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Getting Back On The Horse, or, Today I’m Going To Totally Embarrass My Mom

Last summer, my husband and I broke my mom. And I took one of the most epic photos of my life.

(Above.)

Don’t worry — she’s fine. But we’ll get back to that.

I grew up on a farm in Central Washington. We had horses — mostly retired polo horses that didn’t mind little kids running around their pastures and climbing on their backs. I have fond memories of horses, but I would never say I’m good at horses.

My parents are good at horses. They talk about riding them for miles between each others’ houses when they were in high school, because they were apparently too goody two-shoes to steal their parents’ cars. My dad played polo with my grandpa. My mom showed horses in 4H, and they went camping on horseback before us pesky kids came along and made things complicated.

There’s this saying: You have to get back on the horse if you get bucked off. Otherwise, you’ll psyche yourself out so badly you might never get on a horse again.

It’s a perfect metaphor for life, really.

Life is going to buck you off. You’re gonna get dumped by someone you loved with all your heart. The business venture you poured your soul into is gonna fail. You’re gonna publish beautiful work that everybody hates.

And if you don’t dust yourself off and get right back on the horse then and there, you may never recover from that failure, and go on to do the amazing work you were meant to do.

Which brings me to that beautiful late summer day when we put my mom in the emergency room.

The first thing you need to know about my mom is that she’s competitive. Maybe it’s having a twin sister. She’s always been in sports: track, basketball, tennis, whatever. Horses, obviously. She and her high school basketball team made it to Washington’s first girls’ state tournament—and won.

(Go Wolves!)

She’s an athlete.

It didn’t rub off on me.

I mean, I did sports, but I didn’t do sports. Especially not the kinds of sports that required me to care whether or not my team was winning or losing. One of my earliest sports memories is of dancing with fairy friends and picking flowers on a soccer field while other kids chased some sort of ball around.

I’m third from the left. I’m probably thinking about something besides soccer.

My next memory is getting hit in the face with said ball.

I think I was supposed to be the goalie.

My mom was the coach.

She was probably a touch dismayed.

The one sport I did finally get into was mountain biking. I’d always been a cyclist, though my interest was primarily transportational. But after I got over the learning curve of mountain biking, I loved it. I’d already dragged my mom out on some challenging road rides (she kicked my ass on her carbon fiber bike), so when I told her I was going to take her mountain biking, she was delighted.

I was delighted, too. She was gonna kill it.

The second thing you need to know about my mom is that she pushes herself out of her comfort zone.

When we were kids, we’d ask her what a strange thing at the grocery store was, and her answer was always, “I don’t know. Let’s get one and try it.” Nopales, lychee, prickly pear, pigs ears, octopus — nothing was too weird. We’d take it home and figure out what to do with it.

She isn’t just culinarily explorative. She pushes herself out of her comfort zone everywhere. She travels to new places. Takes up new hobbies. Says yes to leadership roles at work that scare her.

Contests are made to be won and comfort zones are made to be pushed.

Now, I knew these two things about my mom, but they didn’t crystalize until the moment I watched her fly through the air, my index finger reflexively hitting the camera button on my phone while my mind went blank with terror.

Here’s what happened.

We were at a family reunion in Hood River, Oregon. There’s a ton of great mountain biking there, so naturally my husband and I had brought our bikes. We’d been trying all week to talk other people into going with us, but my mom — naturally — was the only one game.

So we rented a bike and headed to the hills.

Guys, we are so ready for action.

The thing you need to know about my husband is he’s a very good cyclist, and a very good teacher. He’s got the ability to break skills down and explain them in a way that actually make sense — which is tough when you’re talking about cycling skills that are sometimes more instinct than muscle.

We did some practice laps in the parking lot to get my mom comfortable on the bike, then headed out into the skills park. The plan was to ride some of the rollers, check out the pump track, then hit the easy green square trails that ring the parking lot. I insisted she wear my knee and elbow pads. (Good call, Jessie.)

It was an excellent plan.

Like any good teacher, my husband decided to give his new pupil a taste of the more advanced skills she was going to work up to.

You know. Whet her appetite.

Like when you take an Intro to Brazilian Portuguese class and the dreamy professor says something completely mundane-yet-sexy with all those beautiful syllables, and you think, “Hell yeah I am going to learn this language so hard.”

As we rode out to the pump track, my husband pulled over and pointed out the drop practice area. There are three platforms with varying heights of drops, going into a smooth, short descent.

I find them a bit scary, but doable.

My husband thinks they’re great.

He went off the tallest one. He told mom that I had gone off the smallest drop. He told her we could come back and check it out if she felt comfortable later.

But there are these two things about my mom.

“That doesn’t look so scary,” she said. “I bet I can do it.”

Sure, we agreed. She has good bike handling skills, and the drops really aren’t that far.

“Jessie went off the smaller one?” she asked. “I want to go off the middle one.”

Of course she did.

And so my husband talked her through the technique, had her practice a bit, and then I clambered down into the bushes to catch my mom in her moment of badass action.

She went off the middle drop without hesitation — then reflexively grabbed her brakes and, well….

You saw.

She did this.

But here’s the thing — and this is the point of this whole story.

We rode for another full hour after my mom face-planted in the dirt.

She was shaken and clearly hurting. Her teeth were full of dirt but seemed to be all there. Her nose was a little bloody but not broken.

We asked if she wanted to go to the emergency room.

“No,” she said. “I want to get back on the horse.”

We hit the rollers and the pump track and even the green square trail around the parking lot before she finally called it quits.

On the drive to the emergency room, she asked if I had a picture of the crash, and I told her of course not! I was in a blind panic, not merrily snapping photos!

But when we got to the emergency room and I was scrolling through my phone, I found that epic shot. Apparently blind panic and photography can exist side-by-side.

When the nurses and doctors asked what happened, I could hand them my phone and say, “This.”

They were suitably impressed.

Doctors who weren’t actually attending my mom came by to see how she was, and to ask to see the photo.

Several of them recognized the drops. One nurse told us she’d crashed there earlier in the summer. She asked my mom how long she’d been mountain biking, and mom told her one hour.

The nurse joked that it was probably my mom’s first and last ride.

My mom replied, “I’m going to buy a mountain bike.”

It’s really easy to fail in small, fearful ways. You can fail to become an artist by not committing fully to your work. You can fail to start a business by never quitting your day job. You can fail to see the world by never buying that plane ticket.

Those things are painful in their own way, but the pain often doesn’t come until much later in life.

It’s a lot harder to fail spectacularly and publicly and horribly. To go crashing face-first into the hard-packed dirt because you decided to try something new and terrifying and too big for your britches.

That kind of failure is incredibly painful.

Mom broke a finger, sprained her wrist, and couldn’t feel her chin for months.

When we see that kind of spectacular public failure, our natural sense of self-preservation wants us to draw back into the relative safety of small, fearful failure. I show people this photo of my mom, and some of them tell me that’s why they don’t bike. Or a plane crashes, and people say that’s why they won’t travel.

Or a friend’s book launches to crickets, and I tell myself that’s why I’ll just do something small rather than aiming for the stars.

But life is lived in those spectacular failures. And you can take them as they are — or your can get back on that horse.

Right now.

Before you psyche yourself out.

Before the memory of the pain outweighs the memory of the joy.

Back at the ranch, my mom declared she wanted a mountain bike for Christmas. We set her up with a sweet one, and she took her first lesson a couple of weeks ago. She told me she’s met some local ladies to go riding with.

And I suspect she’s already planning on showing me up at the next family reunion.

Because she didn’t just get back on that horse and conquer her fear — she kept pushing herself out of her comfort zone until she showed that horse who was boss.

What a badass lady.

Happy Mother’s Day, mom.

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