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Jane Smiley: Everything I need to know I learned from a horse

By Jane Smiley, Oprah.com
updated 9:58 AM EDT, Mon September 5, 2011
Riding a horse can present a metaphor for life.
Riding a horse can present a metaphor for life.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jane Smiley started horseback riding again to lose weight
  • She'staking lessons, asking questions and hanging around the barn
  • Smily discovers that the horse is a metaphor for life itself

(Oprah.com) -- A few days ago, I found a photo that was taken ten years ago now, of me at 43 sitting on my new horse (then 14). I look a little disheveled but happy; he looks thin, you might even say emaciated, with very little tail and several scars where other horses had taken pieces out of his hide.

What you can't tell from the photo, and what I didn't know at the time, was that the horse (whom I named Tick Tock, after the ticking of our biological clocks) was about to take me on a life-changing adventure that has been more fun, sometimes more troubling, and always more interesting than I could have possibly imagined.

I was a fearful person then, the sort who sneaks into the baby's room during naps to make sure he's breathing, the sort who imagines every latecomer in a traffic accident. I had always loved horses though, had ridden as a teenager, and thought riding a horse might be a more fun way to lose the last 15 pounds of a late pregnancy than riding a NordicTrack with my eyes glued to the Weather Channel, watching for tornado warnings (I lived in Iowa then).

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The horse had been around -- most recently he had lived in a field with a bunch of other horses, and before that, who knew? But he was kind and easy to ride, and most important, the second morning that I knew him, he nickered at me. That was flattering, like having a nice man call you darling but without any overtones of sexual harassment.

I meant to ride three times a week because, of course, I had a baby and other children and a husband and a career and a house and houseguests. But there I was, four days, five days, six days a week, not just riding the horse but taking lessons, asking questions, hanging around the barn, buying equipment. I was right about the pounds -- they were gone in a month -- but I was wrong about everything else, namely that I was an established grown-up with habits and some sort of unchanging identity.

The first thing I had to confront was the same thing all adult riders have to confront -- fear. Was he going to step on me? (Yes, if I didn't watch where his feet were.) Was he going to run away? (Yes, if something scared him.) Might he buck me off? (Unlikely but possible.) More embarrassingly, was I going to fall off for no reason? (Once, yes, for no reason -- that is, other than that I was unbalanced, out of my element, weak, stiff.)

Beneath the fear, I soon saw, was a long-standing habit of not actually paying attention to what I was doing. I had spent years thinking about one thing while I was doing another. I had, in fact, prided myself on being able to do two things at once. However, in truth it could be said that in this case I literally didn't know what I was doing and neither did the horse -- and so he acted confused, nervous, a little scary, and I had to learn, quickly but with surprising difficulty, how to pay attention.

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And then there was my body. Could it be that I might think, Sit up straight, and not be able to sit up straight? I told my instructor that it didn't seem as though my head was actually connected to the rest of me and he agreed (how embarrassing was that?), or maybe it was that my nerve impulses ran through Cleveland on the way from my cerebellum to my heels. At any rate, this weight-loss project was turning into a challenge of my every habit, a challenge to the unconscious way I had been living for at least 25 years (since I had set aside my horse passion at 18 to go to college).

But the horse loved me -- that was the enticement. He nickered at me every day, came when I called to him, paid attention, flicking his ears when I talked to him. I took a lot of "girlish" pleasure in this (but I have to note that I've seen several middle-aged men of my acquaintance cuddling up to their horses, making kissing noises, and spending all the hours they never spent with Barbies, combing their tails and manes).

And when I did everything right, even for just a moment or two, the fear, the preoccupation, and the awkwardness gave way to grace and pleasure that was unlike any sensation I'd ever felt on the NordicTrack or in a car or jogging around the neighborhood, a pure physical sense of rhythm and strength that the horse communicated right into my sinews and up those recalcitrant ganglia to my brain. As with all positive transformations, the right moments accumulated into right minutes and subsequently into delicious stretches of time that didn't feel like time at all.

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Which is not to say that improvement came smoothly or without frustration. Often I still confused the horse. Often he reacted in an unexpected way. Fear was what I came back to over and over, especially a fear of going forward too fast (and me without a seat belt!). Even when I was using the accelerator (my legs against his sides), it was hard to make myself take off the brake (release the reins that held his mouth) -- a very common problem for women riders, who are frequently more openly fearful than men riders.

Sometimes I took out my frustration on the horse, blaming him for mistakes that came from my mixed signals or anxiety (a frequent problem with men riders, who tend to be less sensitive to the horse's signals). I loved him, but I was quick to think he was a bad horse or a problem horse or at least a quirky horse. Patience! That was something that took years to learn.

Timing was a problem, too. When do women ever need split-second timing, when do they ever need to be able to sense just the right moment to do one little appropriate physical thing? Well, all the time, actually, but it's easy to get away with poor timing until a horse comes into your life. In fact, Tick Tock was a forgiving horse, and if I sat quietly, took a few deep breaths, talked to him affectionately, and tried again, we would do the very thing that we never thought we'd be able to do in the next five minutes.

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What's unique about riding is that the horse is always right there, and not only physically: Tick Tock's personality, his intentions, and his willingness were always palpable. I learned why "out riding alone" is an oxymoron: An equestrian is never alone, is always sensing the other being, the mysterious but also understandable living being that is the horse. That is what gets me out every day, in weather I would never jog in.

My body is different now -- I have triceps and biceps, and the trapezius muscles of a Jane Fonda. I gallop and jump and ride young horses with intense pleasure. I am also more patient, self-confident, ready for fun. I am more daring. My old "What if?" has become more of a "Why not?" I am readier to believe that if something comes up, I can deal with it -- even backing up the horse trailer.

But the greatest change is my constant sense of unfolding relationship and growing knowledge. I used to pepper my trainers and vets with questions. Why is the horse doing that? What does that mean? At bottom, who is he? I discovered that the horse is life itself, a metaphor but also an example of life's mystery and unpredictability, of life's generosity and beauty, a worthy object of repeated and ever changing contemplation.

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