“What is courage?” I asked them, their eyes bouncing from me to the pony that stood calmly beside me, taking them all in with her soft brown eyes and slowly rotating white ears.
When I got the answer I expected—“being without fear”—I quietly corrected them.
You see, courage is not the absence of fear, but the overcoming of it. Courage is moving forward even if you are afraid and not allowing the fear to stop you. It’s recognizing that being afraid is okay and even normal in many situations, but what’s not ok is allowing that fear to keep you from doing what you need, should or want to do.
Many of the pre-teen girls that stood before me that day had been coming for weekly mentoring for a few years, but we had only recently integrated horses into the lessons. That week, the focus was on leading, so while my director talked about leading with the younger girls, I had the older girls to show them how to lead a horse.
Two stepped up willingly to lead the horse when it was their turn to practice what I had demonstrated. Another three did so hesitantly, but the remaining three required a surprising amount of coaxing before they finally walked forward and led the horse, only doing so because I agreed to walk with them, my hand on the opposite side of the horse’s head from them.
The horse in question barely qualified as a pony, her own past filled with as many troubles as the girls that were afraid of her. But she had overcome her own fears and years of neglect and mistreatment to become a way to reach kids. As each girl fought against approaching her, she would turn her head calmly, ears forward and eyes bright, inviting that girl to lead her. And when they finally did, she followed them obediently, head bobbing in rhythm with her slight limp that is evidence of her rough past.
When each and every one of them had conquered their fear of leading the horse, that’s when I asked them about courage. And as I explained what courage really is, I hoped desperately that my words would not fall on deaf ears, but would enter their heart and take root and grow and change them for the better.
Fear is an ugly thing.
It can wrap its tendrils around your chest and squeeze you so tight that you can’t breathe and you fear that your heart will burst if you can’t escape from its paralyzing grip. Fear can suck the joy out of things and make even the smallest tasks seem impossible. It takes many forms so you can never quite be sure when it will lift up its ugly head and knock you off your feet.
But it can be overcome.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but the overcoming of it.
The first step is to recognize that even though you may feel paralyzed, it’s all in your head. You can still breathe and you can still move. And you can still accomplish your dreams. You are braver than you think you are.
Fear is not a wall but a bump in the road. It may jar you and throw you off or even cause you to fall to your knees, but it will not stop you unless you let it. You are stronger than your fear unless you give it the reins of your life.
A week later, those same girls faced a new fear: riding the pony. And they overcame that fear so that every one of them got on the little pony and went for a ride around the ring. And despite their protests, they were all smiling and laughing just a few steps into the ride.
So, when fear enters your life, remember the lesson those girls learned in the riding ring one sunny afternoon—courage is not the absence of fear, but the overcoming of it.