My happiest days in Virginia were spent with horses.

My anxious musings have shaped the person I’ve become in a bunch of ways (positive and non), but one of the biggest life-changers for me was my flop of a freshman year of college. I thought about those days earlier this week when my newsfeed was dominated by sad news from the horse world—my freshman riding coach, Sandy Gerald, passed away in a freak jump-setting accident.

When I was 18, I put on my big-girl breeches and (to the chagrin of many) trekked down to Roanoke, VA, for my college experience. Two rickety plane rides later, I arrived at picturesque Hollins University, attracted by the school’s venerable equestrian and creative writing programs. And yet: I was fiercely homesick (unsurprisingly, in retrospect), and my anxiety manifested itself in ways previously unknown.

Through all the tumult in Virginia, my one constant was the school’s storied equestrian program. Looking forward to my riding lesson dragged me through some of the hardest days, and ponies soothed my troubled soul. During my time down south, I connected with some of the most phenomenal horse people I have ever encountered, including the memorable Gerald, head of the riding program. When I wanted to stay in my stuffy dorm room and mope instead of hike the hill to the barn, Sandy would reach out to me via email and make sure everything was okay, and next thing you’d know, I’d get out of my head and onto a horse. Even so, I dropped out during my second semester that year to come home, something that, at the time, I considered a failure. In the end, though, my “failure” was a kind of success. For one thing, it taught me that failure doesn’t define a person. And, as it turned out, I enrolled the following year at a university closer to home and continued my riding and writing careers with newfound appreciation for the power of both.

I will carry Sandy’s exacting-yet-kind words with me through my career (horse and non). Certainly, many, many riders knew him far better, and for far longer, than I did. Still, seeing Sandy coach, with the same kindness in his eye that you’d look for in a top horse, was a gift. And knowing that Sandy believed in me when I didn’t always believe in myself—that was a gift, too.

Categories: The Anxious Amateur