I've been running for a while now, so it's easy for me to forget what it was like to be a beginner. I regularly go out for "just" 4 or 5 miles, chatting like it's nothing. And it is nothing -- because I've been running for a few years, I'm pretty decent at running 4 or 5 miles.
In what feels now like a previous life, I used to ride horses, and I was good at it. I actually think I was great at it. At least, I was better at riding than anything I'd ever attempted before (tennis, violin) or have attempted since (piano, yoga, running). Being on a horse felt more natural to me than walking. I was supremely confident and peaceful on any kind of horse.
Even though I love my current work, I haven't yet found that sense of "rightness" that I used to feel while riding. I sometimes daydream about going back to where I feel happiest and most competent: working outside with my hands, riding and caring for the horses, keeping them healthy and working hard. So the other day when I was invited to go riding with a colleague, I couldn't say yes quickly enough.
It felt like I was being invited to come home after a long time away.
Of course, I hoped everything would be the same: I'd have the "good hands" I worked so hard for, a strong leg, and a relaxed back. I'd sit tall but glued to the saddle. My body would listen.
The phrase "my body betrayed me" has always confused and terrified me. It conjures up a horror in which the body separates from the mind and emotions and starts doing its own thing. And yet, it happened to me: My hands, legs, and seat were not operating as representatives of the same system; instead, they were flapping around on their own. I was trapped in a body that didn't feel like mine -- but that, to my disappointment, was mine. I wasn't strong. Nothing felt the same. Bouncing helplessly around in circles while the sun set, I realized that in my five-year absence, my riding regressed to the level I was at when I was 13 years old.
At one point, I laughed. "Oh my god," I said to my colleague, who was watching patiently from the center of the ring. In all of my fumbling awkwardness, there was something very cool and humbling about the experience. In realizing just how much work it will take to return to my former level of comfort and skill on a horse, I also felt new and sincere empathy for all the beginners out there. When I was younger, I had a high tolerance for being a beginner. That's what being a kid means, I guess. But as an adult, I hardly ever find myself in a situation where I'm a beginner, with all the embarrassing gracelessness that comes along with it.
Somehow I was still offered the riding gig and will be hanging out with this horse (a retired eventer) on a regular basis going forward. I experienced the worst DOMS for four days after riding, but I'm welcoming the pain and soreness that I know is in store for me. It just means I've started climbing back up.