“Hey, I’m so sorry but I won’t be able to make it to my lesson tonight, I…”
I start and subsequently delete some version of that text more frequently than I would like to admit. As a working adult, it can be hard to fit riding into my schedule – but that is rarely the reason that I am tempted to cancel.
I’m tempted to cancel because riding is hard (see photo above). Riding can be frustrating. And as a 34-year-old (ugh) rider that returned to my childhood passion later in life, riding is scary. I’m a timid rider, and without a horse of my own, I find riding to be more of a transaction than a partnership. While I have been lucky enough to ride some great horses that can thankfully take a joke, I struggle to fully trust my ride without a bond – and without some level of trust, my confidence wanes.
I started riding when I was five, and got my first horse, an incredible off-track Thoroughbred named Topper, when I was 12. To make a very long, emotionally charged story short, I lost my passion for riding when I left for college, and made my way back a few years ago. Somewhere along the line, I had the hard realization that I’m not just someone that “took some time off riding” – I’m an adult that rode as a kid, and had to accept that while my brain may understand what to do, my noodle legs were going to slip too far back over fences and my inherent fear was going to make me half-halt unnecessarily three strides out. And that’s how, on one fateful day in the five strides between the gate and the rolltop, I realized that sometimes I don’t like riding.
I don’t like that its hard for me to do things that came easily to me as a kid. I don’t like that I constantly think about falling off. I don’t like that sometimes I start shaking when I turn into the barn parking lot. I don’t like that I’m terrible at wrapping. But I do love the high that comes after a great ride. I do love the feeling that you get when you really “click” with a horse. And above all, I love the animal far more than I love the sport.
As I walk into the barn for my first lesson of the week, my trainer greets me with a nod and “she should be good and fresh today, they’ve been in all day” (thank you, impromptu Florida monsoons). My heart starts beating faster and I anticipate my imminent demise as I open the stall door, reminding myself that my nerves will just amp her up.
I think of all the things that could go wrong as I tack up. I decide that she could go down in the mud and crush my left leg (why it would be my left leg specifically, I’m not sure). Or I could lose my reins over a fence (like, how?). And, in an incredibly likely situation, I could get my boot hooked on a standard as a cat jumps out from under the fence while a loud truck rumbles by and a small helicopter lands in the paddock next door.
I have one more small “what if” as I get on (what if she bolts away from the mounting block when I’m half on??), and walk into the ring. I’m reminded of how impossibly out of shape I am as I warm up, trying to act natural and hide the fact that I’m panting like I just ran a marathon.
As I gather my reins to start my course, shaking slightly, I wonder why I do this to myself. I can’t see a distance with a microscope, and my eq is passable at best. “This is it – this is ride where I break my collarbone,” I think, imagining myself flipping into the mud below. As I nudge my ride into a canter (tipping too far over the inside shoulder in the process, of course), I think “Don’t micromanage, step out for the change, push up for the six but don’t drive her into the base…”
And just like that my lesson is over, and I’m walking out of the ring with an emphatic “GOOD MARE!” as I rub her neck like we’ve just cleared the last fence in a 5*.
Someone asked me recently what constitutes a “good ride,” and I was surprised when I wasn’t able to think of an answer. Slowly, I said, “a good ride is when you learn something, and you don’t get hurt.” And maybe it really is that simple. Maybe it doesn’t have to be perfect. Maybe you can leave a fence out, chip in, get left behind. Maybe the point is that you get the chance to ride an animal that can choose to launch you into space at any moment, but chooses to be your partner instead.
Ultimately, I always delete that text. Despite the frustration and the (frequently unwarranted) fear, I always come back. Because even when my head isn’t in it, my heart is.