On Competitiveness, Body Image, and Learning to Look at My Own Paper

I laid in the tub in two inches of barely tepid water, audible sounds of regret escaping my mouth. “Can you see? Has it turned grey?” In that moment, I was experiencing the inevitable result of being a competitive person without a suitable outlet or a marketable focus. If I choose to enter a competition, I want to win. I have always wanted to win. I have no aptitude for (or interest in, let’s be real) team sports and I’ve reached an age when no one forces your peer group to stand in a line to see who is the best speller, so other petty competitions have borne the brunt of my laser focus. The pettiest things. Could I keep the #1 spot on the friend leaderboards for every song of a popular dance-based videogame? Win the all-important bar karaoke night Halloween costume contest? Can I do a little more? Go a little further? Could I do everything I cared about just a bit better than everyone else? Better than my previous best? And if not, why not? What was wrong with me? 

It is inevitable because my need to win and be the best is too strong that eventually I would go too far. It was probable, given the state of my body and American society’s general feelings about the overweight, that going too far would involve inflicting pain on my body related to a weight loss competition.

While now much of my peer group has arrived at the “love yourself, mind your business about other people’s bodies” mindset, anything before the mid 2010s was a fertile time for open self-loathing. Sometimes my friends and I would spend the better part of a party talking about how awful our bodies were, how much weight we wanted to lose, and our strategies to trick our bodies into believing themselves sustained on whatever diet was the New Diet That Would Fix Everything, Overnight Preferably. At a party! A place where we should’ve been celebrating something or someone and being alive and eating the good cheese! Instead, for years, I chose to play the role of the virtuous fat person on a diet, ignore the food, and talk about how I was also denying myself food in other places; some of my friends would do the same. Sometimes it was just me. I wasn’t in such self-denial that I believed that if no one saw me eat, they wouldn’t think of me as a fat person, but rather, if no one sees me eat, they can’t confirm any other opinions they might hold about how I got that way. I think of a friend who has stabbed a dagger into my heart at several dinner parties over the years when he talks about obesity and obese people with such vehemence in his voice and anger on his face. I’m obese; what does this mean about what he thinks about me? I don’t eat much around him. It’s hard to be a “good” fat person. And I want to be the best.

In those days, some of my friends and I would diet together but it was always a competition. Who could win dieting by dieting the hardest?  I could diet harder than anyone. I would go places they wouldn’t, do things to myself I wouldn’t wish on anyone and won’t go into extensively for fear of writing a comprehensive self-harm how-to guide. Back then, I wouldn’t talk about these strategies because I wasn’t there to help others succeed, I was there to win. I held no illusions that I’d lose enough weight over an eight week competition period to finally love or even like myself so if the only prize was winning, I was in it to win it. That’s how I ended up in my bathtub, weeping, afraid the hard, frozen disc of flesh on my upper back was frostbitten because I was trying to get an edge in effortless calorie burning by icing my brown fat, a tip from the author of my then-current New Diet That Would Fix Everything, Overnight Preferably*. This I’d first done through a towel, but a slippery slope led to putting the ice pack directly on my back for fear that it wasn’t chilling my fat enough to ensure my weekly weigh-in victory over a frenemy whom I couldn’t allow to be superior to me in any way. So onto my back that ice pack went. Surprise! A consequence! Albeit a minor one, as the hardened area eventually thawed and therefore my horrified imaginings of a little grey circle of flesh falling off my body and circling the drain were wildly unnecessary. I stopped icing, but I kept competing–you see what you focus on, and all I saw was a risky tip I took too far and not the behavior pattern that led to me taking the risk in the first place. 

I participated in lots of diet competitions during the entirety of my twenties and the first half of my thirties. Websites where you could bet money that you’d lose a certain percentage of your body weight. Others where the only prize was the glory of bettering strangers. In this latter category, there was a website I frequented on which you could compete with specific categories of people or for specific reasons, like “women over 30” or “getting fit for Christmas”.  And on that website, there was one guy who I came to think of as my nemesis though he very likely had never noticed me. I noticed him. He. made. me. furious. He first drew my ire because despite my best and cruelest efforts toward myself he was winning every competition in which we both were participants. I started only joining competitions for women or ones in which he was not listed as a participant, and that would’ve been fine but then he started swooping in and joining every single competition, regardless of whether he qualified, just before they ended so he could win those, too, and it was on the day he was crowned the winner of “Brides! Let’s look good in our wedding dress!” that I snapped, left the website for good, and ate myself into an expensive wedding dress alteration. If I couldn’t ever win, what was the point? At the time, I felt like this guy was stealing my glory, my victory, something I had starved myself to earn, because if I did not win first place, I didn’t achieve anything, and that he was doing it to be a jerk. Ahh! Fuck that guy! What an asshole! Except when I really think about it, I was just projecting my jerky competitiveness onto him. Yes, I wanted those wins.  I needed them. But I think that someone who would do that needed those wins more.

This summer, I started seeing a new doctor. It had been a while since I had a primary care doctor, and I was skittish about starting with a new one. Over the years, I’ve gotten better about excising the sorts of things from my life that trigger bouts of self-harm: I don’t get on the scale, much less participate in weight loss competitions. I don’t tally up calories because I know the dangerous, stupid places I go when I focus on the number. And enough doctors have treated my entire existence as a consequence of my weight that I feared another fall into the numbers. And worse, I was going for knee pain so I really felt the need to batten down my emotional hatches beforehand for dismissal, condescension, or outright cruelty, all things I have experienced in a medical setting, as well as sales pitches for diet drugs and bariatric surgery. I went anyway. 

Although this doctor did ask me to get on the scale on the first visit to establish a baseline, her philosophy is centered in exercise: that if you exercise at a high enough level for 45 minutes, three times a week, cardiovascular fitness will improve and weight and what you eat doesn’t really matter. She believes in this philosophy so much that she included a fitness center as part of her practice. New patients are given a few free classes so even if they decide not to continue exercising there, they can understand what kind of exercise the doctor is advocating. Since I hadn’t self-motivated to the gym in one..two..seven…eigh–a large number of months, this felt like an opportunity to get back into intentional exercise in addition to the incidental exercise I’ve been getting from my beat saber obsession and the physical labor of caring for and exercising an animal whose weight exceeds half a ton and does her best to whip me around like a ball attached to a cup by a string some days. This, too, I was nervous about. What would the trainer be like? What would the class be like? I went anyway.

My anxious mind anticipated a class of shoulder to shoulder people in a room with wall to wall mirrors with a loud, scary trainer. In fact, the class was so small it was the next closest thing to personal training: just myself and one older woman and not a mirror to be seen. The trainer was a man who appeared to be in his late 30s and fit, but not intimidatingly so. His manner was kind and even but impersonal and hands-off. My competitive mind noted immediately that I was much more physically capable than my classmate, and it was the smug self-satisfaction of this that allowed me to still internally deny that I needed to be there while buying the large package. I figured it would hold me accountable to exercising in a way just paying for a gym membership didn’t; that personal relationship with a trainer who expected you to be there in a class small enough for them to notice. 

I started showing up twice a week. Ostensibly my goal was better health through exercise but my two main motivators up and out in the mornings were both unhealthy: to utterly smoke the other (primarily far older, because who else has time mid-morning besides senior citizens and the unemployable?) people in class as a means of feeling better about myself, and the other, which I didn’t even admit to myself at the time, was to seek the approval of the trainer, recognition from him that I was doing better, doing more, achieving the most, winning the class, winning fitness. 

It’s like he knew what I was looking for and so refused to give it to me. Class ended with a “good work” and a fist bump and that was it, the same for everyone, no matter how hard I went. He gave clear instruction, was watchful-ish, but mostly hung back, trusting people to work to their personal maximum capacity, never pushing for more or harder. He told people to take breaks if they needed them, to come back when they could, and if someone did, he wouldn’t draw attention to it.

Even though I wasn’t getting those Teacher’s Pet cookies, I was still dominating at my goal of Smokin’ the Oldies, gleefully accepting every compliment from my classmates about my physical prowess. My bubble of imagined superiority burst spectacularly the first time someone in my age bracket came to class. I had managed, in my estimation, to outdo her for most of the class, but I hit a wall. Ran out of gas. When you can’t lift a weight anymore, you just can’t lift a weight anymore. And still I struggled to outpace her, and the shame of my eventual failure drove a river of silent tears down my cheek, thankfully only on the side no one could see, because it’s bad enough to lose a contest that only you know about but it’s worse to be a poor sport about it. It’s embarrassing that’s what it took for me to recognize that not only was I not better than the other people in class but that I needed to be there, and not for the purpose of “winning gym class” but for me, to be healthy, to work toward actual fitness goals that matter to me and furthermore, that it’s utterly fucking ridiculous to have lived my entire life in an aggressively non-athletic fashion and expect to always be the best in the room at fitness. This combination of things is what finally put an end to my competitive glances, comparing weights or machine settings or reps or squat depth. Letting go of self-inflicted competition and focusing on me was key to coming to really enjoy my time in the gym and my growing comfort and confidence in my own body. 

Then I fell off my horse due to an equipment malfunction, hit my head, and got a traumatic brain injury. I had a headache for a month straight. Every day. I was perpetually nauseated. Small amounts of physical exertion would exhaust me completely. Over the summer, I’d been hand walking Navani on trails, jogging her up the hills, building my fitness while working on her manners. I was getting better at jogging: me, jogging! Recently, the effort of merely walking this same trail (albeit with a spicy horse that day, in slippery footing) had me woozily dry heaving in the direction of a clump of ferns and hoping I didn’t black out while my friend rode ahead, cheerful and unknowing. I was out of the gym for six weeks and spent most of the next five castigating myself for those last two weeks, that it was laziness or some other personal failing that made it so I wasn’t back to wearing spandex in a month or less. Realistically, I went back too soon. 

During the time I was out, I received an email from my doctor’s office saying the gym was going to have limited hours for a bit while they were under construction to “make [my] gym experience second to none” and that some of these limited classes were going to be taught by a new addition to the training staff. Cool! Upon my return, I was interested to see what changes there would be to the gym–the trainer had been talking about wanting some different equipment and I was curious how it would change my workouts. And I know that I haven’t been in the corporate world for a while and had just hit my head and all but I still probably shouldn’t have been totally gobsmacked to learn that the only change was that the old trainer was gone, and the new addition to the training staff was the training staff.

This new guy was different. One of those muscle on muscle types which, like opposing magnetic forces, causes the flabby gelatinous material of which my body is composed to instinctively sidle away so as to avoid notice. He is a pusher, asking people to do more, go harder, calling them out by name. His expectations are higher in every way, wanting people to come half an hour early every time to warm up, to try to come daily. The baseline of what he thinks I should be able to do is higher. He says it’s OK to take breaks, but I’ve never once taken a break and not had him say something about it, which, to me, makes it feel like it’s not really OK.

Coming back from a concussion and its related cardiovascular effects to a trainer like this was a hard transition. I’d have to go into a squat to recover from a segment because my heart was pounding like a hammer and my chest was on fire and I was trying desperately not to throw up or die or throw up and then die and I’d hear “Melissa! You’re supposed to be doing bicep curls now” and each time was a battle between my commitment to listen to my body and my deep instinct to people-please. I’m there to be instructed, so when I’m instructed, I’m going to do my damnedest to do what I’ve been told. I might joke or snark about it but I always give my best effort, so when I’m chastised for taking a break it feels like it’s being implied that this means I’m not trying. I’m sure it didn’t help that one of my most regular classmates almost immediately talked me up to this trainer at the start of the session, saying that I was pound-for-pound stronger than anyone in the class. So even though I’d let go of the competition and turned my focus inward to the point where I have no idea how anyone else’s workout went, other people were noticing and comparing themselves to me. Ha!

This new trainer notices me a lot, making frequent adjustments to my form, occasionally physically moving me into position and fairly often touching me to demonstrate a verbal instruction. He notices if I switch to a smaller weight and calls it out in a way that leaves me uncertain if he’s encouraging me for recognizing that I needed to step down or if he’s teasing me by letting me know he sees me doing less than he thinks I could do or told me I should do. He notices if I have a bruise on my leg showing through the mesh part of my workout pants. He’s a lot more personable than any trainer I’ve ever had, particularly moreso than the previous trainer, who generally kept people at arm’s length. He’s asked about my rings, about my tattoo, about my husband, about my clothes, about my horse. He told me about a girlfriend he had and how she could never walk past the sparkly ring case at Costco, and how he imagined me as a more practical sort of person. Even as I was delighted to be seen as a practical person in a positive sense (Jason refers to me as a “naysinger”, or a person who finds the problems in other people’s ideas, and he insists this is not a bad thing although to me it doesn’t feel great to be seen as a rainer-on of parades) I was taken a bit aback to be imagined about at all, much less to have a question about my wedding rings segue into how I compare favorably to an ex.  Then, one day post new year, my guts were unhappy, which maybe had something to do with my diet for the past 8 days or so consisting of a flat of Terry’s chocolate oranges, sparkling apple juice, and not much else, so I canceled my gym reservation for that day via the app. “Easy.” I thought. “Being able to cancel without having to speak to a human being, this is the future I always wanted.” Several hours later, the dour clangs of bells and howling of wolves announced that my phone was ringing and it was my doctor’s office. As I answered, I wondered why they’d be calling–I knew I didn’t have a doctor’s appointment on the books for several weeks. I was startled to learn it was the new trainer, calling because he’d noticed I was supposed to be in class and then had canceled and was worried about me. Worried about me? For real? I was gone for six weeks and no one said boo but with this guy I cancel one class and it’s worry-worthy? And not the kind of no-call no-show that could lead someone to believe I ended up in a ditch on my way to class but a garden variety Seattle “don’t feel like it so I’m gonna cancel just before and pretend I never even RSVPed yes”,  and he’s at DEFCON phone call levels of worry?

I needed to figure this out this guy’s deal. I couldn’t tell why I was so uncomfortable, why my blood pressure spiked from anxiety on workout mornings. Was it just my problem with change in general? Was it him pushing my boundaries in a way I don’t like? Or are the touches and the personal attention and the excuse to call and making sure that I knew which class was his all red flags that he’s got a bit of a crush? I posed this latter to Jason, who kept a very carefully straight face when he told me that he didn’t think I had to worry about that, and for a moment I hoped this trainer did turn out to be mildly infatuated with me just to prove to Jason that it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that a man could find me attractive. 

But Jason was right. I’d stopped paying attention to other people’s workouts when I stopped competing with them, but in the interest of solving this mystery, I did some observation and self-reflection, and saw everything I’d been missing. The mystery is that there isn’t one. This guy is a committed personal trainer, gregarious and well-meaning, and I think the wholly-appropriate touching is an extension of his casual physicality. I found that he largely treats everyone the same; it coincided with this period that two of my classmates separately complained to me about how closely he pays attention to form, calling him “eagle eyed”. I learned that my discomfort had nothing to do with him. My old nemesis, resistance to change, played a role. I’m not used to being pushed to do anything, so that was uncomfortable. My initial discomfort with the touching is about my discomfort with my body and the assumption that most people would recoil from me if given the option; I shrink from touch like life is an airplane seat I’m trying not to overspill. To have someone reach out and unexpectedly touch me was shocking. Before I learned that his touches were reliably instructional and professional, I struggled to keep from visibly flinching, tensing in fear of…whatever. So that was uncomfortable. I’ve spent my life trying to succeed without being noticed and I was uncomfortable with being noticed and corrected so often, especially in contrast with how rarely I was corrected previously. With the phone call, he was just doing exactly what I had wanted a personal trainer to do: He was holding me accountable. Calling me on my shit. And, as it turns out, being called on your shit isn’t a comfortable process. Most of all, I was uncomfortable with where I was versus where I used to be. I struggled so much during these workouts, particularly upon my initial return. I would find my edge almost without warning; I’d be fine one rep and head-between-my-knees-utterly-wrecked-please-just-leave-me-alone-because-I-cannot-have-my-last-act-on-this-Earth-be-a-bicep-curl on the very next. It was uncomfortable and hard and I think subconsciously I wanted to quit. Organizing the facts in such a way that the solution is that he must have a taste for vitamin Melissa would make it so not only could I quit, I could justify quitting as being the only moral solution, patting myself on the back on my way to the couch. But that’s not what it is.

Once I finally got over myself enough to tell him how much I had been struggling in these workouts and why, he changed them to help me be successful. And now that I am starting to recover and not ending every workout half a breath from disaster, I’m able to see the value in his making himself and the facilities available beforehand to roll out and offer guidance. The subject of the old trainer actually came up briefly recently, and I guess due to his casual attitude about form, some people were injured. So maybe eagle eyes aren’t so bad after all. 

As for the pushing, I have decided it’s my new anti-competitiveness challenge: In the face of applied pressure, I  commit to do only what I feel I can do in that moment, to not compare myself to others or what I have been capable of historically. If I can give more, I’ll give it. If I think I might be able to, I’ll try. But I will also push back when I’m being goaded beyond my limits, to challenge myself while safeguarding myself, to advocate for myself when I need modifications, to be as kind to myself as I’d be to others. Perhaps in the way the first trainer helped me to let go of my need to win and for others to lose, this one will push me in a way I need to help me find out who I can be.

When I started writing this essay, I thought it was about one thing. Or like max three things with an underlying core of one thing. I thought that although I had overcome my wandering eyes at the gym, I would probably continue to struggle with my competitiveness in other areas. Like, for instance, at the barn costume party this year.  I haven’t been as bold about letting my freak flag fly at the barn; there was no way for anyone there to reasonably know or understand the depths of my obsession with the costumed arts, and so with each of my ideas, a little moderating voice piped up. “Is this too weird? Too much?” I was torn between the impulse to go as hard as I could toward the most elaborate idea that all of my intersecting hobbies would allow and damn the time frame and sleep deprivation so I could snatch that crown, or to dial it down a notch and not make other people uncomfortable with how obviously heavily invested I was in victory. I did tone it down (and I’m glad I did), and I didn’t win. It was fine. I thought I might care more but for the first time in my life, I actually did have fun just participating. Or as another example, I’ve been playing video games competitively with Jason and sometimes I win and sometimes I don’t and either way, it’s fine. It’s never been fine before. Never.

It made me wonder if competitiveness was as inherent to my character as I believed. My maternal grandma would oft-regale with the tale of the time little Melissa flipped the board in a game of Hi-Ho Cherry-O, scattering tiny plastic cherries everywhere, proclaiming “Grandma, I don’t like to lose!” The family always roared in laughter, and instead of nipping that awful behavior in the bud little Melissa learned that competitiveness and poor sportsmanship were tied to positive attention. My paternal Wisconsin grandparents with whom I spent a lot of time were both devotees of the Packers and Vince Lombardi (Packer Jesus), who in His gospel preached that winning was not everything, it was the only thing, and that if you showed him a good loser he’d show you a loser.  This testament was reinforced constantly throughout my childhood, along with the expectation that I would be the best at everything I tried because I was somehow special, better than other kids, destined for more, and if I fell short of the mark, I didn’t try hard enough and I was squandering my potential.

It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to see how a kid with these influences could be a lonely, ill-liked, bad-tempered poor winner and sore loser who grew into an adult in competition with everyone, neurotic about needing to win, but also desperate to not be seen doing anything poorly. Going for reward with the expectation to be the best and fearing the censure that comes with failure, even if now those expectations and censures come from within. This holiday season, I finally started watching Community (five years after everyone else has stopped talking about it, so right on time for me) and Season 1, episode 19, “Beginner Pottery” was like a Very Special Episode directed at me, Melissa Jeff Winger, and I was in exactly the right place to hear it. “[Melissa], you’re a normal person. There’s nothing very special about you at all. You’re going to be great at a few things, but really crappy at many more. And that takes a lot of the pressure off! So you can live a full, happy life. Oh, and sorry it took me so long to tell you that. And it was only in your imagination. My bad. Kind of a sloppy mom.”

Now that I’ve been able to back off from being in constant competition with everyone at everything, I better understand what a toxic presence it was in my life, how it robbed me of fun and joy and connection with people, how tied it is to fear, shame, anger, jealousy… and that it ironically also steals any pride I have in accomplishments because they aren’t accomplishments if they’re the bare minimum, if I’m performing as expected. Accepting that I was trapped in a million competitions of my own design, exhausting and demoralizing myself for little to no reason, was the first step in setting myself free from them. The freedom to be crappy at something really does take the pressure off. 



*It didn’t fix everything and it made my eating disorder significantly worse, because now it was a New Diet That Will Fix Everything, Overnight Preferably-sanctioned eating disorder! I’m still working on undoing the damage from that one. 

Related but also completely unrelated story: Once the original trainer was significantly late and an old man who seemed to primarily use the class as a social activity took it upon himself to be the leader, saying repeatedly he “had to get you ladies moving” and it made me so goddamn mad that this frail old man whom I could probably bench press before whipping him overhead by his ankle like a kind of elderly lasso and then flinging him through the plate glass window into the parking lot had the audacity to act like he was qualified to physically train me but because I’ve been raised and socialized female I just went along with it and turned my anger on myself later for allowing it. 

A Holiday Pony Party

Last Saturday, the barn had its holiday party. The day’s schedule featured multiple events: a horse parade, a costume contest, and an obstacle course. This is all great fun for the humans, but for a sensitive, reactive horse, it’s like asking them to participate in a day-long episode of Fear Factor. 

I have a sensitive, reactive horse. If an object, say, a mounting block, has moved position since the last time she encountered it, Navani views it with fear. The kind of fear that indicates she has heard the stories about Pinnochio and is suspicious that other fairies might be out there, granting wishes of sentience willy-nilly. And of course, every object dreams to be free, free to move about and predate on horses. Other, less cautious horses.

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

So in the time I had between the invitation and the event, I did everything I could to help set Navani up for success. I introduced her to each element of her costume as it was completed. As new obstacles appeared in the arena, we’d work around and on them. I was especially proud the day we went through the new gate: she listened as I asked her for subtle movements to position me to reach the latch, and when the latch was free, she even bumped the gate open with her nose so we could pass through. I started to feel more confident. We might not cover ourselves in glory during the competition, but we’d probably avoid a Friesian-size freakout with everyone watching.

And then, five days before the party, the tarp tunnel appeared. 

It was nothing more than a large blue tarp affixed to the side of the arena, but the amount of fear it generated was equivalent to its size. Navani spotted it through the arena gate while still in the parking lot and hated it so thoroughly, immediately, that she threatened to rear. If a differently-positioned mounting block was worthy of suspicion and fear, this tarp represented the end of life on Earth. My confidence plummeted.

By the end of the first session in the arena with the tarp, I had convinced her to walk through the tunnel in both directions, in-hand and mounted. I had not, however, convinced her that the tarp posed no threat to her well-being. I thought perhaps asking her to work on a line in a circle near the tarp would desensitize her to it, but she’d veer in on the circle on the tarp side and speed up dramatically when she passed it, looking back to make sure no tentacle slithered out to snatch at her legs. Nothing lasting is built in a day, so I accepted the progress we’d made and determined to expose her to the tarp as much as possible before the party.

The next time we saw the tarp tunnel, someone had scattered pool noodles underneath, also known as foamy fear spaghetti. But I had a secret weapon. After my fall in October, I needed to take a break from riding in order to allow my brain to heal. It was the ideal time to begin clicker training, which I started by loading the clicker: sounding the click every time I gave her food. I did this for short periods over several days, varying the location of the practice space and where I would click so there was no question that the treat was click-related and not location-based. I was also careful not to click whenever she started getting pushy about asking for the food: nudging me, my pockets, the treat pouch, so as to avoid inadvertently teaching her bad habits. She’s a big girl and I don’t want her thinking it’s acceptable to shove people around if she believes they have treats. The way she’d slurp my whole hand into her mouth in her joyous dive for hay pellets was gross and left me a bit concerned for my fingers, but I hoped she’d be more polite as she grew confident that food was coming and accustomed to taking pellets from a cupped hand. Before party prep began, she had started learning to touch a target with her nose but we hadn’t done anything beyond that. 

The difference between the session with the clicker and the session without was almost unbelievable. It had been a couple of weeks since our last click session and I wasn’t sure she’d remember or had made the connection that a click meant food was coming. But that night, she proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that she fully understands its meaning, and her willingness to try everything increases when she knows there’s a potential for food. In a previous obstacle exposure session, I introduced her to a pedestal: a tire with a sturdy wood circle affixed to one side. The idea is to ask her to step up onto it, and though I’d had some success, it took a lot of asking while she circled around it, trying to show me that there actually was no need to go over this thing or touch it at all, really. But that changed as soon as she got the first click for putting a hoof up. She understood what I wanted, saw the value in offering it, and now steps up with no qualms. Same for the wooden bridge that teeter-totters as the horse walks across–suddenly even stepping on and crossing from the raised side was no longer as insurmountable as she’d insisted previously.  The click bridges the communication gap, the reward cements the behavior.

“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds and horses in particular.”

The tunnel was still scary, and the scattered noodles didn’t help matters. Each time through represents real danger…to me. I have to be mindful of her body language and mental limitations every time I expose her to a new fearsome object at home or in the field: her reactions can be big and fast. So, for instance, even though she looks to me for protection from the terror of the tunnel, I cannot allow her to walk through behind me because of what might happen if her fear gets the better of her, whether that’s rearing up and coming down on top of me, or smashing through me to safety like a bowling ball to a pin. It’s a real consideration, as not every walk-through was achieved calmly and more than once I ended up knocked against the arena wall as she shoved past me in her rush to be out.

I don’t know if the idea was that she was supposed to carefully pick her footing through the noodles, but, direct as always, she mashed her way right over the top of them. When I clicked mid-tunnel and she came to a dead stop to collect her reward, noodles shifting underfoot, I began to understand the power of this type of training. She was still nervous and didn’t want to be in there, but the click had happened and so she suspended her discomfort for as long as it took to crunch a small handful of pellets. By the end of the session, I even convinced her to touch the edge of the tarp with her nose a few times;  even with the promise of a food reward she wasn’t eager to do that. Still, it was a vast improvement in her overall comfort level. 

The night before the party, I planned to do a last costume exposure/fitting and some preliminary grooming because Navani is a firm believer in the skincare benefits of a mud facial and a crusty face for the party just wouldn’t do. The joke was on me for showing up at the barn with a plan, because as I crunched through the gravel, arms stuffed with costume, the barn owner called out to me. “Hey! Melissa! You riding your horse today? Because they put up a tent for the party, she’s afraid of it, the ceiling is low, and I don’t want her going through there and wrecking it.”

Of course. Of course this new, out of place structure was, in horse-o-vision, a flappy horror from the pit of her deepest nightmares. It was new and out of place and clearly in cahoots with the tarp tunnel, which, in addition to the pool noodles, now had a second loose tarp underneath. Because it wasn’t dangerous enough already, right? I knew that the plan was to set up the course that day in preparation for the party, so with the tent up and the new tarp, I figured at least that was the last of it and I probably wouldn’t find an arena full of live snakes the next morning or a cannon that fires glitter and screams on either side of the tarp tunnel. Probably. One more night of clicker-enhanced bravery training would help ensure a safer party for everyone. 

We worked on everything, acquainting her with the new tent and the sound and feel of a tarp underfoot combined with pool noodles, and afterward, I asked her to work in a circle again, near the tarp. This time, she didn’t come in off of the circle nearly as much on the tarp side (after a couple of reminders) and she was able to keep a consistent pace and respond to my instructions. I had enough time left to braid her tail and clean up her four-scoop fear poop before I had to clear out of the barn for the night. We were as ready as we were going to get.


The Big Day

Since I didn’t accomplish many of my grooming goals the previous evening, I was out and at the barn extra early in the morning. I knew that in the chaos that was to come, there wouldn’t be time or space to get her gleaming, so I took advantage of the opportunity, wrapping up just before the horse yoga class taught by a local vet. Over the course of an hour or so, she walked us through stretching the horse’s legs forward and back, relieving tension in the neck, and finally the “full body wave”, which starts with a butt crunch, moves into a back lift, and then into a neck release. Navani thoroughly enjoyed the process, and by the end, she was so relaxed, head hung low, bottom lip dangling, that she gave off the appearance of being drugged. She seemed even more relaxed than the last time she was actually drugged, potentially because no giant grinding dental bit attached to a drill ever made an appearance. In this relaxed state, she was even receptive to me hugging on her neck, which she normally barely tolerates. I was glad that the day started off with something that relaxed her, made her feel good, and helped improve our bond. I was going to need to cash in on every bit of goodwill I’d ever engendered in her shortly.

Immediately after yoga, it was time to get her costumed and ready for the party. I was all over the place in my ideas leading up to our first ever costumed event, ultimately going with a nod toward the pagan by dressing her as a tree. With a holiday sweater and a red velvet bow on my helmet, I was an accompanying gift. The kind you can’t return and endure with a grimace, perhaps, but a gift nonetheless. To construct the body of the tree, I was inspired by fleece horse exercise sheets, which sit under the saddle and extend down the back and over the rump. To bring the greenery up to her neck, I sewed a felt wreath onto her breast collar (I wanted color and texture to be consistent between the two components and also she’d try to eat a real wreath.). I braided her mane in a running braid down her neck and fixed in some artificial poinsettias, the first and only idea I never deviated from in the six different costumes I considered. And to top it off, I made her a star-shaped leather brow band for her bridle, finished in artificial gold leaf. It practically blazed in contrast to her dark fur. 

Because of the new tables and chairs taking over the front of the barn for the party, I had to get Navani ready in her stall instead of in the normal tacking-up area. We also couldn’t take our normal path to the arena, and the back path is less a path and more an obstacle course in its own right, having to step over extension cords and thread between farm equipment and trucks and trailers and after we got past all of that, the front barn door was 80% closed (horse brain: “different! bad! danger!”) and oh, there’s a glimpse of that tent she was concerned about yesterday and just as we passed the dark gap in the door, someone unseen inside ripped off a loud swath of duct tape and before I could react, Navani had already jumped in fear and landed full bore on the edge of my foot*. 

With the wet weather and ensuing sloppiness of the nearby trails, our outdoor pony parade turned into a parade around the arena which devolved into chaos after two or so laps, with horses going every which way, practicing obstacles, and people with cameras darting among them. We tried and were successful at some of the obstacles: the tinsel curtain, the platform, and the tippy bridge, and with all of these she understood that I was asking her for the same job under saddle as with the clicker, which I think is an impressive association and I was glad to see willingness from her even when it was clear I was not packing treats. The tarp tunnel, however, I could not convince her to approach mounted. I asked her several times and each time she would slant away, flap her lip, or otherwise communicate her concern by disregarding my cues utterly. I could’ve continued to raise the issue. She might have eventually acquiesced. (Maybe. She can really hold on to a thought!) But it was also possible that she’d explode in her fear and cause other horses to panic in her wake, and that was a risk I was unwilling to take.

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski , awkward “good girl” face is all me and 100% on brand.

I’d already decided that with Navani’s tunnel reticence we wouldn’t be participating in the official competition, and it was right around then that an entirely new group of new obstacles were dragged into the arena, including another giant tarp, which, like its brethren, was a fear-based entity. This is when we got into the most trouble we had all day: stuck between two tarps she feared to approach, she stopped listening to my cues and started veering on a collision course with a person on the ground having a conversation with someone on a horse, neither of whom were paying any attention to their surroundings, including the freaked-out horse dancing in their direction. It’s a Christmas miracle we didn’t crush anyone, and it was at that point I got off: I didn’t have control or at least enough influence and we were becoming a danger to others. I used the rope halter to introduce her to the new stuff in a more controlled, safer way, and then decided she’d had enough for one day and put her away. Though I wish I’d kept her out long enough to watch the neighbor’s mini pony try the obstacles and see how that bold little critter stomped through and touched everything immediately, as I feel she could learn a thing or two from its utter confidence.

I’m of several minds on the introduction of new spontaneous obstacles during the party itself. I think that if you want to have a fair competition and a trial by fire of sorts where no one gets opportunity to practice, this is the way to do it. Or maybe there wasn’t time to fully set up the night before. Or maybe they were being considerate of the space needs of the horse yoga class.  And I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to have less fun because I or my horse couldn’t handle it, which is why I don’t invite myself along on rides where we might be a burden on more experienced horsepeople. But another part of me, the part that felt vulnerable, the part that’s still recovering from a traumatic brain injury, the beginner rider and beginner horse owner of one of the most reactive horses in the barn part is upset that these new things came in when I was mounted, no warning and no choice in the matter. It added more wild cards into a situation that didn’t need them. “Unpredictable events out of my control that could spin out into a deadly situation” is part and parcel of interacting with horses, horseback riding is an inherently dangerous activity, and I cannot blame others for the risks I assume with the horse I chose to buy. But on the other hand, it’s a holiday party, not a serious event. Ultimately I’m left feeling a little annoyed and also feeling that I have no right to be annoyed because it’s not like I helped plan, pay for, or execute the event. How can I complain when other people went to so much work to host a good time? They couldn’t know Navani and I would struggle in this way. At least from the ground, she was more willing to investigate the new obstacles, though touching the snowman with her nose was right out and she was also offended when I took his little claw and used it to pat her.

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

Even with the foot-mashing and the attempted trampling, I would say we had a successful day. Considering her costume and all the other horses (some new!) and their occasionally loud, blinking costumes going in all different directions at different speeds plus all the people and the new objects and the music and everything else, she took it remarkably in stride. Sometimes when I see her snorting and reacting when a flag flaps in the wind, I despair at the idea of ever turning her into the warhorse of my renaissance faire dreams. But I also know that we couldn’t have done any of this a year ago. Six months ago. She’s improving because she’s starting to trust in me. The promise of a food-based reward motivates her, no doubt, but it’s the trust that brings the follow-through. I know it, when I see fear etched in her body language and nothing but trust in her eyes when she follows me into a scary place because I’ve asked. I couldn’t have asked her for a two tarp noodle maneuver earlier in our relationship. That we did so much, relatively calmly, is a testament to the trust we’ve built over time. 

We’re going to be a force to be reckoned with by next Christmas.

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

*It’s fine, don’t write my obituary yet.

One year of horse ownership

Building a Relationship

On November 3rd, 2018, I drove to Oregon to buy Navani and bring her home. Though I’d been told she trailer loads, this turned out not to be the case:  it took a grueling three hours to convince her to board. She’d step up on the ramp with her two front hooves and then fly backwards, rearing up, always coming within fractions of an inch of smashing her skull on the trailer roof.

The deed was only finally accomplished with the use of a lip chain, a much harsher method than I would have ever wanted to employ, and not the greatest start to our relationship. If she hadn’t loaded then, if she had continued to fight until the chain drew blood, if she had to be dragged onboard, I would have asked for my check back and left with an empty trailer. Any horse who fights that hard not to go with me is not my horse. I’m certain it didn’t help that the entire family was there, one of them practically sobbing into her mane as the bill of sale was signed.

As it was, the sedative administered to last her the entire trip home had worn off before we even pulled out of the driveway. Thankfully, once she was on board, she rode quietly. When we unloaded her that evening, again she rushed backwards out of the trailer and it was only my desperate grip on the rope that kept her from hitting her head, but it was done. She was home. I had a horse.

Navani belonged to the same family since she was a yearling. Every formative experience she ever had was with them. Her life has revolved around them. From day one, I was less her new friend than her captor. I spent hours in her stall, talking to her and grooming her, giving her treats,  trying to convince her that though things were going to be different for her now, different doesn’t mean bad. Indoctrinating her into the cult of me. Fifteen days later, we had our family photo session for our “look we got a horse” holiday card. In many of the photos, her expression is concerned, her body language tense, ready to flee. I chose one where she merely appeared alert, joining the proud tradition of cards that paint a slightly-too-rosy tint over the facts.

All horses are individuals, of course, but there are shared traits among species, breed, and gender. Ask an equestrian which they prefer, geldings or mares, and be prepared to pull up a chair and sit awhile. I don’t know how much of it is true and how much is misogyny disguised as horsemanship. “Geldings do what they are told, mares are challenging.” “Mares are crazy, I’d never want a mare.” “Geldings are consistent. They’re the same every day. Mares go in heat, they change.” “Geldings are dull; a mare can give you more. You get the trust of a mare and she’ll give you everything. She’ll walk through fire for you.”

Getting that trust takes time. In late December, Navani realized she forgot to give me anything for Christmas and so to commemorate how she felt about our special relationship, gave me a hard fall. I hit the ground so resoundingly that my friend heard the thud from across the arena. I struggled to do anything but lay flat on my back for a week; when I moved I had the distinct feeling my right side was caving in. Three weeks later, I was back in the saddle. 

At her first bodywork session (basically horse massage), the bodyworker asked me what my favorite thing about Navani was, and I really struggled to answer. Our relationship was challenging. It took weeks to convince her to do something as simple as entering the crossties to be groomed. Just like the trailer, she’d back up and threaten to rear. She took food aggressively. On walks, she’d yank me around like the proverbial 1100 pound gorilla who eats whatever she wants, mash my feet, and knock me around. She’d give me as little of her attention as she conceivably could when on the ground and while riding. She was squirrely to ride, weaving around, being avoidant, and dangerous when she’d get scared and take charge. She made it very clear that in a life or death situation, my survival was inconsequential. “My favorite thing? Her, ah..little goatee,” I managed weakly. 

For a good long while, it was less a dream come true than hard, awful, and hideously expensive, with enough hits of brilliant, wonderful, best-thing-I’ve-ever-done dopamine to keep me going. For months, we’d been working on sitting trot, wherein the division of labor is such that she jogs around with me on her back and I just try not to bounce around too much. (And now you know why I buy my horse massages: guilty conscience.) So often in these sessions she felt like a cannon ready to go off; the gentle calf squeeze that signals the transition from walk to trot would cause her to react like I’d spurred her with a Jackie Chan kick because we needed to escape a jet-powered T-Rex. She would launch into a rushy, shitty trot like she was urgently needed in orbit and didn’t have time for any outside opinions. During many of these trots, she felt tense, she would lock up mentally*, occasionally grabbing the bit and zagging out from underneath me, a sickening rollercoaster-like sensation where I would have a moment to hope that my body would continue to travel in the same direction as hers, either naturally or by sheer force of will.  There were enough incidents to make me apprehensive about riding. “This is a hard season” the horsepeople said. “It’ll be better in a couple of months.”

What I’ve learned about horses from a year of being around horsepeople:

Fall: “The weather starts getting crisp, the wind picks up. That makes horses go crazy.”
Winter: “It’s cold, they’re pent up, getting less exercise. That makes horses go crazy.”
Spring: “Hormones are surging, it’s new grass, full of sugar. That makes horses go crazy.”
Summer: “Flies are biting, there’s more activity on the trails. That makes horses go crazy.”

As a horse person, you start obsessing about the weather, the conditions that might help or hinder your ride, how much time you have before the sun sets. You become, almost against your will, an outdoorsperson. 

If you poke around in the horse world, often when someone is having issues with a horse, they’ll refer to “bitting up”; i.e. using a harsher or more severe mouthpiece to apply more force to the horse, to assert more control. Every person who owns and rides a horse will find their own line with regards to equipment. I have never felt comfortable using a bit, and for her part, Navani would resist being bridled but felt very comfortable taking the bit and going as she pleased. On my evaluation visit, I watched their trainer ride her and noted two things in particular: that she was being ridden with a lot of contact with the bit, and her lower lip was flapping, an indicator that she was nervous or uncomfortable or both.

Coercing my horse to open her mouth so I could put a piece of metal in there to assert control doesn’t feel good. I don’t think it felt good to her, either, or she wouldn’t toss her head up to avoid it. I’m also not a huge fan of a lot of contact with the mouth, especially if it’s not necessary, and in mounted archery, I’ll have no contact with her mouth as my hands will be busy with a bow and arrows.

So around the eight month mark, I started using a bitless crossunder bridle, and incidentally, that was when things started to take a turn for the better. From the very first time, she went so well in it that feels unnatural to use anything else. Instead of fighting the bridle, she now puts her nose in when it’s offered to her. She responds to lighter aids. She’s less spooky and snorty on our trail rides. She’s less spooky in general, less likely to duck and run, more likely to listen to me when I tell her that she has no cause for concern. She and I feel more like a team. I recently convinced her to load into a trailer in under a minute. 

I don’t give sole credit to the bridle but I do think that its use dovetailed beautifully with the months of consistent work and training I’d been doing, including all the trot work. We’d done all that trotting for myriad reasons: to help her build fitness and protect her back, to school speeds within the trot, to help me regain confidence after the fall and prepare for the mounted archery clinic I attended, and, as always, to help me become a better rider** and better partner to Navani. I have hope someday we’ll be able to go completely bridleless.


Things are clicking for her in other areas, too; the other people who handle her have all come to me separately recently to tell me that they can tell I’ve been working with Navani on her ground manners because she’s not barging them around anymore, either. I’ve been talking to her the whole time. I think it’s only recently that she’s started to believe I’m worth hearing. 

The People

I don’t own enough land to keep my horse at my home. Navani would mow down my back yard to the dirt within a few days, only the high rock content of the soil would keep it from turning into a mud pit, and my neighbors with the roosters and turkeys would finally get a taste of their own medicine as she’d blast calls across the neighborhood, looking for other horses. After she got bored of destroying my ornamental plants, she’d knock out at least one of the supports for my raised deck and then knock down my fence and rampage about the greenbelt. I would love to be able to wake up and look out of my window and see my horse but it’s not feasible now, which means I have to board her. 

When you board a horse at a barn, your experience with your horse is intrinsically tied to the other people boarding there. It’s rare to have the facilities to yourself, and if the other people around are inconsiderate or unpleasant, it negatively influences your horse interactions because instead of quietly building a bond with your animal like you want, you’re forced to make small talk with an asshole. I’m so grateful every day that all the other boarders are such wonderful people who support one another like family. If the barn environment had been different, if people had been snide or gossipy, I don’t know if I would have made it through the hardest parts, when I’m already fighting the Seattle drizzle and depression and grief and daylight savings and the kind of cold that chills me to the bone and mud and her attitude and my attitude and… 

Because this was a need-to-sell not a want-to-sell situation, Navani’s former owners are still heavily invested in her in a way that I find unsettling and boundary-violating. We conducted a transaction. Why does it follow that we have to be in each other’s lives after that? They’ve sent messages asking me to post more photos of her, they’ve tried to befriend my friends, there’s been an endless stream of borderline condescending or insulting comments or training suggestions. “Her weight actually looks good!” “Navani told me she wants you to buy her such-and-such.” Aside from being annoyed that she is intimating that she’s having conversations with my horse, the audacity of telling me the things she thinks I should buy by couching them as my horse’s suggestion! 

There’s also a previous rider who until very recently still had a crowdfunding page up to buy my horse, referring to her as her heart horse and her soulmate. She friend requested me on social media almost immediately after I purchased Navani, and I just let the request hang because although it felt petty and chickenshit to directly refuse my recent livestock acquisition’s soulmate‘s desperate plea to stay in touch across the miles, I also didn’t feel like I owed this complete stranger access to my entire life, which I write very sincerely and hypocritically, publicly on the Internet. She followed Navani on Instagram for a time, “liking” all the photos except the ones I was also in. Which is fine of course; we’re not friends. 

I have really struggled to reconcile the things they have told me about their experience with her and my experience with her. For example, they claimed online that she is such a compassionate horse that once when her rider became unbalanced, she fell to her knees to prevent her from falling off. But they also told me in person that if I was going to hit her, I should just not hit her on the face, because it makes her rear. Even now with our vastly improved relationship, I cannot imagine this horse ever falling to her knees to protect me, which seems unfair to me since I don’t hit her at all much less hit her on so many places of her body that I can figure out which places really upset her. 

The Expenses

Owning a horse is horrendously expensive. Less so than having a child in daycare, but nothing to sneeze at. Monthly board, farrier visits every six to eight weeks, tack purchasing, maintenance (this includes having a saddle fitter out a couple times a year to adjust and flock), and replacement, chiropractic, acupuncture, bodywork, feed supplements, unguents and creams for skin soothing and hair conditioning, sprays to repel flies and thrush and dust, special tools to scrape crap out of hooves and parasites off of legs, nets to control food intake, vet visits (all with an extra “showing up” fee that you can only avoid by hauling your horse in, which would necessitate owning a truck and a trailer and all their attendant maintenances) for shots, tooth care, bi-annual turd analysis and any lameness or illness needs, lessons and clinics…

I haven’t even gotten into stuff for me yet, but a decent pair of winter riding pants and a new pair of paddock boots to replace the ones that are currently falling apart after two years of use will set me back over three hundred dollars. Plus now I need a new helmet since I hit my head on my most recent fall and safety dictates that a helmet is only good for one impact. Navani is jet black because she is a black hole for every dollar I’ve ever thought about having.


My first year with a horse has flown by, and the difference between the horse she was then and the horse she is today in both temperament and condition is as stark as night and day. The changes in me have been nearly as radical. I can’t wait to see where we are at this time next year.


*Pretty much exactly what my December accident looked like, except I was consistently saying turn left…turn left…TURN LEFTTURNLEFTFORTHELOVEOFGODTURNLE–
**My next goal is to become a strong enough rider to be able to do one of the Ride Egypt vacations, but as of publication, Navani’s canter is still unbalanced and a bit scary to ride so it’s not something I’ve tried much. It’s a big dream.