Jadyn is a petite 13-year-old with long, straight, strawberry blonde hair that sways back and forth from her ponytail when she walks. She is the kind of teen that leaders love because she still gives hugs. She has a sugary sweet smile and laughs at the older boys in our youth group when they shove donuts in their mouths during Sunday morning small group time. She prefers to watch others in the spotlight and rarely volunteers to speak aloud in front of the high schoolers.

This past June, Kevin and I were planning a youth retreat, and I heard she was nervous about coming. It was her first time going out of town without family. Even though no one her age would be there, I did my best to convince her mom to let Jadyn out of her sight for four days to drive up to Wakulla Springs with us. I knew she would love it.

Jadyn walked up to me on a Wednesday night with a check for the trip. She was in, and I was excited to extend my mama-wing over her for the next few days.

Thursday morning, she sat in the corner chair of our hotel room and tucked one leg under the other, staring at her Bible. All the teens had signed up to share a devotion, and it was her turn. Her ponytail sat high on her head and we strained our ears, listening to her soft voice read and talk about what the passage meant to her. When she finished, she looked at Kevin with a straight face to signal completion, and then blushed and smiled when the room exploded in cheers.

We were so proud of her, but the biggest test was yet to come.

On Friday morning we drove to Cypress Run Farm, a ranch run by Ross and Uta Peters. Kevin and I had called weeks before to book a horseback riding expedition. The teens had all agreed to bring extra cash to participate, and most had ridden a horse before. Jadyn looked at me and told me she had never done it before.

“You are sure this is something you want to do? Ms. Jen can stay back with you if you don’t want to go.” I said.

“No, I want to do it. This is my chance to finally get on a horse. It’s scary, but I really want to try.”

She answered quietly, tugging at the ends of her jacket with her fingers.

I looked up at the gray clouds as we parked and as if to match our appointment time; they opened up. Rain fell on the trees above us and we heard the smacking of water on leaves before it reached us. I grabbed an umbrella and hurried to the barn to talk with Uta Peters about our group ride. Would the rain delay our plans?

“No no no! You cannot use umbrellas around the horses, put it away!” Uta waved her hands as I approached.

I stopped mid-jog in the mud and verified my mistake. I almost thought she was kidding.

“Oh, really? I didn’t know that, I’m sorry.”

“Horses are spooked by umbrellas!” Uta continued to plead with me, her thick German accent hugging each syllable.

I turned around to go back to the car and tucked the umbrella away, warning the other teens. They were walking around slowly, seemingly unbothered by the rain. Kevin led them to the shed, and they ducked in one at a time to pick out helmets.  We passed the clipboard around while Uta gave us instructions and everyone signed waivers.

The teens soon all looked like jockeys, and I watched Jadyn strap on a black helmet that bulged on her head like the eye of a praying mantis. We walked to the barn where the trainers led the horses out one at a time. The older teens mounted and wandered under trees for cover while the rain persisted. I stood with Jadyn and watched her eyes widen, but not in excitement.

“I’m nervous,” Jadyn whispered to me in the barn where towering horses stood around us, clomping and sneezing. She fiddled with the buckle under her chin then asked me to adjust it.

I loosened it and tried not to stare into her beautiful blue eyes. I didn’t want her to notice me gauging her composure, making sure she could go through with the ride. Every teen would get his or her own horse, but she hesitated enough that I wondered if she would be okay riding alone.   

She stood next to me, cradled under my arm. I leaned closer, “I know you’re scared. It’s okay to be scared. You are so brave. We will be all together, and once you get to know your horse you will be more comfortable. You got this, girl.” I rubbed her back and watched her face embolden as she stared at the horse.

Mary waved us over.

“Your horse today is Bruin. He’s a great horse, so playful yet gentle. He’s my favorite.” Mary smiled wide and let Jadyn rub the horse’s deep brown snout. She would accompany her on the trail ride.

Rain fell around the barn and it took a while for the staff to match everyone to a horse. They were treading through the mud leading horses out of stables and checking the saddles of each horse. The teens teased their helmeted friends and pet their horses, repeating each name. Star, Novah, Mariah.  

I was busy calming my anxiety set off by the morning’s disorganization, as well as the comparison of my height amongst massive beasts. I felt they were ready to kick me in the ribs if I walked the wrong way in the small barn. I didn’t enjoy waiting around and wanted to get going as soon as possible. But the rain had prolonged the start and not everyone had mounted yet, including Kevin and me.

Lord, give me strength. In the past few years of struggling with anxiety, I have learned to focus on what I can control. I calmed my breathing, centered myself by petting a horse nearby, all while watching Jadyn get used to Bruin.  

Jadyn climbed up with Mary’s help. Her eyes watered and started leaking down her cheeks, and I thought, No, sweetie. You are doing so good. Fight with the courage I know you have.

And then I second-guessed myself.  Am I forcing her to do this? Is she going to be okay?

Our eyes caught a few times, and I nodded toward her, smiling and telling her how great she was doing. Mary kept talking like a hermit fresh out of a cabin, and I was relieved that she would be a good fit for shy Jadyn.

“Bruin gets a little aggressive when the other horses get in his way. He gets feisty because he wants to be the alpha male. But he’s a sweet little guy and has a good heart.”

Jadyn could have done without that comment, and I watched her little body freeze with every movement Bruin made. I walked up to her and Mary, willing the conversation to stay positive and for Jadyn to remain on the horse.

She did.

The rain stopped. I held my breath until we were all on our horses, treading through the wet forest, dodging branches and listening to the beautiful calm of the backwoods. The trees were bright green, and we constantly ducked away from cobwebs. Occasionally I looked back to see Jadyn’s pink shirt and tiny face hidden under her helmet. She wasn’t thrilled, but she wasn’t miserable. She looked taller in her saddle, looking out at the world around her with a new perspective atop Bruin. 

I settled into the ride, rubbing the neck of my horse and feeling the gritty hair. I thought about how Jadyn’s feelings were so familiar to my own.

How many times have I been terrified, anxiety squeezing in my chest like a rubber band threatening to snap? How many times have I cried in frustration at infertility snaking through my body, sending my mind into a confusing tumble of insecurity at becoming a foster or adoptive mom? How many times have I begged God to tell me exactly what to do, so I didn’t feel so lost and afraid?

Tears don’t mean “no.” I can grieve and feel the weight of a broken world on my shoulders. I can cry in the shower, begging for answers. I can drown in pain just like everyone else, but that doesn’t mean I will give up. Jadyn allowed the unpleasant awareness of danger and risk to grip her briefly, but then she forged ahead. She was courageous and totally freaked out, all in one breath.

I love what Brené Brown says in her book, Dare to Lead.

“Choose courage over comfort. Choose whole hearts over armor. And choose the great adventure of being brave and afraid. At the exact same time.”

We finished the forty-five-minute ride, thankful the rain didn’t start back up again. For most of the teens, it was a relaxing morning, a chance for them to forget about their phones and enjoy nature. But for Jadyn, it was a leap into the realm of approaching the prickly wall of a hard thing, wrestling the urge to quit, and then climbing the wall anyway.

I could learn a bit from that girl.