Riding is often the first thing people think of when they think of horses. The two seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly, or a movie and popcorn. Equestrians and laymen alike seem automatically primed to picture a rider on top of a horse, because isn't that why we have horses? What good are they to humans if not to serve us? This is a widespread mentality, and one that I have spent a long time sitting with over the last two years. I personally have never adopted this viewpoint and I feel as though I've always been in touch with horses' intrinsic value. To be honest, I think the majority of horse people are. But in my experience, the "You've got to earn your keep" mindset is imbued in the industry, always lurking at the back of our collective psyche. It makes sense. Think of how much emphasis we put on Doing versus Being in our society. If horses are masters at authentically Being, from one moment to the next, it is no wonder we feel some urge to coerce them into Doing, whether that be performing, working or winning. The old adage, Ride a fast horse slow and a slow horse fast, just goes to show how little we stop to pause and reflect on honouring and learning from a horse's in-born nature. These rambling thoughts are my way of inviting you in to the discussion of whether or not we should ride horses. I want to hear your thoughts on it because I genuinely think it could be a question that never quite finds an answer - and I believe it's a worthy one to continuously check in with.
Two years ago, in March 2020, I made the decision to stop riding Fara. She'd been having another series of health and behavioural issues that had started in mid-November of 2019, after having spent quite a productive summer under saddle. This is a topic for another post, but in a nutshell, 2019 was a big year for Fara and I (and an incredibly difficult one, too). For those of you who are into tarot, let's just say that year was a major Tower Moment. And the collapse and re-building are still ongoing. I had finally come to the point that March (probably a week before the pandemic hit) that something had to give. There was no humanly-way I could resolve what was going on for her (and myself) by continuing to show up to the barn riding and carrying on as usual. I mean, seriously: You can't train a horse who bucks her own saddle off. Yes, that has happened... more than once. It sounds horrific, but it's true. And I think it's important to share the stark details because Fara and I were floundering in the waters of the world we had been brought up in, and I didn't know another way at the time. They say you have to know better to do better, which is why I feel so passionate about the conversation I want to bring to the table here today.
So now it is April 2022, and I still haven't gotten on that beautiful, dark-bay back. In fact, I haven't even come close. I haven't done anything visibly resembling riding-prep work with Fara since the summer, when I had a little routine of saddling her up and taking her for hand-walks. And the crazy thing is, I'm not even worried about it! If you would have asked 18 year old me if I thought I would ever go months without even trying to ride my horse, I probably would have hyperventilated at the mere thought of it. Not because I thought horses were only valuable to us because they can fulfill our sporting desires, but because I associated so much of my self-worth with how "good" of a horse-trainer and rider I was. And good riders and trainers TRAIN. 6 days a week! Their horses are athletes; they don't take extended, indeterminate hiatuses. It really feels like I am referring to an unknown person when I recount this about myself: the person I was then feels so distant from who I am today. It's funny. In the last few months I have really been able to release a lot of the shame and guilt I carried as a result of this period in my life with horses. As I write this, I just feel so much pride and awe for the way horses inspire us to change and evolve, and I am thankful to myself for being open, brave and determined enough to keep pursuing the faintest of lights in such a dark and confusing time. Again, I don't intend to really get into anymore details about this here -stay tuned for my book! - but it's helpful to have some general background to illustrate where I am coming from.
The vehemency with which Fara was yelling NO to being ridden still echoes in my bones, heart and spirit whenever I contemplate getting on the back of a horse. In the summer of 2019, I met my second horse, Ike, who is trained through Prix St. George and is a been-there done-that dressage competitor. When he first arrived at the farm, I felt a lot of pressure to keep up some level of training standard with him. I couldn't let his talent and expertise go to waste! I was taking regular lessons, and was being diligent about riding him several times per week. But under the surface, I knew there was a strong emotional charge that was full of doubt and questions: should I be riding? Does Ike enjoy this? Am I hurting him? Some days, this internal storm would paralyze me in the saddle. I couldn't ride effectively, obviously, when my mind wasn't totally on-board with whether it was ok for me to ride. I didn't know Ike well enough to be able to gauge how he was feeling about the work, and he is also a completely different personality than Fara. Would he tell me if something was off?
Intertwined in all of this, of course, was me wrestling with the knowledge that riding activities had seriously impacted Fara's health and well-being. I was scared to death of repeating history.
I continued to ride Ike, but slowly the stress I felt to maintain some level of competition-ready standard began to fade away. The pandemic facilitated this gradual transformation because it allowed me the space to nurture my relationships with my horses in private. There were no shows or clinics being held, so there was a built-in excuse for why I was wasn't attending any. I continued to take a few lessons, but I was trying to allow myself to emphasize how I felt about the work more and more. Was I having fun? Did Ike seem happy? How was he feeling in his body?
Things were going really well at the end of the summer, 2021. Ike and I were making progress in our dressage work, and I was feeling more grounded in our training, paying close attention to how I felt and enjoying the sessions. Then Ike's arthritis flared-up, and he was out for 8 weeks. Well, when you're at the end of summer, 8 weeks takes you pretty quickly into the beginning of winter here in Canada. And with the horses living at home, where we don't have an indoor arena, winter is not a season where we ride much. So here I am again, beginning anew this spring, and this is what I know:
I love riding. Last night I got on Ike for the first time in 3 months and I could not stop smiling. There is truly nothing like the feeling of being on a horse, following their movement, borrowing their freedom. It is a sensation that fills my heart to the brim with pure joy.
I don't know what my personal riding practice will look like yet, now that the weather is getting warmer (although it is snowing today!) and we can actually ride safely.
My vision for the months ahead is to teach Ike bridle-less cues. Last summer, when we weren't in a lesson, I mostly rode him bareback. He has such an amazing repertoire of movements and knowledge being a schoolmaster of dressage, that I want to channel those talents in creative ways. We tried a bit-less bridle for the first time last night, and it was so much fun.
I also get the sense that Fara and I will be ready to explore our ridden partnership again this year, but in a whole new way. I'll probably just go ahead and start her off bareback and bit-less, as again, I don't see myself ever riding my horses in the way that I used to, with training regimes and timelines and performance goals.
So I guess if I had to summarize how my riding has evolved, I no longer see riding as an athletic pursuit between horse and human. I see it as a fluid extension of the relationship, a activity through which to connect, learn and be together. It is also feels like it has the potential to be a deeply personal practice, like journalling, meditating or yoga. I'm intrigued to follow that feeling, and see where it takes my horses and I.
I'm curious to know, what is your relationship to riding? I'll check in with this topic here in a few months and let you know how things are developing for me.
As always, thanks for being here and for loving horses! If you haven't found me on Instagram yet, I recently created a new account to share more frequent updates and horse-inspired writing. You can find me @farout_and_about.
August, 2018 November, 2021
"The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change."
- Carl Rogers