Falling off a horse is what makes you a real rider, or so I was told when I fell off a horse the first time. It’s not really the most comforting thing to hear when you’re in the dirt, crying because you’re embarrassed and you’re pretty sure you broke a rib. I got back on that horse, though. I rode attached to a lunge line because I wasn’t going to head home without at least getting back on that particular horse to prove that I was “brave.”

When I got back home, I wasn’t brave. I was terrified. The thought of even going to the barn made me so anxious I got sick. I’m no stranger to panic attacks, but barns and horses had always been my “happy” place. I was always the most content — the most liberated — on the back of a horse (even if I was too chicken to move faster than a working trot). So when my trainer put me on this small (compared to the large thoroughbreds I was used to riding), bomb-proof Arabian, I didn’t trust that he wasn’t going to take off running and dump me. I didn’t trust that at the slightest sound or rustling of plastic 40 miles away, he’d hear it and take off. But Tony didn’t. What he did do was force me to be assertive with my directions. He told me when I was doing something wrong. Slowly, and patiently, he taught me how to be a better rider, which I expected. What I wasn’t expecting was him helping me become brave again.

The sound of rain falling on a metal roof is enough to make me spook, let alone my horse. Or a hay truck coming in through the arena. Or horses outside the arena charging past the gate. Tony, though? He doesn’t care so I shouldn’t, either. He cares about whether or not you call him out on cutting corners, or about taking a strong enough hold of him so he doesn’t get away with going whatever direction he wants to. He also cares about what you offer him as incentive to come inside for his lesson and whether or not you scratch his neck when you’re grooming him. In learning about him and his personality quirks, in him showing me what he’ll try to get away with if I let him, I was able to learn how to trust him and focus on the amazing lessons we were having. I was able to have fun.

The thing is, I’ll probably fall off a horse again. But if/when I do fall again, I know I’ll be able to build my confidence back up because Tony taught me how to. He let me ride for hours and hours, letting me stop him first through pulling on the reins and saying “woah”, then by sitting deep in my seat, sitting tall, putting pressure on his mouth, then letting go. It’s been over a year since I fell, and that’s no longer the thing I think about when I pull into the barn driveway. Now, it’s whether or not he’s going to actually move or be a peanut pusher, nose in the dirt, because a stretchy walk is all he really feels like doing. It’s wondering how assertive I’m going to have to be with him that day, instead of being terrified to touch his mouth or to give him a kick.

Even before my fall, I wasn’t this confident of a rider. The rider I am today, I know I owe all to my little Arabian.