Getting back on the horse

A lot of the time I don’t even think about my concussion anymore. I still have symptoms, but they don’t interfere as much as they used to, and I’ve mostly learned to tiptoe around them — at least in my day-to-day life.

Work usually feels okay, unless I am in a meeting and there are voices and other sounds (or even movement) all around me, or unless I need to pay attention to something for more than an hour at a time without some kind of break. At home and socially I am mostly pretty functional, although I still have trouble with multitasking, even listening to someone while doing something, no matter how simple that something is.

But mostly I’ve been feeling pretty good, pretty “normal,” doing my usual things.

A little over a month ago my doctor suggested I start riding a bike to work on my balance, so I got out my rickety old 7-speed and headed out for a casual ride around the neighbourhood.

I could barely keep it upright at first, but I made it — a bit wobbly on the mercifully quiet side streets — for a few blocks and then home again.

It wasn’t about getting anywhere, or getting exercise. It was about relearning all the tiny bits of attention that have to be paid at once, to the hazards on the road, to traffic, to decisions about changing gears, to hand signals, to deciding on the best route, to keeping the bike moving forward, to staying on. Much as listening to music since the accident has turned into a sensation of hard mental work to deal with all the separate components that need to be processed, riding the bike felt like having to juggle a lot of things at once.

Now when I take my bike out I think of it as a kind of training exercise. I put a book in the pannier and go a few blocks to somewhere I can sit on the grass and listen to the swishing of wind in the leaves of street trees, and then I rest for a while, then turn around and come back.

It’s gradually getting easier.

So four weeks ago I went back to my riding lessons.

I used to be the one who always wanted to ride the most spirited and unpredictable horses, but this time I was happy that the instructor assigned me to Oscar, a sweet, soft-coated bay gelding with a white blaze on his face, a cuddly teddy bear of a horse. For the first lesson, even tacking him up was hard for me — nothing about it felt familiar — but none of it was Oscar’s fault. He was unendingly patient.

Then, in the arena, the other riders were cantering and going over small jumps, and I had to concentrate just on feeling stable at a walk and trot. Even going so slowly it was too tiring to try to pay attention all at once to the placement of my feet, my hands, my sitting bones, my centre of gravity, to steer the horse, to use my legs, to hold the crop.

The lessons since then have got very slightly better. I’m still the slowest, so slow that my old self would have felt humiliated at being so inept. When the instructor explains steps for us to follow, the others grasp the exercise easily, but I can’t hold the different elements or their order in my head, along with all the physical actions I have to pay attention to. It’s too much.

The difference is that I know how far I’ve come, and how lucky I am to be here at all.

So while it is hard to watch the others, and it’s hard to tell the instructor over and over that I’m not ready, that I’m satisfied just to go around the arena working on the most basic things, things a small child could do without thinking, more than anything I’m glad to be there.

I’m back on the horse.

Oscar snuggling up to another riding student, spring 2017.