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The Hero’s Journey

 The hero’s journey is a concept introduced by Joseph Campbell and refers to the path of growth, learning, and self-discovery. It is typified in books and movies in which the main character is on a quest of sorts. To paraphrase Reg Harris (2012) it includes the call to adventure; the jumping off point; the challenges as we begin; the place where we meet our fears; the revelation and transformation; and lastly embracing our new selves. When looked at from this perspective, the concept can make the challenges in life more approachable, simply from the standpoint that there will be an eventual end to the tale … will it be success, will it be failure, or something in-between. Only the main character has the answer to that question.

While this concept has always intrigued me, it came to light again, in the arena, when I was working with Abbi, a young 10 year old girl, who has ridden with me for several years. Abbi decided long before her summer camp session that she wanted to ride the ever challenging Koda. As far back as the spring she asked me if she could ride him in her week long camp.

“Koda?!? I replied. Are you sure you want to ride Koda?!?” 

“YES,” was her very definitive answer.

So before I committed to anything, I laid it out for her. “Now Abbi, you know Koda can be a bull in a china shop. He will try to buck you off whenever he feels like it. He is tricky to tack and gets snappy when you girth him. He is stubborn, willful, and can be a pain in the neck. He will challenge you to the nth degree and he is a horse that could frustrate the most patient of people. But, if any horse is going to turn you into a horseperson and a rider, it is Koda. You have to unpack him and find his gifts. Because when you do find him, underneath all his defenses, he is an incredible ride and one of my favorite horses. BUT, you have to be willing to take on the challenge and everything that comes with it. Are you sure you are up to it?”

“YES,” she said with unwavering conviction.

“OK Abbi, he’s yours for the week.” A big smile spread across her freckled face as her blue eyes glimmered with the thought of the adventure ahead. Then she sauntered off to go do some chores, looking every bit the cowgirl that she is, with her square-toed boots, dusty wrangler jeans, and blonde braids bouncing with each step she took.

Abbi volunteered every now and again, and with each visit to the ranch, she’d sit beside me, chomping at the bit, as she watched other riders work with Koda, while I gave her tips on how to handle him. “Koda demands that you respect him and treat him fairly. Venture away from that and he will let you know it with a rise of his hip.”

Finally, it was her turn. With a swift leg up, I put Abbi in the saddle and off she went. Clean jeans, clean boots, hair neatly tucked under her helmet.  Let the adventure begin. Koda being Koda gave her a run for her money the first day. Abbi had to work hard to figure him out. “Don’t get to close to the fence or he’ll kick it. Turn his nose into the center. Beware of the telltale swishing tail. Don’t ride too close to the other riders. Bring him down in the trot and then move softly to the lope – whoops, that’s the first of many crow-hops to come.” Her first day with Koda – a success – as evidenced by the broad smile, disheveled hair, dirty boots, dusty jeans, and one happy kid.

            Throughout the week, Abbi worked diligently with Koda – incurring moments of frustration and irritation, as well as moments of progress, insight, and growth. Her week with Koda was a daily venture towards creating a solid partnership with this mysterious horse, who is in your hand one moment, and is thinking of tossing you in the next. Others would have fallen apart, gotten too frustrated, or asked for another horse. Not Abbi, she welcomed the challenge and refused to give up on him or herself.  She continued to unpack him, and in her newly discovered kinship with Koda, she found his gifts and in turn created a partnership. Her efforts were not lost on me – efforts that went above and beyond what I would expect of a 10 year old – yet something I recognized for its steely nature and dogged perseverance.

Show day was upon us and Abbi was one very excited kid, with dreams of showing the crowd just what she had accomplished during the week. It was one hour before the show, and as she was practicing her individual pattern, Koda decided to be the Koda that I had warned her about. He decided to shut down. Not gonna do it, you can’t make me, won’t happen!

As Abbi worked to just get him to move forward, Koda was locked and loaded in an absolute NO stance. No amount of kicking or prodding was going to change his attitude. I have seen it a hundred times with this horse and until the rider moves to an internal place of change, nothing but nothing is going to happen. Koda will bring you to your knees and then say, “Show me what you got cowgirl. Put your best foot forward or don’t even bother.”  

Let the games begin. As Abbi tried and tried, nothing happened. It would have been very easy for me to go to the rescue, but to what end? This was her gig – her moment to show herself just who she was. This had very little to do with Koda and everything to do with Abbi. As the minutes ticked by, as her frustration rose, as I continued to coach her … nothing happened. Koda just shut down. “Abbi … you have a choice to make here. You either get him out of the gate or you’re going to have to ride another horse. The clock is ticking and we have to get going. Make a choice as to who you are going to be and what you are going to do. Do you want another horse?” I asked, all the while hoping she would stay the course and ride Koda. “NO, I am riding Koda,” was her very definitive answer. The minutes continued to tick by. The other kids watched her, with hopeful hearts, as she used every tool she knew to get this boy to move. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Just as I was about to pull the plug, off she went. It was an argumentative walk at first, turning into a controlled trot, and then into an unpredictable lope … but it was movement and movement that was the direct result of Abbi’s indomitable spirit. It was a tough, tough morning for her but she got through it and did so with grit and determination.

As I watched her ride I felt a well of emotion for this kid who would not give up. No matter how much Koda pushed her buttons, and no matter how hard I pushed her to find the key, she would not give up. Hidden in the recesses of this kid was the answer, and as I continued to watch her ride and work it out, I was moved to tears for how deep Abbi was willing to go to find her own brilliance and to be the hero of her own tale. As far as I was concerned she had just done her show in those intense moments with Koda. She had just completed her hero’s journey. And she will be forever changed as a result of the adventure she took with Koda.

            I asked her what she learned from this experience and here is what she had to say. “I learned I could never give up on Koda and our partnership, and I felt a sense of determination to be successful while working with Koda. I have grown from riding Koda because I know that I need to follow through with my goals and give everything my best effort all the time!”

            The show went well and Abbi did a remarkable job with Koda. There were challenges in her ride, but she worked it out as she continued to ride in partnership with Koda. For each misstep there was a quick and immediate response as she stayed the course and encouraged Koda to remain connected to her. As they loped down centerline, towards the end of their pattern, you could not only see the harmony between them, but too see the change in this young rider who went beyond what she knew she was capable of.

In all my years, I have never given a student a personal award; but on this day, Abbi Girdner, earned the Coaches Award from me, in honor of her ride with Koda, and more importantly for her Hero’s Journey.

Kim Chappell © 2021 All Rights Reserved