The whole thing started when I was a 10-year old at the Rough Riders session of Camp Bette Perot, a Girl Scout summer camp outside of Palestine, Texas. Things were just starting to get a bit complicated at that age, but life still made sense when I was trotting around a hot ring in a Western saddle on sweet quarter horses with names like Sunny and Patches. No boys, no parents, no worries. Life was good, and I wanted a pony of my own something bad.
Flash forward to 2007: I am living in upstate New York, now the forty-something parent of two teenagers and the Clinical Social Worker in a large middle school. And I am riding again, this time in an English saddle. Not riding well, or all that often, but riding nonetheless. This was the set-up when a wonderful conflux of social, geographical and financial factors suddenly made it possible for me to achieve my childhood dream and take the plunge into horse ownership. My daughter was also a rider at that time and Nora, a quirky 10-yr-old Thoroughbred mare, was to be our horse to share. My daughter has since stopped riding. I’m still in the saddle.
Turns out, horseback riding is an incredibly expensive sport. And it sucks huge swaths of time (2-3 hours per ride) away from other worthy pursuits like cleaning the house, spending time with family or making money. Also, despite years of private lessons and countless miles logged in the saddle, I’m still not really very good at it. But I am, nonetheless, still very hooked, even on those days when my anxious mare scoots at the sight of a barn swallow and nearly runs us both into the wall of the ring. (Really, Nora? A BIRD?)
You can guess the obvious reasons why I stay with the sport. Of course I like horses (even my anxiety-riddled mare). I also really do enjoy the experience of riding, whether working in the ring or relaxing on a trail ride. And, as you might have noticed, the tall boots are really cool (and suddenly very fashion-forward). But there are other, less obvious, factors that keep me in the saddle during a month of steamy hot weather, lessons that seem to go nowhere, and stupid mare shenanigans:
Whether you are a Western rider on a ranch, a professional stadium jumper, or an amateur dressage rider like me, riding is a sport that involves being in a relationship with a living being, and a spectacularly beautiful one at that. Riding offers me a chance to connect with nature on a more or less daily basis through caring for, communicating with, and even accomplishing goals with, a living, breathing creature. And my work with my equine partner is a constant, and much-needed, reminder to this independent Gen-X girl that it’s not all about me.
I have also found that there is real value in taking on, and staying with, a pursuit that I’m not very good at. Having to work really hard at something has taught me patience and perseverance, and the sometimes unbearably slow progress toward my goals reminds me that life and work can be meaningful even when I’m not producing or improving at something (and for a first-born female of a first-born female, this is reminder I need to have on a playback loop).
Perhaps most importantly, horseback riding offers me regular reminders of the value of falling off. Falls from the horse, what those of us in the business refer to as “involuntary dismounts,” while unpleasant and to be avoided at all costs, are inevitable if you ride long enough. One of my favorite trainers used to say, “Every fall makes you a better rider,” and she was dead right.
Falls are humbling. My falls always seem to happen when I am feeling really cocky about my riding and making plans for an Olympic run. Something about suddenly finding myself lying in the dirt with my butt over my ears and my breath knocked clean out of me reminds me that I am not all that. And reminds me that improvement in my riding ability does not mean that I can, even for a minute, ride without clear intent and mindfulness.
Falls also teach me about overcoming fear and accomplishing the impossible. Big wuss that I am, coming back from a fall requires me to reach way down deep inside my little shriveled, First World heart and find a small spot of toughness and courage. Then, after months of tentative riding and weeks of listening to a determined “Cowgirl up!” in my head, when I am finally able to enter the ring without my heart pounding out of my ears and really work with my horse again, the experience teaches me that I am stronger and braver than I thought.
These riding lessons are, of course, also life lessons. Which, in the end, is probably the number one reason why I love the sport. As I learn how to ride, I also learn how to live.
Because in real life, it is always good to be in relationship with nature and remember that it’s not all about us. And there is real, personality-building, value in taking on and staying with challenging pursuits.
But, most importantly, to live a rich, meaningful life is to experience the myriad ways human beings can fall. And these falls, while unpleasant, teach us humility and the importance of mindfulness, and our eventual recovery from them reminds us that we are stronger and braver than we know.