Face down in the arena

I’ve been able to see the consequences of my worst decisions coming from a mile away. In the book, Rising Strong by Brené Brown, she calls these “face down in the arena” moments. That’s supposed to be a metaphor, but for me, one of the clearest lessons I’ve ever learned in trusting my instincts landed me literally face down in an actual arena.

In the winter of 2017, I fancied myself a bit of a horse trainer. I had bought a horse from a good friend (and actual trainer) that had been rescued from the slaughter pipeline. My friend had given her a chance at life. She was untouched when she came out of the “kill pen” and I watched as my friend gentled her, taught her to wear a saddle and to carry a rider. Her name was Fiona.

Fiona was absolutely stunning. A Morgan-Belgian cross, she was stout but floated when she moved. She had this goofy, sweet, calm demeanor. She took to her training beautifully. I already had a horse, but she was perfect for my husband who I had convinced needed one of his own. 

A couple of months after we bought her, the snow was melting and she started acting strangely. She would stomp, back up, and refuse to move with a rider on her back. Prior to this we had been riding her without any issues. We immediately stopped riding her and began looking for a problem. We consulted our vet, tried hormones, got her treated by an equine chiropractor, and gave her special herbs over the period of a couple of months. Exhaustively, we ruled out any physical issues, and the vet gave me the go-ahead to ride her again.

Spoiler alert: this is where I went wrong. And I knew it. I put a saddle on her and took her out to the arena. I asked one of the trainers at the barn if she planned to be around for a while, “in case I end[ed] up on the ground.”

I mean, come on!

Out in the arena I placed my left foot in the left stirrup and swung gently up into the saddle. I sat there for a moment and patted Fiona on the neck. I asked her with a subtle shifting of my seat to move forward. She stood still. I rocked my seat a little more insistently, asking her to step forward. She stood like her feet were rooted into the ground. I wiggled my hips forward and back and vibrated my legs. Nothing. I started gently tapping the sides of my feet against her side with escalating intensity. Still, she stood. Finally, I gave her a solid kick with both legs.

Well, that did it. Fiona took four quick steps forward and then launched at least 13 feet in the air. I don’t remember if she turned in the air or if she landed and then did a hard left and bucked again. Either way, I launched off her back at a 45 degree angle from our initial direction of travel (she went 90 and I split the difference).

I did my best impression of Superwoman after four gin and tonics, flying through the air with my right arm leading. My right hip hit the ground first in a burning white flash of pain, followed a nanosecond later by the back of my shoulder and outstretched right arm. My head bounced next to my elbow. Lucky for me, my mom had drilled the helmet rule into me long enough to form a habit before I started making my own bad choices so I got away with that.

The pain in my shoulder was blinding, disorienting. I struggled to my knees on the verge of hyperventilating. I was sure my collarbone was broken. Reflexively, I pressed my left hand against the front of my right shoulder. I felt a nauseating thunk as the ball of my humerus slid back into its rightful place. I inhaled sharply through my nose and stood up as the world closed in. I screwed my eyes shut and repeated to myself, “Kristin is watching. YOU WILL NOT PUKE YOU WILL NOT PASS OUT.”

Fortunately, that was the first time I was right all day.

Pain has this wonderful way of making lessons sticky and casting memories in sharp relief. Today, my shoulder has healed, and my pride has always been pretty bouncy. But now when my gut whispers at me to listen, my shoulder chimes in, too. And I tend to do so a little more reliably than I have in the past.

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