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From the Journal: A Note from Jo on Reclaim

by Joanna Gaines
Published on April 29, 2024

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve daydreamed about barrel racing. I’ve imagined myself on the back of a quarter horse running a cloverleaf pattern at record-breaking speed. No, I’ve never actually barrel raced before ... but I’ve mentioned this to Chip a few times over the years and tried to explain my make-believe amateur-to-expert rise.

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You see, riding a horse has been a wish of mine ever since I was a little girl. I’ve always longed to know how it would feel to fly, so wild, so free. And the back of a horse seemed the surest way possible. Of course, as I got older and witnessed enough people get injured or bucked off, that was that. Fear, as it’s known to do, rooted itself deeper than any childhood dream ever could.

Chip has never understood why I’d stall a curiosity that was still clearly in my subconscious. Why I’d delay a dream that I could, somewhat easily, wake up and try tomorrow. But if you’ve ever felt the way fear can creep in and shadow curiosity or how insecurity can quiet a desire, then you understand. You get why I concluded that life wasn’t safe enough for the daring-hearted and why I settled comfortably with the idea that “one day” was when I’d choose to live bravely.

You don’t have to have children of your own to take note of the way they live out loud. So entirely without pretense, without reserve. You watch it in the way they chase their own bodies—feet first, chest forward, worries trailing in the wind. You can see it in the way they live with a flat-out refusal to abandon their inner instinct that lets discovery lead. And most of us started there. We were the backflipping, roller-skating, race-you-to-the-top kind of kids. I remember I could beat the best of anyone on our street on my bike and, of course, back then had no reason to think I shouldn’t.

Things changed as I got older. I got rational, then responsible. I took it upon myself to wake up my sisters for school and make everyone’s lunches. Anything that didn’t look or smell to me like responsibility, I considered to be reckless. Not because anyone told me I should or had asked these things of me. Something deep within convinced me that it was time to start playing it safe. In the war between head and heart, mind and body, I’d chosen to surrender my most precious defense.

An illustration depicts Joanna Gaines riding a horse.
ILLUSTRATION BY LIDA ZIRUFFO

When you crave security and stability, it doesn’t take long to forget to exercise the muscles that once let you live more curiously. Instead, I chose to overwork the ones that made me more efficient. Any fitness expert will tell you that when you overuse one muscle, the others weaken. There’s a caveat to curiosity and discovery—one I’m just now learning. They may be free, but they won’t always come naturally. Left dormant for long enough and it takes some real strength to relearn what once was ours without breaking a sweat. I’ll be 46 this year, and I’m watching my parents get older and witnessing first-hand the limitations that can come with age. It hit me that one day I may not be able to wake up and say, “All right, I’m ready to go ride a horse.” I started to feel that inner whisper again, some 40 years later. Only this time it was telling me it was time to be brave before it’s too late.

I want to reclaim some of those earlier instincts I once knew to live by. Because Chip is right. I still long to know how it feels to fly. I still grin when we take the kids to the rodeo and watch the barrel racers turn up the dust as their horses sprint left and then right. I still have moments when my body moves toward curiosity, when I can feel myself lighten and loosen and begin to chase it. Before my brain kicks in and takes the wheel.

My chance came last fall when our youngest son, Crew, announced he wanted to be a cowboy, which we interpreted to mean he wanted to take horseback riding lessons. A few weeks into watching him trot around on a pony named Violet, I asked his coach if she might have room for one more student. As I write this, I’m only a couple of months into lessons—and trust me, you’ve never seen a horse move slower. There’s been absolutely no indication that I’ll be riding at record-breaking speed in any version of the future.

And it’s not like all my fear just vanished. Every week I say a prayer as I pull myself up and over the horse. My coach has told me that she can visibly see how tense I become when I’m clearly stuck in my head. Apparently, the horse knows it too, and until I learn to trust that my body knows what to do, it’s futile to try to make him move the way I want to.

My first breakthrough happened during my fourth lesson. I was riding quicker and smoother than ever before because, for the first time, what felt most natural wasn’t the fear I’d typically cling to but an instinct of who better to listen to. So, I let muscle memory prove its worth and followed the sequence of postures my coach had taught me: chest up, belly tight, back straight, hands low, heels down. With each movement, my confidence grew. I was trusting my body to move us, and then, the horse did too.

“I’m relearning what it feels like to get out of my head and let instinct take the reins.”

I’m relearning what it feels like to get out of my head and let instinct take the reins, which for me looks like living more curiously, more courageously. For you, it’ll look however it needs to if you’re listening more to the whispers of your heart than to the noise in your head. There was a time when I would have convinced myself it would be wise to play it safe. But today, I’m surer than ever that the best thing for me looks like getting on a horse that might scare me—and yet—still letting instinct tell us both where to go.


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