we can do it.
So keep on riding, gently or full gallop, as suits you on this sunrise road. You are finding your way. Here's to you and whatever lies ahead.
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Do you get the feeling that society at large has thrown in the towel?
People keep talking about the end of 2020 as though everything will magically be better when the clock strikes midnight on January 1.
Some of this will be out of our control. But how we respond to whatever comes (to wax a bit Viktor Frankl) is up to each of us. The calendar isn’t going to make 2021 different. You are.
You’ve seen this meme, right?
I love that. Sure, change is going to hurt. But staying the same is worse.
Consider: What makes you feel better when you’re feeling down?
There's the old "me time" recommendation. And sure, a little “self care” in the form of a hot bath or takeout dinner is nice. But in my experience, it fails to offer lasting change. I wake up the next day feeling exactly the same (or, in the case of General Tso's and egg rolls, worse).
Real relief isn't found in taking a break from reality, but in taking control of it.
Think about your life right now. What’s going on with your body? Your time? Your emotions? Your space? Your mind?
What bothers you about the way things are?
Most of us carry around some level of dissatisfaction. Often, the burden is so familiar that we forget it’s there. That old resentment. That extra jiggle in your arms. That soda habit. That colt's bucking tendency you’ve been working around instead of working through. It’s like wearing sunglasses in a dim room. You’re always squinting, trying to see, but putting up with it because that’s “just the way it is.”
Well…what if you took the sunglasses off?
What if, instead of just resting from 2020, you took on 2021 with purpose? What if you stood up one more time and took control? Don’t just lay there all wrung out! Do something hard.
I rode Consolation yesterday. It was her first outing since I laid her off at the beginning of last summer due to her undiagnosed, but obvious, discomfort under saddle. We jogged six miles in the sunshine. She felt good. Content.
But not like an endurance horse. Never one of my most driven mounts, she felt distinctly disinterested in speed and distance. I doubt I'll attempt to condition her this season. Or ever. She gave me 875 endurance miles, plus countless more in training. That will have to be enough.
If a career path fizzles before I reach the corner office, was my experience wasted? If a relationship crumbles after three years, or five, or ten, have I thrown away that time?
Yes, I am older now. Yes, it takes effort to update my resume, go out and date, start a young horse, shoulder the effort and face the fear of starting over, starting new.
But see the good times had, the completions earned, the accolades received, the scars that strengthen! They don't vanish because the path on which I found them ends in a cliff. A journey abbreviated is not a journey obliterated. The treasures I claim are mine to keep.
Don't waste the litter of your past. It gathers about your feet like shale tumbled down a hillside. Step up on it. Feel it shift beneath your soles, and climb.
The last stanza of my favorite poem reads thus: Nor doom the irrevocable past ~ As wholly wasted, wholly vain ~ If rising on its wrecks at last ~ To something nobler we attain. [H.W. Longfellow]
Squint against your tears, my friends. See the shining? Reach out. Take hold. Climb.
Originally published in The Barb Wire, February 2013
Laid bare to the elements, I felt every insult more keenly than I should. My old resilience was beaten down. Hypervigilant, I suffered from blows that I only guessed would fall.
I tried to find myself among my horses, but they, too, sensed my absence. My body may have been in the saddle, but my mind attended a courtroom of the soul. It spent hours in that lonely chamber, making my case against what shouldn’t have happened, but did.
They say being angry is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. It’s true, of course. I knew that. I felt that. I fought that. I did all the things: exercised, ate well, journaled, practiced yoga. I sat with my meditation app and tried to be present.
It was a podcast that broke me loose. A podcast by a gentle friend who doesn’t know me, but whose work I have followed for many years. I met her in the fitness and nutrition space. The podcast wasn’t about that, though. It was called “Hypothangry.”
She talked about her habit of imagining confrontations. Entire scenes of conflict – involving a stranger in the coffee line, perhaps, or else her ex-husband – played out in her mind. These events that never happened left her fighting mad. Her boyfriend dubbed it being hypothangry, which is to say, hypothetically angry. She’d been fighting battles that didn’t actually exist. And she chose to stop doing it.
I listened to that podcast on yet another long walk on yet another tormented day. It was summer then, and as I listened, I began to feel the sun. The world brightened as if months of fog had burned away at once.
Meditation transformed from a fifteen minute practice to a gentle hand on my shoulder throughout the day, an arm around my waist at night. Instead of trying to center on my senses and my breath, I simply noticed when my thoughts spun toward the blades.
I became aware of the turning point that waits just before cortisol takes hold and drags me into the ring. In that moment, instead of stepping through the gate, I whisper, hypothangry. A reminder: Don’t be hypothangry. Or hypoth-anxious. Or hypoth-sad.
Be, instead, just here.
When the water tanks were full, I trudged through the snow to drain the hose. Slowly, thoroughly, because it will be cold tonight. Already the temperature was dropping as the snowclouds rose, pulling away their blanket of fog and exposing icy stars.
Like anyone with a farm in colder climes, I felt the respite of full and heated tanks. Storms may come, pipes may freeze, de-icers may fail, but my precious animals have all they need today.
I stayed with the horses for a while, stroking under their manes as they cleaned up their hay. The brimming tanks glistened black against the snow. A farm cat stretched upon hind legs to taste. Tomorrow, chickadees will line the rim, bobbing their cheerful heads. I will watch from indoors as the horses wander over and drink.
Presence, I’ve learned, is neither seated meditation nor flight from reality. It is simply a pool that rests under the storm. It doesn’t resist growing shallow and prone; it holds nothing back for fear of freezing. It quietly sustains because that is its nature, because it is here and this is now.
Presence, my friends, is water in winter.
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If happiness is a skill, then sadness is, too.
Perhaps through all those years at school, or perhaps through other terrors, we are taught to ignore sadness, to stuff it down into our satchels and pretend it isn’t there.
As adults, we often have to learn to hear the clarity of its call.
That is wintering.
It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need. It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can.
Wintering is a moment of intuition, our true needs felt keenly as a knife.
~ Katherine May ~ Wintering: How I Learned to Flourish When Life Became Frozen
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The skies have rained and blown for weeks. Blankets have been on and off the horses. Salted mashes consumed. Saddles nestled in the tack room, waiting.
And then, yesterday!
Dawn broke still and the farm floated alone in a heavy cloak of fog. Mist froze on branches, wire, hay, and manes. I warmed a saddle pad and bit indoors, waited until afternoon to mount.
As I rode, the cloud melted. Sunshine – jewel-bright, scarcely remembered – glittered the frosty trail. No people were out. No cows. No foxes. Few birds. Sometimes, my mare and I stopped just to listen to the silence.
I’ve done a lot of listening this year. A lot of waiting. A lot of accepting.
Back in February, I dared to hope that this would be the year my endurance stars would realign. After years of roadblocks, I would have horses fit. Be injury-free. Not be crushed by work. Make it to rides at last!
And then, COVID.
But I had a horse ready for the third…
…until a normal dose of bute crashed her kidneys without warning. She spent most of a week – not to mention a large pile of cash – in the hospital. We saved her life, but not her career. Horses with compromised kidneys shouldn’t be put at risk of dehydration. She can do almost anything now. But not endurance.
So, I got my old campaigner out of semi-retirement. He was a rock star before headshaking syndrome put him out of the game. But he’d been looking better for several months. No reason not to give him a shot; we could always reverse course if he wasn't happy.
He was happy. So, so happy! It was all I could do to keep his inner monster from eating too much trail, too fast, at Top o’ the World. We finished our first 50 together in several years. We really were on top of the world.
But at the next ride, he colicked near the finish. We treated. He’s fine. But I gave him the rest of the season off. Next year may be on the table for him, or it may not. We’ll have to take it as it comes.
I’ve been doing a lot of that. Not just with endurance, but with work, and with the intrusion of a housing development they want to build in the field next door.
It’s so easy to get angry, isn’t it? When all you want is a break? Just some clear sailing, please, for once?
But we don’t learn much on smooth seas.
When the waves are high and the fog closes in, and we are chilled to the bone just trying to find our way…that is where the answers are. We must get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Learn to rest in uncertainty. If we can find peace in that place, we can find it anywhere.
There’s an interesting book, if you’re struggling, called Life is in the Transitions. It tells stories of people who have suffered much more than I. Its point is that – contrary to our cultural undercurrent of expectation that life is “supposed to” always move us onward and upward – our lived experience rarely follows that trajectory. We should expect to be in the midst of transition (often the uncomfortable variety) for about 40% of our lives. Might as well get good at it, eh?
Trail riding can be nice, I’ve discovered. Just walking. Getting to know a new horse, without focusing on hills and heart rates and speed. Exploring new trails or visiting old ones. Quietly watching the sun soak through the freezing fog...melt the resistance...and shine not on the way things should be, but on how they actually are.
It’s bright again today. I’ll saddle two horses – the one with damaged kidneys and the one that colicked – and embrace this fleeting moment that holds them both.
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There’s something about being on a horse that makes people want to say hello.
I do most of my conditioning rides on the grid of agricultural roads surrounding my farm. Just about everyone who passes in a car, driving a tractor, or riding a motorcycle offers a wave. Once in a while, someone stops to chat.
Sometimes, they’re concerned about my safety. Sometimes, they are horse people curious about Consolation’s breed, hoof boots, or tack. Sometimes, they just comment on the pretty day, the pretty horse, and (without saying so outright) the pretty nice feeling that most people make the world a better place.
Just last week, a guy pulled his truck over to ask if he could introduce his half-grown Weimaraner to Consolation in the hope that the pup would be less inclined to chase horses in the future.
A couple miles up the road, a faded sedan stopped in the oncoming lane. The window rolled down to reveal the gentleman with the Walkaloosas, who occasionally drops by my farm astride his favorite mare. His face was unusually ashen, his eyes hollow. I asked how he was, and he said not well. We talked horses and weather. And then he said he’d lost one of his grandsons the day before. The boy was three months old. Found dead in his crib, of unknown cause. A foal was due at his place any day; I should drop by. I said I would.
Then there is the woman who rents the old house at the S-bend. Her driveway is full of old cars from a lot owned by her husband, who recently passed. She has a new mare, a gentle, senior Paint found on Craigslist for $250. Perhaps we’ll ride the irrigation road some evening, and she will tell her story.
Two of my favorites have names I don’t know. One is the mail carrier, always cheerful in her white Jeep with the orange light on top. Sometimes I wonder how much she knows about me, from my mail, and seems to like me anyway.
And, there is the migrant worker with the battered, two-tone pickup he drives among ditches, fields, and barns. We pass each other often, sometimes several times a day. My clothes and activities change — from breeches for riding to jeans for training to shorts for sprinting — and our frequent, speechless encounters make us laugh.
There is the husband and wife team that drives the school bus, the cattle rancher whose stock sometimes turn up on my land, the gardener whose handiwork I always slow to admire. There are the cyclists who call out to let me know they’re passing, men who cut the motors on their chain saws though Consolation isn’t spooky, the reining competitor whose trailer I once borrowed for a veterinary emergency. Kids who wave, kids too shy. Dog-walkers. Seasonal workers grinning under broad-brimmed hats. A loose collection of folks who know almost nothing, yet almost everything, about each other.
People sometimes ask if I get bored of riding by myself. Not often, I say, and I’m sincere. But the truth is, I don’t really ride alone.
[Originally published in The Barb Wire, March 2011]
We are grounded.
To varying degrees around the world, we are all being asked to stay home. No concerts, no weddings, no casual afternoons trying on shoes at the strip mall. There is much talk of these measures being too little, too late – or perhaps too much, too soon. We don’t know how bad it will be or how long it will last.
We equestrians, especially the introverts among us, are filling social media with memes: Our sport was made for social distancing. We’ve practiced our whole lives for this. Indeed, we are among the lucky ones whose passions aren’t immediately stifled by the pandemic. This situation would be even harder if we were, say, avid sport climbers or Irish dancers.
But our events are being cancelled, too. Rides are dropping off the calendar as managers make fraught decisions for the good of the whole, or have their hands forced by governmental edicts. Some of us have horses fit to race. Others, like myself, are holding onto the dissolving hope of finally having a good year. All of us are, quite literally, grounded.
Of course, most of us can still mount up and hit the trail. But how is your mental game?
Distance riders tend to be a Type A, goal-driven bunch. We grow despondent when our targets are taken away. Without an event to shoot for, our motivation wanes. Conditioning loses its urgency. Maybe we won’t go ride today.
My own tendencies run in the all-or-nothing vein. I’m the sort to choose my path carefully, then jump in with both feet. So here I am: up in the air, looking down at the evaporating pool where I had expected to land.
It’s the uncertainty that hurts. Will we have a ride season, or won’t we? Will the medical system get overwhelmed – and if it does, should we refrain from riding, given the high-risk nature of our sport? How will the economic impact resound, and for how long? Will we come out of this with the jobs and homes and hay and lifestyles to which we’ve grown accustomed?
We simply don’t know. Maybe the containment and mitigation measures being taken will succeed, and the economy will right itself posthaste. Maybe not. Data models can speculate, laypeople can debate, but in the end, only time will tell.
It’s like looking out the window and watching your horse cross the paddock, still favoring that tendon he injured last fall. Will he recover fully, or is his endurance career a bust? We don’t know, so we wait, and the ball of anxiety in our stomach burns.
Life takes us there sometimes. To the place where there are no answers, no matter how badly we want them. A cancer diagnosis. A career disruption. A pandemic.
It’s something I’ve thought a lot about in recent months, this challenge of finding peace in the midst of uncertainty. I think there’s much to be said for the meditative practice of simply acknowledging, without judgement, what is. What is in the world. What is in our minds. And then (this is key), letting go of wishing things were different.
You can get redneck with this concept: Wish in one hand, shit in the other, and see which fills up fastest.
Or, you can put it as Buddha did: You can only lose what you cling to.
Either way, the idea is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. To be okay with not being okay. To learn to rest in the wait.
That is a worthy goal, my friends. Something we can work on while we condition for rides that may or may not happen. A frame in which to collect the power of our restlessness.
So let go. Go ride.
My first job was at a small, shabby horse farm in the valley below my childhood home. Its driveway peeled off from the corner of a gravel road lined with triple-strand hotwire paddocks, all nibbled bare and dotted with broodmares. The barn was creaky and drafty, with packed dirt aisles and a cloth-draped radio tuned to the country station. It smelled of shavings and Coppertox, of wool coolers and, when the wind blew west, the manure pile out back.
I remember the horses, each dished face with black globes for eyes. Each name and star and sock and personality, even the patterns they left in the stalls I cleaned day over day for a couple years between the ages of twelve and fourteen. I can still sing along about you and me goin’ fishin’ in the dark. I remember the mare that colicked and made me put my foot down with my mom for the first time, because I really could not leave her to go to my piano lesson, $60 paid in advance or not.
Most of all, I remember the farm’s owner. She was short and craggy, with cropped hair dyed black and heavy makeup that sharpened her narrow eyes nearly as much as the suspicion that always lay behind them. I rarely saw her without bloodred lips. The lips almost never smiled.
Her name was not Mae, but let’s pretend.
Mae had a jovial husband, round in the belly and sad behind his grin. I saw him only occasionally, but he was always kind to me. I marveled to see him with Mae, because the pair of them were so different. He gentle and she harsh, he easygoing and she tense. Terse. Poised like a wire stretched too tight, clinging white-knuckled to her tough persona. I wondered, even then, then if it was all she had.
She loved her horses in the way hurting people do. In the way that says: you alone will not betray me. You are not my daughter who grew up and moved away and never calls. You are not the old husbands who cheated, the farmhouse falling down around my ears, the abusive parents, the unfair manager who cost me a career, the drunk driver who jabbed this endless pain into my spine.
I am guessing. Mae never told me her story. Not in words. But I worked for her long enough, well enough, that she sometimes let her armor slip aside. Beneath cowered a woman who wore Paloma Picasso and gave me a tiny bottle for Christmas. Who sold me a colt for less than he was worth, taught me to build his hindquarters and stand him up, paid for an overnight trip to Washington where he won Reserve Champion at the big Arabian show.
She gave me tea in her cluttered living room on rainy days, rasped in her smoker’s voice over the soap operas that were the anthem of her afternoons. She said little of substance, but the things she did not say told me her rocky exterior was only a dam of anger holding back a lifetime of tears.
I think of her in the hard times. How quick she was to wrath, how limited her capacity for joy. Her path, whatever came before, had left her all but devoid of any ability to trust. I think that’s why she liked me, and perhaps her husband, too. Our loyalty was simple. Consistent. It surprised her. It was the only thing that reminded her to smile.
The thing about hard times is that they end. Worst case scenario, they end because we’ve died. Best case, and most common, either we or events around us shift and the trail widens and we carry on. This is when we make our decisions:
What will we carry with us? The pain, or the healing? The betrayal, or the wisdom? The longing, or the truth? Will we come away with greater confidence than before, and with gratitude, because we have learned how strong we are? Or will we be cut off, shut down, stolen away?
I saw Mae cry once. Several years after I stopped working for her, I dropped by her place to deliver a framed pencil drawing I’d done of the stallion Ben Bask. It was one of my better pieces. I have no idea why I wanted to give it to her, except that I thought she deserved to be remembered. To be thanked for teaching me ~ without knowing, through bad example ~ how I do not want to be.
She is probably dead now. Resentment like hers destroys body and soul before their time. But I am not afraid to hope (because that I what I do) that before the end she found another way, and didn’t let the winter take her after all.
Originally published in The Barb Wire, March 2013
I didn't go to any rides last year. I couldn't. I am going to tell you why.
My horse wasn't fit, because I wasn't fit to ride. There wasn't anything wrong with me, exactly, but everything was wrong around me.
After nearly 15 years of my career (the kind that earns a living, not my endurance career), I found myself the target of a campaign to make me go away. It was about politics. It was about money. It was about a special interest group that didn't want me doing the job I was hired to do.
Ugly doesn't cover it. Defamation ran rampant, culminating in accusations ranging from incompetence to illegal activity. Powerful people believed the story without checking the facts.
I had my friends, of course. People who knew the truth. But there's no stopping a runaway train.
It was't that I didn't ride. I did. I rode for hours. But my mare and I didn't condition. We walked.
Sometimes, I listened to music or a podcast. But mostly I just rode, shell-shocked, listening to the wind and feeling the sun and staring at a world that would never look the same.
A few years ago, I had a big, strong, fit horse. We were getting top-tens and BCs and completing hundreds. We had our eyes on Big Horn, then Tevis. Walking was not in our vocabulary. When forced by footing or slope to cool our heels, we did so with reluctance, gritting our teeth until we could fly again.
But last summer, I lacked the energy to trot, let alone compete. Slowly, mile by mile, month by month, I learned to let go of what should be and accept what is.
People don't always behave ethically. The truth doesn't always win. This ain't the movies, darlin', and sometimes the bad guys get their way.
Sometimes, walking is enough.
At Christmastime, I walked away. From the job, the lies, the money, the strain. I spent January in Death Valley, walking some more. Through slot canyons. Across salt flats and painted hills. Through the stunning debris left by waters that used to roar and now have gone.
Then I came home. And saddled my horse.
We trotted today, but it's early season and she hasn't done a 50 since late 2017. So we also walked. Down the hills, through the sand, up the steepest climbs. The wind sang. The sun embraced. And walking felt every bit as right as speed.
There's a saying that sticks in my head, repeating itself on a loop I need to hear: Light in the leg, soft in the hands; ride the horse and not your plans.
It's not just about horses, is it?
It's about life.
Thanks for dropping by! I'm an endurance rider in the northwest region of the United States. This blog is about distance riding, training, and the practice of being my best self for my horse. I hope you'll come along for the ride.