I come from a long line of worriers. It's in my blood. My grandfather Sam fretted ceaselessly—about money, security, status, the future of his only granddaughter. When I quit my government job (with its regular hours, pay raises, and benefits) to pursue a creative writing degree, Sam, who'd lived through the Depression, clutched at his balding head and wailed. When I broke up with my Jewish boyfriend before he went to law school, Sam nearly collapsed in grief. When I decided to buy a 100-year-old house, he howled, "What about the roof? What will you do about the roof
In truth, that roof did stress me out. I didn't want to end up like Sam, though; despite all his worry—meant, presumably, to keep crisis at bay—he was unable to ever find peace. But a few years ago, after my mother died and I lost a big job, my anxieties nearly overwhelmed me. I tried exercise, relaxation tapes, therapy, time with my dog, time with friends, time with Xanax. They helped, but on my worst days, I retreated to the life raft of worry.
Then I had the good fortune of being asked to do an artist's residency at a dude ranch in Wyoming. I had gone horseback riding a few times as a kid, though never with any seriousness. ("Horses!" I can imagine Sam screeching, shaking his head so hard bits of spittle would fly. "You would have to be out of your mind!") But after two weeks of watching the horses (the artists weren't allowed to ride them), I managed to beg my way onto one. It was only a trail ride, and I had terrible form—I clung to the saddle and threw my weight around awkwardly—but I felt something stirring in my gut. On horseback, the stronghold of my worries loosened, because I was moving so fast I couldn't think. I could only feel—the animal running, the sky touching my face, the fingers of wind in my hair. It felt like a release. It felt right.
When I returned home to Oregon after the residency, I found a barn and a trainer (upbeat, not at all anxious), and before long, I was cantering bareback and learning to train troubled horses. My favorite is a retired Thoroughbred named Jake, a chestnut gelding with liquid Disney eyes. Jake can move fast, and when he does, I feel myself slide into myself, like a penny into a slot. I lean in and that horse keeps going, faster and faster until he's practically flying and I am totally inside myself and unthinking. I am simply there.
"You are going to break your neck!" I can hear Sam warn. But I can't worry about that. Worry isn't safe. In fact, at the barn, where horses spook at the first signs of trouble, worry shows itself for what it is: a liability. Horses value calm above all other virtues. I'm new to their world, but it turns out I share their values.
Robin Romm is the author of the memoir The Mercy Papers (Scribner).