Finding Gratification in Unsavory Hobbies

A few weeks ago, I ran my first marathon and discovered not only the world’s purest form of pain but also the motivation behind many human efforts, horseback riding included. Somewhere near mile 19, around the time my thigh muscles felt like they had been ripped into by gun bullets, I began to ask myself what the heck I was doing. The next 7 miles gave me plenty of time to grapple with this question. My pace continued to slow until it took the form of an unsteady swagger as I contemplated what on earth I was doing in an event where the only certain outcomes were agony, nausea, and bleeding toenails. Interestingly, I never once thought of quitting, even when it became clear that my legs would probably be permanently damaged from then on.

I’m no stranger to finding gratification from events that other folks put on their “has no appeal whatsoever” lists. I recently had a great time overnight camping in a snow bank, for example. And I like physical activity at frequencies beyond other peoples’ tolerance, much less enjoyment. Yet, even for me, running a marathon lacked any sense of thrill or joy. I was too busy experiencing a sort of pain I never imagined. As I said, though, I never thought about quitting. Why? Because I was driven by that common motivation behind many of our human efforts. Which motivation is that, you ask? It’s the one most of us are cautious to admit to ourselves. Whether or not we say it out loud, most of us want to be our own personal heroes. Think about this. What greater sense of satisfaction, of wholeness, is there than rocking your own world for a moment? Imagine being equal parts amazed and empowered by something you just did. Don’t we all want a taste of that?

I believe we do. This is the reason I was able to hobble my way to the marathon finish line. I HAD to know what it felt like to stand there with cramping legs, thoroughly exhausted, and say “Holy cow! Did I really just do that?!?” Without shame, I will admit to you, gentle reader, that I did briefly feel like the hero of my own world. I, Jec A. Ballou, just ran 26.2 miles on my own two feet! As a finisher’s medal was placed around my neck, I felt completely head-to-toe inspired by my own efforts. The feeling passed quickly as I wondered if I might throw up, pass out, or fall over. But for the few seconds it existed, it was nothing short of sublime.

The motivation to ride horses stems from the same heroism. Especially in light of the sacrifices most of us make in order to get to the barn every day, riding has always had a mysterious– almost addictive– draw. Until now, that mysterious pull remained unnamed. But I think I’ve demystified it lately. Often, the feeling of riding a horse is just plain awesome, particularly when you and your steed just tackled something thrilling or awe-inspiring, whether that’s crossing a rushing river or executing an elegant walk-trot transition. There have been multiple times, perhaps after a heady gallop or a powerful piaffe, that I have sat atop my horse totally speechless. I find myself grinning from cheek to cheek, savoring the inspiration of the moment. There we are– happy horsewoman and happy horse– basking in a triumphant moment. I dare say this is as good as being your own hero.

After all, there’s not much more exciting than experiencing a powerful yet graceful performance with a 1,000 pound wild animal whose motives in that moment are to do anything you wish. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to deny a major principle of riding here. To be good riders, we can’t stand around stroking our egos all the time. In fact, much like martial arts training, riding mandates that we let go of our egos and not devote a lot of time to telling ourselves how cool we are. And it IS important not to dwell on this, but I think it’s safe to admit what we all feel inside on some occasions when mounted on horseback. Heck, sometimes we just feel darn proud. Even when our butts are sore or our legs are chafed, we feel a sense of unrivaled accomplishment. This feeling brings us out to the stables the following day and the next day and the day after that. So, go on, take a moment to recall a time on horseback when you felt like your own hero. Admit it, relish it. Trust that this feeling will pull you through the next time you’re struggling with your horse or a riding concept or life in general. Look for the next time you can be your own hero.

Cool Kids

Nothing rivals the irony of recognizing that you have become the type of person you once poked fun at. Or even the type of person whose mental faculties you liked to question. I experienced such a realization last week. It seems that, over the last several years, I morphed into the type of urban weirdo who now finds dirty barn chores to be novel and fun. Enjoyable, even.

You see, I’ve known many such city dwellers in my life and they always struck me as really messed up in the head. Only a person entirely deficient of suitable hobbies and pleasures would find satisfaction in shoveling manure or slogging around feed buckets, right? Surely, only someone who spent her life inside brick walls all day could be enticed by the appeal of manual labor in frosty, frigid Mother Nature.

As teenagers, my brother and I were blessed to have a number of these souls as friends. These were the “townies” whose parents were doctors and mailmen and office workers. Lucky for us, they considered driving into the country to visit us to be a worthwhile adventure. We were lucky because our strong-bodied pals also thought the farm tasks that we loathed were good fun. They actually liked stacking rows of hay and scrubbing water troughs as much as playing dodge ball or swimming in the pond. This stupefied my brother and I. We were dumbfounded by our townies’ eagerness to blister their hands and strain their backs. We wondered what possible appeal they could find from getting covered in dirt and hay chaff.

We, on the other hand, envied their clean suburban lifestyles and happily would have traded places with them in their homes where “chores” consisted in setting down the the T.V. remote for a second to carry a bag of trash to the curbside once a week. No pushing wheelbarrows, no mending broken fence boards, no pruning fruit orchards. Now, that sounded appealing.

Regardless of how odd we found their entertainment choices, these labor-loving friends of ours gave us a lot of respite through the years. They helped out during haying season, lessening our work load. They pitched in during biannual sawdust delivery and storage. They came to our aid every summer for berry picking and garden mulching. And, no, we did not pay them for any of this. They did it purely because they enjoyed stepping away from their tidy, organized suburban lifestyles for an afternoon and getting the smell of the farm on them.

How odd, we pondered. How very, very odd. We surmised that deriving enjoyment from manual labor must be a mindset particular to urbanites and therefore something we would never comprehend.

Then I grew up and moved to urban areas. So far in my adult years, I have dwelt in cities, large towns, and densely packed suburbs. Progressively, without my realization, a weakening has occurred in my disdain for labor and barn chores. In becoming a townie myself, I involuntarily entered that realm of skewed thinking that once struck me as almost deranged. It must be something in municipal drinking water supplies. There is no other way for me to understand the fact that, about five years ago, I began slowing down when driving past agricultural fields. I noticed myself staring at crops with a desire to stop my car, wanting to trudge out into the soil to pull weeds and strain my back a little. I sensed a longing for nettle rashes on my hands and permanent dirty half moons under my fingernails. Shaking such nonsense out of my head, I pushed the accelerator and got back to my day.

But the next thing I knew, I noticed myself staying longer at the barn, long past my daily training duties being completed. I stayed to rake out dirt mounds in the corner of the arena and to scrub water buckets. I lingered around to dust cobwebs out of the grain room after boarders’ were done for the day. Driving home afterwards, I started to notice myself existing in a blissed state. I whistled to myself or stared out at the dusk skyline with a dopey half-smile. It was undeniable: manual labor, especially the dirty kind, had filled me with contentment.

In other words, I had become one of THEM.

A short while ago, I caught myself right in the act. I drove out to the barn on a sunny Sunday afternoon with the intent to school my mare for a good long time. We were polishing up the counter canter and starting to work on some half-pass. I wanted to give her a good workout that built on the momentum from our previous one. Or so I thought. I ended up riding her for a short 35-minutes and then letting her loose to walk the property and nibble fresh spring grass. I, meanwhile, picked up a pitchfork and began mucking her stall– a task that I PAY to have done for me as part of my hefty board fees here in coastal California. There was positively no reason or need for me to be mucking her stall. This donned on me as I tossed manure into the wheelbarrow. Feeling silly, I noticed my deeply contented state of mind in that moment. I started to wonder if the whole point of me coming to the barn had actually been to muck around in the dirt a bit, rather than to ride my horse as I thought. I couldn’t deny it any longer: I was ENJOYING this dirty labor.

Right then and there, I conceded my membership amongst the urban townies, whose mental wiring I had pitied for so many years. Happily, with dirt under my fingernails, I’ve joined the ranks of the mis-wired!