Tomboy to the Core

People who work a lot with horses talk a lot about fear and finding ways to work through things.

When I was nine, I thought nothing of leaping off the top of our swingset. Once I remember considering jumping off our one-story house (when I dangled my legs over the gutter, it didn’t look that much further to me than jumping off the swingset) but I wisely reconsidered.

In other words, I was not exactly a fearful child (or a wise one, either).

Then I had three kids in three years, and my days and nights were spent planted on terra firma. I remember the first time I went for a bike ride when the twins were about two years old–thanks to living out in the middle of nowhere where county roads are laced with puncture vine, it had been years since I’d even been on a bicycle.  A couple of blocks into the ride I realized that odd swimmy feeling was fear–fear of being up too high off the ground.


I was so disgusted with myself I wanted to die–I am a tomboy to the core and have always prided myself on being a fairly brave person. What the heck had happened?

The last time I was on the roof, my husband and I were trying to get a tarp down over damaged shingles. It was windy and cold, we were having trouble with the tarp, and we were on the second story. By the time we were done,  I was so choked up with fear that I was having a hard time moving my legs. When we got back in the house I couldn’t understand why I didn’t feel better–I wasn’t on the roof any more, I knew I didn’t have to go back ON the roof–but so much adrenaline had been dumped into my system I felt sick. I actually had to sit down for a while.

I felt like a little old lady.

Now, nothing bad has ever happened to me that involves heights, except for a few falls off a horse–and all of those happened to me after I started developing this fear of heights (and yes, it did take me a long time to get over the whole “up too high” thing while on a horse, too).

So why the heck would I start developing a fear of heights?

A few years ago we were taking our three (large) boys to see a movie  about 30 miles away. The twins were learning how to drive, which meant I usually sat in the backseat crammed between the 6’2 son and the remaining 6’5 twin. Although we use a large car for family trips, it’s still uncomfortable thanks to the size of the boys. I asked if I could sit in front while my husband rode in back for a change.

Husband-Man made it two miles down the road before gasping out that we had to pull over so he could get out.


Fear has sharp teeth.

Even though I got to enjoy my smug not-as-easy-as-it-looks, huh? moment, it was really kind of disturbing to see my old-time tough husband hyperventilating after being a little squished in the backseat of a car with his own offspring. They’d even let him sit by the door rather than in the middle and he couldn’t do it.

HM had to have a brain MRI last week, and the only way they could get him in the machine was with a little pharmaceutical magic. Even after 10 mg. of Valium, he wasn’t sure he could handle it. He was embarrassed that he had to reschedule the exam after the first try because he couldn’t make it through unmedicated, and he tried really hard to overcome the fear because he was embarrassed about admitting he was claustrophobic.

He didn’t used to have this fear, either. He admitted he really doesn’t even like getting on elevators now.

So what’s happened? Is it age? Or is it just a lack of being exposed to things (heights, tight spaces). If any of you have any theories, let me know.

I just read Be With Your Horse by Tom Widdecombe. He discusses fear and how some horses seem particularly sensitive to the level of confidence in humans that handle them. He writes about sometimes the only way to deal with fear is to keep doing the things with a horse that you feel confident handling before working back up to the fear issue.

I do things all the time with my horses that other people wouldn’t do, but a lot of what I do is based on my knowledge of what my horses are like and being able to predict how they will behave in certain circumstances. I almost always know when the two younger ones are likely to have a bit of a dust-up over food or over me, but my intuition is based on signals that are easy for anyone to read (ear pinning, head position, tail swishing, body position). I know there are people who would never groom/flyspray/trim/worm a loose horse–and especially would never work with a loose horse that was in with other horses, but that’s just the way I’ve worked with mine. I’d be terrified of doing this kind of thing with strange horses.

Once you start really being able to read a horse, I think sometimes that can make things harder on the human end.  Once when I was loading my very nervous Walker filly into a friend’s trailer (probably the fourth time she’d ever been loaded)  I got so nervous myself that I actually forgot how to tie a knot in the lead rope. Her anxiety had shaken up my little  head like an Etch-A-Sketch. (Few things compare to standing in a small metal box with a panicky, uncoordinated young horse.) I could “see” the situation so well from her eyes that I wasn’t able to keep my own anxiety under control.

It’s possible to work through even extreme fear, but it does come at a cost. I have a terrible time with public speaking–so much so that I very nearly came unglued when I had to start a new career as a college teacher last September. (And, as the science fiction writer Harry Harrison would say, “unglued” is a little like saying “I dropped the atom bomb and it went off.” Bit of an understatement.) It took nearly nine months of  daily torture practice for that to even start to go away.

And I’d become so used to the fear that when it started to go away that it felt strange to not be afraid. Weird, huh.

Nobody got to be a strong person sitting around eating bon-bons. I just wish real life didn’t have to be so real, sometimes.

Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive. ~Josephine Hart



Filed under Posty post

14 responses to “Tomboy to the Core

  1. I wonder if fearfulness as we age is related to our increased understanding of the potential consequences of our actions…

    I had to go up a very tall ladder (24 ft up) not too long ago to change bulbs on security lights. While I am not afraid of heights per se, the ladder wasn’t super reliable looking, and I knew that a fall would mean serious damage or worse.

    My legs felt like absolute wiggly jelly as I returned to the safety of the ground. Like they wouldn’t work right. And the adrenaline made me feel sick just as you described. Several beers or a shot or two can quell that very unpleasant feeling for future reference 😉

    • Heh heh heh–I’ll have to remember that! I had to do a story once about a port commissioner in our small town who died from a fall off a ladder that height–same thing, he was changing light bulbs in his shop. He was joking with the EMTs after it happened but then he died later that night. So your consequences idea has a lot of merit. There were a lot of times I was afraid to drive for a while after I took pictures at accident scenes (and the only way I can let my kids drive is to cultivate absolute denial).

  2. I am taking my time right now, because out and out challenging my fear isn’t working. I don’t seem to get to the other side, like I used to.

    So I’m taking the approach I would with my horse.

    I’m desensitizing my self and doing plenty of approach and retreat. Lol

    We will get there. Last time I checked there was no score keeper…

    I have no fear of heights. But I don’t like to drive with my husband anymore. He drives way too aggressive and it’s getting to me more than it ever has…

    • It’s important to remind ourselves that we have the time and that nobody’s keeping score–especially not our horses! LOL about desensitizing yourself–truer words were never spoken!

  3. I’ve taught a bit of rock climbing and have noticed that there’s a definite age where my students start to be afraid: 12/13 years. Right around puberty. The difference is quite noticeable.

    I myself am scared to death to climb without a rope when I’m higher than 2ft above the ground. Pretty pathetic for an instructor but I can’t get past it, falling hurts.

    I’ve been trying to get up the nerve to get back on my mare since getting bucked off but fear has been stopping me. Thing is, I don’t know if it’s my fear or hers. If it’s mine I should get over it, if it’s hers no way am I throwing a leg over.

    • That’s really interesting about the puberty thing, because I’ve heard all kinds of studies indicate that the “judgement” portion of the brain is the last part to develop in kids.

  4. I find that I can face anything straight on if it’s in front of my niece. 🙂 As we age, I think we understand better what the consequences/dangers are. I think we understand what pain is because we have experienced more of it over time and that makes us fearful. I think we also understand that our reflexes and strength are not what they used to be, which contributes to anxiety in certain situations. I have always had a bit of a fear of heights; I would get on my horse and hyperventilate and break into a sweat. Claustrophobia? Yep, a bit. For me, each time I have to be in a situation that makes me uncomfortable, I focus on pushing through and remind myself of the dishes; I hate doing them, but they need to get done and the sooner they are done, the sooner I can relax. 🙂

    • Wise words. And yep, people don’t know claustrophobia til they’ve tried to load a nervous horse in a two-horse trailer (or the last horse in one of those slant jobs where you have to hold your breath to get in!)

  5. Thoughtful post about fear, and lots of good insights in the comments above, too. I agree with everyone who says that as we age, we get wiser. If we didn’t, there would be a lot fewer of us and even more nominees for the Darwin Awards.

    I started riding a mountain bike when I was in my very late 30’s. I’m now 50. I’m fairly fearless on the bike, other than an aversion to going off large drops and for me, anything larger than 2 feet is a large drop. At 39 I knew from years of experience falling off horses that falls hurt, but I felt fearless enough to fling myself with abandon into all sorts of scary, technical places on trail. I can say with certainty that if I were to start riding a mountain bike now, I would be a lot more cautious. I’ve seen it in a friend who is 58 who didn’t start riding singletrack until about four years ago and he is cautious to the extreme. I encourage him because anyone who is willing to ride a mountain bike on singletrack deserves applause, and I also have a lot more patience than I would have had 11 years ago. Then we were all like, “Hey, there’s no bone showing! What’s a little blood? Get back on that bike, you’re fine!”

    With my young horse, I’m a lot more cautious than I am with her mother, which is some ways is odd because the dam’s history is mostly unknown. She’s flighty, she’s nervous, but yet she’s predictable and I don’t fear pushing her a bit because she’s never given me anything I can’t ride. However, her daughter, whose training I oversaw every step of the way, scares me more. She has a stubborn streak a mile long and Kathleen Lindley cautioned me not to get in a bind with her. (Not that I get in fights with the dam, but I can push when needed. I think anytime you get in a fight with a horse, you can automatically say “I’ve lost this one” because you have.) I’ll be taking the filly, who at age 5 is technically a mare, I know, back to Kathleen for a month next winter because I want to learn how to get past the filly’s balky behavior. Now, some of it might be caused by pain, that’s under investigation, but not all of it. We’ll eliminate that first and then if she gets a clean bill of health, I’m going to have Kathleen work her. She’s the pro, I am the (formerly fearless) rider who knows how much it hurts to fall. Does this mean that I’m getting smarter? I can only hope.

    • Hi Kathleen…yep, you’ve got to trust your gut, I think. I know exactly what you mean about your difference in feeling between your horses. And I agree–interesting to see what folks wrote about how age may equal wisdom–but also equal more fear to deal with!

  6. Great post and great comments. I was a real tomboy too and spent my days climbing trees and walking railings on bridges and railroad tracks, once I even jumped off a garage roof with an umbrella (should have never watched Mary Poppins). I can’t say I was smart but I wasn’t afraid. Even as a kid I was claustrophobic so I can’t attribute that to age and I’m not really afraid of heights, which was probably a good thing since my horse Erik was 17-2. I think the reason we start having fears is because we know what can happen. Cause and effect is something we probably never thought of as kids but it plays a part in how we handle things now.

    • I had a big gelding too once–always felt really secure on his back, even though it was a long way down. And yeah, I think when we get older we have the pleasure of having “insta movies” in our heads when we’re in a potentially dangerous situation–thanks to our previous experiences!

  7. Couz

    I remember long before I had kids, I was visiting a friends house on Halloween. When I came to the door, he yelled out from the other room and invited me in. I was startled to find him sitting in this hideous, gory mask [details unimportant],and doubly startled to see his 5 month old son sitting in his lap, playing with the masked man’s “face”. Clearly there was nothing in the child’s experience to make him fear the image of the mask. I think there must be a “recognition” component to fear.

    It begs the question of: “recognition of what?”

    My initial reaction was “recognition of pain”, but honestly I don’t think that is it, people work out every day, people have second children, I think I could be talked into jumping off a house if I knew the only bad thing I would endure is pain.

    I think the answer is that the root of all fear is a rational or irrational expected loss. If I fall off a house, as an adult I know there will be medical bills, I may be out of work, I might lose my job, I might die, etc. etc. As a kid, my experience said that if I fall off a retaining wall, I would have to get stitches, and I might lose an afternoon of playing, but really–so what…

    On the plus side, probably many (most? all? only a few?) fears can be quashed as we grow older, just by getting a realistic picture of the expected loss. Think about the difference in fear you have for using a computer and the internet compared to people even 10 years older that you…

    anyhoo– great post!

    • Hey T. Thanks for stopping by. Interesting about your friend– had a friend whose twin girls were terrified of masks–in fact, she kept a Halloween mask in plain sight in her bedroom because it kept them out of her room! Cruel, but that’s a mother of twins for you 🙂

      Last time I was on the roof I thought I could rationalize my way out of the fear, but when my limbs started locking up on me I gave up. I had a student last quarter who was in the Air Force–he talked about watching people freak out before parachute drops and how the practice jump platform had been built at the height that would make the unconscious mind “lock up” (apparently there is some height that the brain automatically knows would be fatal in a fall).

      Apparently for my brain, the lockup height is exactly the size of a two-story home.

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