My fear was: riding horses. Three years ago I had a bad accident and until last July, I had not got back on a horse. Famously, of course, this is A Bad Thing. Getting straight back on the horse is the traditional preventative remedy against developing that kind of fear, but there weren't - aren't - many horses in my daily life waiting to act as a convenient balm to my psyche.
You may think that I have more debilitating fears, failings and character faults and you would be absolutely right. This was not, in itself, hugely problematic in my daily life. I would have been better advised to conquer my inability to look at my finances straight on, or my phobia of the telephone, or my general doormattishness (I bet that's a word in German, even if it isn't in English, füssarbtretereschischkeit, perhaps). I mean, one can go about one's daily life very satisfactorily without encountering a horse, I have it on good authority. But the thing is, I wanted to encounter horses: I love horses, and loving them was part of who I was. My fear wasn't the horses themselves, it was more a (doubtless belated) realisation how dangerous riding could be, the fear that I would make a catastrophic mistake, or something would go wrong.
More problematic than that, was the way that fear, that lack of confidence in my own judgment and ability, leached into the rest of my life. I've said it before, but I feel like my prevailing emotion for the last few years has been fear, and it's a sterile and grey and uncomfortable way to live. Goodness knows, there were many and far more important causes of that than the accident - it has felt like a period when I simply can't do anything right, work, personal life, the lot - but the accident seemed symptomatic of what I had come to believe about myself: that I couldn't be trusted, that my instincts, my judgment, were all messed up.
I really didn't want to go on like this, and in a small way, this seemed like something I could address, when the big fears were too shapeless and vast. And I missed it: not in a desperate daily way, but with an occasional sadness that it wasn't part of my life any more. I was one of those pony girls growing up, my walls covered in posters of horses, my wardrobe lined with hay for my toy horses (I wish this wasn't true, but it is), my grooming kit carefully maintained and carried with nonchalant concealed pride, Pony Club tie, hairnet, subscription to Pony magazine. I grew up and away from it, not through any falling off of interest, but for a lack of opportunity (horses do not line the streets of Soho, though once a week or so, early in the morning, the Royal Cavalry would clatter past, brilliantly incongruous, in the direction of the BT tower and Regent's Park). I missed having horses in my life, the comfort of the smell of horse sweat, velvety soft whiskery muzzles, a big strong shoulder to rest your head against, all those things that I fell in love with so completely as a child.
Perhaps what I missed most, though, was the person I used to be back then. I wonder if that's what motivates so many of us to go back to, or think wistfully of, the things we did when we were younger, what moves the friends I have who have gone back to dancing, or sport, or playing an instrument. Wouldn't we all want to be effortless, fearless, certain again? Perhaps, probably, the memory is flawed, softened and warmed by nostalgia, but in my mind at least I was fearless - sometimes concussed, often thrown, straight back on and galloping on. I know I can never get back the cast-iron confidence, the idiot, cross-country jumping sense of invincibility I had at 18, that unshakeable belief that I'd be just fine - we all seem to get more frightened with age, as we see and experience human vulnerability, the devastating impact of blind bad luck on fragile flesh and bone - but I wanted to see if I could find at least a pale shadow of it again, a sliver of self-confidence.
So, chivvied and poked, as I say, I have gone back.
First, in the summer, I went for a very slow ride around the Ardennes on a sweet, slow Camargue horse, feeling what it was like to be in the saddle again, patting a warm neck. Then, confidence slightly increased, I went back in the Ile de Ré this summer. I was quite scared: I talked a good ride, told them all the experience I had and didn't mention the accident, and then I had to grit my teeth and not show myself up. There was galloping along the beach, and cantering around the rough, wild dunes and in the forest and my heart was in my mouth most of the way and when I got off, my legs were jelly, but it was ok. Then I went back to the Ardennes in the autumn, a bit blasé by this point and expecting to be fine, but my horse got very spooked by something in a bush and I was terrified again, that blank, primal terror. I didn't say or do anything though, because there were other people and I was embarrassed, so on we went, and there was more galloping in the forest and it was all alright in the end. It was definitely progress of sorts, but I was a bit of a wreck: it always felt like catastrophe was inches away.
And now I'm back, going once or twice a week to a new stables, for lessons. It hasn't been easy. The experience is a perfect storm of things that frighten me: driving to strange places (atually, let's be honest, driving anywhere), meeting strange people, situations with lots of rules I don't know and which are not clearly explained leading to the unbearable possibility that I might inadvertently DO SOMETHING WRONG, God forbid, plus the horse thing. God, I sound pathetic. I am pathetic. Anyway. I have soldiered on with these frightening to me if not remotely frightening to sane people activities and it is strange and absorbing, and ocasionally really joyful.
I think those outings previously had a sort of inherent drama - I was out in wild, unfamiliar environments with an unfamiliar horse, would it end in disaster? - whilst a regular lesson is quite mundane, really. After the first time, the strangeness, the social anxiety, it becomes quite ordinary. It is a lesson, where you do things repeatedly in the hope of improving the way you do them, small adjustments in your hands, your ankles, exercises, repetition. Having things to work on, techniques to perfect is both soothing and normalising: I want to improve, get my ankles lower, my back stronger, I'm not thinking about disaster when I do that. I've been anxious about getting things wrong and looking like an idiot. I've been ashamed at how out of shape I am, shocked at how much I've forgotten and how difficult things that used to be instinctive have become. Occasionally I have been tired and frustrated and despaired of ever making my body do what I need it to, but I haven't been scared, mainly. It's quite instructive to feel myself forgetting that reflexive, immediate fear gradually, my fist unclenching slowly, my breathing becoming more regular. The fear dissipates as I get absorbed in the rhythms of practice, the concentration, the subtle adjustments. I find myself wondering how I could apply that to the rest of my life. It's not the 'look no hands' wild confidence of childhood, but it's good.
What I really love best, though, is the absolute simple animal joy of being around the horses. I love the dark quiet spaces in the stables, the rustle and the scent of straw and hay, the horses warm under their rugs with velvety soft winter coats, the shockingly cold water. I love running a soft brush along a warm shoulder and watching the clouds of warm breath rise and I love getting nudged preemptorily in the back, and used as a scratching post. If anything can keep me going through the wobbles and discouragements and peaks of anxiety, it's that. So thank you to the horses.