How do I not wear my Tevis buckle?

As I’ve felt into the post-Tevis attempt, seen friends wearing their Tevis buckle with well-earned pride, I have felt it’s empty spot on my belly, and wondered “How do I not wear my Tevis buckle?”

Staring at my navel and not Tevis buckle spot

We prepare so much for these big challenge adventures. I only imagine myself finishing under the lights, elated and exhausted. I don’t prepare myself for failure, so the inner adventure of Tevis continues post-pull-ride.

Riders tell their stories on Facebook. It’s fun, and useful, to read their blow by blow. Riders who pull “Rider Option” make that clear right up front. “I didn’t get pulled. My horse was fine. I chose to pull out.” On each of these kinds of ride stories, readers comment enthusiastically and supportively, and share them. But the response to the stories of those of us who “got pulled” surprised me as noticeably quiet.  For me, lots of supportive comments, but mostly from non-riding friends.

What is the silence about? I have searched my gut.

I’ve heard from a few “Congratulations on even getting to the starting line of Tevis.” Or “I got pulled on my first 3 attempts at Tevis.” And “There’s always next year.” They are being supportive, with a little hesitation, probably because they are not sure how I am handling my failure. Fair enough. It’s always good to be considerate of people’s tender spots and to protect yourself. But there is something else under withheld comments that my gut has clenched over…

Shame.

“Shame is that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough.”

Brene Brown

“Did I/she take good care of her/his/my horse? Did I/she over-ride my/her horse? Did I/she properly condition and train her horse for Tevis?” “That horse is too big for endurance.” “Am I inevitably hurting my horse, because he is larger than average, by trying to do endurance with him at a competitive level?”

I asked myself these questions, rather pointedly, on the inside, and recognized that warm-shame feeling sloshing around. I thought I was picking it up from the outside, or projecting it outside, too. I defended against it, looking for an external cause of Tru’s dehydration—empty troughs at Robie Park—and then watched closely with Dr. Fielding to see the color of Tru’s first pee. We looked at each other and said “Not that dark. He didn’t tie up after all.” Muscles stayed relaxed. Just dehydration-induced colic. “Whew! I’m not a bad rider,” rippled through me.

Earning Our Compassion

Tevis and my journey with Tru is not the only part of my life where I am grappling with shame and guilt. It’s not even the biggest one. It’s just the one life-changing journey that is all mine. The one where my vulnerability does not involve revealing anyone else’s journey. I say this because it’s true for all of us:  we all have something inside that’s moving us, stuff we’re not talking about, for one reason or another.

“If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially:  secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”

Brene Brown

And all deserve empathy and compassion, up front, without an explanation. Too often, our culture has us telling our stories to “earn” our friends’ compassion, or requiring people to tell us about it, in order to give them our empathy.

But that’s not really compassion, is it? It’s passing the muster of our own judgement.

We don’t owe each other stories to “earn” compassion. We all deserve the space, respect, support to ride our own rides quietly, and publicly, and to make our own mistakes and learn from them. We all deserve to be loved—with our face in the dirt—and get a hand up.

The Silent Epidemic of Shame

Shame is debilitating. “She is / I am a bad rider, hopelessly inept…She is / I am a bad mother; can’t believe she/I lets her horse/her kid act like that…” Shame is the feeling under the strangely quiet, no comment response. Shame leads to defensiveness, to holding back from our dreams and potential, to bravado that can result in repeated mistakes. Unfortunately, shame, squelched potential, and bravado are rampant in our human consciousness these days…note Putin’s war in Ukraine, the divisiveness in our political discord, bullying on social media, in workplaces, drug and alcohol addiction.

Social worker Brene Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W. calls shame the “silent epidemic,” in her bestselling 2007 book I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power.

“We desperately don’t want to experience shame, and we’re not willing to talk about it. Yet the only way to resolve shame is to talk about it. Maybe we’re afraid of topics like love and shame. Most of us like safety, certainty, and clarity. Shame and love are grounded in vulnerability and tenderness.”

Brene Brown

Guilt…Response-Agility

Shaking off the shame left me with guilt-laced questions. If it’s not me (through my horse, my child, my work performance, my monkey mind in meditation, my dog) that is hopelessly flawed, and rather my actions and habits that need adjustment, well that gives me response-agility…questions that can lead to new actions, new habits, new joy on the journey.

No matter how many troughs were out and how much water was in them, I take full responsibility for my horse. He was dehydrated at vet-in, and I was caught off guard. Now I know that even though his parameters came up to indicate hydration within an hour, deep hydration into the tissues takes at least 48 hours. We simply did not have time to re-hydrate for the start. Tevis requires relentless attention to detail from pre-start to finish. Hard as that call would have been, we needed to rider-option pull before the start.

“Shame is about who we are and guilt is about our behaviors…Guilt is holding an action or behavior up against our ethics, values, and beliefs….Shame is focusing on who we are rather than what we’ve done. The danger in telling ourselves that we are bad, a cheat, and no good, is that eventually we start to believe it and own it.”

Linda Kohanov, Power of the Herd

As I bit down on the guilt-laced questions about how Tru and I have been training, I began to see the next level solutions.

We don’t have any other endurance riders to train with, to play leap-frog to induce the competitive energy and the emotionality that we need to manage. How can I improve Tru’s response to my aids, in a competitive situation? How can we both be less emotional? For days, I pondered these questions.

The dressage training we’ve done with Clay Wright and Micaela Love (side pass, turn on the forehand, turn on the hind, one rein stops, circles, leg yields, shoulder-in, walk-trot-canter transitions, forward on an inhale, stop on an exhale) have been perfectly useful. So have the meditations from my Kriya Yoga practice, and the heart breathing and liberty connections I’ve learned with Linda Kohanav. I have seen every bit of these practices improve how we start rides, and even how we started Tevis. It was actually better than I had feared (and waaayyy better than many stories I’ve heard).

What You Focus on Gets Bigger

As I was saddling up for our first post-Tevis ride, Tru was whinnying back and forth with the other horses in the pasture, and it struck me. He is emotional right now. He gets emotional, opinionated and surgy at many junctures on our home trails. I can work with that!

On our way out, when we passed the barn, I set my gaze and body to turn past the barn, and had to add my leg and pick up the reins. In our practice we succeeded in rating a big walk and a slow trot on a loose rein, and exhale to stop. I focused on breathing, relaxing, using other aids before picking up the reins. On the way back, after training, he kept on walking past the barn with just my light calf added in response to his ear-cocked question. Big improvement in just 90 minutes. On our second training, we rated a second, faster trot. On our third, we focused on down-shifting medium trot to slow trot, to walk to halt, on an exhale and half-halt.

It came so fast with Tru. Such a smart, willing, talented horse…so My True Companion. Like he said to me in the pasture post-Tevis “When you get it, in your body, I’ll be there.” I realised we had been doing 90% of the right stuff.

This was another layer of two life-lessons: (1) what you focus on gets bigger; and (2) clear boundaries without emotion. Same for kids, dogs, people. A friend called me on PupPup’s bad habit of circling the horses when he doesn’t have his ball job, “You are making it worse by not being consistent.” Yes, I was. The shock collar I thought I should use was just a way to provide an emotional underscore, but still miss the point. Don’t get mad. Get clear. Be consistent. Inhale, exhale, focus on what is good.

As a personal emotional message, the related feeling of guilt helps us recognize when we’re overstepping boundaries, manipulating, hurting or neglecting others, helping us “course correct” and learn from our mistakes.”

Linda Kohanov, Power of the Herd

At Redwood Ride, Tru was still emotional, but he checked back with me. He relaxed and contained his forward energy into the gaits I set, on my inhales, exhales and a loose-r rein. He walked big all the way out the dyke, horses passing him. He walked up the hill. He kept an even, medium trot when we got out on our own. He still followed too close. More work to do, but darn, it feels so good to see the big positive, to make progress, and to embrace the value, of the space at my belly, where my Tevis buckle is not, yet.

“If you fail, never give up because F.A.I.L. means “First Attempt In Learning”; End is not the end, in fact E.N.D. means “Effort Never Dies.” If you get No as an answer, remember N.O. means “Next Opportunity.”

Abdul Kalam

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