Thin Places and Changing Paces: Riding in Both Worlds
Updated: Feb 19, 2019
I am riding Roy, a 16-hand thoroughbred with the heart of a prince, a spooky brain, and too many legs. He’s a big mover, having a big bouncy trot and a smooth canter to die for, if you can keep him going. He is an excellent teacher that can work with both beginners eager to advance their riding and advanced riders needing to fine tune their foundational skills. Roy is one of my favorites, though, to be honest, it’s hard for me to not say that about all of the herd at the barn. I have learned so much from them over the last four and a half years. Today though, I am learning more than good seat and gentle aids.
In Celtic mythology, thin places were those spaces where the veil between the material and spiritual worlds thins and brings the secular and the spiritual together. For thousands of years, ancient Celtic peoples and later Celtic Christians built shrines, wells, and monuments to these spaces. Today, you can take tours of Scotland and Ireland to experience this for yourself. These spaces don’t exist solely in the old world. Thin places exist wherever we feel the most connected with our spirituality. Neuroscience and psychology have tried to find scientific explanations for the mystic experiences in these places, but without much success. Perhaps, part of what makes these experiences profound is that they remain inexplicable.
In fact, thin places aren’t always physical places at all. The thresholds of doorways, the clock at midnight, and the moment of awe we experience on a high mountain, or when we hold a loved one are all thin places. They are moments that take us from where and who we were to where we may go and who we want to be.
Today, I have found an unexpected thin space. On Roy’s back, I am slowly learning to work on my canter seat. Sit up straight, sink your belly, hips forward, relaxed hands...I am accustomed, like most beginners, to pushing forward at the hip, a kind of rocking horse action that gives the horse two conflicting messages. When I go forward, my seat tells him to slow down; when I lean back, my hips tilt forward and tell the horse to go forward, too. My greatest growing edge, however, is the tendency to get stuck in my head. I focus on my belly and forget my hands. I get frustrated with my seat and I tense, forcing my hands to tense and sending more mixed signals to my equine friend. Today though, I have found my seat for the first time. I have also found a thin space.
As we work together around the arena, I continue to foster communication with Roy. Still focused on my body, I sometimes miss his subtle cues about when he will shift from canter to trot. This transition is always big for him. I learn, slowly, that there is a moment of weightlessness, of feeling as if one were floating, that signals his break in stride. At first, those moments catch my breath with anxious anticipation. In time, I learn to love those moments. In those moments, I am neither here nor there, neither in canter or trot, balanced in a brief moment of change. In these moments, if I do not hold my balance, I will tilt forward, sometimes perilously close to a fall. I can correct and continue to work on these transitions, but the lesson is deeper than that.
Sometimes, finding thin places is a means of making the changes that define us. On my aunt’s farm in South Dakota in 2008, I watched the sun rise over the flats of the American plains. In that moment, as the golden orb rose into the sky and turned the ground peaches and pinks, I felt a joyful connection with the world. It was a connection I felt I had been missing for over seven years. That morning, I made a decision to change my career and find a new path. In that moment of ineffable connection, I found my way back on my journey to myself. But the change did not come easily. I had to stay grounded in myself, rooted through my spiritual and physical core, to survive the transition. Only by staying balanced, could I remain weightless through the trials and challenges of change.
We find thin places throughout our lives, in places where we least expect them, at times when we may need them most. Even as I write this, I realize I have found many of them with my horse companions. Sometimes, in those moments, coming through to the other side is less than graceful. Sometimes, however, when that change comes, we can root ourselves in our core, in who we know we are, while simultaneously extending our arms to who we can be. In those breathless spaces, we can experience what it’s like to be in the past and the future, of this world and the next, and sometimes, if we’re very lucky, to be completely weightless, born on the backs of our horses.