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A Beautiful Fall

October 11, 2013

As I took flight, I felt the rough scrape of leather stirrups against my boots.  My feet lifted briefly before a rude tug sparked fear that they wouldn’t come free and my panicked horse would drag me. For an anxious moment, I wasn’t afraid to fall, I was afraid of not falling all the way. 

Riding with my husband and my young son, I left the stable that morning feeling bold on my big, black Tennessee Walker. I was ready to ride farther and higher than I had in 14 years.  The December sun had mustered both brilliance and a breeze as we head to the mountains.  Three hours and 3,000 feet later—wobbly and tired—I made the mistake of thinking it was over before it was over still a mile from the barn and I relaxed.  It was a rookie mistake like the team that gives up a 24-12 lead to lose in the final three minutes.

They say if you ride, it is not a question of “if” you will fall, but “when.”  Falling is part of the experience.  Each fall becomes part of a storyline through initiation, foolishness, mastery, and adventure.  Sometimes we fall and sometimes we’re thrown.  Either way, we take to the air in surprise wondering how the world might change upon landing. 

And there is time to wonder.  A shock to the system throws us out of time.  For just a few beats time itself stumbles and slows.  We see ourselves from a different vantage point and, in the midst of real or apparent catastrophe, a single moment becomes enlarged until it takes on its own narrative.

I actually saw my boots slowly slide free, and as they did I felt suspended as if I had nothing else to do that morning but make a single turn in the air.  Then I landed.  The ground and grass heaved a sharp exhale, as if I’d been a grain sack dropped off the co-op loading dock.  I may have rolled once, even twice.  When my mind caught up again, I found myself at rest on a soft apron of pasture.  The dank smell of manure hung over the grass, strangely sweet and familiar.  Cold air sunk slowly under the warmth of my collar.

If you had come upon me just then, lying there on my back while my horse grazed several yards off, you might have thought I was taking a nap.  I kept my eyes closed while I waited for my inner physician to go through the usual diagnostics.  Hip? OK.  Shoulder?  Hurts.  Head?  Helmet still on.

It’s the landing, not the fall that takes us apart, transforms us.  Mid-air we are still whole, still connected, still trying to catch up with the sensation.  Meeting the ground (and anything en route) rattles and redirects our very fibers in a tumultuous wave of vibration.  I was as limp and jangled as a downed wire, but I wasn’t broken.

It had been twenty years since I’d fallen from a horse.  The last time my injuries sent me to the emergency room—but not before I got back on my horse and rode 50 yards out from the barn and back.  It was important to get on right then, while the pain was still gathering, but before it had time to build its wall of fear too high.  I was 20 then, more resilient.  Fear dissipated quickly, and my confidence in my abilities swept reservations away.

This time was different.  While I was in one piece when I landed, I was not all of a piece when I started. For the past six years, I have been disabled and walk with a cane.  These days just getting on the horse is a special challenge for me—mentally and physically.  For ten years I didn’t ride at all.  After I was diagnosed with MS, I had a series of calamitous tumbles into disability.  Each bout with the disease felt like being thrown.  One morning I’d wake up and my right foot would be numb or my left hand.  Then little by little, I would lose touch with regions of my body.  The falling felt interminable.  Eventually, I would find the floor, pause to recollect myself, and begin the long road back to where I started. 

Only I didn’t always make it back.  Sometimes I had to settle for partway. Each time I had to learn to walk again.  In that process, I’ve learned that walking itself is a series of falls.  We lean forward pushing off one leg, just to catch ourselves with the other.  We fall over and over until it looks fluid.  It’s an elegant illusion—  each step a beautiful fall.

Lying in the cold grass, knowing I was still in one piece, I was not sorry I fell.  I was sorry that it would make me afraid to fall again.   Fear can turn a wheel in you ever so slowly until you don’t realize how you hold your breath, pull your punches. Ultimately, it’s the fear that is the worst injury of all.  It doesn’t heal on its own; it festers.  To mend it, you have to take deliberate steps—hard steps—one by one, until it becomes a coin in your pocket rather than a stone on your chest.  I know just how long that road can be, but I also know that the only way to get back what is bruised or broken—hearts, egos, bones, bank accounts—is to get on the horse that threw you and ride.

When I opened my eyes, I was looking uphill into the enormous blue sky. My hearing returned to the caws of crows in the bare branches of the river sycamores and the low moan of a cow that, no doubt, was responsible for my horse’s change of course and my change in venue.  My son was on his knees by my side.  My husband just a few paces behind him.  Each called to me as if my name were a rope they could throw out to tether me to a conscious shore.  I held on and threw back my reassurances.  I stirred a bit.  Lifted my head. They helped me sit up, gathered my horse.  What was bruised would heal, including my resolve.

My boys offered to ride to the barn and come back with the truck, but it wasn’t an option, not really, not for me.  We surveyed the pasture, the slope of the hill, the way the road cut through, and found a place to position the horse.  With my son holding the horse, my husband lifted me up and we swung my leg over the cantle until I settled back into the saddle.  I felt the rough stroke of the stirrups scrape against my boots as I took up my reins.  I turned my horse’s nose toward the orchard road back to the barn.  And we rode.

 

© Samantha Guerry, all rights reserved

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